"Oh it has been so
long since we've seen each other over the orthicon tube."
- Ernie Kovacs as Percy Dovetonsils
Kovacs created the first
kaleidoscopic images on live television with a large metal can with
two mirrors inside of it, taped to the lens of a television camera.
Kovacs (1919 - 1962) was an American comedian, actor, and writer.
His visually experimental and often spontaneous comedic style
influenced numerous television comedy programs and individuals for
years after his death, including Johnny Carson, David Letterman,
Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, Saturday Night Live, Monty Python's
Flying Circus, Jim Henson, Max Headroom, Chevy Chase, Conan O'Brien,
Jimmy Kimmel, Captain Kangaroo, Sesame Street, The Electric Company,
Pee-wee's Playhouse, The Muppet Show, Dave Garroway, Andy Kaufman,
You Can't Do That on Television and Uncle Floyd among others. Chevy
Chase thanked Kovacs during his acceptance speech for his Emmy award
for Saturday Night Live.
Some of Kovacs's unusual
behaviors included having pet marmosets and wrestling a jaguar on his
live Philadelphia television show. When working at WABC (AM) as a morning-drive
radio announcer and doing a mid-morning television series for NBC,
Kovacs claimed to dislike eating breakfast alone while his wife, Edie
Adams, was sleeping after her Broadway performances. His solution was
to hire a taxi driver to come into their apartment with his own key
and make breakfast for them both, then take Kovacs to the WABC studios.
While Kovacs and Adams
received Emmy nominations for best performances in a comedy series in
1957, his talent was not recognized formally until after his death.
The 1962 Emmy for Outstanding Electronic Camera Work and the
Directors' Guild award came a short time after his fatal car
accident. A quarter century later, he was inducted into the Academy
of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame. Kovacs also has a
star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in television. In
1986, the Museum of Broadcasting (later to become the Museum of
Television & Radio and now the Paley Center for Media) presented
an exhibit of Kovacs's work, called The Vision of Ernie Kovacs. The
Pulitzer Prizewinning television critic, William Henry III,
wrote for the museum's booklet: "Kovacs was more than another
wide-eyed, self-ingratiating clown. He was television's first
significant video artist." Kovacs was inducted posthumously into
the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia's Hall of Fame in 1992.
Kovacs's father, Andrew John Kovacs, was
born in 1890 and emigrated from Tornaujfalu, Hungary (now known as
Turnianska Nova Ves, Slovakia). Andrew was 16 years old when he
arrived at Ellis Island on February 8th, 1906. He worked as a
policeman, restaurateur, and bootlegger.
Ernest Edward Kovacs was born in Trenton,
New Jersey on January 23rd, 1919. Originally it was a family of
modest means, but at the age of 10 his father, a former Trenton
Police Department foot patrolman, became a prosperous "beverage
dealer" during Prohibition. Andrew Kovacs was very successfull
at his new job and moved his wife Mary, son Ernest, and Ernie's older
half-brother Tom into a 20-room mansion in the better part of
Trenton. Ernie was afforded the sudden luxury of attending Miss
Bowen' 5 Private elementary 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.
a poor student, Kovacs was influenced by his Trenton Central High
School drama teacher, Harold Van Kirk, and received an acting
scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1937 with Van
Kirk's help. The end of Prohibition and the onset of the Depression
resulted in difficult financial times for the family. When Kovacs
began drama school, all he could afford was a $4-a-week fifth-floor
walk-up apartment on West 74th Street in New York City where he lived
and studied in near-poverty for two years. During this time, he
watched many "Grade B" movies; admission was only ten
cents. Many of these movies influenced his comedy routines later.
A 1938 local newspaper photograph shows
Kovacs as a member of the Prospect Players, not yet wearing his
trademark mustache. Like any aspiring actor, Kovacs used his class
vacation time to pursue roles in summer stock companies. 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. A mix up in medical
records put him in the tuberculosis ward. 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, New Jersey. While hospitalized, Kovacs developed a
lifelong love of classical music by the gift of a radio, which he
kept tuned to WQXR, and sharpened his comedic talents, entertaining
both doctors, nurses and patients with his antics. He also ran a
poker game in the hospital kitchen to help pass the time. One day in
the early summer of 1941 he got up, dressed and walked away from the
hospital. He was never sure whether he had had tuberculosis or not.
By this time his parents had separated, and Kovacs returned to
Trenton, living with his mother in a two-room apartment over a store.
Soon after he returned home the war broke out but, 22 year old Ernie
was unable to enlist because his illness had damaged his lungs. He
found whatever work he could including working as a cigar salesman,
which resulted in a lifelong tobacco-smoking habit.
Kovacs's first paid entertainment work was
in 1941 for Trenton's radio station WTTM. 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. He did things
like trying to see what it was like to be run over by a train
(leaving the tracks at the last minute) and broadcasting from the
cockpit of a plane for which he took flying lessons. 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 called "Kovacs
Unlimited" 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.
Arriving at NBC's Philadelphia affiliate,
WPTZ, for an audition wearing a barrel and shorts got Kovacs his
first television job in January 1950. His first show was Pick Your
Ideal, a fashion and promotional program for the Ideal Manufacturing
Company. Before long, Kovacs was also the host of Deadline For Dinner
and Now You're Cooking, shows featuring advice from local chefs. When
Kovacs's guest chef did not arrive in time for the show, he offered a
recipe for "Eggs Scavok" (Kovacs spelled backward). Kovacs
seasoned the egg dish with ashes from his cigar. Hosting these shows
soon resulted in his becoming host of a program named Three to Get
Ready, named for WPTZ's channel 3 spot on television dials.
in November 1950, Three to Get Ready was innovative because it was
the first regularly scheduled early morning (7-9 am) show in a major
television market, predating NBC's Today by more than a year. Prior
to this, it had been assumed that few people would watch television
at such an early hour. While the show was advertised as early morning
news and weather, Kovacs provided this and more in an original
manner. When rain was in the weather forecast, Kovacs would get on a
ladder and pour water down on the staff member reading the report.
Goats were auditioned for a local theater performance and using a
camera trick, tiny women appeared to walk up his arm. Kovacs also
went outside of the studio for some of his skits, running through a
downtown Philadelphia restaurant in a gorilla suit in one; in
another, he looked into a construction pit, saying it was deep enough
to see to China, when a man popped up, said a few words in Chinese,
and ran off. Despite its popularity, the weekly prop budget for the
show was just $15. Kovacs once asked his viewers to send unwanted
items to Channel 3. The viewers responded filling the station's lobby.
