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ERNIE KOVACS

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MY REVIEWS OF THREE RARE
ERNIE KOVACS TV SHOWS

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MY REVIEWS OF THREE RARE ERNIE KOVACS TV SHOWS

As a former card carrying member of the Museum of Television and Radio (now known as "The Paley Center For Media") I had many opportunities to view the amazing work of Ernie Kovacs and other greats, such as Steve Allen, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, et al. On one of my Ernie Kovacs Trips to the Museum, I viewed two interesting pieces of his work which I feel are worth your time to go and see.

THE ERNIE KOVACS REHEARSAL

The Ernie Kovacs Rehearsal, which aired on the old Dumont network in the mid 1950’s, is as classic Kovacs as you can get. Looking like it was planned in about five minutes for a public access channel, it still has a charm which drew me to it and forced me to watch. The idea of a guy getting on TV and basically doing whatever he feels like has always appealed to me, starting from my college days as a Broadcasting Major (I did some public access myself back then, strongly influenced by Ernie, Uncle Floyd, SNL and SCTV) all the way to my career today as a comedian, trying desperately to get someone to put me on real TV. Yet even though it looks unplanned, you know there's a lot behind it. Ernie was the best at making disorganization seem cohesive. Its quite amazing and more entertaining then a great deal of what passes for TV comedy today!

The museum doesn't have a date listed for this show, but you know its sometime in the mid-fifties. Some research solved the puzzle: David Walley's great book The Ernie Kovacs Phile lists the date as Tuesday, April 7 1955, airing in the 10pm-11pm slot (ED NOTE, NOV. 1, 2011: According to this article and the Paley Center For Media catalog , the date was actually Monday, March 21, 1955). The show was actually called The Ernie Kovacs Show. This particular incarnation was the last installment of it and for whatever reason the word "Show" was replaced with "Rehearsal." It's certainly an appropriate title, as it looks sort of like a work in progress. You see cameras, lights, cue cards, people milling about, a friendly hangin' out type of atmosphere which was Ernie's trademark. Dispel the illusion of TV glamour, and let the average Joe see behind the scenes.

The show looks like a Kinescope, and it comes complete with commercials and station ID's. When I'm at the museum, by the way, I specifically seek shows that have commercials, ID's etc. This adds to the overall experience of viewing and gives a real feel for the time period. I've seen every Ernie thing of course. Some have commercials and some don't. Ah well, c'est la vie!

Let's break down the show so you get a synopsis of what it contains:

  • Opens with the Schnitzeldent Toothpaste bit. Hosted by Ernie playin' it straight as opposed to doing the Wolfgang Sauerbraten character.

  • Goes to opening titles with "Oriental Blues" (Ernie's Theme). A sketch of a TV set with the show title on some sort of stand. Classic Kovacs and classic fifties.

  • Ernie interviews a New Jersey, ethnic Italian singing group, called "The Tophatters." Instruments include accordion, sousaphone, trumpet, guitar and bass. Ernie starts out in a little insert box in the corner of the screen, playing ukulele and imitating Arthur Godfrey. The group touts gigs they have upcoming in New Jersey, "We'll be at Nick's Three Bets out on Route 3 in Montclair next Saturday...". Reminds me of one of those bands you'd see on "The Uncle Floyd Show" twenty-five years later.

  • Ernie walks over to another set and does a live plug for a real product, "Vino Paisano" wine. Station break. Ernie disdains having to take one. Announcer says station call letters, ads for the Oscar issue of TV Guide, Prell Shampoo, El Producto Cigars and a promo for "Boxing, Live from The St. Nicholas Arena, on WABD, Channel Five in New York." Ernie comes back and complains about the length of the commercials and says he should be cut in on the profits. I love it. The Howard Stern of his day, railing against management. I love Howard, too.

  • Singers Peter Hanley and Barbara do "I Only Have Eyes For You."

  • Commercial for Sentrol Aspirin

  • Ernie, Edie, Peter Hanley, Andy McKay and another actress (I'm not sure who), do a spoof of "Person to Person with Edward R. Murrow," called "Back to Back with Edward B. Furrow." Ernie is Murrow, Peter Hanley is his first guest, a really stiff Amish sort of farmer named Albert Cosnofsky (a recurring Ernie name) who has a gorgeous maid named Bubbles (unknown actress). When it seems as if she'll undress for the audience, Andy McKay playing a technician jumps in front of the camera. The second guest is Edie as Brunehilde Schnitzel, a would be opera singer with a Brooklyn accent whose boyfriend owns the theater she's about to open in.

