Nationally known comedian Ernie Kovacs came to WPTZ in January of 1950 from radio station WTTM in nearby Trenton, NJ, where Ernie grew up. He pioneered the use of blackouts and trick photography in TV comedy. His first show was PICK YOUR IDEAL, a weekly fashion show. Ernie showed up for the audition dressed in his shorts and a barrel. He got the job.
Then he did another show entitled, "Deadline for Dinner," an afternoon program. It was supposed to be a straight show, but Kovacs played it anything but straight. The chef was Albert Mathis (chef and manager of the Gulph Mills Country Club) and they would get into funny bits and literally forgot what they were cooking. Read more about "Deadline for Dinner!"
"Deadline for Dinner" (aka "Dead Lions for Breakfast" as Ernie liked to call it) premiered on Monday, March 20, 1950 at 3 pm for a half-hour. The show aired on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. On Wednesdays, the 3 pm show was "Television Kitchen" with Broadcast Pioneers member Florence Hanford. On Thursdays in the same time slot with a show entitled, "Charm Clinic." After "Deadline for Dinner," there was at 3:30 pm for a half-hour "The Handy Man Show" with Broadcast Pioneers member Jack Creamer.
Television was a lot different back then. The idea of "stripping" a program Monday through Friday existed but wasn't a hard and fast rule as we saw with "Deadline for Dinner." On Monday, November 6, 1950 "Deadline for Dinner" moved to 2 pm. However, the Tuesday airing (on the next day) was still at 3 pm. There was no DOD shows on Wednesday or Thursday and on Friday, November 10th, it aired in the 2 pm slot. The first time we can find DOD in the 2 pm time period was on Friday, November 2, 1950.
Regardless of what some books about Ernie say, Pete Boyle, best known for his kids show broadcasts took over hosting duties of DOD. We know definitely that Pete Boyle was hosting the broadcasts (as a permanent host) in September 1951. This is the month when"Three to Get Ready" expanded to two hours. DOD's last broadcast was on Monday, July 7, 1952 at 2 pm for 30 minutes. There was special NBC-TV coverage of the Republican Convention on Tuesday. Wednesday saw Television Kitchen with a returning program called "Pots, Pans and Personalities" premiering in the 2 pm time slot. PP & P had aired in 1951 previously.
Born to what Kovacs called "quaint" parents of Hungarian roots, he worked in his teen years in a drug store. Ernie once referred to it saying, "I didn't like the job much, but the cigars were free." At 16, he became a singer in a local stock company performing Gilbert & Sullivan. He said, "whenever they needed a man that worked cheap, they got me."
In Philadelphia, Ernie created a bunch of his hysterical characters like Percy Dovetonsils, the lisping goody-goody; the French storyteller Pierre Ragout; Skodny Silsky, ace Hollywood reporter and the Edwardian-clothed Nairobi Trio.
At Channel 3, Kovacs hosted several different programs including "Three to Get Ready." It was originally on from 7:30 am to 9 am. Eventually, it expanded to two full hours starting at 7 am. The show premiered on November 27, 1950 and is reported to have been the very first early morning wake-up television show anywhere in the country. Andy McKay thought that this program was the best of Ernie Kovacs at WPTZ. The concept was to turn on Channel 3 and get ready to go to work. Sort of a local Today show, but it turned into a Kovacs vehicle. This show, according to Andy McKay was a "mish-mash" from other programs. A piece of this, a bit of that. They were doing five minutes of news incorporated into the broadcast at 8 am and 8:30. On Monday, September 17, 1951, "Three to Get Ready" expanded to two hours, starting at 7 am with news at 7:30, 8 and 8:30.
Ironic that a newspaper listing at that time (The Evening Bulletin) described the show as "news, music, weather." However, another paper described it as "Ernie Kovacs wakes you up with the latest in fun, music and weather reports. News at 7:30, 8 and 8:30 am."