A Kovacs character no one ever saw
inspired even more gifts. He was Howard, the World's Strongest Ant.
From the time of his WPTZ debut, Howard received more than 30,000
gifts from Kovacs's viewers, including a mink-lined swimming pool.
Kovacs began his Early Eyeball Fraternal & Marching Society
(EEFMS) while doing Three to Get Ready. There were membership cards
with by-laws and ties. The password was a favorite phrase of
Kovacs's: "It's Been Real". Kovacs continued the EEFMS on
his morning show when he moved to WCBS in New York in 1952.
success of Three to Get Ready proved that people did indeed watch
early-morning television, and it was one of the factors that caused
NBC to create The Today Show. WPTZ did not begin broadcasting Today
when it premiered on January 14th, 1952; network influence caused the
station to end Three to Get Ready at the end of March of that year.
During early 1952, Kovacs was also doing a
late morning show for WPTZ named Kovacs on the Corner. Kovacs would
walk through an imaginary neighborhood, talking with various
characters such as Pete the Cop and Luigi the Barber. As with Three
to Get Ready, there were some special segments. "Swap Time"
was one of them: Viewers could bring their unwanted items to the WPTZ
studios to trade them live on the air with Kovacs. The show made its
debut on January 4th, 1952, with Kovacs losing creative control of
the program soon after it was begun. Kovacs on the Corner was
short-lived; it ended on March 28th, 1952, along with Three to Get
Ready. Kovacs then began work for WCBS-TV in New York with a local
morning show and a later network one. Both programs were canceled;
Kovacs lost the local morning program for the same reason as Three to
Get Ready, the broadcasting time was confiscated by the station's
network in 1954.
At WPTZ, Kovacs began using the ad-libbed
and experimental style that would become his reputation, including
video effects, superimpositions, reverse polarities and scanning, and
quick blackouts. He was also noted for abstraction and carefully
timed non-sequitur gags and for allowing the fourth wall to be
breached. Kovacs's cameras commonly showed his viewers' activity
beyond the boundaries of the show set, including crew members and
outside the studio itself. Kovacs also liked talking to the
off-camera crew and even introduced segments from the studio control
room. He frequently made use of accidents and happenstance,
incorporating the unexpected into his shows. In one of Kovacs's
Philadelphia broadcasts, Oscar Liebetrau, an elderly crew member who
was known for often sleeping for the duration of the telecast, was
introduced to the audience as "Sleeping Schwartz."
love of spontaneity extended to his crew, who would occasionally
play on-air pranks on him to see how he would react. During one of
his NBC shows, Kovacs was appearing as the inept magician Matzoh
Heppelwhite. The sketch called for the magician to frequently hit a
gong, which was the signal for a sexy female assistant to bring out a
bottle and shot glass for a quick snort of alcohol. Mischievous crew
members substituted real liquor for the iced tea normally used for
the skit. Kovacs realized that he would be called upon to drink a
shot of liquor for each successive gong. He pressed on with the
sketch and was quite inebriated by the end of the show. Once
stagehands substituted straight gin for the fake martini during a
Percy Dovetonsils sketch. Kovacs swallows the booze and without
breaking character, clues the audience in on the practical joke and
then milks it for the rest of the segment. Addressing the director
offscreen, Percy asks, "Did I read the poem or didn't I?"
A born improviser, Kovacs understood the
value of impulse. The character Percy Dovetonsils, the lisping poet
laureate, was created instantaneously when someone handed Kovacs a
pair of gag glasses with coke-bottle eyes pasted behind the lenses.
Thrust into the pressure cooker of a live broadcast, he could be
funnier when things went wrong. It was live TV and things went wrong
and it wasn't always a practical joke. Cameras gone astray, miscues
and sets falling down were just part of the fun. Kovacs was even
knocked unconscious once when a pie smashed into his face still had
the plate under it.
Kovacs helped develop camera tricks still
common decades after his death. His character Eugene sat at a table
to eat his lunch, but as he removed items one at a time from a lunch
box, he watched them inexplicably roll down the table into the lap of
a man reading a newspaper at the other end. When Kovacs poured milk
from a thermos bottle, the stream flowed in a seemingly unusual
direction. Never seen on television before, the secret was using a
tilted set in front of a camera tilted at the same angle.
constantly sought new techniques and used both primitive and
improvised ways of creating visual effects that would later be done
electronically. One innovative construction involved attaching a
kaleidoscope made from a toilet paper roll to a camera lens with
cardboard and tape and setting the resulting abstract images to
music. Another was a soup can with both ends removed fitted with
angled mirrors. Used on a camera and turning it could put Kovacs
seemingly on the ceiling. An underwater stunt involved cigar smoker
Kovacs sitting in an easy chair, reading his newspaper and somehow
smoking a cigar. Removing it from his mouth, Kovacs was able to
exhale a puff of white smoke, all while floating underwater. The
trick: the "smoke" was a small amount of milk which he
filled his mouth with before submerging. Kovacs later repeated the
effect for a Dutch Masters television commercial on his ABC game
show, Take A Good Look.
One of the special effects he employed
made it appear as if he was able to look through his assistant,
Barbara Loden's, head. The illusion was performed by placing a black
patch on Loden's head and standing her against a black background
while one studio camera was trained on her. A second one photographed
Kovacs, who used the studio monitor to position himself exactly so
that his eye would appear to be looking through a hole in her head.
Kovacs also developed such routines as a
poker game set to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the skit Silent Show,
in which Eugene interacts with the world accompanied solely by music
and sound effects, parodies of typical television commercials and
movie genres, and various musical segments with everyday items (such
as kitchen appliances or office equipment) moving in sync to music. A
popular recurring skit was The Nairobi Trio. It skit was introduced
during during a 10-week summer series in 1955. At the start of every
show for the first four weeks Kovacs would promote the first
prime-time appearance of the "World Famous Nairobi Trio."
At the end of each hour, Ernie would profoundly apologize for the
absence of the group, declaring they had been "held up by
customs agents" or had "fallen unexpectedly ill" or
"had become lost in heavy traffic," but he assured viewers
that "The Nairobi Trio" would positively be on the next
program. Finally, after a spectacularly prolonged buildup, there they
were, three derby-hatted apes miming as they played mechanically and
rhythmically to the strains of Robert Maxwells "Solfeggio."
