Philly Fifties: TV

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"A one-man comedy network": Kovacs

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For once, we benighted Philadelphians were the first people to latch on to something hip. We were in the vanguard of TV comedy. And we got it! The Kovacs morning show, "Three to Get Ready," not only spurred kids, his most devoted acolytes, to school with a smile, it woke us up to what the strange box in the living room could do, could allow. We joined his fan club, the Early Eyeball Fraternal & Marching Society, or E.E.F.M.S. We hummed his ricky-tick theme song, "Oriental Blues." (I have it on an old 45: what's that worth today?) We took his catchphrase — "It's been real" — to the schoolyards. Before a commercial break on his morning show, a thug type would burst onto the set and shout, "Hold it! Don' nobody move," and then, after the break, "Re-sume!"; we would mimic that when leaving the dinner table.

For a blissful while in 1951, he was on WPTZ nearly 13 hours a week: two hours a day for the morning show, plus TWO cuisine programs, "Deadline for Dinner" and "Now You're Cooking," plus a 15-min. daily network show, "Time for Ernie." Before school or work, Ernie was there; you came home mid-afternoon, Ernie was there. It made WPTZ a virtual one-man comedy channel. Who knows whether it was all great? But it was all distinctly Ernie. And most of it was ad lib. As the Broadcast Pioneers website notes: "Ernie would talk to the camera people and boom operator. He would wander into the control room and starting pushing buttons. He had been known to pull out a deck of cards and start playing gin with the director." His two mascots were a papier-mâchè dog that looked like RCA Victor's Nipper (during remote segments he might park it next to a fire hydrant) and a lifesize rag doll, nicknamed Gertrude, that a viewer had sent in when Kovacs mentioned that the total prop budget was $15 a week.

David G. Walley's book "The Ernie Kovacs Phile" enumerates some of the absurdist camera tricks Kovacs devised with the help of a WPTZ engineer, Karl Weger. Some were simple: place a pane of clear glass in front of the camera, then paint the glass till the TV screen is black. Use the same pane as a shield, allowing Ernie to toss eggs or custard pies at the home viewer. Take an elaborate old Buster Keaton gag — in which by multiple exposures Keaton can play an orchestra conductor and his six pit musicians in the same frame — and have Ernie as all nine members of a baseball team, and the umpire, fans and hot-dog vendor. A Campbell's Soup can with the ends removed and small mirrors placed inside it produced the effect of an upside-down set; that's how Ernie was able to offer housewives hints on vacuuming the ceiling.

The morning show saw the birth of many of Kovacs' acts of creative monkeying- around. Literally: he put himself and some of his crew in gorilla suits and Edwardian jackets, played the instrumental tune "Solfeggio," and had one ape whack another at musically precise intervals — ladies and gentlemen, the Nairobi Trio! Some of us were actually watching when Ernie's idea man Andy McKay tossed him a pair of goggle-eyed gag glasses and Ernie, on the spot, picked up a book and began declaiming verse in a silky lisp — your Philly poet laureate, Percy Dovetonsils!

Looking back, we could say that Kovacs was deconstructing TV's rigid format before it had been constructed. "Three to Get Ready" might seem a parody, or insolent disregarding, of the morning-show precepts of seriousness and camaraderie — except there was no national morning show. When NBC developed the "Today" format, it pressured WPTZ to ax Kovacs, and he ended his tenure there on March 28, 1952.

The station's decision to air the national show helped establish a franchise that extends to this day, on virtually every network and large independent station, but it was a crusher to Ernie's Philly fans. To us, he was the morning- show tradition; why mess with a great thing? And the blithe, iconoclastic comedy, which we naively believed to be our television birthright, disappeared. It would not surface again for ages, not in the morning, not anywhere. Not only did "Three to Get Ready" vanish, but no record of it, on kinescope or even audiotape, is known to exist. Which makes the nine months of the Kovacs blitz more precious and poignant to those of us who experienced it.

The debut of the "Today" show linked Philadelphians with the rest of the country. Like TV watchers everywhere, we now got one morning view of the world: the network's. The host, Dave Garroway, set the standard for folksy authority; the only irony a Philadelphian could savor was when the low ratings of "Today" were jacked up, in its second year, by the regular appearance of a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs. We could've told NBC: you can't do a morning show without a monkey.

But that was small succor. For in a few years, Philadelphia was just about extinct as a regional producer of network entertainment. It was as if Ernie's gangster had called out, "Hold it! Don' nobody move," and never said, "Re-sume." Now the residents of the biggest small town in the country could ease back into our normal sulking posture and sing, "Nothin' ever happens here in Philly."

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