Wednesday, November 19, 2008

50 Years Ago: Oscar Levant On The Jack Paar Show

Levant had a major part in the Gershwin story. The trailer was shown a few posts ago. He was a close friend of George and was an accomplished pianist in his own right. Previously we noted that in 1942 he appeared at WW2 rally at East Broadway.The Bellel's were loyal Jack Paar viewers. I remember what Jack Gould wrote above, that Levant could be very funny, but it was sometimes painful to watch him publicly deconstruct. He was a rare glimpse of a flawed character in those days. Paar, to a much lesser degree, portrayed that personality as well. I don't think, as Gould writes, that Paar exploited Levant.
Oscar Levant (December 27, 1906 – August 14, 1972) was an American pianist, composer, author, comedian, and actor. He was more famous for his mordant character and witticisms, on the radio and in movies and television, than for his music.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania into a musical and Orthodox Jewish Russian family, Levant moved to New York with his mother, Annie, in 1922, after the death of his father, Max. He began studying under Zygmunt Stojowski, a well-established piano pedagogue. In just twenty years, 1929-1948, he would go on to compose the music for more than twenty movies. During this period, he also wrote or co-wrote numerous popular songs that made the Hit Parade, the most noteworthy being "Blame It on My Youth", now considered to be a pop music standard.
Levant was also known to American audiences as one of the regular panelists on the radio quiz show Information Please. Originally scheduled as a guest panelist, Levant proved so quick-witted and popular that he became a regular fixture on the show in the late 1930s and 1940s. ."Mr. Levant", as he was always called, was often challenged with musical questions, though he impressed audiences with his wide depth of knowledge and quickness with a joke.
From 1947-49, Levant regularly appeared on NBC radio's Kraft Music Hall, starring Al Jolson. He not only accompanied Jolson on the piano and played classical and popular solos, but often joked and ad-libbed with Jolson and his guests. This includes comedy sketches. The pairing of the two entertainers was inspired. Their individual ties to George Gershwin --- Jolson introduced Gershwin's "Swanee"-- undoubtedly had much to do with their rapport. Both Levant and Jolson play themselves in the Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue (1945).
Between 1958 and 1960, Levant hosted a television talk show on KCOP-TV in Los Angeles, The Oscar Levant Show, which later became syndicated. It featured his piano playing along with monologues and interviews with top-name guests. The show was highly controversial, eventually being taken from the air after a comment about Marilyn Monroe's conversion to Judaism: "Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher, Arthur Miller can eat her". He later stated that he "hadn't meant it that way". Several months later, the show began to be broadcast in a slightly revised format -- it was taped in order to provide a buffer for Levant's antics. This, however, failed to prevent Levant from making comments about Mae West's sex life that caused the show to be canceled for good.
Levant was also a frequent guest on Jack Paar's talk show.
Open about his neuroses and a notorious hypochondriac, Levant was in later life addicted to prescription drugs and was frequently committed to mental hospitals by his wife, June. Despite his afflictions, Levant was considered a genius by some, in many areas. His playing of the Tchaikovsky and Anton Rubinstein piano concerti, as well as Gershwin, is a testimony to his talents.

Some of Levant's Memorable Quotes:
* "Roses are red, violets are blue, I am schizophrenic, and so am I."
* "When Frank Sinatra, Jr. was kidnapped, I said, 'It must have been done by music critics.'"
* "What the world needs is more geniuses with humility, there are so few of us left."
* "I only make jokes when I am feeling insecure."
* "So little time and so little to do..."
* "There is a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line. "
* "I'm a concert pianist, that's a pretentious way of saying I'm unemployed at the moment."
* "I have one thing to say about psychoanalysis: f..k Dr Freud."
* "The only difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that the Democrats allow the poor to be corrupt, too."
* "Everyone in Hollywood is gay, except Gabby Hayes — and that's because he is a transvestite."
* When asked by Jack Paar what he does for exercise, he replied, "I stumble, then fall into a coma."
* "Leonard Bernstein is revealing musical secrets that have been common knowledge for centuries."
* Asked by Jack Paar to describe his reaction to Milton Berle converting to become a Christian Scientist- "Our loss is their loss."
* Overheard at a dinner party: "The best kind of guests are the ones that know when to leave!"
* "Strip away the false tinsel from Hollywood, and you find the real tinsel inside."

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