Ernie Kovacs (www.erniekovacs.com) has been gone 49 years. Killed in a late-night-car crash on his way home from a party in Beverly Hills on January 13, 1962, he would have been 92 years old this year. He was at the peak of a spectacular career, having vaulted from relative obscurity to TV and movie stardom in little more than 10 years' time. He had shows running on four commercial TV networks and had appeared in more than half a dozen movies since moving to California in 1957. Among them: "Operation Mad Ball," "Bell, Book and Candle," "It Happened To Jane," "Wake Me When It's Over," "Sail a Crooked Ship" and "Our Man in Havana."
Among his Hollywood friends at the time of his death were Jack Lemmon, Billy Wilder, Dean Martin, Milton Berle, Yves Montand, Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney, Edward G. Robinson, Shirley MacLaine, Kim Novak, Joey Bishop and many more famous and not-so-famous people, from writers, cameramen and lighting technicians to studio executives, producers and movie moguls. The cigar-smoking, poker-playing Hungarian-American from the south side of Trenton, NJ had created an almost perpetual, open party at his rambling, 17-room home in the exclusive Coldwater Canyon star colony since his arrival in 1957. Heavily in debt for back income taxes cost overruns on expensive TV productions and an extravagant but generous lifestyle, Kovacs had always spent money faster than he could make it. The inscription on his tombstone in Forest Lawn Cemetery reads "Ernie Kovacs 1919 - 1962 -- Nothing In Moderation."
Kovacs was born in Trenton, NJ on January 23, 1919. Next to the youngest child in a family of modest means, at the age of 10 he was afforded the sudden luxury of attending a private elementary school when his father, a former Trenton Police Department foot patrolman, became a prosperous "beverage dealer" during Prohibition. It was at Miss Bowen' 5 Private School in Trenton where he developed an early interest in performing, backed by a strong-willed mother who would journey to Philadelphia to have a professional costumer outfit him for two elementary-school plays.
When the Kovacs family's bubble of prosperity burst with the failure of his father's business in 1935, Kovacs, who had skipped two grades in private school, entered public high school as a bright but indifferent junior and in the next year managed to fail history, Latin, algebra and chemistry. Meanwhile, he had acquired a passable baritone voice and an abiding interest in theater, joining the high school chorus production of "H.M.S. Pinafore." Held back from graduating with his class in 1936, he returned to school until 1937 and sang in the chorus of "The Pirates of Penzance," which resulted in a scholarship for him with the John Drew Memorial Theater in Easthampton, Long Island. There he experienced a full summer of walk-ons, supporting roles and second leads in "Green Grow the Lilacs," "Stage Door," 'The Frogs" and "Arms and The Man." It was also during this period that he learned to play poker, which was to become a lifelong habit.
Kovacs then received a scholarship from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, through a friend and drama coach. At the age of 19 in Depression-year 1938 he moved to a $4-a-week walkup on New York's upper west side, where he lived and studied in near-poverty for two years. To earn money he returned to Trenton to perform in local dramatic and musical productions, then to Easthampton and to Brattleboro, Vt. to perform in summer stock. During his second year at the Academy, his health began to fail, and while in Vermont in the summer of 1939 he collapsed; diagnosis: pleurisy and pneumonia. Kovacs spent the next year in a hospital on Welfare Island, in New York's East River. In 1940 his drama coach arranged to have him transferred to a sanatorium in Brown's Mills, NJ Meanwhile, his parents had separated. One day in the early summer of 1941 he got up, dressed and walked away. He was never sure whether he had had tuberculosis or not.
The rest of the year he produced, directed and played all the leads in a series of works by a pickup dramatics group of Trenton High School alumni called the Contemporary Players, after the original producer fled on opening night with the receipts. Broke and in debt, he went to live with his mother and got a job in a Trenton drugstore. A few months later, the same friend who had helped him with his scholarships and his appointment to the sanatorium arranged an audition by Kovacs for a staff announcer's job at radio station WTTM in Trenton. He started off doing a few minutes of announcing on air, then began hosting a late-night disc-jockey show, and from 1941 to 1950 had worked his way up to director of special events with his own sound truck and a $40-a-week salary. Over the years he would become famous in the Trenton area for his stunts and off-beat, anything-goes style of comedy. During this period he also hosted an afternoon celebrity-interview show called "Talk of the Town," where he came into contact with many show personalities who played the Trenton Armory or various local theaters which sometimes served as staging areas for Broadway. He also wrote a celebrity-gossip-entertainment column for The Trentonian, a weekly newspaper that turned daily in 1946, and became master of ceremonies for Thursday night wrestling matches at the Armory, while managing to squeeze in some acting in local theater in his spare time.
Kovacs married his first wife, a dancer named Bette, in 1945. Their daughters Bette Lee and Kippie were born in 1947 and 1949. Making ends meet with a wife, children, mortgage payments and a hectic lifestyle that included much time away from home as well as a lot of income-draining poker playing, put strains on the marriage, and in 1949 his wife left him and the children. Kovacs, who had bought a home, asked his mother to come and live with them and help raise the children. A few months later he sent a tape of his wrestling commentary to WPTZ-TV, a small NBC affiliate in Philadelphia which had an opening for a staff announcer. Having heard of his fame in Trenton, WPTZ hired in instantly. He began commuting the 40-odd miles between his home near Trenton and Philadelphia.
