Singer-comedian Steve Rossi has died at the age of 82. The smooth, handsome Rossi was best known for his partnership with rotund, wild-haired comic Marty Allen, famous for his goofy, eye-popping expressions and enthusiastic delivery of his catchphrase, “Hello dere!” The two became one of the most popular comedy teams of the 1960s after first teaming up in 1957, just in time to fill the void left by the breakup of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
Rossi, who started out using his birth name, Joseph Charles Tafarella, found his niche as a singing straight man early in his career, when he was hired to share the stage with Mae West in her ’50s nightclub act. Concerned that his name would take up too much precious space on the marquee, West dubbed him “Steve Rossi,” by combining the first name of her current beau, actor Steve Cochran, with the last name of her manager, Bernie Ross, then adding the final vowel as a nod to her co-star’s Italian heritage. After his employment with West came to an end in 1954, Rossi worked solo until 1957, when he joined forces with Allen. The two got together at the suggestion of Nat King Cole, who had used Allen as his opening act, and gave his blessing to their show business union.
At their peak, Allen & Rossi were a big draw in nightclubs and familiar faces on such TV programs as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Garry Moore Show, The Jack Paar Show, and Hollywood Palace. (A couple of their appearances on the Sullivan show are preserved on a DVD set, which collected the complete versions of all episodes featuring their fellow guest performers, the Beatles.)
Allen & Rossi stumbled when they tried to take their act to the big screen in The Last Of The Secret Agents, a spy spoof produced by Your Show Of Shows writer Mel Tolkin and co-starring Nancy Sinatra. The film was included in Esquire’s year-end Dubious Achievements Awards issue as the worst movie of 1966. The pair parted ways in 1968.
Rossi would attempt to reignite his career with several different comedy partners, never achieving the popularity he had enjoyed with Rossi. His first post-Allen partnership was with the squat actor Joe E. Ross—Officer Toody on the sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? The team of Rossi & Ross barely lasted a year. He immediately formed an interracial partnership with chitlin’ circuit veteran Slappy White. Rossi & White played the White House, released an album together (I Found Me A White Man—You Find Yourself One), and appeared in 1970’s The Man From O.R.G.Y. before calling it quits. Rossi also worked with Buddy Hackett’s son, Sandy, and a comedian named Bernie Allen. Cynics accused him of having teamed up with the new Allen, just so he could once again place the magic phrase “Allen & Rossi” on a marquee.
The original Allen & Rossi did reunite on a number of occasions, sometimes appearing together in the ‘80s and ‘90s. (Reports that they also made one more spoof movie, Allen And Rossi Meet Dracula And Frankenstein, appear to be just Internet rumor.) But Rossi spent most of the rest of his career performing solo, and making small appearances in the 2001 movies The Mexican and Vegas, City Of Dreams. He also logged over 100 guest appearances on The Howard Stern Show.