On Monday, January 14, 1952, NBC-TV started the "Today Show." However, Philco, owners of Channel 3, elected to continue with its local "Three to Get Ready." The network brought pressure on the station to carry the new program and finally on Monday, March 31, 1952, The Today Show premiered in Philadelphia. The last "Three to Get Ready" program was the previous Friday. As of now, no known recordings (either video or audio) exist of "Three to Get Ready."
Roy Neal, who eventually went to NBC-TV was Ernie's newsman. Later, Norman Brooks did the news; also Randy Kraft. If Norman said it was raining, Kovacs would climb up a ladder behind the set and dump water on him. Joe Earley also said that the news originated from the same studio as Kovacs. This made it easily for Ernie to clown around with the newsman.
McKay said that Ernie would talk to the camera people and boom operator. He would wander into the control room and start pushing buttons. He had been known to pull out a deck of cards and start playing gin with the director. It was very ad lib. Ernie would show up only about ten minutes before air time. The show was known for doing all kinds of stuff live on Walnut Street in Center City Philadelphia. One problem. They just couldn't get a mike easily out on the street so the talent would hold up cards with dialogue printed on them. It was like a silent movie. Each show would end with the phrase "It's Been Real" supered over some weird shot.
One gimmick that Ernie had on this show was "The Early Eyeball Fraternal & Marching Society," or the E.E.F.M.S. The "organization" had a membership card. There were also, possibly, other items.
The password for the club was "It's Been Real." Members had numbers. EEFM-1 was Ernie Kovacs. The flip of the membership card said:
1. An EEFM is A) male or a female; B) or interested in either political party
2. An EEFM never sleeps later than 8:03 A) Unless he or she is deathly ill, B) Unless he or she is deathly...er...dead, that is unless the EEFM is sleepy
3. An EEFM makes less that $987,648,001.23 per annum. (Slightly higher in the South and South West)
4. An EEFM may not raise ostriches or parsley without written permission of EEFM-1.
On "Three to Get Ready," Ernie had a character called "Uncle Gruesome." Ernie played the role. He wore a black cape, a wig and fake fangs. He would use this same character on his later CBS show, "Kovacs Unlimited." Just like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck had three nephews, so did Uncle Gruesome. They were Loathsome, Cumbersome and Unwholesome.
Ernie did all kinds of bits. He had a paper-mache dog which looked a lot like the RCA Victor pup, nipper. Sometimes Ernie would set it down next to the fire hydrant. On other occasions, Ernie would drive by in a horse-drawn trash cart. They were digging the area for a new building and the pit was so deep that Ernie looked in and said, "he could see all the way down to China." Next thing you know, a guy in a Chinese coolie outfit crawls out, yells something in Chinese and runs away. On another occasion, they dressed Ernie in a gorilla suit and had him run through a center city food joint. Remember, this was all live and all very much Kovacs.
Edie Adams added much to the program, said Jack Kennedy. She would be singing and Ernie would trash her performance. People fell off piano benches. Andy McKay tells the story how one day Ernie mentioned on the air that they had only $15 for props per week. Half kiddingly he quipped, "if you have anything around the house, you don't want send it to Channel 3." The lobby by day's end was filled with items including a life sized doll that Kovacs called "Gertrude." She became a regular on the show. Hey, she worked cheap.
Percy Dovetonsils, who was a character on this show, had his glasses purchased at a Philadelphia novelty store for ten cents. The character was based on real-life poet, Ted Malone, said Andy McKay. When the show ended at 9 am, WPTZ did news and then ran a test pattern until 10:45 am. The week before "Three to Get Ready" premiered, the station didn't even sign on until 10:45 am.
Three NBC shows starring Ernie Kovacs came out of Channel 3. First was It's Time for Ernie, which aired from May 14, 1951 until June 29, 1951 and was broadcast in the afternoons for 15 minutes. This program was the only Kovacs' network series that did not feature Edie Adams. A staff member saw her on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts on CBS-TV. Though unsuccessful with Arthur, she wasn't with Ernie. They were married in 1954, after they left Philadelphia.