CLUB FEATURETTE DEPARTMENT
The Nairobi Trio was a comedy skit that Ernie Kovacs performed many times for his TV shows. The skit was a live-action version of a child's animatronic wind-up music box. Always experimental, Kovacs combined several existing musical and comic concepts with impeccable timing for a unique and memorable result. The middle gorilla was always played by Kovacs with a cigar and conducted the musicians with either a baton or a banana. To the left stood a gorilla holding two oversized timpani mallets. This character was played by different actors including Jack Lemmon and Frank Sinatra. Seated at a piano was a female simian who robotically thumped her hands up and down on the keys. This part was variously played by Barbara Loden, Jolene Brand, and Kovacs's wife, Edie Adams.
Kovacs used extended sketches and mood
pieces or quick blackout gags lasting only seconds. Some could be
expensive, such as his famous used car salesman routine with a jalopy
and a breakaway floor (below). it cost $12,000 to produce the six-second
gag. He was one of the first television comedians to use odd fake
credits and comments between the legitimate credits and, at times,
during his routines.
Kovacs reportedly disliked working in
front of a live audience, as was the case with the shows he did for
NBC during the 1950s. He found the presence of an audience
distracting, and those in the seats frequently did not understand
some of the more elaborate visual gags and special effects, which
could only be appreciated by watching studio monitors instead of the stage.
many comedians of the era, Kovacs created a rotation of recurring
roles. In addition to the silent "Eugene," his most
familiar characters were the fey, lisping poet Percy Dovetonsils, and
the heavily accented German radio announcer, Wolfgang von
Sauerbraten. Mr. Question Man, who answered viewer queries, was a
satire on the long-running (193756) radio series, The Answer
Man. Others included horror show host Auntie Gruesome, bumbling
magician Matzoh Heppelwhite, Frenchman Pierre Ragout, and Miklos
Molnar, the sardonic Hungarian host of a cooking show. The Miklos
character wasn't always confined to a kitchen; Kovacs performed a
parody of The Howdy Doody Show with "Buffalo Miklos" as the
host. Poet Percy Dovetonsils can be found playing Beethoven's
Moonlight Sonata on a disappearing piano and as a "Master
Detective" on the "Private Eye-Private Eye"
presentation of the US Steel Hour on CBS March 8th, 1961. On the same
show, the Nairobi Trio abandons their instruments for a safe cracking
job; still with a background of "Solfeggio" but speaking,
two of the three would also appear in an "Outer Space"
sketch. Kovacs became a regular on NBC Radio's program Monitor
beginning during late 1958, often using his Mr.Question Man character
in his radio monologues. He was also the host of a program, Silents
Please, which showed silent movies on network television, with
serious discussion about the movies and their actors.
Nowadays, parodying TV
shows and commercials may seem painfully trite, but when Kovacs did
it, TV as a nationwide phenomenon was only a few years old. Kovacs
made fun of cooking shows, game shows, kids' shows and late-night
horror movie hosts (his Uncle Gruesome is the direct ancestor of
SCTV's howling Count Floyd). The idea of lampooning commercials was
even more subversive because, at that point, real commercials were
still routinely integrated into programming, and in fact were often
performed live by the hosts, including Kovacs. His actual commercials
could be as zany as his fake ones, which only blurred the line further.
The first incanation of The Ernie Kovacs
was on CBS in 1952. It was his first prime time show. Unfortunately
he was up against Mr Television Milton Berle and was cancelled after
three months. After leaving CBS for the new Dupont Network in 1954
The Ernie Kovacs show returned in a late night time slot, this time
opposite Steve Allen.
Three to Get Ready (Philadelphia's WPTZ
from 1950 through 1952)
It's Time for Ernie (1951, his first
Ernie in Kovacsland, (a summer
replacement for Kukla, Fran and Ollie, 1951)
The Ernie Kovacs Show (195256 on
Gamble on Love (game show 1954 -
Time Will Tell (game show 1954 -
One Minute Please (panel show 1954 -
1955 - DuMont Network)
Filling in for Steve Allen as host of
The Tonight Show (Mon and Tues 195657)
Take a Good Look (195961)
Kovacs also had a brief stint as a
celebrity panelist for the television series What's My Line?, but
took his responsibilities less than seriously, often eschewing a
legitimate question for the sake of a laugh. An example:
Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, the founder of an automobile company,
was the program's "mystery guest." Previous questioning had
established that the mystery guest's name was synonymous with an
automobile brand, Kovacs asked, "Are you - and this is just a
wild guess - but are you Abraham Lincoln?", a reference to the
Ford Motor Company's Lincoln brand automobiles. When Kovacs gave an
interview admitting that he was absent from the Sunday night show one
week because he wanted to go out for dinner instead, his stint on the
panel show was ended.
Kovacs also did several television
specials, including the famous Silent Show (1957), featuring his
character, Eugene, the first all-pantomime prime-time network
program. After the end of the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis partnership,
NBC offered Lewis the opportunity to host his own 90-minute color
television special. Lewis opted to use only 60 minutes, leaving the
network 30 minutes to fill; no one wanted this time slot, but Kovacs
was willing to have it. The program contained no spoken dialogue and
contained only sound effects and music. Featuring Kovacs as the mute,
Charlie Chaplin-like character "Eugene", the program
contained surreal sight gags. Kovacs developed the Eugene character
during the autumn of 1956 when guest-hosting the The Tonight Show.
Expectations were high for the Lewis program, but it was Kovacs's
special that received the most attention. After it aired Kovacs
received his first movie offer, had a cover story in Life magazine,
and received the Sylvania Award that year. It was selected by the
United States as the only television program screened at the 1958
World's Fair in Brussels.
series of monthly half-hour specials for ABC during 196162 is
often considered his best television work. Produced on videotape
using new editing and special effects techniques, it won a 1962 Emmy
Award. Kovacs and co-director Behar also won the Directors Guild of
America award for an Ernie Kovacs Special based on the earlier silent
"Eugene" program. Kovacs's last ABC special was broadcast
posthumously, on January 23rd, 1962.
The Dutch Masters cigar company became
well known during the late 1950s and early 1960s for its sponsorship
of various television projects of Ernie Kovacs. The company allowed
Kovacs total creative control in the creation of their television
commercials for his programs and specials. He produced a series of
non-speaking television commercials for Dutch Masters during the run
of his television series Take A Good Look which was praised by both
television critics and viewers.
