A Blazing Star Flickers Out
updated 07/06/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 07/06/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT
CLAD IN OUTRAGEOUS HAWAIIAN PRINT shirts, banging on the piano and shaking his maracas as he belted out his signature song, "I Go to Rio," Peter Allen onstage seemed to blend the best and busiest of Little Richard, Harry Belafonte and the late Judy Garland, who discovered the Australian-born singer at the Hong Kong Hilton in 1964. For more than two decades, his performances brought down houses from the Sydney Opera House to New York's Radio City Music Hall. It was an act that continued offstage as well, and it ended only upon Allen's death on June 18 at 48 of AIDS-related illness at Mercy Hospital in San Diego. Says Bernadette Peters, who toured the U.S. with Allen in 1989: "He was so funny and his spirit was so giving that he would come into a room and put it on himself to make everyone have a wonderful time."
Allen's Australian pals knew that something was wrong when he landed in Sydney in January. When Allen complained of a sore throat, friends advised him to see a specialist. Two days later, Allen received the deadly diagnosis: The tumor in his neck was Kaposi's sarcoma, an AIDS-related cancer. Allen bunkered down with his mother, Marion Woolnough, 74, and his sister, Lynne Smith, 44, in Surfers Paradise, a town south of Brisbane. Soon therefter he flew to his penthouse apartment in New York City to begin radiation therapy.
While in New York, Allen (who also kept homes in Leucadia, Calif., and Port Douglas, Australia) was escorted by ex-wife Liza Minnelli to see their friend Joan Collins on Broadway in Private Lives. "Liza rallied around him," says his personal assistant of eight years, Bruce Cudd. "She really helped him get back into the swing of things." And when his death arrived so quickly—"even for the doctors," Cudd says—Liza called the hospital just before she went onstage in Manhattan. "She was very upset," Cudd recalls, "but I really admired her, because the first thing she wanted to do was call Peter's mother and sister."
Peter Allen Woolnough hailed from the town of Tenterfield (pop. 3,500), some 300 miles north of Sydney, which he later celebrated with the song "Tenterfield Saddler," a tribute to his saddlemaker grandfather. By age 12, he was playing piano and singing in local pubs to support his mother and sister (his father, Richard, a grocer, committed suicide). In his teens he teamed with singer Chris Bell to perform American rock in various Aussie and Asian cities. Garland persuaded Allen to come to America, where he married her daughter Liza in 1967. They divorced seven years later and remained close friends, even as Allen privately, though never publicly, admitted to being gay. A dazzling success on the cabaret circuit, he composed a number of '70s and '80s hits, including Melissa Manchester's "Don't Cry Out Loud," Olivia Newton-John's "I Honestly Love You" and, with Christopher Cross, Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, the Oscar-winning "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)" for the 1981 film Arthur. Allen suffered only one major flop: the 1988 Broadway musical Legs Diamond, in which he starred and for which he wrote the music and lyrics. It closed after 64 performances.
But no mere failure could brake his energy, and Allen kept composing until his illness finally wore him down. Bayer Sager provides perhaps the most fitting epitaph. "The songs we wrote together," she says, "were different than the songs I wrote with anyone else, because they had this sophisticated edge and humor, which is really Peter. He brought that to the table."
MARK GOODMAN, with bureau reports