At the peak of his career in the 1980s, while packing in crowds at New York's vast Radio City Music Hall, Peter Allen was billed as 'The Premier Fun-Maker of the World'. His performances were described as flashy, frenetic and flamboyant.
While the onstage 'premier fun-maker' image often dominated, Peter's great strength offstage as a songwriter underpinned his work as an entertainer. As critic Rex Reed recognised, 'Underneath the Liberace upholstery is the heart of Cole Porter'. The two sides of Peter's creativity were inextricably intertwined because he mostly performed his own songs. He was a prolific songwriter, composing over 100 songs, the majority as collaborations, and often reflected on aspects of his own life in the lyrics. His songs were performed and recorded by many other high-profile singers including Ann-Margret, Shirley Bassey, Rita Coolidge, Melissa Manchester, Olivia Newton-John and Frank Sinatra. Today, almost two decades after his premature death, Peter Allen's songs remain a truly enduring legacy.
As an expatriate Australian living in the United States for much of his career, Peter Allen succeeded in straddling two different cultures. While managing the difficult feat of wide acceptance in his adopted country, he also managed to remain proudly Australian and retained his popularity here throughout his career. While forging an international career, he nurtured strong links with his homeland via his concert tours and songs that expressed both patriotic and universal themes.
Born Peter Richard Woolnough on 10 February 1944 in the small Australian country town of Tenterfield in New South Wales, he grew up in nearby Armidale. As a young Aussie kid dreaming of show business, Peter demonstrated an early talent for playing the piano by ear. By the age of eleven he was working part-time entertaining locals in the ladies' lounge of the New England Hotel. He also attended dance lessons and developed a love of US movie musicals and singer Al Jolson. Later moving to Queensland's Surfers Paradise, here he met up with Chris Bell, another young performer who needed a singing partner. The exact origins of their act are somewhat unclear, but together they became the Allen Brothers. The partnership lasted for the next decade, giving Peter a new identity and providing him with many of the skills needed by a professional entertainer.
The Allen Brothers' act was styled on the US duo the Everly Brothers; Chris and Peter portrayed a clean-cut image, sporting matching outfits and specialising in vocal harmonies of popular songs. The two boys were initially tightly managed by Bell's father and were actively promoted as real-life brothers. In April 1960 the Teenager's Weekly reported biographical details about the Allen Brothers, including that they were originally from London and had been educated in Brisbane. It was all part of a contrived showbiz image, but the adopted surname remained with Peter for the rest of his life.
Two recent donations to the Performing Arts Collection have enabled the Arts Centre Melbourne to assist in the task of caring for material from Peter Allen's estate, bringing items from the United States together in the country he still called home.
Long-time friend of Allen - Larry Rinehart's donation features a large collection of Peter Allen's sheet music, including arrangements for songs from his Allen Brothers years, as well as his solo career. Handwritten lyrics, some of which are incomplete, reflect Peter's tendency to scrawl ideas on whatever paper he had to hand. Programs, posters, photographs, newspaper clippings and correspondence, including opening night telegrams, trace much of his career. A tour manual for Peter's 1977 Australian concerts, an album documenting his breakthrough 1979 Broadway production, Up In One, along with awards and certificates, provide an insight into some of his specific achievements. This acquisition also contained a selection of Peter's trademark Hawaiian shirts, most notably the one worn in his video clip for 'I Go To Rio'. Other stage outfits, including costumes worn by Peter in the musical Legs Diamond, also form part of the collection. Audiovisual material documenting performances and interviews is another important aspect of Larry Rinehart's donation.
The second chapter in the Peter Allen Collection came about during the course of developing the 2008 Icon Exhibition. Bruce Cudd, Peter's former personal assistant, in Los Angeles began working for Peter in 1984, and was also personal assistant to Charles Suppon, Peter's wardrobe coordinator, artistic director, collaborator on Legs Diamond, and later, manager. Bruce inherited the contents of Peter's New York apartment and donated, and like Larry Rinehart, Bruce Cudd was conscious of the need to find a permanent home for the objects.
To the material acquired in 2006, Bruce Cudd added a series of eighteen bound press books containing articles and ephemera from 1980 to the time of Peter's death. Meticulously compiled by Charles Suppon and then Bruce, these volumes are valuable tools for research. These were accompanied by two albums containing professional photographs from the late 1980s and early 1990s, and a collection of transparencies from the same period. Bruce's gift also contained the gold record awarded to Peter for sales of 'I Go To Rio' in Australia, copies of several performance contracts, and posters including a rare example produced for a cancelled Peter Allen and Liza Minnelli concert at Carnegie Hall, New York. Among donated costume items of Peter's are two beaded stage shirts, a personalised pink satin jacket made for the 50th anniversary of Radio City Music Hall, a pair of black-and-white 'spectator' shoes and a pair of black patent leather tap shoes.
The decision made by both Larry and Bruce to generously donate Peter Allen's material to the Arts Centre Melbourne's Performing Arts Collection means that it will be cared for and made accessible to the public as part of a State Collection. The contents of these donations have been the starting point for Peter Allen: The Exhibition.
View catalogue records currently available online about Peter Allen
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