While praised by critics, Kovacs rarely
had a highly rated show. The Museum of Broadcast Communications says,
"It is doubtful that Ernie Kovacs would find a place on
television today. He was too zany, too unrestrained, too
undisciplined. Perhaps Jack Gould of The New York Times said it best
for Ernie Kovacs: 'The fun was in trying'."
Other shows had greater success while
using elements of Kovacs's style. Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In made
frequent use of the quick blackout gags and surreal humor that marked
many Kovacs projects. Laugh-In producer George Schlatter is married
to actress Jolene Brand (below), who had appeared in Kovacs's comic
troupes over the years and had been a frequent participant in his
pioneering sketches. Both Brand and Schlatter were close friends with
Kovacs and his wife, Edie Adams. Brand was also known for her part in
the Disney television show Zorro. She played the romantic interest
for the main character played by Guy Williams.
Bill Wendell was a young NBC staffer, was
Kovacs's usual announcer and sometimes a sketch participant. From
19801995, Wendell was the announcer for David Letterman, whose
show and style of humor were greatly influenced by Kovacs.
Kovacs was also known for his eclectic
musical taste. His main theme song was named "Oriental
Blues" by Jack Newton. The rendition most often heard was a piano-driven
trio version, but for his primetime show during 1956, music director
Harry Sosnik presented a full-blown big band version. The German song
"Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" from The Threepenny Opera
(anglicized to "Mack the Knife"), frequently underscored
his blackout routines. Songwriter Robert Maxwell's
"Solfeggio" became associated with the derby-hatted apes;
'The Nairobi Trio'.
In the 1982 TV special Ernie Kovacs:
Television's Original Genius, Edie Adams recalled that when Kovacs
first heard the melody, he immediately knew what he wanted to do with
it, creating a music-box-like trio that moved in time to the tune.
Kovacs was introduced to the song in 1954 by Barry Shear, his
director at DuMont Television Network.
Kovacs matched an unusual treatment of
"Sentimental Journey", by Mexican bandleader Juan Garcia
Esquivel to video of an empty office in which various items (pencil
sharpeners, water coolers, wall clocks) come to life in rhythm with
the music; it was a variation on several famous animations of a
decade earlier. The original three-minute presentation was outlined
by Kovacs in a four-page, single-spaced memo to his staff. A
perfectionist, Kovacs describes in minute detail what had to be done
and how to do it. The memo ends with this: "I don't know how the
hell you're going to get this done by Sunday - but 'rots of
ruck." (signed) "Ernie (with love)". Kovacs also made
careful use of the shrill singer Leona Anderson, who had somewhat
less than a classical (or even listenable) voice, by some
estimations, in comic vignettes.
used classical music as background for silent skits or abstract
visual routines, including "Concerto for Orchestra", by
Bela Bartok; music from the opera "The Love of Three
Oranges", by Sergei Prokofiev; the finale of Igor Stravinsky's
suite "The Firebird"; and Richard Strauss' "Till
Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks" and from George Gershwin,
"Rialto Ripples," the theme to his shows, as well as parts
of Gershwin's "Concerto in F". He may have been known best
for using Joseph Haydn's "String Quartet, Opus 3, Number 5"
(the "Serenade," actually composed by Roman Hoffstetter)
for a series of 196061 commercials he created and videotaped
for his sponsor, Dutch Masters.
For the show of May 22nd, 1959, Kovacs on
Music, Kovacs began by saying, "I have never really understood
classical music, so I would like to take this opportunity to explain
it to others." He presented a version of Swan Lake, normal in
it's presentation except all the dancers are in gorilla suits.
He also served as host on a jazz album to
benefit the American Cancer Society in 1957, Listening to Jazz with
Ernie Kovacs. It was a 15-minute recording featuring some of the
celebrities of the art, including pianist Jimmy Yancey and old
original New Orleans Jazz Trumpeter Bunk Johnson, soprano saxophonist
Sidney Bechet, guitarist Django Reinhardt,
composer/pianist/bandleader Duke Ellington and longtime Ellington
trumpeter Cootie Williams. Both the Library of Congress and the
National Library of Canada have copies of this recording in their collections.
Kovacs wrote a novel, Zoomar: A
Sophisticated Novel about Love and TV (Doubleday, 1957), based on
television pioneer Pat Weaver; it took Kovacs only 13 days to write.
The book took its title from the Zoomar brand zoom lenses frequently
used on television cameras at the time. In a 1960 interview, Edie
Adams related that the novel was written after Kovacs's experiences
with network television while he was preparing to broadcast the
Silent Show. The 1961 British edition was retitled T.V. Medium Rare
by its London-based publisher, Transworld.
While he worked on several other book
projects, Kovacs's only other published title was How to Talk at Gin,
published posthumously in 1962. He intended part of the book's
proceeds to benefit Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. During 195558,
he wrote for Mad (his favorite humor magazine), including the feature
"Strangely Believe It!" (a parody of Ripley's Believe It or
Not! that was a regular feature of his television shows) and Gringo,
a board game with ridiculously complicated rules that was renamed
Droongo for the television show. Kovacs also wrote the introduction
to the 1958 collection Mad For Keeps: A Collection of the Best from
Kovacs and Edie Adams guest starred on
what turned out to be the final episode of The Lucille Ball-Desi
Arnaz Show, (syndicated as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour or We Love
Lucy). There was no on-air mention of this being the final episode.
It aired on April 1st, 1960 and was filmed without a live audience.
The episode was titled, "Lucy Meets the Moustache" and was
the last time Arnaz and Ball worked together and the last time their
famous characters appeared in a first-run broadcast. According to
Adams, Ball and Arnaz 'avoided contact and barely talked to each
other in rehearsals and in-between scenes'. Adams also said that they
were not told their episode was the last or that the famous couple
were to divorce (Ball entered the uncontested divorce request March
4th, 1960). The plot of the episode has Ricky feeling depressed
because he has not been getting any TV offers lately, so Lucy, Fred,
and Ethel try to get him a job on Ernie Kovacs show.
In 1968, Edie Adams appeared on an episode
of "The Lucy Show" as an old flame of Mr. Mooney (Gale
Gordon) looking to take him away from his wife. To scare her off,
Lucy pretends to be "Mooneys Other Wife". When scenes
take place at the Mooney home, Mrs. Mooney is, as usual, out of town.
The Mrs. Mooney character was never actually seen on camera.
