The unflappable, manic Ernie Kovacs.

One of his many TV comedy shows.

For more on Ernie Kovacs, see some of these tribute Web pages:

The Ernie Kovacs page
The unofficial official Ernie Kovacs Web site

"Nothing in moderation."

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1950: Mad genius of comedy
By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian
   Cigar dangling from his mouth, black mustache bristling with every expressive twitch of his face, Ernie Kovacs looked into the television camera and dared you not to laugh.

    He'd hang a cardboard "control panel" over his chest and turn the horizontal hold. His lips would contort, his cheeks would squish and he'd croak, "No, too far!"

    He'd sit on a tree limb and casually saw it away. Then the tree itself would topple, while both branch and Kovacs remained suspended in mid-air.

    He'd open the novel "Camille." From inside the covers, a lady's consumptive cough would sound.

    The Kovacs style was a gag-oriented, camera-conscious brand of humor. Nothing like it had ever been attempted when Ernie Kovacs first began making TV audiences howl in 1950. And for a dozen, freewheeling years, Kovacs did it so well that some critics believe he'll never be topped.

    Kovacs was a Trenton kid before he was a celebrity.

    It was here, in Trenton, that he cut up as class clown at Trenton High School; here that he developed his taste for Havanas and his lust for poker, here that he wrote a humor column for The Trentonian, every bit as zany as his on-the-tube antics.

    Ernest Edward Kovacs was born Jan. 23, 1919, the son of Hungarian immigrants who lived at 105 Union St. Later they moved to 1104 Parkway Ave., Ewing. (The Union Street house has since been demolished to make way for the approach to the Delaware River toll bridge.)

    Kovacs' father was a saloonkeeper who earned a healthy income from bootlegging in the '20s; his loving mom spoiled him. He was big, uncontrollable and fond of rich foods. He spoke Hungarian as well as English and, as an adult, could often be heard cursing in his parents' language.

    At Trenton Central High School in 1936, Kovacs introduced himself to classmate Eddie Hatrak by shocking him with a joy buzzer. "He loved practical jokes," Hatrak said. "But you couldn't stay mad at him. He was just too fun."

    A bout of tuberculosis kept Kovacs out of the service during World War II. But he did act in summer stock in Long Island, N.Y. And in 1942, his high school buddy Hatrak persuaded him to audition as a disc jockey at radio's WTTM and enter show business at the ground level.

    "He took a news story off the teletype and started reading it word for word, but he added so many jokes and made so much fun of it that we were rolling on the floor," said Hatrak, who was WTTM's musical director and who still lives in the Trenton area. "He was hired on the spot."

    Kovacs was not simply a deejay, but a news announcer, interviewer and all-around busybody.

    In an era where deejays were supposed to be proper, not colorful, Kovacs went wild on the air adding commentary to the news and playing records backwards. His practical jokes, meanwhile, grew more elaborate.

    "One producer complained about Ernie practicing his golf swing in the studio," said Billie Durand, a friend who worked with Kovacs at WTTM. "So he cut a golfball in half with a hacksaw and glued part of it to the big glass window separating the studio from the engineer. Then he drew lines on the glass to look like cracks. The producer couldn't believe it."

    To his radio career, Kovacs added writing. From 1945 to 1950, he had his own column in The Trentonian. It was called simply "Kovacs," and in it he chronicled the entertainment industry, local goings-on and anything that popped into his mind. It was scattershot, slapdash and thoroughly Kovacsian.

    A Kovacs column might expound on the latest lunch special at DeLorenzo's, the lousy condition of city cabs or the silliness of ads in Life magazine. A favorite stunt was to give away the story line of comic strips on the page opposite his.

    Comic anarchy reigned, and the following excerpts from "Kovacs" give only a hint at what it was like:

   A certain W. State St. florist must use lousy glue on his roses. I bought one t'other night and by the time I got it home, the petals had to be gathered with a butterfly net ...

    Why ain't there a law making it mandatory to use simply "Ladies" and "Gentlemen" instead of the cute type of thing, to wit: "Bucks," "Squaws," "Roosters," "Hens?"

    The albino fish in the middle aquarium in Hunter's looks blind and yet we've never seen him pass up a peek at the cute guppie in the tank ...

    In 1946, he began taking notice of a new arrival on the entertainment scene, and it was called television.

    At first, TV was only for people who could afford to spend a month's salary on a bulky box with a 10-inch screen. It was, Kovacs wrote, for "you rich-rich people."

    Sometime after that, he must have changed his mind. He bought his own set around 1948 and grew fascinated with the possibilities of live broadcasting, the intimacy of the small image. From his home now a bungalow on 61 Vincent Ave., Hamilton Kovacs told Billie Durand, "This is where the future is. I've got to get into it."