  • Ernie does a live commercial for "Arthur Maisel's Steakhouses," which have locations throughout New York City with names such as "The Floridian," "The Virginian," "The Bird In The Hand," "The Texan," "The Californian," and "The Brooklynite." You get the following for $1.89: A steak, vegetables, rolls, butter, shortcake and coffee. An early version of "Sizzler," with better service no doubt. Absolutely classic.

  • There is a small studio audience, who we never see. Ernie gives away some prizes to them, such as a game called "Ginasta" and a product called "Leprechaun Mist Suede Restorer."

  • Ernie has a guest on named Jim Fassett who has an album called "Strange To Your Ears." Its an early sound effects album with such things as a dog barking, slowed down and played backwards. The guy is about as exciting as a rock, but for the time period the album is cutting edge. Now it would be commonplace. It definitely fits with Ernie's love of strange sound effects. Ernie keeps throwing in strange video to go along with the SFX.

  • Show closes with warped music and Ernie saying, "See you Thursday, around the same time." However, this was the last show.

Enough said on this one.

GENERAL ELECTRIC THEATER: THE WORLD’S GREATEST QUARTERBACK

Which brings us to the next show I viewed that fateful day, General Electric Theater: The World's Greatest Quarterback . According to David Walley's book, The Ernie Kovacs Phile this show aired on CBS-TV, October 19, 1958. Its one of those corporate sponsored shows from that time which presented "family" entertainment. Interesting note: Ronald Reagan was the program supervisor for GE and the occasional host of the show. There was no host for this one however. Here's the basic plot summary, followed by my useless opinion:

We go back to Wynton, Kansas in 1958. (Ernie as a Midwesterner! Us Sicilians and the Hungarians, we have such a Middle American look!) Former pro quarterback Sam Lund (Ernie) returns to his hometown after six years away. He was the local football star and town icon. Still is. He's being driven into town by a French art dealer, Henry Arnaud (Roger Til). The two of them are discussing a rare Picasso, worth $10000 (Laughing Out Loud, as we say in computer speak). Sam says he has access to it, Henry wants it.

Cut to Mary Lund (Audrey Totter), Sam's ex-wife. She's the president of the local bank which was inherited from Dad. Hasn't seen old Sam in six years. Neither has his daughter Jeanie (a young Suzanne Pleshette) whose boyfriend Vincent Markofsky (Ronnie Burns, son of George and Gracie) is the local football star and who idolizes Sam.

The deal:

Sam is thought of as the local hero. Mary left him when his football career hit the skids and his drinking became too much. He disappeared from town. He's really selling cars in LA, but he acts as if he's doing great, with all sorts of offers. He's been reluctant to come back, because since Mary inherited a bank, he doesn't think she'll want to see him again. He comes back because they purchased this rare Picasso for a song on their honeymoon and he needs cash. Sam still loves Mary, etc.

Meanwhile, fellow Kovacsians, Vincent (or Vinny as we say in da Bronx) wants desperately to turn pro. To go play for a Canadian football team. (Whatever, its not explained) Mary knows how this can turn out, and since Vin and Jeanie want to get married, she'd prefer if her future son-in-law become something else (I think a dentist). Anyway, Sam breezes into town with his "I'm a big man" aura, spinning tall tales about himself. Vin slobbers over him as if he's from on high. Mary knows the truth, and wants Sam to tell Jeanie (who also idolizes Sam) and Vin so that they make the right life choice. Sam's ego doesn't want him to tell the truth (you know those egos, Freudians).

Everything works out in the end (it was 1958 folks). I won't tell you the surprise ending, so you'll have a reason to go see it. I will tell you that there are sub-plots with the painting, Sam romancing Mary, and a possibility of Sam coming home to accept a coaching offer.

I enjoyed this to a certain extent, because of my admiration for Ernie and my enjoyment of his relaxed and easy performing style. Its like watching that Uncle who used to bring you licorice and smoked that nice smelling Mac. (not a computer, a Macanudo Cigar).