Kovacs also appeared in roles on other
television programs. For General Electric Theater's "I Was a
Bloodhound" in 1959, Kovacs played the role of detective Barney
Colby, whose extraordinary sense of smell helped him solve many
seemingly impossible cases. Colby was hired by a foreign country to
recover their symbol of royalty, a baby elephant, who was being held
Kovacs found Hollywood success as a
character actor, often typecast as a swarthy military officer in such
movies as Operation Mad Ball (above right), Wake Me When It's Over,
and Our Man in Havana (above left). While working in his first movie
role for Operation Mad Ball, Kovacs was filming a wild party scene
after midnight; it was decided to use real champagne for realism.
After a few hours of work, someone came up to Kovacs and remarked
that he had been having quite a good time chasing starlets all night.
Kovacs told the stranger to go to hell, since he was following the
script; he later learned the stranger was Harry Cohn, head of
Columbia Pictures. Kovacs and Cohn later became friends despite the
way they had met, with Cohn giving Kovacs roles in Bell, Book and
Candle (1958) and It Happened to Jane (1959).
He garnered critical acclaim for his movie
roles, such as the perennially inebriated writer in Bell, Book and
Candle (above left) and as the cartoonishly evil head of a railroad
company (who resembled Orson Welles' title character in Citizen Kane)
in It Happened to Jane (above right), where he had his head shaved
and his remaining hair dyed grey for the role. In 1960, he played the
base commander Charlie Stark in the comedy Wake Me When It's Over
(below left) and the con man Frankie Cannon trying to steal John
Wayne's gold mine in the western comedy, North to Alaska (below
right). His own personal favorite was said to have been the offbeat
Five Golden Hours (1961), in which he portrayed a larcenous
professional mourner who meets his match in a professional widow
played by Cyd Charisse. Kovacs's last movie, Sail a Crooked Ship
(also 1961), was released one month before his death.
and his first wife, Bette Wilcox, were married on August 13th, 1945.
With-in four years they had two children, Elizabeth (Bette) and Kip
Raleigh (Kippie). In 1950 Bette walked out on the family and the
marriage ended. Ernie brought his mother out from Philadelphia to
help him look after this children as he fought for custody of the
girls. The court awarded Kovacs full custody upon determining that
his former wife was mentally unstable. The decision was extremely
unusual at the time, setting a legal precedent. In 1953 Ernie sent
the girls (then 4 and 6) for a visit with their mother. Wilcox
subsequently kidnapped the children, taking them to Florida. Keeping
it a "family matter" Ernie and his father searched for the
girls all over Florida themselves and hired private detectives as
well. After three months the police were contacted and a nation wide
search was begun. In the two years that followed Kovacs would spend
50,000 dollars on private detectives but it was a two cent postcard
send by Ernie's mother that solved the case. Mary Kovacs would send
out postcards with photos and descriptions of the girls throughout
the south and one day someone responded. The girls were found in
Florida and they were reunited with their father. These events were
portrayed in the television movie Ernie Kovacs: Between the Laughter
(1984), which garnered an Emmy Award nomination for its writer, April
Smith. Kovacs was portrayed by Jeff Goldblum.
Kovacs's first wife made a legal attempt
to gain custody of her two daughters soon after his death. She began
August 2nd, 1962, by claiming $500,000 was her share of Kovacs's
estate and charging that her ex-husband had abducted the girls in
1955; Kovacs had been granted legal custody of his daughters in 1952.
On August 30th, Wilcox filed an affidavit claiming that Kovacs's
widow, Edie Adams, the stepmother to the girls, was "unfit"
to care for them. Both daughters, Bette and Kippie, testified that
they wanted to stay with their stepmother, Edie. Kippie's testimony
was very emotional; in it she referred to Edie as "Mommy"
and her birth mother as "the other lady." Upon hearing the
verdict that the girls would remain in their home, Adams wept,
saying, "This is what Ernie would have wanted. Now I can
smile." Elizabeth Kovacs's reaction was "I'm so happy I can
hardly express myself", after learning she and her sister would
not be forced to leave Edie.
and Adams met in 1951 when she was hired to work for his WPTZ show,
Three to Get Ready. Her appearance on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts
caught the eye of Kovacs's producer, and he asked her to audition for
After the couple's first date, Kovacs
proceeded to buy a Jaguar car, telling Adams he wanted to take her
out in style. He was seriously taken with the beautiful and talented
young woman, courting her with imagination and flair. Kovacs's
attempts to win Adams's affection included hiring a mariachi band to
serenade her backstage at the Broadway musical she was performing in
and the sudden gift of a diamond engagement ring, telling her to wear
it until she made up her mind. Kovacs continued this romantic quest
even after the show went out of town.
Adams booked a six-week European cruise
which she hoped would let her make up her mind whether or not to
marry Kovacs. After only three days away and many long-distance
telephone calls, she curtailed her trip and returned to say
"yes". They eloped and were married on September 12th,
1954, in Mexico City. The ceremony was presided over by former New
York City mayor William O'Dwyer and was performed in Spanish, which
neither Kovacs nor Adams understood; O'Dwyer had to prompt each of
them to say "Sí" at the "I do" portion of
the vows. Adams, who had a middle-class upbringing, was smitten by
Kovacs's quirky ways; the couple remained together until his death.
(She later said about Kovacs, "He treated me like a little girl,
and I loved it, Women's Lib be damned!")
also aided Kovacs's struggle to reclaim his two older children after
the kidnapping by their mother. She also was a regular partner on his
television shows. Kovacs usually introduced or addressed her in a
businesslike way, as "Edith Adams". Adams was usually
willing to do anything he envisioned, whether it was singing
seriously, performing impersonations (including a well-regarded
impression of Marilyn Monroe), or taking a pie in the face or a
pratfall if and when needed. The couple had one daughter, Mia Susan
Kovacs, born June 20th, 1959.
Kovacs and his family shared a 16-room
apartment in Manhattan on Central Park West that seemed perfect until
he went to California for his first movie role in Operation Mad Ball.
The experience of the totally different, laid-back lifestyle of
Hollywood made a big impression on him. He realized he was working
too much in New York; in California he would be able to work fewer
hours, do just as well or better, and have more time for Edie and his
daughters. At the time he was working most of the time and sleeping
about two or three hours a night. Kovacs claimed that he realized it
was time for a change when he was telling his girls a bedtime story
and found himself thinking of using it for a show instead. Kovacs
relocated his family there in 1957, after Edie finished work for the
Broadway play Li'l Abner.
