Back in college, my roommate Jim Backstrom and I were big fans of Ernie Kovacs, the wildly creative pioneer of TV comedy both artistically and with technical innovations, seen as the direct inspiration for Laugh-In and a great deal more, perhaps even Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman. Jim and I hadn't seen much of his work, since it came pretty early in TV history and not much was available elsewhere. But what we'd seen and read about enthralled us.
It was at that point that we read of a new documentary called Kovacs!, which was a compilation of some of his best work. All we wanted to do was see it, but couldn't figure out how. So, we did the next best thing: we decided to try to get the rights to show it on campus ourselves. Articles on the film talked about who the producer was, so we tracked him down. It had only played once, I believe at a festival, so even though we were a couple of college nobodies calling from their dorm room he was very interested to get attention for the film, most-especially since it would be in the Chicago area and at a school as well-regarded for media as was Northwestern, so he happily gave us rights to show it on campus for free.
Surprisingly, that was the easy part. The two remaining issues were getting the dorm to back us, and then for the college to allow us to do it.
The dorm was a piece of cake. We explained that because we'd charge for the tickets at a screening in the big Tech Auditorium (where all campus Friday Night Movies were held), it would raise money for the dorm. They approved this, no skin off their teeth, and gave us permission to be in charge.
The school was another matter, far more difficult. The NU official responsible for such things, Vice President of Student Affairs, or something like that, had a reputation of being so crusty he only would talk to people with titles. We figured it was a bit of an exaggeration, but turned out bizarrely to be true. When we tried to set up a meeting, he wouldn't even talk with us since, no, we didn't actually have a title, like "Dorm President." So, we had to convince the Dorm President to come with us to a meeting with the official, even though he didn't know anything. It ended up being be like a vaudeville sketch. Seated in his office, the school VP would look across his desk and ask a question, let's say,, "When do you want to hold this?" -- and either Jim or I would say, "Two screenings on Sunday night, April 4." And the guy would literally just sit there, not reacting. That is, until the Dorm President realized that he had to answer. And so, he'd say, "Two screenings on Sunday night, April 4." It went on bizarrely like that for about 5 minutes, with us screwing up by responding to his questions and him waiting silently for the Dorm President to give our reply. Eventually we perfected the technique and learned not to answer first, but instead for the next 15 minutes we'd turn to the Dorm President, give him the answer -- and then he'd repeat it to the VP, who had just heard us seconds earlier.
Finally, after this Abbott and Costelllo sketch ran its limit, we did get the school's permission, but then we had to set up the schedule and hire the projectionist through the student in charge of Friday Night Movies.
(I want to add a slight, though meaningful digression for a moment and say that I had long-felt at the time that the Friday Night Movies, which were losing money, was a poorly-run program with a mediocre selection. Though they didn't charge much, it was a fair price for the day, $2 for students and more for the general public. Keep in mind , after all, that these weren't first-run movies, and the program's costs were minimal. Also, movie tickets in general were a whole lot less than they are now.)
Anyway, when we explained the movie we'd be showing, this guy was ridiculing us for our ineptitude -- a documentary? And it's just old TV clips -- by who?? How in the world are you even going to get the right to show that?? Oh, you do? Does he actually know you're a couple of students. And finally, out of exasperation and no other derision left in his empty tank, "Well, it's your money..." But we didn't care. After all, we not only thought his money-losing track record was inept, and that we'd at least break even since our costs were truly minimal (remember, we were getting the movie for free, so it was just the cost of the projectionist and some ads in the Daily Northwestern paper), but mainly...we didn't care because -- we just wanted to see the movie.
And so the reels for the movie were sent to us, and one of my favorite memories of the experience is that -- even before the official screening -- we were SO anxious to see the film that we got a movie projector and showed the documentary in the dorm room of the Resident Assistant. Maybe one other friend who knew about Ernie Kovacs joined us, as well but that was it.
