Going to Extremes With Trenton Products Ernie Kovacs and George Antheil
By Stuart Mitchner
“Nothing in moderation!”
— Ernie Kovacs (1919-1962)
“All or Nothing!”
— George Antheil (1900-1959)
For the past week I’ve been revisiting the work of two Trenton-born revolutionaries who were inspired by the industrial mystique of the city that has proclaimed for some 80 years, in big letters on a bridge across the Delaware, TRENTON MAKES THE WORLD TAKES.
Pianist-composer George Antheil, “the bad boy of music,” created a sensation in the Lost Generation Paris of the twenties with his Ballet Mécanique, which caught the attention of better known composers like Aaron Copland, who said “George had Paris by the ear,” and Virgil Thompson, who envied him “the bravado of his music and its brutal charm.”
The cigar-smoking comic iconoclast Ernie Kovacs took television apart and put it back together again in the fifties. “Without Kovacs,” one critic noted in 2011, “there would have been no Saturday Night Live, no SCTV, no David Letterman or Conan O’Brien.” Laugh-In and Monty Python, among numerous others, could be added to that list.
Born 100 years ago today, Ernie Kovacs broke into radio at 22 as a DJ on WTTM in Trenton. When he was scolded by a producer for practicing his golf swing in the studio, Kovacs responded by hacksawing a golfball in half, gluing part of it to the big window separating the studio from the engineer, and drawing lines on the glass to look like cracks, a preview of all the surreal sight-gags to come when he plunged headlong into the virgin medium of television a decade later.
When 6-year-old George Antheil (pronounced AN-tile) found a toy piano under the Christmas tree after telling his parents that he wanted a real piano more than anything in the world, he took the toy to the basement and chopped it up with a hatchet. Recalling the incident in a radio interview a year before his death in 1959, he said, “I like to feel that this has been a symbol of my life.”
“I love the ground upon which I was born, New Jersey, with a love that is difficult to explain, or understand,” Antheil said in response to a questionnaire sent in fall 1928 by the Paris-based literary journal transition. He was born near the riverfront between the Farmer’s Market and the State Prison and is buried in nearby Riverview Cemetery. His father owned “Antheil’s Friendly Shoe Store” at 135 N. Broad Street, where George worked as a teenager, spending his spare time singing and drumming on shoe boxes in the storage room. He flunked out of Trenton Central High School in 1918 in the middle of his senior year. Although he was editor of the school literary magazine, he was also a notorious prankster.
Likewise born near the Trenton riverfront, in a house eventually demolished to make way for the approach to the Delaware River toll bridge, Kovacs had “a rollercoaster childhood,” according to Diana Rico’s 1991 biography Kovacsland. His father owned a bar and made some serious money in the late 1920s as a bootlegger. An article in the Trentonian reports that the “mad genius of comedy” spoke Hungarian as well as English and, as an adult, could often be heard cursing in that language. Like Antheil, Kovacs attended Trenton Central, where he was the “class clown,” with a fondness for pranks and practical jokes.
The Shooting Piano Player
In his autobiography, Bad Boy of Music (1945), Antheil recalls the pitfalls he faced at 22 as a concert pianist performing in Europe. Explaining how he handled “various riotous concerts,” he writes, “The reason is simple. I was armed.” Inside the silken holster a Berlin tailor had sewn into his jacket, he kept a small thirty-two automatic. Returning to the Philharmonie in Budapest after a previous performance during which the audience had rioted, he set the terms as soon as he stepped out on the concert platform. After telling the attendants to “please close and lock the doors,” he reached under his left armpit “gangster-style,” produced his “ugly little automatic,” placed it on the Steinway, and proceeded with a recital from which there was literally no escape.
There’s a cameo of Antheil in former Princeton resident Sylvia Beach’s 1959 memoir, Shakespeare and Company (“The fact that he was also from New Jersey was a bond between us” ). She remembers him being “stocky in build” with “tow-colored bangs, a smashed nose, interesting but wicked-looking eyes, a big mouth and a big grin. He looked like an American high-school boy.” As for his playing: “The piano is a percussion instrument, and that was the impression you got when George played on it, or, rather, punched it.”
Punching was the order of the day during the 1925 performance of Ballet Mécanique at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. “The music was drowned out by yells from all over the house,” according to Beach’s first hand account. “You saw people punching each other in the face.” The uproar “suddenly subsided when the plane propellors called for in the score began whirring,” raising an icy breeze that blew off wigs, had men turning up their collars, and women drawing their wraps around them. Antheil enjoyed the chaos. “From a Dada point of view, one couldn’t have anything better.”