Kovacs was killed in a car accident in Los
Angeles during the early morning hours of January 13th, 1962, 10 days
shy of his 43rd birthday. Kovacs, who had worked for much of the
evening, met his wife Edie Adams at a baby shower given by Billy
Wilder for Milton Berle and his wife, who had recently adopted a
newborn baby boy. The couple left the party in separate cars. After a
lull in a southern California rainstorm, Kovacs lost control of his
Chevrolet Corvair station wagon while turning quickly and crashed
into a power pole at the corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica
Boulevards in Beverly Hills. He was thrown halfway out the passenger
side and died almost instantly from chest and head injuries.
A photographer managed to arrive moments
later, and images of Kovacs dead body appeared in newspapers across
the United States. An unlit cigar lay on the pavement, inches from
his outstretched arm. Jack Lemmon, who also attended the Berle party,
identified Kovacs's body at the morgue because Adams was too
distraught to do so.
1965 Ralph Nader's book, "Unsafe at Any Speed" was
published. It was a time when U.S. automakers were still largely
unregulated. His book accused car companies of designing vehicles
with an emphasis on style and power at the expense of consumer
safety. One chapter focused on handling problems with the Chevrolet
Corvair, a car produced by auto giant General Motors (GM). In
February 1966, Nader testified before the U.S. Congress about some of
the issues in his book. Shortly after Naders congressional
testimony, the news media reported that Nader had been followed by
detectives hired by GM to spy into his personal life in an effort to
discredit him. Nader sued GM for harassment and invasion of privacy
and won a settlement. The publicity surrounding GMs actions
helped make "Unsafe at Any Speed" a best-seller.
Naders public advocacy on auto-safety issues helped lead to the
passage of the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act,
which sought to reduce the rising number of injuries and deaths from
road accidents by establishing federal safety standards for every
American-made vehicle, including safety belts for all passengers. The
design proplems applied to original unaltered Corvairs from 1962.
After the problems of the Corvairs were realized by third-party
manufacturers and mechanics, aftermarket parts that made the vehicle
safer became rather common. By 1964, these aftermarket repairs were
no longer necessary; Chevrolet implemented safer designs for all new
Corvairs. But it was too late, the Corvair, which suffered from
slumping sales due in part to the negative publicity from Naders
book as well as to consumer lawsuits (the cars suspension
system was blamed for rollovers), was discontinued by GM in 1969.
After attending funerals for Hollywood
friends, Kovacs had expressed his wishes to Adams that any funeral
services for him be kept simple. In keeping with his request, Adams
made arrangements for Presbyterian services at the Beverly Hills
Community Presbyterian Church. The active pallbearers were Jack
Lemmon, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Billy Wilder, Mervyn LeRoy, and
Joe Mikolas. Kovacs's father and brother, Andrew and Tom,
respectively, served as honorary pallbearers. The attendees included
George Burns, Groucho Marx, Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Jack
Benny, James Stewart, Charlton Heston, Buster Keaton and Milton
Berle. There was no typical Hollywood-type eulogy, but the church's
pastor paid tribute to Kovacs, adding that he once summed up his life
in two sentences: "I was born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1919 to
a Hungarian couple. I've been smoking cigars ever since."
Kovacs is buried in Forest Lawn-Hollywood
Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles. His epitaph reads "Nothing in
moderation - We all loved him."
Kovacs's second daughter Kippie and her
husband, Bill Lancaster (19471997), a screenwriter and the son
of actor Burt Lancaster, are the parents of Kovacs's only grandchild.
Kippie died on July 28th, 2001, at the age of 52, after a long
illness and a lifetime of poor health.
Kovacs's only child with Edie Adams, Mia
(19591982, below), was just beginning a career as an actress
when she was killed in a vehicle accident similar to the one that
took her's father's life 20 years earlier.
Kovacs, who consistently spent his money
whenever possible and as soon as he made it, found himself deep in
debt. By 1962, he had accrued $600,000 in gambling debts and owed the
Internal Revenue Service several hundred thousand dollars in back
taxes. Up to 90% of his earnings were garnished as a result and in
1961, Kovacs was served with a $75,000 lien for back taxes.
His tax woes also affected Kovacs's
career, forcing him to take any offered work to pay his debt. This
included the ABC game show Take a Good Look, appearances on variety
shows such as NBC's The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford, and
some of his less memorable movie roles. He also filmed an unaired
1962 pilot episode for a proposed CBS series, Medicine Man
(co-starring Buster Keaton).
Some of the issues regarding Kovacs's tax
problems were still unresolved years after his death. Kovacs had
purchased two insurance policies in 1951; his mother was named as the
primary beneficiary of them. The IRS placed a lien against them both
for their cash value in 1961. To stop the actions being taken against
her, Mary Kovacs had to go to Federal court. The court's early 1966
ruling resolved the issue, with the last sentence of the document
reading: "Prima facie, it looks as if, within the limits of
discretion permitted the government by the relevant statutes, an
injustice is being done Mary Kovacs."
In 1942, at age 15, Edie
was the baton-twirling champion of Tenafly, New Jersey.
Later she was
Miss U.S. Television 1950.
Adams (born Edith Elizabeth Enke on April 16th, 1927) was an
American comedienne, actress, singer and businesswoman. She was an
Emmy Award nominee and Tony Award winner. She was born in Kingston,
Pennsylvania, the only daughter of Sheldon Alonzo Enke and his wife,
Ada. Ada Enke taught her daughter singing and piano, and her
grandmother, a seamstress, taught her how to sew. She made her own
clothing beginning in the sixth grade and Adams would later have her
own designer line of clothing, called Bonham, Inc.
Adams earned a vocal degree from Juilliard
and then graduated from Columbia School of Drama. She studied at the
Actors Studio in New York and at the Traphagen School of Fashion.
Initially, Adams could not decide whether to pursue a career in
fashion design or music, so she tossed a coin, and music won.
In 1949-50, she appeared in the early live
television show Bonnie Maid's Versatile Varieties as one of the
original "Bonnie Maids" doing live commercials for the
sponsor. In 1950, she won the "Miss U.S. Television" beauty
contest, which led to an appearance with Milton Berle on his
television show, billed as Edith Adams. One of her early appearances
was on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. She was seen by the producer
of the Ernie Kovacs show Three to Get Ready (in Philadelphia), who
invited her to audition. Adams had very little experience with
popular music and could perform only three songs. She later stated:
"I sang them all during the audition, and if they had asked to
hear another, I never would have made it." She became part of
the show in July 1951. Adams had never seen the program she was hired
for. When he saw his daughter on the show, Adams's father was upset
to find her role involved trying to avoid pies in the face. In one of
his last interviews, Kovacs looked back on the early days, saying,
"I wish I could say I was the big shot that hired her, but it
was my show in name only, the producer had all the say. Later on I
did have something to say and I said it, 'Let's get married.'"
