Discovered 30 years later, the failed pilots of Peter Allen’s game show are both charming and heartbreaking
If you’ve ever fallen down a YouTube rabbit hole of pop culture artifacts, you probably know the thrill that comes with stumbling across someone or something you remember watching as a child. But like roller-skating through a minefield, too often that feeling of zest for life is coupled with an outburst of loss when you remember that the performer on screen is no longer with us. For those of us old enough to remember the 80s and 90s, the heartbreak of watching artists caught up in AIDS is particularly acute.
That’s how it feels to watch Queen’s legendary appearance at Live Aid in 1985. Freddie Mercury works on stage like the all-time legend he was, and while it’s still thrilling to watch him see at his peak, it is also infuriating to consider that a man this gifted would have died of the plague in less than six years. There’s a similar mix of joy and sadness lurking in new wave pop hits and delightfully cheesy horror movies.
It’s in this strange space that you’ll find two never-aired game show pilots that songwriter and showman Peter Allen filmed in the early 1990s. (He died in 1992.)
The first is his 1990 reboot of Name this melody, a perfect showcase for the tireless performer, who plays effortlessly with the band for the show’s intro before becoming the show’s host:
Full disclosure: This writer was in Season 2, Episode 6 of Fox’s current reboot and did pretty well. Obviously, then, this positions Name this melody as the greatest game show of all time. But even without that bias, it’s still a lot of fun.
Despite the robustness of the format, however, Allen’s version was likely doomed from the start. It was co-produced by Orion Studios, which went bankrupt in 1991, essentially killing its show’s chances. Still, it’s clear he had the brilliance you need to run a game show. He had relaxed banter with the contestants, and because he was an incredibly successful songwriter, he’s able to crack conspiratorial jokes that give him extra authority. Even now, it’s fun to watch him read a clue to Melissa Manchester’s hit “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” which he co-wrote.
He brought the same know-how to hollywood game, which recorded a pilot a year later, in 1991.
There’s an amazing moment in this movie quiz contest when Allen reads a question about his ex-wife, Liza Minnelli. Their relationship had been a tabloid sensation since he came out of the closet after leaving her, and when a childhood photo of her appears in a clue, he makes a gentleman’s joke about how the photo was taken before knowing it. A few rounds later, he makes a similar quip about Olivia Newton-John, who had a hit covering his song “I Honestly Love You.”
Frankly, that’s what most celebrity game show hosts lack: the lighthearted, winking charm and the impeccable good faith to back it up. Regis Philbin had both, which helped Who Wants to Be a Millionaire succeed, and Peter Allen had them in spades. The Hollywood game isn’t even that good – the score is confusing and there’s no sense of building from turn to turn – but it still gives it some glare.
At the same time, it’s striking how sick he looks The Hollywood game. This show was actually picked up for a short time in 1992, but Allen had to be replaced because he was too ill to host. In a dark moment, he died of AIDS a day before the show created.
It’s so unfair and so devastating. Looking at an artist with so much life, one can’t help but imagine what else he could have done. But at least we have proof of what he did to do, from his bestselling writing to his all-too-brief adventures helping contestants make money on TV.
Mark Blankenship is the editor of Primetimer. Tweet it at @IAmBlankenship.