Television: A Medium Because Its Neither Rare, or Well Done
In July 1951, the opening words "Ernie In Kovacsland! A short program - It just seems long," introduced a summer replacement show for the popular "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" on Philadelphia's NBC affiliate, WPTZ. This was one of several early television shows that starred the legendary Ernie Kovacs during his most creative years. Kovacs was a true media artist and the TV screen was his chosen canvas. The summary title above is an actual quote attributed to this prodigious entertainer.
In any other age of TV, Ernie Kovacs would probably have gotten fewer ratings than the test pattern, but in the dawn of the medium, he was one of its biggest stars and unquestionably its biggest innovator. He inspired comedy shows like "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In," as well as talk-show hosts Johnny Carson and David Letterman. He was revered by the creators of MAD Magazine, who took Ernie's zany, way-out style to a long run in the publishing world.
Uncompromising and single-minded, he despised dictum from station management and sponsors. The common routine for "Ernie In Kovacsland" is that the show would start and before it was over, a producer would field WPTZ station manager Myrtle Tower's daily call to tell him "You can't do that!" Kovacs even used the show to start his own secret fraternity called the "Early Eyeball Fraternal and Marching Society, for which he sent out memberships to interested Kovacsland viewers. On the back of said cards listed silly rules and bylaws, including "I have an aunt named Albert."
One program, Ernie announced to viewers that the show's entire budget for props was $15 and jokingly asked them to donate any extra brooms, or furniture. His impromptu pronouncement saw the public respond with an avalanche of donated items, some of which became regulars on the show. One was an six-foot doll he named "Gertrude" who wore a dark blouse with a question mark and a matching white skirt. Another of the donated props was a papier mache dog that resembled RCA Victor's "Nipper."
Once, a homeless man wandered onto the set looking for a warm place to sleep. Ernie allowed him to curl up on the floor and made him a snoozing cast member for that day's sketches, calling him "Sleeping Schwartz." Kovacs' co-star Edie Adams, who would go on to become a star in her own right as well as his second wife, was a wonderful creative source for the show and became Ernie's voice of reason when his on-air antics threatened to get out of control.
On January 13, 1962 Kovacs died during a rare California rainstorm when his Chev Corvair skidded into a power pole after a Los Angeles party. By this time, it became public that the networks were beginning to erase Kovacs historic programs to save money. Much of this man's brilliance has been lost forever, but some video and kinescope does exist. I highly recommend anything you can find, as Kovacs was truly a legend and a man ahead of his time.
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