Adams began working regularly on
television with Kovacs and talk show pioneer Jack Paar. After a
courtship that included mariachi bands and an unexpected diamond
engagement ring, Adams and Kovacs eloped and were married on
September 12th, 1954.
starred on Broadway in Wonderful Town (1953) opposite Rosalind
Russell (winning the Theatre World Award), and as Daisy Mae in Li'l
Abner (1956), winning the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a
Musical. She played the Fairy Godmother in Rodgers and Hammerstein's
original Cinderella broadcast in 1957. Adams was to play Daisy Mae in
the film version of Li'l Abner but was unable to due to the late
arrival of her daughter, Mia Susan Kovacs. The part went to Leslie Parrish.
Adams and Kovacs received Emmy nominations
for best performances in a comedy series in 1957. In 1960, she and
Kovacs played themselves in The LucyDesi Comedy Hour final
television special on CBS. Adams made two appearances on What's My
Line? (once as "Edith Adams (Mrs. Ernie Kovacs)" while her
husband was on the panel; once as Edie Adams).
Shortly after her Kovacs's death, Adams
won a "nasty custody battle" with Kovacs's ex-wife over her
stepdaughters. Another court battle began for Adams in the same year,
this time with her mother-in-law, who refused to believe there were
more debts than assets in her son's estate. Mary Kovacs accused her
daughter-in-law of mismanaging the estate and petitioned for custody
of her granddaughters. The dispute lasted for years with Adams
remaining the administrator of her husband's estate and guardian of
the three girls. She worked for years to pay her late husband's tax
debt to the IRS. She said she concidered it her debt too because she
helped him spend the money. The couple's celebrity friends planned a
TV special benefit for Edie and her family, but she declined, saying,
"I can take care of my own children." She spent the next
year working practically non-stop.
Kovacs was a noted cigar smoker, and Adams
did a long-running series of TV commercials for Muriel Cigars. She
remained the pitch-lady for Muriel well after Kovacs's death (despite
being asthmatic), intoning in a Mae West style and sexy outfit,
"Why don't you pick one up and smoke it sometime?" Another
commercial for Muriel cigars, which cost ten cents, showed Adams
singing, "Hey, big spender, spend a little dime with me"
(based on the song "Big Spender" from the musical Sweet
Charity). Adams's cigar commercials made her one of the top three
recognizable television celebrities. In subsequent years, Adams made
numerous television appearances, including on Fantasy Island, The
Love Boat, McMillan & Wife, Police Woman, Murder, She Wrote, It's
Garry Shandling's Show, Bosom Buddies and Designing Women. In
addition to her TV work she was also a successful nightclub headliner.
after Kovacs's death, his network, ABC, gave Adams a chance with her
own show, Here's Edie (1962 - 1962, retitled The Edie Adams Show in
its second season) lasted only 21 episodes. The show shared a time
slot and alternated each week with Sid Caeser and highlighted Adams's
singing and comic talents. While variety was a pretty common concept
for a show of the era, the ambitious execution of the shows reveals
that Adams had a creative flair for creating unique television just
as her late husband had and the show would received five Emmy
nominations during it's run.
What sets Here's Edie apart from the
majority of variety series and helps to underscore Adams's unheralded
gifts, are the first eight episodes of the program, each of which is
devoted to a single theme or concept such as: "Love,"
"New York," or "Bossa Nova".
These early episodes of the series have
Edie partnering with producer-director Barry Shear, who had worked on
a few Ernie Kovacs projects and went on to do some Man From
U.N.C.L.E. episodes. Like Kovacs, Shear likes to play with the medium
of TV with quick edits, nonlinear and wordless sketches, experiments
with split-screen and other in-camera effects. Edie singing a
romantic ballad smash cuts to her performing a (TV G-Rated)
striptease. Another performance by Edie is done as a daydream and an
episode shot on location in London is full of technically challenging
shots for a TV crew in 1962. Shear leaves the show shortly before the
end of the first season and is replaced as director by Joe Behar, who
also previously worked with Kovacs. Later, Gordon Wiles takes the
reins and shows the same affinity for blackout sketches that Kovacs
did. Wiles's would later work as a director on Rowan and Martin's
Laugh In. The later episodes are more conventional TV variety of the
day but Edie, with her impressive vocal range, sultry charm, and
infectious good humor keeps the show afloat, designing the show in a
way that keeps it from settling into a stale pattern. In addition
Edie designed her own costumes for the show, under the name Enke (her
real last name).
Guest stars on Edie's show included: Hoagy
Carmichael, Count Basie, Rowan and Martin, Bobby Darin, Buddy
Hackett, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Soupy Sales, Terry-Thomas, Bob Hope, Alan
Sues, Louis Nye, Duke Ellington, Eddie Fisher, Stan Getz, Al Hirt,
Spike Jones, Johnny Mathis, Dick Shawn, Nancy Wilson, Don Rickles and
Sammy Davis Jr. Her show featured one of the first times that a black
man and a white woman would be seen together singing on a stage.
In episode 9 Ernie's daughter Elizabeth
(then 16 years old) appears on the show with her friend, Debby
Dawson, as the Betty Kovacs and Debbie Dawson Duo. Betty sings lead
vocals and Debbie Dawson performs harmony vocals and guitar, singing
"What have they done to the Rain". The duo even had a 45
rpm single on the Sonata label.
Adams played supporting roles in several
films in the 1960s, including the embittered secretary of two-timing
Fred MacMurray in the Oscar-winning film The Apartment (1960). She
co-starred with Rock Hudson and Doris Day in Lover Come Back (1961).
She was the wife of a presidential candidate (played by Cliff
Robertson) in The Best Man (1964) and was reunited with Robertson for
the comedy The Honey Pot (1967). In 1963 she played Sid Caesar's
wife, Monica Crump in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Ernie was
originally cast to play the character of Melville Crump but he died
before principal shooting began. In 1963 she made Love With the
Proper Stranger with Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood and Call Me Bwana
with Bob Hope. She also co-starred with family friend Jack Lemmon in
Under the Yum Yum Tree (1963, below left). In order to help Adams
with the debts left after Ernie died Lemmon not only insisted upon
hiring her for this film, but further insisted that her part be
expanded considerably from the original stage play to give her more
work. In 1966 she starred with Ann-Margret in Made in Paris (below
right) and the The Oscar. She also played Tommy Chong's mother, Mrs.
