The very fact that I create these posts devoted to my favorite television comedian affords me the opportunity to connect with people who themselves had a connection with Ernie Kovacs in the past. One of these people, a gentleman in the truest sense of the word, is 71 year old lifelong Pennsylvania resident Jack Phillippe.
Jack sent me an email recently stating that back in 1949 at the ripe old age of thirteen he appeared on an episode of Ernie's very first show for WPTZ Channel Three, NBC in Philadelphia, the famous "3 To Get Ready," for which no known kinescopes exist. He appeared in a "trading post" segment in which Ernie would exchange some useless item an audience member gave him for some equally useless item from the prop box or backstage.
What struck me immediately when I read Jack's email was that I had seen his segment and it wasn't on "3 To Get Ready." It was on Ernie's program "Kovacs On The Corner," the final Kovacs series to originate from WPTZ before Ernie made the big jump to New York. The show had a very short run from Thursday January 4, 1952 until Friday March 28 of the same year and was broadcast nationally Monday-Friday in the 11am-11:30am time slot. The show would open with the announcer saying "NBC holds the key to WPTZ's very own television town where everyday around this time you'll find Kovacs On The Corner!" Then, as on all his shows no matter the title, Ernie's famous theme music would start.
"KOTC" featured Ernie against a corny "neighborhood" type set (think a low rent Sesame Street) interacting with the lovely Edie Adams, The Dave Appell Trio dressed as sanitation workers, a couple of actors dressed as a large dog (Al) and a large cat (Tondelaya) and Officer Pete Boyle, played by that icon of Philadelphia Kids' TV Peter Boyle Sr.. Pete Sr. was the father of the late actor Peter Boyle Jr. most recently of "Everybody Loves Raymond" fame.
I was in one of the massive chain bookstores about ten years ago looking for jazz CDs when I spotted a video tape from the now defunct "Video Yesteryear" of a "KOTC" episode. The tape jumped out at me when I saw Ernie's mug on the box and I bought it right away. When I got home and put it on I was fascinated by it; the show is early TV kitsch at its best delivered in that inimitable Kovacs style. I've read that Ernie was never a big fan of doing the show; the network kind of forced it on him and interacting with costumed characters wasn't really a format he enjoyed. Still its funny, its Kovacs, and luckily for Jack Phillippe the one episode he appeared on is the one episode that you can still get a hold of.
Jack was right that he appeared on camera to trade something with Ernie; I remember Ernie trying several times in the segment to pronounce his last name correctly and when I saw the name in his first email to me I thought, "No, that's 'Kovacs On The Corner' you were on!"
I asked Jack to answer some questions for us about the experience. Here's what he had to say:
Q: Welcome to "The Ernie Kovacs Blog" Jack. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
A: I grew up in Philadelphia in the forties. After graduating high school and college prep I moved on to several jobs, until I landed a job with the Philadelphia Inquirer and stayed there for thirty one years until my retirement.
Q: Tell us how you first become aware of Ernie Kovacs.
A: The first family television was purchased in 1948 and at that time Philadelphia had three television stations, one of them being WPTZ. Ernie Kovacs first television show was on WPTZ in the morning called "Three To Get Ready". At that time, I became an Ernie Kovacs fan and I also loved "Howdy Doody". Ernie had a club on "Three To Get Ready" that included a membership card, I still have mine some fifty eight years later. It is called an EEFMS (Early Eyeball Fraternal And Marching Society) card.
EDITOR'S NOTE: CLICK THE LINK TO SEE A PICTURE OF AN "EEFMS."
Q: What did you think the first time you saw one of Ernie's shows?
A: I was enamored with Ernie and his show, so much so that I wanted to join his show very much like a child wants to run away to the circus. I wrote to him telling him so; of course he never responded and in a way I did not expect him to.
Q: How did you end up in the audience of "Kovacs On The Corner?" I believe you were sick at the time and being home schooled?
A: I was out of school at that time with rheumatic fever and was being taught at home. One day I asked my mother if I could go down to the show; she said yes. Believe it or not you did not need tickets then. Back then mothers were homemakers and fathers worked so television stations were hoping someone would show up to be a part of their audience.