What I didn't like was the implausibility of the daughter, greeting and loving her old man as if he hadn't slinked out like a coward for six years. She acts as if he's some old friend who she's really happy to see, not like a man who missed her formative years to go booze it up in LA. Its totally ridiculous. Also, it ain't exactly "Playhouse 90" in the writing department. Its kinda' stiff. (I just wrote "ain't," so maybe I'm not either).

That's all for Paley Center reviews. I hope you found them informative and will visit the "The Paley Center For Media" if you get a chance. It’s a great place and a great resource for the further study of Ernie’s work.

SILENTS PLEASE

This next review comes from a DVD I was given. "Silents Please" was a show that Ernie hosted on ABC – TV, Thursday Nights from 10:30PM to 11:00PM. For the diehard Kovacs fan it’s little more than a curiosity in my opinion; Ernie’s involvement in it is quite minimal. There are some points of interest however and if you come across this DVD in a bargain bin someplace (which is probably where it will be), I would suggest adding it to your collection if you are an avid Kovacs Collector.

The program consisted of famous films of the Silent Era condensed into half an hour and narrated by the program’s producer, Paul Killiam. Ernie provides the intro and closing to each half – hour from the den of his Los Angeles home. That in itself is enough to make even the average Kovacs fan want to view these because Ernie’s private den was the stuff of legend due to the Kovacsian way in which it was set – up; with a certain amount of clutter, many interesting artifacts and lots of cigars!

The two episodes I viewed contained the films "The Son Of The Shiek" starring Rudolph Valentino and "The Road To Yesterday" which is an old Cecil B. DeMille film from 1925. The airdates of these shows are a bit hard to pin down; Diana Rico"s book Kovacsland says the show aired from March 23rd to October 6th 1961; the David Walley book The Ernie Kovacs Phile does not seem to mention the show at all and the following website from the Classic TV Archive says the show ran from October 4th to October 13th 1960 and then again from March 23rd to October 5th 1961. Both sources agree on the night, time and network.

As you can see, the dates are close; the Classic TV Archive just seems to add some earlier, extra dates. But, when I searched the library of congress website for the show I got the following dates for the episodes I viewed:

  1. "The Son Of The Shiek" – August 4th, 1960
  2. "The Road To Yesterday" – September 14th, 1961

So who knows? The airdate of "The Road To Yesterday" falls into the agreed upon time frame; The airdate of "The Son Of The Shiek" proceeds any of the dates listed (it may actually be the first episode and the date is actually a copyright date; The Library of Congress refers to these as a "publishing dates").

Now onto the actual shows. I’m not a huge silent film fan, so my interest in viewing these was more to see Ernie and old time commercials either with or without Ernie (preferably with). The Ernie episodes on this DVD have BOTH those criteria. "The Road To Yesterday" was sponsored by Ralston Purina and most of the spots are for Chex Cereals. I also saw spots for Alka Seltzer and One – A – Day Vitamins.

"The Son Of The Shiek" was sponsored by Dutch Masters Cigars and has some company produced spots and some of Ernie’s classic one minute spots for Dutch Masters. There is also another Chex Cereal spot in this episode.

Both episodes have Ernie doing the intro and closing, in which he discusses some history of the films, the actors, etc., and in the episode sponsored by Dutch Masters he stands there with a box of the cigars talking about how "wonderful" they are (most Kovacs fans are aware that in reality he only smoked Cuban Cigars). I would say that the total time for the old commercials and Ernie’s commentary in both episodes is about 10 minutes so if you’re not interested in silent films and don’t really want to see the other material mentioned then don’t bother with this DVD. If you love silent films and Ernie, then this is definitely for you. As the films are being shown they are being narrated by the program’s producer, Paul Killiam.

The DVD is issued by a company called "TV Classics" and actually belongs to a friend of mine who thinks he got it in a Tower Video. I’ve seen product from this company before, specifically old kinescopes of Groucho Marx hosting "You Bet Your Life" with the commercials for DeSoto Plymouth included. I have never seen the "Silents Please" DVD however and am not sure how to get it. The website for TV Classics does not list it so ebay is probably your best shot. If you look to the right column on this page you will see a scan of the DVD cover so you know what to look for. The shows look OK; it’s basically kinescope type quality. The audio on the films and commercials is good but Ernie’s audio on the intros and closings seemed low to me. There are actually three episodes on this DVD; in addition to the two reviewed here there is another in which the film "The Thief Of Bagdad" is shown. However, it does not feature Ernie and it has no commercials so I skipped it.

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