Comedian-turned-entrepreneur went long and strong

Byron Allen was the third inductee at the 29th annual Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame, on Tuesday night, and the room had gotten a bit quiet. Allen's arrival to the podium [pictured above] changed all that.

"All right let's hear it, come on, come on," he implored, after the photo stop. "I worked my ass off to get here, let’s hear more! [Cheers.] We’re gonna hear some relentless tonight, let's do this. We’re not at a tax convention, come on! [Cheers.] Really, who died? This is not a wake. I just got the Hall of Fame, what the hell! Yes! Yes!"

Allen, the founder, chairman and CEO of Entertainment Studios, and acquirer of TV stations and The Weather Channel in recent months, was in a celebratory mood and did not need anything loaded into a teleprompter. He was ready to share a story that ended up taking over 10 minutes to tell. I listened to the tape and thought I would share a lot of it here.

"I cannot tell you how happy I am right now," he said. "First of all, Broadcasting & Cable, thank you. I’m going to be a subscriber forever, my kids are going to be subscribers, my grandkids are going to be subscribers. They’re going to be, I’m not even in Broadcasting & Cable. I’m like, I don’t care, read it, read it! Look what they did for granddaddy!"

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He said humble thanks and congratulated his fellow honorees. "You are looking at the luckiest man in the world," Allen continued. "In the world. I’m not going to lie, I’m going to take that right there, the luckiest man. I am so fortunate and I am so, so blessed. I cannot even begin to count my blessings. I mean, it is beyond, more than what any human being could ever expect."

He praised his wife, Jennifer Lucas, mother of their three children and bestower of their kids' good looks, he said, and noted it was great to see old colleagues and mentors at the event, including Live With Kelly and Ryan exec Art Moore and Fox TV's Jack Abernethy.

Then the story really got into gear.

"The reason why I say I’m so lucky is because my mother got pregnant with me when she was 17 years old, and she had me 17 days after her 17th birthday. April 22, 1961, in Detroit, Michigan. A little black teenage girl having a little black baby in Detroit in ‘61, I was born without civil rights. And she never, ever stopped believing in me or supporting me.

"April of ‘68 came along and Martin Luther King was assassinated and the military took over my neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan. I was seven years old and I was looking down the barrel of a United States Army tank. Soldiers walking on my lawn with bayonets and dogs, guns pointed at us. And they made it very clear: get in the house or we will shoot and kill you. My mother said, OK, let’s get out of Detroit. Let’s go visit some relatives and friends in L.A. Summer of '68. We never, ever went back to Detroit.

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"Went to L.A., slept on a lot of sofas, a lot of floors, for a couple of years. Unfortunately, there was talk about my mother not being able to afford to keep me, because we were struggling. And as a child, that rocked my core. Because I was someone who just lost my father, through a divorce, and now I’m about to lose my mother because she couldn’t afford me. So, I was about nine or 10 years old, I started making money right then and there.

"I went to the supermarket and I asked them, can I have a job, packing groceries. They said, how old are you? I said I’m 10. They said no, you're not old enough to work here, you have to be at least 16. I said, how old is that guy right there packing the groceries? He said he’s 16. I said, well, look at that, he put eggs on the bottom of the bag. I’m 10 years old and I know not to do that! [Laughter.] My grandmother taught me don’t put the eggs at the bottom of the bag.

"He said, I’m sorry son, you can’t have a job. I said, OK sir, I appreciate your time. And I walked out to the parking lot and I saw this lady pushing a grocery basket back into the store. And she put it in a machine and she got a stamp. I said, what is that? She said if you get 100 stamps, you get a dollar’s worth of food. So I worked that parking lot day and night, kept putting baskets in that machine, and I would come home with food for my mother. I'd say, you can afford to keep me, we can stay together.

"My mother ended up going to UCLA and getting her master’s degree in cinema TV production," Allen said, to big applause.

"And because she was at UCLA working on her master’s degree, she was able to go to NBC and get an interview. And she asked for a job, and they said no. And she asked some very important questions. She said do you have an intern program, and they said no, we don’t. And then she asked the question that changed our lives: She said would you start one with me? And they said yes, we will.

