December 27, 1906, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
August 14, 1972, in Los Angeles, California.
Anyone who watched late night television during the late 1950s and early 1960s will recall Oscar Levant’s frequent and provocative appearances on NBC’s Jack Paar Show. It was during those appearances that Levant became the first celebrity to candidly discuss, in front of a national audience, his battle with drug addiction, his bouts with obsessive–compulsive behavior and depression, his neurotic phobias, and his experiences with psychiatry, shock treatments, and group therapy. After Oscar’s first memorable appearances in 1958, Jack Paar would often sign off with the phrase, “Good night, Oscar Levant, wherever you are.”
Yet, from the 1920s through the early 1950s this popular and gifted concert pianist, composer, songwriter, stage & film actor, comedian, radio personality, television host, and bestselling author managed to control his inner demons to become one of America’s truly unique personalities. His caustic yet witty quips, quotes, wisecracks, ripostes, and observations were often published and endlessly repeated, and at the height of his career he was the highest–paid concert pianist in America. A featured player in a number of significant movies with top stars, his cynical, seemingly implacable scowl and surly disposition hid a perceptive intelligence, a disarming honesty, a self–deprecating sense of humor, and a conciliatory warmth that still engages and entertains. Although he always harbored a wavering confidence in his own talent, even today he is considered by many to have been the supreme interpreter of George Gershwin’s music, especially Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue”.
First Piano Lessons:
Oscar’s parents, Max and Annie, insisted that he and his three brothers take music lessons from the time they were very young. Oscar quickly demonstrated that he was musically gifted, but he had to be forced to practice. (When asked by Jack Paar, many years later, what he wanted to be when he was a child, Oscar replied, “An orphan.”) Oscar’s brother, Harry, went on to become a professional violinist.
In 1921, shortly after Oscar’s father died, Oscar dropped out of high school and was sent to New York City by his mother to study music. Oscar began his studies under Sigismond Stojowski, a highly regarded teacher and a disciple of Paderewski. To make money, Oscar got jobs playing the piano in various roadhouses and nightclubs where he developed an affection for contemporary Broadway show tunes, an affection that he felt clashed with his love of classical music.
In 1935 Oscar studied music composition under Arnold Schoenberg, a German composer who had fled Nazi–Germany and accepted a professorship at UCLA. Oscar would study on and off with Schoenberg for three years.
Introduction to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”:
In 1924 Oscar heard Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” for the first time when it was performed by Paul Whiteman’s Palais Royal Orchestra. The piece served to resolve the conflict in Oscar between his love of classical compositions and his growing affection for Broadway–style music. Oscar immediately memorized the piece.
Although Oscar met George Gershwin briefly the following year, it wasn’t until 1930, after he was befriended by Ira Gershwin’s wife and became their regular houseguest, that Oscar became George’s devoted friend.
First Hit Song:
In 1927 the publishing firm of T.B. Harms, Inc. published Oscar’s first song, “Keep Sweeping the Cobwebs Off the Moon”, which became a minor hit. Oscar eventually had 80 songs published, including “If You Want the Rainbow (You Must Have the Rain)” (1928), “Lovable & Sweet” (1929), “Lady, Play Your Mandolin” (1930), and perhaps his most enduring tune, “Blame It On My Youth” (1934) which was recorded by the Dorsey Brothers, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Nat “King” Cole, and Frank Sinatra among others.
First Acting Job:
In 1927 Oscar was cast as a songwriter in a new Broadway musical called “Burlesque”. The play, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Hal Skelly, was a hit and ran for 372 performances. Although up until then Oscar had never had any serious ambitions to become an actor, he was elated to be in this Broadway hit.
First Trip to Hollywood:
In 1929 Paramount Studios bought the film rights to the Broadway musical, “Burlesque”. Although Barbara Stanwyck’s husband did not allow her to be in the film version of the play, both Oscar and Hal Skelly were hired by Paramount to reprise their roles. David O. Selznick was put in charge of filming the play which he renamed “The Dance of Life”. After the movie was completed Oscar remained in Hollywood for awhile and was hired by RKO Pictures as a songwriter for that studio’s first musical, “Street Girl”. He wrote three songs for that movie including “Lovable and Sweet”, which became a hit.
Oscar shuttled back and forth between New York and Los Angeles for the next three decades either writing music for, or appearing in, a succession of movies, plays, radio shows, and concerts.
