In 1962 I was Stage Manager on Ernie Kovacs’ “Take a Good Look” which morphed into..
“The Ernie Kovacs Show.” Ernie loved special effects and Ernie loved his crew. Ernie’s crew loved Ernie. Ernie’s sponsor, “Dutchmaster Cigars” loved Ernie too. He had a deal for a salary of $5000 a week, and he was very proud of that, and the way he lived…full out…foot to the floor, he managed to spend it. While his sponsor was an American cigar company, Ernie actually chain-smoked cigars that cost $8.00 a piece that he had imported from Havana. Like many famous people from New Jersey, Ernie was very independent minded and hated authority. The way his show was budgeted, ABC picked up the “below the line costs.” For example, ABC had to foot the bill for labor. So when the Broadcast Standards department made Ernie stop using his most famous character: “Percy Dovetonsils” because he appeared to be gay, Ernie was furious. He berated the ABC Program Director in front of the audience, for backing up the decision by Broadcast Standards, even accusing him of being a child molester etc. and then he attacked any executive he could think of with equally awful accusations. (His tirade actually terrified me and I wondered how he got away with it without getting sued. The fact was, Ernie didn’t care).
Anyway, to continue…Ernie ran up the below-the-line costs by taking his good old time taping his show. He played Gin Rummy with his cronies at $100 a point. His friends all walked around with rolls of $100 bills in their pockets. Once, at the insistence of the Unit Manager who was in charge of the below the line expenses, I checked on them to see how their game was going. Through the cigar smoke and odor of Jack Daniels I could see about $6,000 on the table.
Ernie made certain his crew was on overtime before he would do any serious work. He would send out for serious food and wine from Chasen’s Restaurant, rated number 2 in LA, to feed the crew. Of course, more than a few over-indulged which made things nearly come to a halt and we wound up working almost 24 hour days. Many of the guys were making $1,000 a week. Once I woke up as things dragged on, to find to Jolene Brand, model, actress and gorgeous wife of George Schlatter, Producer of “Laugh In,” sitting on my lap at 2 o’clock in the morning. Apparently I was sitting on the only available chair and she was exhausted and needed a place to crash. I offered to get up so she could have the chair to herself, but she insisted that I not move. I “forced myself” to comply with her wishes.
Ernie took over the entire Villa Capris, the famous Italian Restaurant on Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood… hang out for Sinatra and the “rat pack”… and threw a party for all of us and our wives. Lisa and I wound up sitting with veteran actor Caesar Romero who was one of Ernie’s friends. Joanne Castle, famous honkytonk player on the Lawrence Welk Show, whom I worked with, was there singing and playing great jazz piano. I believe some of us even found enough space to dance in the crowded restaurant.
As a result of our love affair with Ernie, the whole crew chipped in and bought full page ads in the Hollywood Reporter advising people to watch Ernie’s show. The crew also took over a well-known Spanish restaurant and threw a party for Ernie! Lisa and I wound up sitting awkwardly next to my friend Jolene Brand and her husband, George Schlatter.
One of Ernie’s favorite people was Bobby Hughes, head of our Special Effects Department. Ernie loved to throw challenges at the Special Effects team to see if he could baffle them. But it never happened. In spite of a very tight schedule those guys could figure out anything.
Ernie had Bobby build a special wine cellar in his home. The cellar door opened with a wheel like a passage door on a submarine. Inside there were cobwebs and walls that suggested you were in a cave.
All of this was installed below a room Ernie had built over his garage complete with steam bath, large circular fire pit, and a marvelous collection of odd things from antique suits of armor to a hippopotamus head hung on the wall with a waterfall coming from its neck, to first edition books in an immense library that could be reached by ladder, and friend, Jack Lemmon, who could be found running up Ernie’s $1000 phone bill with calls to Europe.
Ernie wrote all of his scripts without help. Many times they came in rather late for the sets to get built, and nobody in the shop knew what to expect until the writing was finished. So Bobby Hughes and his crew were under a lot of pressure to get things done, and when I would come to work, often the special effects guys, carpenters and the set painters, who had been up all night, were still finishing things up. I have to mention here how in awe I was at the masterful work of these men and women who could build anything.
One skit required following a drop of water from its birth to its travels through the sewer system. Another watched office furniture move in time to the 1812 overture. Cabinet drawers opened and closed like trombone slides. Various office appliances would dance, and there was a cow’s head, with a bell on its neck that rang with the church bells in the final chorus. There was a stagehand standing behind the flat that the cow’s head was mounted on. One of my jobs was to cue him to turn the crank back and forth that was attached to the head so the bell would swing in time with the music. During the final coda in the music I got carried away and told him to rotate the head 360 degrees, which produced a very funny picture. However…the ancient piece of rope, around the cow’s neck to which the bell was attached, although very thick, could not handle the stress. The Cow’s head spun; the rope broke, sending the heavy cowbell flying across the stage, and it hit me in the face, knocking me to the floor where I lay in a pool of blood. A British actress, guest on the show, who had learned first aid as a nurse during WWII, rushed to my rescue, propping my head in her lap as blood poured from my nose and mouth. In a few minutes an ambulance came. They put me on a stretcher and took me to Glendale General Hospital. My wife, Lisa got a phone call from the surgeon on duty who requested a picture of me so he could put my nose back together!
While I was at home, healing, a messenger came to our door carrying a magnum of expensive champagne. There was a note from Ernie attached to it saying he hoped I could feel the bubbles as they touched my nose and urging me to get well enough to come back soon.
As I healed, the outside world had whizzed by in a multi-colored blur like the wheels on Ernie Kovak's 1960 Corvair. I had almost bought a 1960 Corvair. I tried it out when I visited a Dealer in Granada Hills. It handled lightly and the engine seemed very responsive. I was concerned about the rear engine, which was a problem with my VW, because it could make my car unstable in strong winds and bad weather.
Ernie had purchased the new Corvair Station Wagon for his wife, Edie Adams. Before he had even showed it to her, Ernie took the Associate Director, Maury Orr and me to lunch one day when we were doing a shoot at his house. Ernie took us in the Corvair. He drove as he always did, like he was competing in the French Grand Prix. I remember one day when he was driving me in his Cadillac he laughed and said, “Wow if ever hit a curb, it would be all over!”
Maury and I hung on for dear life as Ernie snaked his way down Coldwater Canyon in the Corvair as the tires screeched and smoked in protest. Finally Ernie slammed on the brakes and slid sideways into a valet parking spot at the restaurant.
He was grinning from ear to ear, "Wasn't that somethin'! Isn't this baby cool? I think I'll drive it and make Edie take the Rolls…handles like a race car."
About a week later we all wept together as we read the shocking headline: ERNIE KOVACS DIES IN FREAK CAR ACCIDENT. A grizzly photograph accompanied the awful news.
The Corvair was wrapped like a vine around a telephone pole on Beverly Boulevard. Below the pavement glistened in the falling rain, and puddles caught the glow of the emergency lights flashing from the police cars and ambulances. Not far from Ernie’s lifeless body an unlit cigar searched for his outstretched hand.
Apparently one of Ernie's rear wheels had simply folded under from the stress when he unintentionally hit the curb and the car left the highway in an uncontrollable skid.
Nader's book, “Unsafe at Any Speed” came out some time later, but I doubt if it would have saved Ernie's life.