Kovacs' first exposure in Philadelphia was a live afternoon cooking program for women, called "Deadline for Dinner," a pre Julia Childs creation aimed at housewives. Kovacs quickly nicknamed it "Dead Lion for Breakfast" and turned the show's format to his own devices making visiting chefs straightmen for his antics. The show became an instant success and ran for more than two years. During that period, WPTZ also placed Kovacs on a short-lived fashion and modeling program called "Pick Your Ideal," and one that was ultimately to launch him toward New York and the networks: "Three To Get Ready," (TTGR) a wake-up show that started at 7:30 a.m. Kovacs moved his residence from Trenton to Philadelphia because of the extra hours and the commuting problem.
Viewers of TTGR soon learned to expect anything on the program and tuned in by the thousands. There were Polish versions of the song "Mona Lisa," and Yiddish interpretations of "The Call of the Wild Goose," and the off-beat became a regular feature, with Kovacs improvising either impromptu or just seconds ahead of the camera with all manner of props and sight gags. It was during TTGR that Percy Dovetonsils, the smoking-jacketed, martini-drinking, cross-eyed, lisping poet was invented. Kovacs' madcap antics, from attempting to "de-pants" a strait-laced newsman while he was on the air, to imitating warped records to filming live in the streets outside the studio, were blazing new trails in a relatively new medium. At first sponsors stayed away from the show, but after it had been on for several weeks and was averaging a high rating for a program at that hour, there were more than 50 sponsors advertising on its seven-and-a-half hours per week run.
Ironically, it was an NBC show -- Dave Garroway's "Today" debut -- that ended Kovacs' heyday at the Philadelphia NBC affiliate station. Since the network feed overlapped TTGR, WPTZ had to cancel it. Kovacs did his last show there on March 28, 1952 and moved to New York where CBS had hired him for a mid-morning local weekly program. He took most of the talent from TTGR with him and - as a parting gesture - nailed a woman in a trunk and smashed up the set with the hammer, on camera.
In New York, "The Ernie Kovacs Show" on CBS was simply TTGR re-incarnated. It was soon moved from mid-day to early mornings, and then the network gave him a national slot against Milton Berle, whose program in 1952 was running on another network from 8 to 9 P.M. Kovacs' morning show held is own, but the evening program could not overcome Berle's audience ratings lead, so it expired. The morning show -- now called Kovacs Unlimited -- took its last bow on April 14, 1953 when Kovacs moved over to the three-station Dumont Television Network on New York's Channel 5. It was at Dumont that the Nairobi trio --non speaking, derby-hatted apes that perform mechanically to music and bop each other on the head -- was born. At Dumont, there were takeoffs on network commercials, mock celebrity interviews, pans of hit movies, commercials and anything else that was timely, topical or seemingly a "sacred-cow."
Two years later, NBC hired Kovacs and gave him a million-dollar exclusive contract. At NBC, he guested once (ironically, with rival Steve Allen as host), on the "Tonight Show", then hosted the program a few weeks himself before launching "The Ernie Kovacs Show" once again on the network, which ran mid-mornings from December 12, 1955 to July 27, 1956.
Kovacs had met Edie Adams, who was later to become star of the Broadway hit, "Li'1 Abner," in Philadelphia, where she appeared on several of his shows. They were married in Mexico in 1954, and in 1955 obtained custody of his two daughters. A third daughter, Mia, was born in 1959.
When Kovacs moved to New York, then from CBS to NBC, he took several of his "regulars" with him, including Edie Adams. While his mid-morning show was still running, NBC offered him his biggest break yet – a spot in prime time on Saturday night, January 19, 1957 (Kovacs' birthday) following an hour-long show by comedian Jerry Lewis. It was said that no one but Kovacs would have dared accept the challenge, Lewis had such stature in prime-time television. Kovacs did, and the so-called Jerry Lewis "fill-in" was a smash success. Stars, agents and Hollywood producers and directors who had been watching the Lewis show stayed tuned to see Kovacs and were overwhelmed by the Kovacsian character "Eugene," who played the entire half-hour without speaking a word. Eugene was Kovacs' ticket to Hollywood, as the show was TV's first true video classic, combining mime with video comedy. About the same time Kovacs' "silent show" was broadcast, his novel, Zoomar (Doubleday) was going to press. A comical but biting satire about the television industry, it stirred up controversy among many of his friends and acquaintances who appeared in its pages thinly disguised. Nevertheless it sold three hard-cover and four more paperback printings.
On his arrival in Hollywood in mid-1957 and during his work with Columbia Pictures, Kovacs kept his hand in television by becoming "professional host/guest" on a variety of NBC weekend entertainment specials over the next two years. Then on May 22, 1959 "Kovacs on Music" appeared on NBC. The show was a true, albeit off-beat, TV spectacular with such antics as Andre Previn in tails and a 70-piece orchestra in a gag routine and "Swan Lake" danced by ballerinas in gorilla suits. It was this special that sparked the association of Kovacs with Consolidated Cigars, makers of Dutch Masters cigars.
Executives from American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and Consolidated were shopping for talent for a quick program called "Take a Good Look" and decided Kovacs would be a natural. He agreed to do the show provided he have complete control of content. ABC and Consolidated agreed, and the show ran on Thursday nights, with Kovacs turning it into a vehicle for his outlandish wit and talent. "Take a Good Look" was a commercial success for Dutch Masters cigars but not with the national TV audience, so it died a natural death in the spring of 1960.
Consolidated then hired Kovacs as part of a program package called "Silents Please," a summer showcase of old films which Kovacs introduced from his home. And finally, Consolidated offered Kovacs his own series of monthly specials beginning in 1961 on ABC, in which Kovacs would have complete control and freedom. Kovacs made eight such specials, whose marathon working schedules, elaborate and expensive special effects, and extraordinary editing and production costs are still legendary. The last Kovacs special aired a week after his death and Kovacs was posthumously awarded an Emmy award for his work in 1962.