When the pianist with the Frank Black Orchestra didn’t show up for a recording session in 1928, Oscar was called in at the last minute. Without any rehearsal Oscar cut his first record, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. This was the first time the piece was recorded with the piano solo performed by someone other than George Gershwin. Oscar’s recording with the orchestra went on to be frequently played on the growing number of radio stations across the country.
First Major Solo Concert Performance:
In 1932 Oscar was asked by George Gershwin to play his “Concerto in F” at New York’s Lewisohn Stadium’s first all–Gershwin program. This summer concert drew an audience of 17,000 people with 4,000 turned away. Although Oscar received favorable reviews he suffered intense stage fright and did not pursue his concert career for the next five years. For his efforts, however, Gershwin gave Oscar a watch inscribed “From George to Oscar, Lewisohn Stadium, August 15, 1932”. Years later Oscar would quip that, “It is by this watch that I have been late for every important appointment since then.”
Best Film Score:
In 1936 Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century–Fox hired Oscar to compose some operatic sequences for use in the movie “Charlie Chan at the Opera”, starring Warner Oland and Boris Karloff. Oscar’s composition, titled “Carnival”, is considered to be his most memorable film score.
First National Recognition:
In 1938, after an article in the New York Post declared Oscar to be “the wag of Broadway”, and gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen devoted a New York Journal piece to “Town Wit – Oscar Levant”, the producers of a new radio show called “Information, Please!” hired Oscar to appear as a guest. The response to Oscar’s spontaneous wit during this program that challenged “experts” to answer questions sent in by listeners was so phenomenal that he was immediately hired to be one of the show’s four regulars every other week. By the end of the show’s first year over 12 million people a week were tuning in and Oscar Levant had became a household name. Oscar would stay on the show until 1944.
In 1939 Oscar appeared in five movie shorts made of the radio show. Looking relaxed and self–confident, he exhibited an irresistible film presence. The film shorts were enormously popular and Oscar’s performances caught the attention of Hollywood executives.
First Bestselling Book:
In 1939, capitalizing in part on his new fame as a national radio personality, Oscar began writing a series of witty essays about various subjects that interested him – Gershwin, popular music, Hollywood, Harpo Marx, classical music conductors, etc. The essays were compiled into a book titled “A Smattering of Ignorance” and published at the beginning of 1940. Clifton Fadiman in The New Yorker called the book “brilliant”, and it quickly became a national bestseller.
First Multi–Film Acting Contract:
In 1940 Paramount Pictures offered Oscar a contract to appear in three movies. Because of his natural wit he was allowed to supply much of his own dialogue. In his first movie, “Rhythm on the River” starring Bing Crosby & Mary Martin, he has a scene where he’s lounging in a chair reading his own book “A Smattering of Ignorance”. When he gets up he disdainfully puts the book down with the comment, “A very irritating book.” Although he basically played himself in the movie, his performance was engaging and he received a number of good reviews.
By the end of his career Oscar had appeared in a total of 13 movies.
In 1940 Oscar began to perform in what were called “concerts with comments”, where he preceded and followed his piano pieces with humorous comments often made at his own expense. These concerts proved to be enormously popular with audiences and allowed him to become the highest paid concert pianist in the United States. His concert performances would continue until the mid–1950s.
First Hollywood Box Office Hit:
In 1943 Oscar signed a contract with Warner Bros. to play himself in a biopic of the life of George Gershwin (who had died in 1937). The film was titled, “Rhapsody in Blue”, and Oscar both appeared in the movie and recorded Gershwin’s “Concerto in F” for the soundtrack. During filming Oscar would complain that “even the lies about George were being distorted.” The movie turned out to be a box office hit, however, and the mayor of Pittsburgh even honored Oscar by proclaiming an “Oscar Levant Week”.
Most Popular Record:
In 1945 Oscar recorded Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The album became the #1 classical recording on Billboard’s bestseller chart, and remained one of Columbia Records’ top–selling albums for the next ten years. By the end of his career Oscar would produce over 100 recordings.
Best Movie Performance:
In 1946 Levant signed a contract to be in “Humoresque”, a Warner Bros. film starring John Garfield and Joan Crawford. Jerry Wald, the film’s producer who liked and respected Levant, relied on Oscar’s judgment and musical knowledge to help authenticate the movie’s world of classical music performers. Although Oscar’s acting ability never had great range (he always played a character who was a version of himself), he did his best acting in this movie coming across as both natural and appealing.