We were also helped in this project by the fact, as I mentioned, that the producer wanted attention to this showing on campus, so he provided a lot of artwork for the ads, which made our efforts look Really Professional. Not the result of two shlubs. (Though Jim was no shlub -- he went on to head up the Anti-Trust Division of the U.S. Justice Department in Dallas. But while very smart, art wasn't his strength. But better than me, which explains how lucky we were to get the artwork) I think the producer may have also taken out some ads. We listed our dorm room phone number in The Reader classifieds for inquiries. And another of my favorite memories came as a result of that --
We got a bunch of calls -- yes, we explained, it was also open to the general public, yes, there will be two screenings -- and one woman in particular asked how much the tickets were. Now, again, we didn't care that much about a profit, but also because Ernie Kovacs wasn't a Big Name Star we didn't want to scare anyone off by the price, and we also thought that more bodies willing to take a chance at a cheaper price would be better than a two-thirds empty cavernous auditorium. Especially for a comedy. So, we priced tickets for everybody, students and public alike, at only 50-cents. And that's what we told her -- and she burst out laughing. The call ended, and then a minute later the phone rang again -- it was the same woman calling back, just making sure that she heard correctly what we'd told her. It's really 50-cents??? Yes.
Anyway, come the big night, uncertain if this was just a big folly (though happy that we got to see the film), we packed the 800-seat auditorium for both screenings, and got the last laugh on the head of Friday Night Movies by not only making a profit, whereas they had a loss, but after all our expenses (which while comparatively small were not insignificant) we made a profit of $500 -- on tickets being sold for only 50-cents. The dorm was thrilled, too, for their new, huge budget.
It was a fine experience. But mainly because I got to see the film, which was the only reason we did all that.
There's a sort of post script to this. Maybe 15-20 years later I saw that the same Kovacs! documentary was going to be screening at a very good revival movie theater near me in West Los Angeles. So, anxious to see it again, I got a ticket. And the print was dreadful, almost unwatchable (at least to me).. After about 10 minutes I'd had enough and left the theater, and asked for the manager, saying that I was leaving and wanted my money back because the print was so terrible. He tried to talk his way out of the refund by saying, "Well, these are clips of an old TV show, that's why the image is so bad." He used that gambit on the wrong guy, though. As politely as I could, I told him a very short version of the story above. I've run a screening of the movie, saw it three times when it first was released, and the video quality of the film is impeccable. This is just a really bad print. I got my money back -- though I would have preferred to see the movie, it's wonderful.
I did get to see it years later, when it aired on TV. If you get a chance to see it, by all means, take it.
Which brings us to the additional point of this all.
This year is the 100th anniversary of Ernie Kovacs' birth, and there are a bunch of centennial events and DVDs and such. Over on his website, Mark Evanier talks briefly about it, and then embeds a recent Stu Shostak Show with guest Thomas Mills, the son of actress Edie Adams, who had been Kovacs wife and later the protective keeper of his material after his untimely death in a car crash. At the age of 92, she's handed over to Mills the Ernie Kovacs Archives, and hours of never-before-seen material has -- for the temporary time being -- been made available to stream online.
Though the video Mark has embedded on his site lasts four hours, know that all of it is not clips of Kovacs. In fact, nearly the first 90 minutes is an interview. If four hours is too long for you, the video segment of first clips starts a bit past the 1:22 mark and runs for about 12 minutes -- really early material, from the early 1950s when Kovacs had a very low-budget, local daytime show. After more conversation, the next 12-minute segment begins at 1:40 and comes from a summer replacement series he was given a few years later. And then, following some additional conversation starting around 2:00 is a segment from when Kovacs briefly hosted the Tonight show two evenings a week. (The centerpiece here is a big satire of Alan Funt's show Candid Camera, for which the "mark" is played by...Alan Funt. Anyway, you get the point. That's how it goes from then on: about 12-minute segments of video followed by a few minutes of talk, taking us up to his later TV years in color.
You can watch it -- here.
And just to give you a brief, here is Kovacs' Kitchen Symphony. Keep in mind that clever as this is, it was done in the mid-1950s before TV had much technical innovation and little use of videotape,, with which he was always experimenting.
And one other bonus. Ernie Kovacs' trademark was his cigar. And his commercials for Dutch Masters, his cigar of choice, were so fun and integrated into the show itself, that they were as entertaining as the rest of the program.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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