Q: What did you think of Ernie when you met him? How about Edie and the rest of the cast members?
A: Ernie stays in my memory more than anything or anyone else but I do remember Edie Adams eyes and were taken aback by their beauty. Ernie was what he was, that is he was Ernie Kovacs on television as well as in person; likable and lovable.
Q: Tell us about the bit you did with Ernie. I know you guys exchanged some really "valuable" gifts with each other!
A: At that time Ernie had what I remember as what was called a "trading corner" as a part of his show and asked his viewing audience to bring something to the show for a trade.
One morning at home I got out of bed and went to the hall closet where the family's coats were kept and I spotted a "derby hat". It seems that the night before my parents had some of my relatives in for a party and the drinking got heavy and so it seems someone forgot their derby hat. When my mother got up that morning I asked if she knew who owned the derby hat? She stated that she did not.
That's when I decided to go to Ernie's show and trade the derby hat. I might add two weeks later my uncle Sam called and asked my mother if he had left his derby hat there. My mother responded that she did not see it and of course she was not lying; she didn't because it was now in Ernie Kovacs' possession. I might add I half remember Ernie cutting the top off of the derby hat and gluing a piece of paper on its inside that said "Hi ya doll!" It was, he said, "an easy way to pick a up a girl."
I received block of ice as a trade for the derby. Who else but Ernie could come up with that? I do not know if it shows on my face but when I received the block of ice I was disappointed. I wanted something that I could keep for years such as an old fashioned 1890's shoe that was on the set to be traded; in it was a single flower. I couldn't keep the ice but I was able to keep the plastic apron it was wrapped in and I was happy to be a part of TV history!
Q: Peter Boyle Sr. was an icon of Philly TV in the 1950s and played Officer Pete Boyle on "KOTC". He was the father of the late actor Peter Boyle Jr., most recently famous for his portrayal of Frank Barone on the CBS sitcom ""Everybody Loves Raymond." You got to watch the shows of both Ernie and Pete growing up at that time and I know you attended high school with Pete Jr. Tell us a bit about those two Philly icons.
A: Pete Sr. was the weatherman at WPTZ and also had a show where he was called "Chuck Wagon Pete" it was a kids show. Pete Sr. was an artist and used that talent for his kids show.
Peter Boyle Jr. was in high school at the time I was given the OK to return to high school. Both Peter Boyle and I attended the same high school; at that time Peter was a senior and I a freshman. Peter Boyle was in the school plays but not top billing. I still have the play bill that has a picture of Peter Boyle with hair when he was just another senior. Sadly both Pete Sr. and Peter died suddenly.
Q: Did you continue watching Ernie's shows after he left Philly and as you matured into adulthood?
A: Yes, I followed his career until he entered films. Movies just were not Ernie's vehicle.
Q: How did you feel when Ernie died? I believe you were about 25 years old at the time.
A: I was outside doing something to the car then and had the car radio on when they announced his death. I was stunned; it was like losing a friend. I often think about him and the pleasure he brought to those who watched his style of comedy. Yes, I was twenty five then and if I remember right he was killed in January, the same month as my birthday.
EDITOR'S NOTE: ERNIE WAS KILLED ON JANUARY 13, 1962.
When Jack answered these questions he had not had a chance to see the episode he appeared on; he answered completely from his own memories of that time. I can tell you this Kovacsians; he did a great job!
Since that time he's had a chance to see the episode on which he appeared:
I never did see it because I was on the program at the time and these shows weren't re-run as in those days programs of this type were broadcast live. I was surprised that it was on national television and that a kinescope copy was made but the more I think about it, I believe that the kinescope copy was probably made just for the west coast.Thank you Jack for answering my questions and for being a part of Kovacsian history!
It is hard to describe seeing yourself 56 years later as a kid. I often have wondered how the likes of Shirley Temple felt, when she watched her self grow up on the screen? I do wish my parents were here to see it. I just want to thank you for your knowledge and assistance in providing me with ability to obtain this little piece of personal history about myself.
I will leave you with a quick link to an interesting article from September 1955 about Ernie's genius for special effects.
Until next time, my friends, "Its Been Real!!"