The Pinnacle of Levant’s Career:
In 1947 Oscar was invited to perform for President Harry Truman in the White House. His recital was attended by eight justices of the Supreme Court, various cabinet officers, congressmen, and senators, and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson. As the Levants were leaving the White House after the recital Oscar turned to his wife and said, “Now I guess we owe them a dinner.”
This was also the year that Oscar moved his family out to Los Angeles.
In 1949 Oscar recorded what many critics felt was his best album when he played Gershwin’s “Second Rhapsody for Piano & Orchestra “ and the ” ‘I Got Rhythm’ Variations” with Morton Gould and His Orchestra.
Most Famous Movie:
Oscar played a struggling expatriate composer in “An American in Paris” (1951), starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won six, including “Best Picture of the Year”.
Decline and Fall:
In 1953 Oscar suffered his first heat attack, became addicted to the opiate Demerol, was temporarily suspended from the American Federation of Musicians for failing to meet numerous concert engagements, was briefly hospitalized in a sanatorium and, finally, separated from his wife and daughters for a couple of months. Although he would make one last movie and sporatically continue his concert performances for a few more years, Oscar’s creative “spark” had been swallowed up by drugs and his brilliant performing career was, for all intents and purposes, over.
In his last movie “The Cobweb” (1955), during which he uncharacteristically did not play the piano, Oscar portrayed a neurotic patient in a psychiatric hospital. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, the film featured an all–star cast which included Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, Gloria Grahame, Lillian Gish, and Susan Strasberg. In the 1970s the reviewer Pauline Kael would write of this overwrought film, “To [Vincente Minnelli’s] credit, most of the confusion is calculated – and enjoyable, in an almost campy bad–movie way.” She went on to call Oscar Levant’s character, “The prize comic maniac . . . “
Last Concert Tour:
Suffering from a growing dependency on prescription drugs, and in declining health, Oscar was no longer able to endure the exertions and anxieties of maintaining an extended concert schedule. Although he would play an occasional concert now and then for the next three years, his last official concert tour was in 1955. (Oscar performed a concert in public for the last time at the Hollywood Bowl on August 2, 1958.)
Although both of Oscar’s parents were Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Russia, they did not meet and marry until they were both living in Pittsburgh. Oscar’s father showed contempt for displays of emotion, and while his mother was indulgent and loving, she was also remote and aloof.
Oscar’s uncle, Oscar Radin, left Pittsburgh and became influential in the Shubert Organization as music director for many of their Winter Garden Theatre productions in New York City. During the 1920s he was Al Jolson’s music director.
In 1925 Oscar joined Ben Bernie’s “Lads”, a dance band playing at the Roosevelt Hotel. While with this group Oscar met an aspiring songwriter, Phil Charig, who introduced him to Emily and Lou Paley, a couple who held a lively salon on Saturday nights for New York’s showbusiness elite. During these lively “Saturday Nights” Oscar was frequently asked to play, and he quickly made a name for himself as both a talented pianist and a wit.
To promote Oscar Levant’s 1930 hit song “Lady, Play Your Mandolin”, Warner Bros. used the title and the song to create its first Merrie Melodies cartoon.
In 1932 Oscar married Barbara Wooddell, a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl. Walter Winchell wrote in his newspaper column, “Barbara [Wooddell], who is lovely and nice, is marrying Oscar Levant, who isn’t.” Oscar and Barbara were divorced less than nine months after getting married. Oscar said later that, “Besides incompatibility, we hated each other.” In 1939 when Oscar married the movie actress June Gale (born: June Gilmartin), Walter Winchell wrote, “Oscar Levant, who knows most of the answers, explained that June Gale married him for his beauty, when everybody knows she married him for his theatre passes.” June would stay with Oscar for the remainder of his life and they would have three daughters.
Oscar wrote the title song for “Steamboat ‘Round the Bend”, Will Roger’s last movie.
It is said that Oscar smoked four packs of cigarettes a day and drank as many as 40 cups of coffee a day.
In 1938 Oscar met Judy Garland who quickly developed a crush on him. Although their relationship would never develop beyond being a close friendship, they would share their feelings about stage fright, neurotic experiences, and eventually exchange prescription pills.
In 1944 Oscar received a draft notice from the army. One of the army’s examiners asked him, “Do you think you can kill?” Oscar replied, “I don’t know about strangers, but friends, yes.” He was classified 4–F and sent back to civilian life.
