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Unearthed 30 Years On, Peter Allen's Failed Game Show Pilots Are Both Charming and Heartbreaking

Look what we found in dustbin of pop culture history.
  • Screenshots: YouTube
    Screenshots: YouTube

    If you've ever fallen down a YouTube rabbit hole of pop culture artifacts, you likely know the thrill that comes with stumbling across someone or something you remember watching in your childhood. But like rollerskating through a minefield, all too often that sense of exhilaration is paired with an explosion 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 taken by AIDS is particularly acute.

    That's how it feels to watch Queen's legendary appearance at Live Aid in 1985. Freddie Mercury works the stage like the all-time legend that he was, and while it's always thrilling to behold him at his peak, it's also infurating to consider that a man this gifted would be dead from the plague in less than six years. There's a similar mix of joy and sadness lurking in new wave pop hits and deliciously cheesy horror movies.

    It's in this strange space where you'll find two never-aired game show pilots that songwriter and showman Peter Allen shot in the early 1990s. (He died in 1992.)

    First up is his 1990 reboot of Name That Tune, a perfect showcase for the indefatigable performer, who effortlessly plays with the band for the show intro before taking position as the show's host:

    Full disclsoure: This writer was on Season 2, Episode 6 of Fox's current reboot and did quite well for himself. Obviously, then, this positions Name That Tune as the greatest game show of all time. But even without that bias, it's still a lot of fun.

    Despite the sturdiness of the format, however, Allen's version was likely doomed from the start. It was co-produced by Orion Studios, which went belly-up in 1991, essentially killing his show's chances. Still, it's clear he had the sparkle you need to make a game show work. He had relaxed banter with the contestants, and because he was an incredibly successful songwriter, he's able to make knowing jokes that give him extra authority. Even now, it's fun to watch him read a clue about Melissa Manchester's hit "Don't Cry Out Loud," which he co-wrote.

    He brought the same savvy to The Hollywood Game, which taped a pilot a year later, in 1991.

    There's an incredible moment in this movie trivia competition when Allen reads out a question about his ex-wife, Liza Minnelli. Their relationship had been a tabloid sensation since he came out of the closet after he left her, and when a childhood photo of her appears in a clue, he makes a gentlemanly joke about how the picture was taken before he knew her. 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, this is what's missing in most celebirty game show hosts: The light, winking charm and the impeccable bona fides to back it up. Regis Philbin had both, which is what helped Who Wants to Be a Millionaire succeed, and Peter Allen had them in spades. The Hollywood Game isn't even that good — the scoring is confusing, and there's no sense of build from one round to the next — but he still gives it dazzle.

    At the same time, it's striking to see how ill he looks in The Hollywood Game. That show did indeed get picked up for a short run in 1992, but Allen had to be replaced because he was too sick to host. In a dark bit of timing, he died of AIDS one day before the show premiered.

    It's so unfair and so devastating. Watching an artist with so much life, one can't help but imagine what else he might have done. But at least we have the evidence of what he did do, from his blockbuster songwriting to his all-too-brief adventures helping contestants win cash on TV.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Name That Tune, Freddie Mercury, Peter Allen