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"And my mom got a job at NBC, giving tours, and then later in publicity and marketing. And because she could not afford child care, she took me to NBC. And I stayed and I waited for my mama to get off work. And that’s where I stood and I watched Johnny Carson do the Tonight Show, and Bob Hope, and Redd Foxx do Sanford and Son, and Freddie Prinze. And I watched all these great comedians, Flip Wilson, this was in the mid 70s. And I said, that’s what I want to do with my life, I want to make people laugh. I’m going to entertain people, I’m going to bring joy to this world, I’m going to make it a better world. And I started writing and doing standup with Jimmie Walker and Jay Leno and David Letterman and I never looked back. And I quit my paper route and I haven’t worked a day since I quit my paper route. [Applause.]

"They were giving me half a penny a paper and I said, no I don’t need it. Did the Tonight Show with Johnny, never looked back. Got a number of offers. They said, check out this show. I said, what is this? They said, Real People. And I’m very numerical. And I said you know what, out of all the offers I’ve gotten, this is the one I want, Real People. They said why that show? I said there are three networks, ABC, NBC, CBS, 66 hours of primetime television. This is the only hour different from the other 65. This show is going to work. It’ll certainly work long enough to get me through USC Film School. This is the show. That show ended up being the daddy, the granddaddy of reality and changed the face of television.

"But that wasn't enough," Allen continued. "I wanted to learn the business. I said, show business is not the way you get there, it’s business show. So I’m going to share something with you I haven't shared with many. I’m originally from Detroit but I live in L.A. I said, who is the best in the business and how do I learn the business? They said, go to New York, go to NATPE.

"January of '81, I was 19 years old, and I came with my mother and I went to the New York Hilton, right around the corner [from the Ziegfeld Ballroom]. And I walked into the lobby and I said, who’s the best? They said Al Masini. I said, tell me about Al Masini. They said he’s up on the 45th floor, he’s the best. I said, all right.

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"I waited a half hour to go up the floors. Elevators were stuck -- some of you were there, Greg Meidel was there. Greg and I have the same birthday, April 22, I love you Greg, we wish each other happy birthday every year. I go up and Al Masini had his back to me and he was pitching some of the very men in this room, some of the very people in this room. And he’s telling you, I’ve got this show with the biggest movie star in the world on it, Burt Reynolds. And I’m going to put this show on the satellite and you’re going to run it the same night. What’s it called? He said Entertainment Tonight. They said, OK Al. And I watched him sell Entertainment Tonight and Star Search and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Solid Gold and a miniseries about Golda Meir, A Woman Called Golda.

"And I introduced myself and I said, 'Mr. Masini, I understand you're the best. My name is Byron Allen and I am hear to learn from you, sir. Where we having dinner tonight?' And he actually said, 'We’re going to have Italian food tonight.' I said save me a seat, I want to check this out.

"And he became a second father to me. He let me be the son he never had. And he loved me and he embraced me and he never judged me. And I’m proud, because he was the first person inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame, 29 years ago. [Applause.]

"And I’m proud because, as a great mentor, he said things to me that weren’t true. He said, 'Byron, you’re special, you’re unstoppable, and you too, one day, will be inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame.' I didn’t believe him. And he’s not here physically, but I know he’s here spiritually. And it’s great people like that that we all need in our lives, to help us be better.

"And that’s my commitment. My commitment to the industry, my commitment to my family, my commitment to my friends is to make a difference. I’m not just here to make money. My wife met me 20 years ago. She said, 'What are you doing with your life?' I was in a one-bedroom condo. I said, 'I’m building the world's biggest media company, that’s what I’m doing. Unstoppable. Do you want to come along?' And she said 'yes,' and thank you.

"But that’s not all I’m doing," Allen said, nearing a conclusion. "I want to make it better for the world. I want to make sure we have more inclusion for women like my mother, and more inclusion for people of color, and I want to have more inclusion for everyone.

"I want to make sure it’s a level playing field," Allen said. "Because that’s why America is great, and that’s why America will always be great. And nothing makes me prouder than being a part of this industry, because you are some of the best Americans to live. Thank you, I love you."

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