Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Festival Of Magic" Hosted By Ernie Kovacs

Good evening Kovacsians. I have something for you that I know you'll enjoy.

Kovacs fans know that outside of the "Best Of Collection" and the ten films he appeared in, there is a dearth of material with Ernie in it that is available for purchase. Now, however, there is something you can add to the list.

"Producers Showcase: Festival Of Magic" aired on NBC on Monday, May 27, 1957. Ernie acts as the emcee for this extravaganza which you can now purchase from The Miracle Factory, the company which produces it. Todd Karr, who owns The Miracle Factory, was nice enough to send us a copy for review.

The program itself is an ode to the big production number/variety shows from television's golden age. From a magic standpoint it has a wonderful theme; grand stage illusions are performed by magicians from the far corners of the world.

There's Robert Harbin , the British magician who invented the famous "Zig Zag Girl" illusion, a version of which he does here and who for purposes of the show is from "South Africa". Then from "Asia" there is "Li King Si" (a Frenchman born Edouard 'Georges' Cassel), Sorcar from India, Rene Septembre from France, June Merlin from Ireland and Milbourne Christopher from the United States.

But for me the highlight of the magic is the genius of the Englishman Richard Pitchford, better known to the world as "Cardini". This is the only performance of his full act available on film and it's something well worth seeing. He's like a great actor; the delivery and the magic together make for a fine performance and I find it amazing that unlike the other magicians, who are working with much bigger items and/or animals, Cardini pulls off his act with just playing cards and cigarettes. Truly phenomenal, a master of sleight of hand and very funny as well, the perfect compliment to EK.

"So what about Ernie?" you may be asking. In her book "Kovacsland: A Biography Of Ernie Kovacs" author Diana Rico describes him as doing a sword balancing act and performing some running "magic" gags in which he shoots, saws and otherwise tries to destroy some NBC Vice Presidents. This is an apt description; EK, who wrote his own bits for this show, is using them as a jibe at the meddling ways of television executives, something he was famous for loathing. Before addressing the assemblage of "executives" for the first time he tells the audience:
"Some of the gentleman with whom I've been at odds occasionally, the NBC Vice Presidents, felt that perhaps I might not restrain myself in doing a magic show; they're a little bit skeptical."
After turning to look at them he says:
"You've been here all day; it's awfully difficult to work with them here."
He then opens with a "trick" in which he attempts to make one of them vanish inside a large cabinet. Very telling.

Ernie performs all the "tricks" as himself so you won't be seeing "Matzoh Hepplewhite: Itinerant Magician". There is also no interaction between Ernie and the magicians themselves; he does his bits at the end of the acts before the commercial breaks and then again coming in from the breaks before the next act, then announces the act. This could have been a "meddling vice president" choice; Ernie was at his best when riffing with people or performers not used to his brand of humor so it seems odd that this was not pursued.

This is not going to go down on record as Ernie's greatest hosting performance. It's from a time period several months after his fill-in stint as permanent guest host of Steve Allen's "Tonight!" and was at a point when Ernie did not have a show of his own but was still under contract to NBC. For this reason it's apparent that it's of the "let's get Kovacs to host this magic show" variety, since NBC could never quite figure out what to do with Ernie in a show of his own. At points he's reading from cue cards and seems to not be all that into it.

That being said Ernie's bits when he's allowed to be Ernie have their moments; wind-up toy animals talk, there's a visual bit where he has a conversation with a tiny man in a pith helmet and of course the attempts to execute TV middle management disguised as illusions are great, if simply for that reason that it's obvious what his point is. Amongst the "executives" Kovacs stalwarts will recognize the veteran character actor Henry Lascoe and actor/singer Peter Hanley, both Kovacs show regulars. Hanley of course is famous for introducing the song "Solfeggio" to Ernie; he brought it into work one day to use as a singing exercise and it's the song that inspired Ernie to create the "The Nairobi Trio" and then became the music for same.

The DVD itself was made from a tape of an excellent kinescope; for the most part it looks and sounds fine with the occasionally audio and video glitches you might expect but completely watchable. Originally the producers had intended to include the original commercials but left them out because they felt it slowed down the show's pace, however, you do get to see who the sponsors are during the show opening. There is a choice on the DVD menu called "Commercials" but it is simply a little bit of comedy with EK before a commercial break. Running time is slightly over an hour and fifteen minutes which means the original show was probably 90 minutes. The cost of this DVD is $35.

All in all a very enjoyable "hour and a quarter"; as I write this I can hear my relatives laughing in the other room at EK's antics. That's as good an endorsement as any. If you're an Ernie fan, magic fan or both (and most people who read this blog are), then I suggest you pick up a copy.

Here's a short trailer so you'll have an idea what you're getting:

Until next time, "It's Been Real!"

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