The next NBC-TV show to come from Philly was "Ernie in Kovacsland, a weekday evening (7 pm) half-hour show as a summer replacement for the ever popular Kukla, Fran and Ollie. That aired from July 2, 1951 until August 24, 1951 and was produced by Ned Cramer. It started the Monday after "It's Time for Ernie" ended. The final series to originate from WPTZ was Kovacs on the Corner that aired live from WPTZ from 11 am to 11:30. By the way, its competition on Channel 10, WCAU-TV was a local show called "Home Highlights" hosted by Jean Corbett (Aunt Molly) and a very young fellow named Ed McMahon.
Carl Weger was an engineer at WPTZ and developed much of the "technology" for Ernie. He took an empty Campbell Soup can, removed both ends and added two mirrors at an angle. This was then attached to a three inch television camera lens. By turning it, it could rotate the image and actually turn Kovacs upside down. McKay recalled that one use of this was to have Ernie vacuum the ceiling.
Ernie Kovacs on "Three to Get Ready"
In December of 1951, Harry Harris (a member of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia) reported in the Evening Bulletin that WPTZ would not carry "The Today Show" (which was starting the next month) in our market. Harry said that a Channel 3 spokesman said that it was the station's policy to foster local shows as much as possible. Dave Garroway (host of "The Today Show") was "due back as star of a mammoth 7 to 9 am NBC show," but WPTZ people said that it would not be shown here in Philadelphia. That time belonged to WPTZ's own Ernie Kovacs. By the way, Harris and the Bulletin selected Ernie as the "Best Local Comedian" for 1951.
But the story continues. One day Cal Jones, director for Kovacs (later an executive for Westinghouse Broadcasting, who later owned Channel 3) went over to the Architects' Building. Pat Weaver of NBC was sitting there and read the riot act to Cal and the station manager of WPTZ. Get Kovacs off the air and start carrying the Today show. The future of the program rides on clearing the Philadelphia station. Cal was sure that NBC threatened to pull the station's affiliation if they didn't. After Westinghouse purchased WPTZ in 1953, NBC threatened them with lost of NBC affiliation for all their (Westinghouse) owned and & operated stations, if Westinghouse didn't trade the Philadelphia stations for less valuable NBC stations in Cleveland.
At 11 am until 11:30 on NBC-TV "Kovacs on the Corner," originated from WPTZ. The program didn't last long. It aired from January 4, 1952 until March 28th of that same year. Kovacs always denied having any input for the format of the show. It was a program more fitting Fred Allen, not Ernie Kovacs. Shortly into the show, creative control was taken away from Kovacs and given to actress Marge Greene. Ernie went nuts. His heart just wasn't in the show. Without Ernie's input, the show went nowhere. However, it started to affect the morning show also, which Ernie knew was going to be dumped soon from the schedule. WPTZ elected not to renew his contract and "Three to Get Ready" and "Kovacs on the Corner" ended on the same day. The next month, Ernie and Edie (& Andy McKay) turned up on WCBS-TV in New York City with Kovacs Unlimited.
On the last "Kovacs on the Corner," Marge Greene who also acted on the show teased Ernie about her being cheap. She mentioned that she was Scottish. She said that she would travel for free in a coffin. Kovacs was supposed to put three nails on the corner, but instead he reached in his pocket and kept pounding nail after nail into the wood. The show never really ended. The last scene was never done because Ernie kept pounding nails into the coffin. The last thing seen on the show was Ernie saying "Have a good time in Scotland."
Harold Pannepacker, who worked for Channel 3 for a half century (he was also a past President and past chairman of the board of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia) was well known for this story. He said that in this business, there were always hangers-on. You know, kids who wanted to work in television. There was this one guy who spent so much time at WPTZ that the staff thought he worked there. One day, a new employee was hired and the kid said, "Why would you hire somebody when I'm here. I want and need a job." Penny (Harold Pannepacker) said, "My God, we thought you already worked here." The hanger-on was Andy McKay.
Jack Kennedy who ran camera and did some ADing (Assistant Directing) for WPTZ thought that McKay was the genius behind Kovacs. It was Andy who thought up the ludicrous situations. Jack once said that Andy was more Kovacs than Kovacs. When Ernie would put a book on the table and the book would slide around, that was Andy's doing. He would spent days just digging through different kinds of props.
