Guest post by Ben Model, archivist for Ediad Productions
Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams were artists and innovators in ways that went far beyond the film and TV work they were best known for.
Best known for using video effects in his comedy or for his portrayals of Mr. Question Man, the Nairobi Trio and Percy Dovetonsils, Ernie Kovacs’ core strengths were that he utilized television’s aesthetics and conventions as an integral part of his comedy in that medium. For decades, Adams was best known for her Muriel cigar commercials, but she also saw the importance of preserving early television programming as early as the 1950s, and also produced her own variety show in the early 1960s.
Over two nights, May 10 and May 11, the Library of Congress will present a pair of programs showcasing the innovative work of both Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams. The shows will be hosted by Josh Mills, Adams’ son, and by Ben Model, archivist for the Kovacs/Adams television collections. “An Evening with Changemaker Ernie Kovacs” and “An Evening with Edie Adams” will include screenings of television programs and segments from the collection, which were acquired by the Library of Congress in 2014.
Kovacs came to television in early 1951, after he’d spent several years as a radio DJ for Trenton NJ’s WTTM and as the writer of a regular column for local paper “The Trentonian.” And yet, like Buster Keaton had with cinema a few decades prior, Kovacs took to the new medium of television immediately with an innate understanding of what its relationship to the home viewer was, what television itself was, and what you could do with it.
He did sight gags, silent comedy sketches, and illustrated classical music with surreal pantomimed-choreographed scenes. He spoofed television’s conventions while they were still being created and established. His dialogue sketches were both spoofs of particular shows and the reasons those shows were being presented. It wasn’t always the set-up-punch-line jokes of his sketches, but the joke behind the whole thing that was funny. There is an enigmatic “you had to be there” aspect to Kovacs’ comedy that makes it hard to describe to other people, but it’s that very thing that stays with you once you’ve seen it and which keeps you coming back for more.
Edie Adams was Ernie’s partner-in-crime on TV and in real life, becoming Mrs. Ernie Kovacs in 1954. She was on nearly all of Ernie’s TV shows but was also instrumental in helping Ernie with many of the business aspects of the shows. She encouraged him to put his name on the shows and to copyright his work. She understood a lot of the nuts and bolts of what went into making a television show.
When she discovered that “Kovacs Unlimited,” Ernie’s national show for CBS, was not being kinescoped, she made sure that audio transcriptions of the show continued to be made beyond her initial purpose of hearing herself sing popular songs of the day. Only one kinescope of this program that ran from April 1952 to January 1954 survives. However, because Adams had had these made at the time and saved them, there are a little over 100 audio transcription discs of the show. (A kinescope is a 16mm film shot off a television screen, a practice that preceded videotape).
At one point in the 1960s, after Ernie’s death, Adams got a tip from someone at ABC television that the network was erasing the videotapes of Ernie’s TV shows, and she was able to acquire as much of the 2” master tapes of Ernie’s shows as was possible. Adams knew these programs were important and knew they should be preserved. This occurred in the 1960s, way before anyone was thinking about saving television shows.
It’s still not clear what of Kovacs’ ABC shows had actually been erased. In 2014, the Kovacs and Adams kinescope and videotape elements were acquired by the Library of Congress from Ediad Productions. A meticulous inventorying of the collection was done the following year by Alexis Ainsworth, Library of Congress Moving Image Processing Technician, which revealed that all of the 2” master videotapes of the shows were extant. Apparently, Adams got to ABC in the nick of time, and had saved all of the 1959-62 Kovacs program, as well as her own 1962-1964 variety show.
“The Ernie Kovacs Changemaker” program that will be presented on May 10 at 7:30 at the Packard Campus Theater and will include the Kovacs’ groundbreaking 1957 “Silent Show,” broadcast live and in color with its original wordless commercials intact, and several other innovative comedy sketches. The Edie Adams program on May 11 at 7:30 will include musical performances from “Here’s Edie,” Adams’ variety show, and other unseen and unaired rarities.
To Read Edie Adams March 6, 1996 testimony to the Library of Congress on the subject “Saving TV’s Golden Years” see this link: