Who was Ernie Kovacs?
Ernie Kovacs was a noted American comedian and writer, remembered as much for his crazy slapstick sketches as for his visually experimental style. Although his talent was not fully recognized during his lifetime, he was later credited as an influence by many well-known comedians and artists. After graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Art in Manhattan, he began his career at the age of 22, serving as an announcer and disc jockey at a radio station in his hometown, Trenton. Nine years later, he moved to Philadelphia to work for WPTZ, a television station. He was assigned as the host of an early morning show, which became very popular in spite of airing during odd hours. Later, Kovacs moved to New York City, where he continued doing television shows. At the age of 35, he relocated to Los Angeles, where he appeared both on big and small screen until his death in a car accident at the age of 42.
Childhood & Early Years
Ernie Kovacs was born as Ernest Edward Kovacs on January 23, 1919 in Trenton, New Jersey. His father Andrew John Kovacs, a first-generation immigrant from Hungary, was a successful bootlegger during the prohibition era. His mother was Mary Kovacs. He also had an older half-brother named Thomas Kovacs.
As a child, Kovacs was not a good student. He often missed school, and hunted rabbits and pheasants all day. At night, he used his chemistry set to concoct strange potions.
He started attending school regularly once he came under the influence of his drama teacher, Harold Van Kirk, at Trenton Central High School. During this period, he regularly sang in operettas; first as a tenor and later as baritone. Eventually, he decided to become an actor.
In 1937, he received an acting scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Art in Manhattan, New York City. While studying there, he saw a lot of "Grade B" movies, which later influenced his comedy routines.
Like most aspiring actors, he pursued roles at summer stock companies during his vacations. In 1939, while working in Vermont, he was inflicted by pneumonia and pleurisy, as a result of which he was hospitalized for 18 months.
During his long hospitalization, he entertained other patients as well as doctors with his antics, thus slowly developing his comedic skills. He also listened to a lot to classical music, which soon developed into a lifelong love.
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In 1941, Ernie Kovacs began his career as an announcer and disc jockey for Trenton's radio station WTTM, remaining with them for the next nine years and eventually becoming the Director of Special Events. Concurrently, he pursued acting, and in early 1941, directed some plays for Trenton Players Guild.
During his stint at WTTM, he undertook many crazy adventures. On one occasion, he lay on a railroad track while a train was approaching, continuously informing his audiences how it felt to be so close to death. Fortunately, he was able to move away at the last minute.
The madcap adventures he undertook during this period earned him a huge fan following. From June 1945, he began to write a weekly column entitled ‘Kovacs Unlimited’ in the local newspaper ‘The Trentonian’.
In January 1950, he moved to Philadelphia, where he got his first television job at WPTZ. His first show was a fashion and promotional program for the Ideal Manufacturing Company, entitled ‘Pick your Ideal’. Later, he began to host other successful shows like ‘Deadline For Dinner’ and ‘Now You're Cooking’.
From November 1950, Kovacs began to host ‘Three to Get Ready’. Although the show that aired from 7am to 9am was not expected to attract many viewers, it actually became very popular. During its run, he also created ‘Early Eyeball Fraternal & Marching Society (EEFMS)’.
In 1951, he traveled to New York to host ‘The Ernie Kovacs Show’ for NBC. However, it was not aired until December 30, 1952. Meanwhile, in early 1952, Kovacs also started doing a short-lived late morning show called ‘Kovacs on the Corner’.
After March 1952, he moved to New York, where he hosted a local morning show on WCBS TV. Simultaneously, he also presented other shows on different channels, one of them being ‘The Ernie Kovacs Show’.
In 1957, Kovacs debuted in films with ‘Operation Mad Ball’. Shortly after that, he relocated to Los Angeles, where he appeared in nine more films, the last one being ‘Sail a Crooked Ship’. Thereafter, he concentrated mainly on his monthly gags on ABC, trying to visualize classical compositions in them.
One of Ernie Kovacs’s most popular shows was ‘The Ernie Kovacs Show’, which was first aired on NBC from December 1952 until April 1953. Later, it ran on CBS from 1953 to 1954, on DuMont from 1954 to 1955 and on ABC from 1961 to 1962.
Family & Personal Life
Ernie Kovacs married his first wife Bette Wilcox on August 13, 1945, and had two children with her, Elizabeth and Kip Raleigh. The couple divorced in 1952 and Kovacs won the children’s custody.
He married his second wife Edie Adams on September 12, 1954 in Mexico City. They had one daughter together, Mia Susan Kovacs. Edie was also the step-mother to Elizabeth and Kip. Their three daughters were brought up by Edie after Kovacs’s death.
In the early morning of January 13, 1962, while returning from a party, Kovacs met with a car accident and was killed instantly. After a simple funeral ceremony, he was buried in Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.