Peter Allen (10 February 1944 – 18 June 1992) was an Australian songwriter and entertainer. In addition to recording many albums, he enjoyed a cabaret and concert career, including appearing at Radio City Music Hall riding a camel. Following a marriage to Liza Minnelli which ended in divorce; he proclaimed his homosexuality.
Allen was born in Tenterfield, a small Australian country town where his grandfather, George Woolnough, worked as a saddler. He grew up in nearby Armidale NSW, where he lived from about 6 weeks of age until the age of 15. This is also where he first learned piano and dance. His father Dick became a violent alcoholic after returning from World War II. He shot and killed himself when Peter was still young. George never understood, nor got over this devastating event. Soon after this the family moved to Lismore to live. This tale is told in the song “Tenterfield Saddler”. On 26 November 2005 an extension of the Tenterfield library was opened and named the “George Woolnough Wing”.
Allen married Liza Minnelli in 1967; they were divorced in 1974. Becoming more comfortable with his homosexuality from the 1970s to 1984, Allen had a long-time partner, Gregory Connell. Connell was a fashion model from Texas who designed the sound and lighting for Allen’s shows and sang backup on his rendition of “I Go to Rio.”
Allen began his performing career with Chris Bell as one of the “Allen Brothers”, who were a popular cabaret and television act in the early 1960s in Australia. Mark Herron, the husband of Judy Garland, discovered Allen while he was performing in Hong Kong. He was invited to return with them to London and the United States, where he performed with Garland.
Allen commenced releasing solo recordings in 1971, but throughout his career achieved greater success through his songs being recorded by others. Allen scored his biggest success with the song “I Honestly Love You”, which he co-wrote with Jeff Barry and which became a major hit in 1974 for Olivia Newton-John.
In 1976, Allen released an album Taught By Experts, which reached number one in Australia, along with the number one singles “I Go To Rio” and “The More I See You”. Although his recording career in the U.S. never progressed, he performed in Atlantic City and Carnegie Hall. He had three extended sold-out engagements at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, where he became the first male dancer to dance with The Rockettes and rode a camel during “I Go to Rio.”
Allen co-wrote the song “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” with Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager, and Christopher Cross, for the 1981 movie Arthur. The song reached number one in the U.S., and the songwriters won an Academy Award for Best Song. One lyric for the song: “If you get caught between the moon and New York City” was adapted from an earlier song that he and Bayer Sager co-wrote.
Allen performed on Australian Television at many important occasions: in front of Queen Elizabeth II in 1980 at the Sydney Opera House, before Prince Charles and Princess Diana, once in Melbourne and again in Sydney, at the opening of the Sydney Entertainment Centre, where he unveiled for the first time his Australian “Flag” shirt, and the 1980 Australian Rules Grand Final in Melbourne.
His “Up In One Concert” of 1980 was a huge ratings success across the country. When Australia won The America’s Cup, he flew to Perth to sing before an audience of 100,000.
In 1988 he opened for Frank Sinatra at Sanctuary Cove, Queensland. In America he appeared at the 30th Anniversary of Disneyland. He returned to recording on Arista with an album entitled “Not the Boy Next Door” (1983).
One of his songs, I Still Call Australia Home, became popular through its use in television commercials, initially for National Panasonic, and since 1998 for Qantas Airways. This has since become an unofficial anthem for Australians abroad.
Shortly before his death from an AIDS-related throat cancer, Allen gave his last performance in Sydney on 26 January 1992.
A documentary titled “The Boy From Oz” about Allen was produced after his death, featuring clips from his performances as well as interviews with performers who worked with him.
A stage musical based on his life, also titled The Boy from Oz, opened in Australia in 1998. Using his largely autobiographical songs, the production starred Todd McKenney as Allen and Christina Amphlett of rock group Divinyls as Judy Garland. In 2003, the musical opened on Broadway, becoming the first Australian musical ever to be performed there. In this production Allen was played by Hugh Jackman, who won a Tony Award for his portrayal in 2004. Jackman performed this role again two years later when the show toured large arenas in Australia under the title “The Boy From Oz: Arena Spectacular”.