Ernie Kovacs on "Three to Get Ready"
Native Philadelphian Roy Neal worked at WPTZ, Channel 3 in Philadelphia when Ernie Kovacs was there. Roy left the station just about when Ernie did. Roy joined NBC-TV news in Los Angeles and stayed for over 3 decades. Many people will remember Neal from his fantastic coverage of U.S. Space Missions. Roy Neal sent us this e-mail:
...I remember very well the time that Ernie Kovacs and I got together there (in Los Angeles) and decided that a couple of Philadelphians should have some Hollywood fun. I was Producing and Coordinating for an NBC show called Wide Wide World.
Poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he was staying, we set up a package that wound up live on the network a few weeks later.
Ernie tooled up in a chauffeur driven limousine and was welcomed by the hotel manager. Puffing on the cigar that was his trademark, he worked his way through...famous faces that we had put in place. If memory serves, I think his pals Groucho Marx and Jimmy Durante were among them.
He went into the polo lounge, where Greer Garson was staging a party that we had arranged. Kovacs took over, or course. Even brought in the Nairobi Trio and Edie. A good time was had by all.
Broadcast Pioneers member R. Alan Campbell has e-mailed: I watched the Kovacs show before I went off to school as a youngster.... Edie Adams was his sidekick.... He did a lot of the same stuff he brought to his New York based TV show where Edie Adams, his wife, was the 'Muriel Cigar' girl...on ABC-TV.... I remember (Broadcast Pioneers member Randy) Kraft on some Kovacs newscasts. Alan said that he also remember Norm Brooks doing news on "Three to Get Ready."
Known Shows & Time Periods for WPTZ shows
Monday, November 27, 1950 - Deadline for Dinner - 2 pm to 2:30
No known recordings (either Video or Audio) exist of these early Channel 3 local broadcasts. However, Ed Cunningham, WHYY-TV Producer and a member of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia said that some of the network shows originating from Philadelphia may exist on film. This has not yet been confirmed.
Andy McKay was Ernie's stage manager both here in Philly and later in New York. McKay was a sort of "Man Friday" to Kovacs and has been given credit for many of Ernie's most successful bits. One morning in March of 1952 (Ernie's last month at WPTZ), Andy McKay brought his new 8mm home movie camera to the station and shot some home movies. In the shots are Ernie Kovacs, Edie Adams, Joe Earley and Pete Boyle (as a policeman), who were part of the network show. There is no sound as this footage was shot silent and it was filmed in black & white. For Ernie Kovacs fans, this is, indeed, a rare treat.
Jackie Phillippe, a visitor to our website e-mailed:
I do not know if you will have an interest but when I was fifteen (now seventy one years old), I appeared on "Kovacs On The Corner" in 1952. ... On that show I ...participated in what Ernie called, "swap time." I swapped a "derby hat" for an eight and a half pound piece of ice. Also, Ernie had trouble pronouncing my name when interviewing me....
Edie Adams sang two songs, "It's Wonderful" and "It Might As Well Be Spring" backed up by The Dave Appell Trio. ...There was an operatic spoof with a woman singer and Pete Boyle, alias Chuck Wagon Pete. At the end of the show Ernie takes an orange out of a slop can and cuts it open, inside are the words "It's Been Real."
...Live television included accidentally knocking down telephone poles on the set while broadcasting. This seemed to be the norm back then and something Ernie did on this particular show.
...I still have my EEFMS (Early Eyeball Fraternal And Marching Society) card from WPTZ's "Three To Get Ready," that I received about fifty-eight years ago. I understand few of these still exist. I attended a television show at WPTZ called "The Whirligig Show" with host George Skinner, this was an early version of "Bandstand" that had no success. The reason for the name "Whirligig" was that they used an oscilloscope with the wavy line jumping caused by the sound of the music playing and used a double (two TV cameras) exposure of the kids dancing and the oscilloscope, very much like they did on Bandstand with a 45 RPM record player.
