Oscar Levant, Bridging High and Low
Today is the birthday of Oscar Levant (1906-1972). An anomaly in American public life, he managed to straddle both high art and popular culture. He was a composer and an interpreter (pianist) of both classical and popular music, but also a film actor, comedian, author, game show panelist (on both radio and tv) and talk show host. A protege of George Gershwin, he played the piano parts on recordings of several of Gershwin’s works. He also studied under Stojowski and Schoenberg and was asked by Aaron Copland to play at Yaddo. From 1929 to 1948 Levant composed scores for numerous Hollywood films (and acted in several as well, usually playing some variation of himself, through the 1950s), and wrote several popular songs. Among many other pictures, you can see him in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), An American in Paris (1951), and The Band Wagon (1953). His first appearance had been in an experimental early talkie called Ben Bernie and All the Lads in 1924.
His crusty, cynical and spontaneous wit made him a natural writer. C brought home a copy of his first book A Smattering of Ignorance (1940) for me a few weeks ago. Extended essays on Gershwyn and Harpo Marx were highly entertaining; I was less interested in the classical music gossip.
The greatest showcase for the breadth of his talents was perhaps his own program The Oscar Levant Show, which ran from 1958 through 1960. This little clip shows it all — his incredible physical awkwardness, yet also his skill at the piano and his verbal wit, and also his wife June, one of the Gale Sisters (a vaudeville act we’ll be writing about subsequently). Oh yes, and Oscar’s special guest is somebody named Fred Astaire:
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.