Oscar was one of the first pianists to play on a percentage take of the house. As his popularity soared his concert fee went from $1,500 per concert in 1941 to over $4,600 per concert in 1944. At the height of his career Oscar made $200,000 a year from concert appearances and recording contracts.
Among the things that Oscar had a phobia about were any mention of the word “death”, or any word associated with death such as “funeral”, “coffin”, etc.; the numbers 13 and 411 (the hospital room number his mother was in when she died); lemons (which reminded him of the lemon he was awarded in his youth for being the worst dancer at a party); cats (a bad omen); dread of the word “luck” in any connotation, especially when being wished “good luck”; a hatred of the name Sarah (his sister–in–law’s name); and blackbirds (which filled him with terror because they were funereal–looking).
Although the standard rate of pay for appearing on late night television’s “The Jack Paar Show” during the late 1950s and early 1960s was $320, by 1963 Levant was being paid $10,000 per appearance.
In July, 1965, Oscar Levant published a volume of random memories titled “The Memoirs of an Amnesiac”. Four weeks after its release it appeared on The New York Times bestseller list. While promoting his book on “The Merv Griffin” television show, the talk show host asked Oscar what he would do if he had his life to live over again. Oscar responded, “I’d talk my parents out of it.” In 1968 his last memoir “The Unimportance of Being Oscar” was published and it also became a bestseller.
Quips and Quotes:
- Upon meeting Greta Garbo: “Sorry, I didn’t get the name.”
- To George Gershwin: “Tell me, George, if you had to do it all over would you fall in love with yourself again?”
- Of Leonard Bernstein: “I admire Leonard Bernstein, but not as much as he does.”
- Of Elizabeth Taylor: “Always a bride, never a bridesmaid.”
- Of Perry Como: “Perry Como’s voice actually comes out of his eyelids.”
- Of Debbie Reynolds: “She’s as wistful as an iron foundry.”
- Of Minnie Guggenheimer: “She’s a good friend. As long as you’re on top she’ll stick by you.”
- Of Grace Kelly: “She just married the first prince who asked her.”
- Of Doris Day: “I knew Doris Day before she became a virgin.”
- Of Richard Nixon: “He swings a big mouth and carries a little stick.”
- Of Zsa Zsa Gabor: “Zsa Zsa Gabor has learned the secret of perpetual middle age.”
- “Someone once asked me where I lived and I said, ‘On the periphery ‘.”
- “I paid thousands of dollars to psychiatrists to forget my childhood.”
- “My psychiatrist once said to me, ‘Maybe life isn’t for everyone’.”
- “I was thrown out of one mental hospital because I depressed the patients.”
- “There is a fine line between genius and insanity, and I have erased that line.”
- “Happiness isn’t something you experience, it’s something you remember.”
- “A pun is the lowest form of humor – when you don’t think of it first.”
- “It’s not what you are, it’s what you don’t become that hurts.”
- “I’ve given up reading books. I find it takes my mind off myself.”
Honoring what they felt were his wishes, Oscar’s family buried him at Westwood Memorial Cemetery in Los Angeles without a religious ceremony. His wife, June, told one reporter, “Oscar never could face the medieval agony of a funeral service.”
Lengthy obituaries of Oscar Levant ran in all of the nation’s major newspapers. New York mayor John Lindsay said, after reading the obituary in The New York Times which included many anecdotes and quotes, that he had never before read the obituary page and laughed.
Oscar’s wife, June, died of pneumonia in 1996. She was 85 years old.
A song written by Oscar Levant was used in both the 1991 Disney movie “The Rocketeer”, and in the 1999 Stanley Kubrick movie “Eyes Wide Shut”.
© 2007 The Picture Show Man. All Rights Reserved.
The following products will help you explore this subject further:
- A Talent For Genius: The Life & Times of Oscar Levant, (1994), by Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger
- An American in Paris, (DVD issued 2008) 2–disc Special Edition
- An American in Paris [Blu–ray HD], (High–Definition DVD released in 2009)
- The Band Wagon, (DVD issued 2005), 2–disc Special Editon
- The Barkleys of Broadway, (DVD issued 2005)
- Humoresque, (DVD issued 2005)
- O. Henry’s Full House, (DVD issued 2006)
- Romance on the High Seas, (DVD issued 2007)
- Levant Plays Gershwin
- Piano Masters: Oscar Levant
- An American in Paris (1951 Film Soundtrack), 2 discs, (includes Oscar Levant playing the complete version of “Lisa”)
- A Copland Celebration, Vol. 2