The Kovacs Dynamic
It’s easy to imagine Ernie Kovacs creating the television equivalent of such pandemonium. He’d have done wonders with the image of a wig being, in Beach’s words, “whisked all the way to the back of the house.” He’d have also enjoyed the idea of a concert pianist with a pistol on the Steinway. Explosions and gunfire and other such pyrotechnics were key to his repertoire. One routine has him drawing the shape of a cannon in a blank frame facing a vase of flowers, adding a fuse, and walking away as the cannon blows the vase to bits.
Kovacs’s most acclaimed work was a television program Antheil most likely saw, given the stir the sound-effect sight-gag masterpiece created when it was aired on NBC in 1957. Besides being the only American TV show screened at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, it brought Kovacs numerous awards, the cover of Life, and a movie contract.
Formally titled The Silent Show (silent only in that nobody says anything), the program was popularly known as Eugene by the time it was reprised on ABC in 1961. Attired in a straw boater, bow tie, too-tight jacket, too-short trousers, and white shoes that make crunchy, sloshing noises, Kovacs as Eugene is a mute, bumbling, bemused character wandering, lunch pail in hand, through a 20-minute epic of bizarre effects. When a repairman flicks an invisible switch, a chase scene from a western movie gallops out of his tool box; an invisible dog (all you see is the collar) slurps water from a dish, pulls its chain out of the wall, and trots invisibly off. As Eugene passes by a series of Greek statues, the fig-leafed nude sneezes, the kissing couple pants passionately, the thinker mumbles, and the living statue of a beautiful girl playing a lyre reaches out to touch him, the only romantic moment in the sequence, seductive music playing as he turns, smiling, expectant, and plants a kiss on what has become a real statue, which collapses noisily into pieces. A variation on the same effect occurs when Eugene stops to look at a massive painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, starts to walk away, hears gurgling water-cooler noises, and turns around to see the painted boat sinking.
So far it’s all been visually amusing without being hilarious (I’ve only given a small sample), but each violation of reality builds on the next, creating a comic momentum that leads to outright laughter when a seated man reading a newspaper becomes the quietly annoyed witness to the travesties of time and space that result after Eugene opens his lunch pail.
Relatively poor and unknown in 1952, Kovacs was rich and famous in January 1962 when he lost control of his car on a curving, rain-slicked stretch of Sunset Boulevard and crashed into a telephone pole. He’d been drinking and was driving fast. “Nothing in moderation” proved to be not only his motto but the epitaph on his grave at Forest Lawn Memorial. “He taught me you could live the hedonistic life,” said his wife and partner in comedy Edie Adams. “You might pay for it, but it was one fun ride.”
On George Antheil’s grave at Riverview Cemetery in Trenton the only word below his name is “Composer.” The last 25 years of his life — the scores he composed for major Hollywood films, his collaboration on a wartime project with movie star Hedy Lamarr — would fill another column. One of his last projects was composing a theme for CBS Television’s documentary film series, The Twentieth Century (1957-1966), narrated by Walter Cronkite.
In a broadcast on New York’s WOR aired soon after Antheil’s death in February 1959, the legendary radio storyteller Jean Shepherd recounts meeting him by chance in a midtown cafeteria. With Ballet Mécanique playing in the background, music Shepherd often used to accompany his nocturnal musings, he tells listeners how “back in the early 1920s Antheil was an enfant terrible, one of the people who made the whole world know about America — George Antheil, from Trenton!”
If you are looking for a conservative counter-weight to Antheil and Kovacs, two other products Trenton gave to the world are Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.
To celebrate Ernie Kovacs’s centennial year, Turner Classic Movies will be showing three of his television shows and four of his best films tonight, Wednesday January 23, beginning at 8 p.m. The Ernie Kovacs Collection, which includes six DVDs, is “a mandatory purchase for anyone who loves television and wants to experience some of its richest comedy roots,” according to NPR’s David Bianculli.
Some of the information about Kovacs in Trenton comes from a piece by Jon Blackwell posted on www.capitalcentury.com.
A PBS documentary about George Antheil and Ballet Mécanique that won a number of festival awards is available for streaming or purchase on Amazon video: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B078PQPPFM/