I appeared on an Ed McMahon morning variety show called "With Coffee And You," the call letters of WCAU. I was the first boy to enter "Bandstand" in 1952. I had the number #2 Bandstand membership card signed by Bob Horn and donated it and another membership card autographed by Joni James, a famous girl singer at the time to "The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame." The number #1 Bandstand membership card was presented to Frankie Laine, another famous singer of that era and a guest on the show that day. ...I also was allowed to take some pictures of Bob Horn and Lee Stewart while at "Bandstand."
The reason that I was able to attend these television shows was that, I had rheumatic fever at that time and was out of school for two years. I had a public school teacher come to my home three days a week. I had no school on Tuesday or Thursday and those were the days I went to the television shows.
It really was the "Golden Age Of Television." I was blessed to be there and to have been a small part of it.
We asked Broadcast Pioneers member Allen Stone (who is best known as a Famous 56 newscaster) to tell us a little about his days working with Jack Barry and Ernie Kovacs at WTTM in Trenton, New Jersey. Allen writes:
It was the forties. Intent on seeking a career in the theater, I had completed a year at the renowned American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York where I fell in love with the radio classes. Returning to my home in Trenton, New Jersey, I became acquainted with the two staff announcers at radio station WTTM, Jack Barry and Ernie Kovacs.
Jack convinced me that I should abandon seeking a career in the theater. He convinced me that broadcasting was the place to be and invited me to join him and Ernie on the WTTM announcing staff. Preparing to take up my position, I asked Jack what would be my first assignment. He told me to consult with Ernie who had a job behind the cigar counter at the nearby drug store. In later years when he became a TV and movie star, the ubiquitous cigar would become his trademark.
Approaching Ernie, I told him Jack had advised me to ask him what my first assignment would be at WTTM. Ernie explained that he was doing a mystery serial every Saturday called "Paris Greene, The French Detective." I asked why the title. He told me Paris Greene was a French poison and my first on-air assignment would be on that program the following Saturday. I asked what my role would be. His answer? "You will be the dead body found in the first act!"
In time, Jack would go on to become a nationally famous and handsome TV quizmaster. His ordinary looks transformed by plastic surgery. Ernie would leave WTTM to become involved with the experimental Philco TV station
in Philadelphia that would become KYW-TV. I followed Ernie to Philadelphia as an announcer at WIP. He went on to Hollywood where his comedic talents catapulted him to show business prominence.
Tragically, Ernie died in an automobile accident on the West Coast in January of 1962. Jack's life was cut short when he was fatally stricken while jogging in New York's Central Park.
Jack Barry was cocky, manipulative and self assured. Ernie Kovacs was as neat a guy and as clever a comic as I've ever known.
Broadcast Pioneers member Marlin Taylor writes to us:
I was interesting to see the WTTM call letters and the name Ernie Kovacs. WTTM always had a broadcast booth at the New Jersey State Fair and I became a great fan of Ernie's when, I believe was the Fall of 1950 (it was 1949 actually), he allegedly did eight straight days of broadcasting without sleeping, Sunday through Sunday. While many hours were filled with DJ time, WTTM was an NBC affiliate which allowed him breaks during daytime and evening hours (during which engineer friends said he took catnaps). I believe this stunt was what led to his opportunity to be hired to open up the early morning hours of 7:30 to 9 on WPTZ (that actually came later into his time at WPTZ. His first show was a cooking program, Deadline for Dinner).
During the mid-50's, I'd drop in occasionally on weekend evening announcer, Jack Allen (Potts). As stations did in those days before operating 24 hours became common, WTTM would sign off at midnight with the National Anthem. The station always used a transcription recorded by the Trenton Symphony, which Jack found to be a rather slow, draggy performance. So, he'd play the 33-1/3 recording at 45 RPM instead, which delivered a majestic and upbeat performance that the Star Spangled Banner deserves.
From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Video originally from the film library of KYW-TV, Channel 3
Written and researched by Broadcast Pioneers historian Gerry Wilkinson
Special Thanks to Broadcast Pioneers member Jerry Klein
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