Tempest Stoner, in the first Cheech and Chong movie, "Up in
Smoke," in 1978.
Adams started her own businesses, Edie
Adams Cosmetics, which sold door-to-door, and Edie Adams Cut 'n' Curl
beauty salons, which she began in 1967. She once owned a 160-acre
California almond farm and was the spokeswoman for Sun Giant nuts.
Because of her 20 years of commercials for Muriel cigars (retiring in
1976) and her successful business ventures, Adams went from being
mired in debt after Kovacs's fatal accident in 1962 to being a
millionaire in 1989.
campaigned for Dwight Eisenhower's re-election during the 1956
presidential election. She was also an early advocate of civil
rights, frequently lending her support to the movement at celebrity
events and on her own television show during the early sixties. She
insisted that her duet with Sammy Davis Jr. on her variety show
"Here's Edie" be staged so that they were seated next to
each other - as equals. It was common at the time for entertainers of
different races and sexes to perform so that one had to be in front
of or behind the other.
After Kovacs's death, Adams was married
two more times. In 1964, she married photographer Martin Mills. In
1972, she married trumpeter Pete Candoli, with whom she appeared in a
touring production of the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes. Adams's
son with Mills is Josh Mills. Josh is an award winning
Producer/Director and has also worked as an actor and writer. He now
runs the estate of Edie Adams and Ernie Kovacs and continues the work
began by his mother to keep the preserve the legacy of Kovacs' body
Adams died in Los Angeles, California, on
October 15th, 2008, at age 81, from cancer and pneumonia. She was
interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills alongside her
first husband Ernie, between her daughter, Mia, and her stepdaughter, Kippie.
CLUB SLIDESHOW DEPARTMENT
Most of Kovacs's early television work was
performed live: few kinescopes have survived. Some videotapes of his
ABC specials were preserved; others, such as his quirky game show,
Take a Good Look, were available mostly in short segments until
recently, with the release of some complete, videotaped episodes.
After Kovacs's death, Adams discovered not only that her husband owed
ABC a great deal of money, but that some networks were systematically
erasing and reusing tapes of Kovacs's shows or disposing of the
kinescopes and videotapes in New York Bay. She succeeded in
purchasing the rights to surviving footage with the proceeds from
Kovacs's insurance policy and her own earnings after Kovacs's IRS
debts were paid. In March 1996, Adams detailed her experiences before
the National Film Preservation Board.
If it wasn't for Adams, Kovacs' legacy
would be completely forgotten according to Adams son, Josh Mills
(above left), "Its a very personal thing for me because
even though Ernie wasnt my dad, my mom for the last 50 plus
years paid for storage and restoration and all the other things to
make sure that Ernies legacy didn't go away like so many other
old comics who unfortunately had their masters dumped."
Mills continues, "Im actually
talking to a lot of people who are into film and television
preservation, and theyre kind of talking about my mom as the
patron saint of film preservation. Shortly after Ernie died, she got
a call from one of his technical people that he used to work with who
said that the networks were just basically taking the shows and
taking the masters and using them for PSAs, or weather reports, or
the news, or something like that. They didnt want to pay the
bills to actually store old tapes&ldots; So, she went to her lawyer
and essentially said 'Go to all the networks, everyone that he was
on&ldots; just buy it&ldots; anything that says Kovacs Ill buy
it.' People would ask her why did she did it, and she would say
because, 'I just knew Ernie was doing something special, and I just
didnt want to see it go away forever.'"
Kovacs' archivist, Ben Model said that
there was no one to preserve the iconic comedian's work so it was
quickly forgotten. The idea didnt exist that somebody should be
saving this. According to Model, Adams was thinking "20, 40
years ahead of her time" when she realized the value of
preserving Kovacs' work. Adams even testified before the Library of
Congress during the mid-90s about the importance of saving television.
Adams first used some of the videotapes
she had purchased for a 1968 ABC television special, The Comedy of
Ernie Kovacs; to produce the show, she hired Kovacs's former producer
and editor. The hour-long program was sponsored by Kovacs's former
sponsor, Dutch Masters.
Most of Kovacs's salvaged work is
available to researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles
Library's Department of Special Collections: additional material is
available at the Paley Center for Media.
The 1984 television movie Ernie Kovacs:
Between the Laughter helped return Kovacs to the public's attention,
though the show emphasized his bid to retrieve his kidnapped children
instead of his professional life. Jeff Goldblum portrayed Kovacs,
Madolyn Smith portrayed Bette and Melody Anderson portrayed Adams in
the movie. Edie Adams appeared in a cameo in this movie, playing Mae
West; it was one of the impressions she performed in shows with
Kovacs. Telecasts of edited compilations of some of his work by PBS
(station WTTW, Chicago) under the title The Best of Ernie Kovacs in
1977, inspired the movie. These broadcasts were made available on VHS
and DVD. The DVD set features extras that are not in the VHS set. The
series was narrated by Jack Lemmon.
During the early 1990s, The Comedy Channel
broadcast a series of Kovacs's shows under the generic title of The
Ernie Kovacs Show. The series included both the ABC specials and some
of his 1950s shows from NBC.
In 2011, Shout! Factory released The Ernie
Kovacs Collection, six DVDs spanning Kovacs's television career. The
company's website also offers an extra disc with material from
Tonight! and The Ernie Kovacs Show, as well as a rare color kinescope
of the complete 30-minute, 1957 NBC color broadcast featuring
"Eugene". On October 23rd, 2012, Shout! Factory released
The Ernie Kovacs Collection: Volume 2 on DVD.
In 1961, Kovacs recorded a record album of
poetry in the character of Percy Dovetonsils named Percy Dovetonsils
Thpeath, but was unable to release it due to contractual obligations
with other record companies. After he was given the masters, Kovacs
donated them to a Los Angeles area hospital. Adams was able to
re-acquire the tapes in 1967, and they remained part of her private
collection until her death in 2008. The tapes were labeled as movie
material and were thought to be such until further examination proved
they were Kovacs as Percy reading his poems with no music background.
The album was finally released in 2012.