    Kovacs broke into it easily enough. He made a record of himself broadcasting a pro wrestling match from the Armory and sent it to WPTZ-TV of Philadelphia, the old NBC affiliate that aired on Channel 3. He was hired.

    March 20, 1950, was the day Ernie Kovacs debuted on local TV. He was chosen to host of all things a cooking show.

    "Deadline for Dinner" was its name, and it could have been dreadfully dull just local chefs showing how to make their best recipes. Kovacs spiced things up by bantering with the chefs, and sometimes with the stuffed turkeys.

    He got his own show, "3 to Get Ready," in 1951. It aired from 7:30 to 9 a.m. weekdays at a time when most programmers believed morning TV was unwatchable because people were too busy to tune in. The local success of "3 to Get Ready" proved them wrong.

    Kovacs' mind whirred with comic ideas as he tried out on TV some of the same stunts he tried on radio.

    He played records and sketched out drawings to illustrate the music. He parodied westerns, detective dramas, commercials. He gave his characters outlandish names Matzoh Hepplewhite the magician, Percy Dovetonsils the poet.

    Edie Adams, a classically trained singer, joined the show that summer. "This was the era of live broadcasting, and we were always short on people, on props, on everything.

    "We'd steal sets from the soap in the next studio. We'd bring people in who just walked by and ask them to appear on the show.

    "Everyone had to be good at more than one thing. I could sew, so if they needed three prison outfits for a sketch, I'd have them in prison outfits."

    Kovacs had a wife back in Hamilton, the former Bette Wilcox, and two daughters, but the marriage was growing strained. It broke up in 1952 with a bitter custody fight.

    But when Kovacs met Adams, a new romance was kindled. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound TV star had burly good looks but a romantic, teddy bear-like way with her, Adams now recalls.

    "He had that black hair and thick mustache and those cigars he looked like a B-movie villain," said Adams, who married Kovacs in 1954. "I never had one of those before, and I wanted him!"

    During the '50s, Kovacs' TV career progressed in fits and starts. TV executives didn't catch on to his offbeat humor and fretted about ratings. His first nationally telecast show, "The Ernie Kovacs Show," was canceled by ABC after a few months in 1953. Another show for the DuMont Network lasted a year, from 1954-55.

    Yet Kovacs was being recognized by critics and fans alike as one of TV's greatest innovators.

    His humor, always giddy, became increasingly surreal. He played around with TV technology and used the camera itself as a comic tool turning fades, wipes and split screens into visual puns. A pair of legs might walk onto the stage without torsos attached. Or a hole might appear in a cast member's head, with Kovacs intently staring through it.

    In the words of Diana Rico, who wrote a biography "Kovacsland" in 1990, the comedian broke down the "fourth wall" of TV the barrier that keeps viewers from knowing what goes on behind the scenes.

    Kovacs would walk into the control room, chat with a cameraman, even display the home phone number of a missing cast member and urge viewers at home to call in.

    Kovacs began working from New York in 1952 and invited Hatrak up to serve as musical director and play roles.

    "He didn't like deadlines, he couldn't come up with a script and he didn't rehearse," Hatrak said. "And yet somehow it all worked. It wasn't polished, always, but it worked."

    Once Kovacs ordered Hatrak to suit up in a gorilla costume and sit at a piano keyboard. Adams was put in another mokey suit and Kovacs himself dressed up likewise. "That was the Nairobi Trio," Hatrak said.

    In 1957, Kovacs moved to Hollywood, where he appeared in movies such as "Our Man in Havana" and "Bell, Book and Candle." He appeared on a series of specials on ABC, wrote a novel, "Zoomar," and contributed articles to Mad magazine.

    His house on a Beverly Hills mountainside was done up in the Kovacs way outlandish and free-spending. The driveway featured a giant turntable so you didn't have to turn the car around yourself. The wine cellar didn't have the proper aged look, so Kovacs got a studio to supply it with fake cobwebs.

    On Jan. 13, 1962 10 days before his 43rd birthday Kovacs drove home from a baby shower being given for Milton Berle's wife.

    He had been drinking and he was speeding as he took his Corvair station wagon down a rain-slicked highway. It spun off wildly and wrapped around a telephone pole. Kovacs died, almost instantly, of a skull fracture.

    The coroners who arrived at the scene found a cigar that had fallen out of his left hand. "What I think happened was, he was trying to light that cigar with one hand when he lost control," Adams said. "And I can't help but think, if I had been riding with him, it would never have happened."

    TV comedy today bears the Kovacs imprint, even if it is only indirectly acknowledged. David Letterman's stunts using the camera, Jay Leno's interviews on the street, Monty Python's surreal situational humor it had all been done before.

    For Edie Adams, Kovacs left behind a more personal legacy.

    "He taught me you could live the hedonistic life," she said. "You might pay for it, but it was one fun ride." Or, as Kovacs liked to put it in the phrase that now marks his gravestone: "Nothing in Moderation."