Ben Model presents "Kovacsland Online!": the internet's first Ernie Kovacs fansite (est. 1996)
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Brian Hull

Brian Hull is a writer and animator, and contributed this piece to Kovacsland Online some years ago.  There is so little in the way of insight from the performers who worked with Ernie on his shows, this is a great piece of history.  I've not found any interviews with Mikolas, nor with Bobby Lauher, Peggy Connelly, Peter Hanley, Steve Blauner, Barbara Loden etc etc, about working with Ernie from the 1960s, '70s or later.  

by Brian K. Hull

        A few years ago, I was working on a play on the life of Ernie Kovacs. Through the process, I was hooked up with Joe Mikolas, Ernie's "straight man" for many of the wonderful moments found on the ERNIE KOVACS SHOW and even the marvelous "Silent Show". He filled the conversations with remarkable character in that unmistakable voice.

        At first he seemed surprised that there were any significant amount of people interested in the show, not believing that his name was recognized much anymore. He was interested in the prospect of a play, and became a good ally, hoping that it may spark interest in those who've never heard of Kovacs and his contributions, hoping to return credit where it's due.

        Joe told me he knew Ernie from 1958 - on, introduced to him through Bobby Darren's manager who brought him to a Kovacs card game. Ernie was an avid card player, a master bridge player, and during a game Ernie turned to him and said, "Hey, do you wanna be in a commercial?" To which Joe replied,"Sure." It was not long after that Joe found himself opposite Ernie in the classic Dutch Masters "High Noon" commercial where Ernie and Joe (as cowboys) face each other to draw, both smoking cigars. Ernie fills Joe with bullets only to have the smoke escape through the bullet holes when he puffs on the cigar. This was the beginning of their working relationship.

        He confirmed Ernie's reputation for being the world's worst poker player, some nights losing as much as $4000 to $5000. One night, wanting to give Ernie a break from losing, Joe decided to "throw" a few hands. Ernie noticed it, and was quite upset. He felt that affected the way Ernie played poker with him from then on, but there never was any contest; He could beat Ernie for anything. The games were notorious and famous, bringing in stars from all around, Eddie Fischer, Richard Conti, etc. and etc. a veritable "who's who" of Hollywood. And the games were almost every night, all night. Once Edie broke up a game that lasted until 6:00 AM, only to have Ernie call Joe At 9:10 Am to tell him to come back and play some more.

        He talked a little about Ernie's troubles with the IRS; how that was a constant battle, and at one point an agent had offered to make a deal to close it. This agent went into Ernie's den and suggested they settle all the accounts with $40,000 cash on the spot. To this Ernie responded, "Who do you think you are... God?" and threw him out. Soon after Edie found a safe in the den that had more cash than that available the whole time, but with Ernie it was the principle of the thing.

        Joe spoke of Edie's wonderful talent, especially of her amazing Marilyn impersonation. He remembers Ernie meeting Marilyn at a party with Carl Sandburg, and that Marilyn would sometimes call Ernie, although he was never quite sure whether it was really her or Edie playing a trick. Joe really seemed to have a lot of respect for Edie; not only her singing and acting talent but always speaking highly of her and the things she had gone through.

        Joe talked of Ernie being a "man's man". How kids adored him. How his crew admired him. How he was constantly creating, coming up with ideas and fleshing them out. Once, Joe had seen a documentary about Rasputin. He called Ernie, who was out of town at the time and flying home that night, and told him that he would make a great Rasputin. By the time Ernie got home he already had a treatment written.

        Of the days on television, Joe's favorite may have been the sketch where Ernie introduced him as a man with an incredible tale to tell. The bit continued with Joe not being able to remember anything, and Ernie ended up telling the story as they go along. He fondly remembered the SILENT SHOW, speaking of Ernie's brilliance in working the tilted table sequence. He talked about Barry Shear as a great director on the program, and how Barry once saved his life. In one sketch, Joe played an escape artist, chained and lowered into a body of water. Evidently, something went wrong, and Joe found himself stuck, until Barry (who was under water as well) was able to free him.

        According to Joe, Ernie was his best friend, and that there were many plans and dreams that went away when Ernie died. There was an idea for Percy Dovetonsils that never saw light: where we saw Percy's home as the camera travelled up a long driveway through the mountains, and inside the home among the sunken carpet were two Cadillacs as lamps and a big round table held up by four girls. Another sketch had to do with a man who was in prison for 18 years; in his cell was everything from coctails to anything you wanted. Also, there was talk between them of touring the country doing one night stands, and Ernie directing two plays in New York.
        He told me of the terrible night when Ernie died; how he and Jack Lemmon kept going over and over wondering why, WHY Ernie took such a strange route home. Then, after Kim Novak was able to help Edie relax and finally get to bed around 5:30AM, Ernie's mother burst into the house, screaming. It was "the most horrible thing you'd ever seen."

        I had many conversations with Joe, each one a delight, if only to hear that voice. After those days he owned a few nightclubs and married the actress who played Gloria on THE ODD COUPLE. He loved his children, and was very proud of them. I never met him personally, and regret that. About a year and a half ago I called him to chat and was informed that he had passed away from a heart attack. And although my play has never seen the light of the stage I feel it was all worth the experience, just to get a chance to talk to Joe.
        copyright © 2008 by Brian K. Hull

Jolene Brand played Anna Maria Verdugo on the Disney TV series "Zorro" in 1958-59, and then joined Ernie's ensemble of players for "Take a Good Look".  Ms. Brand continued working with Ernie on his ABC specials.  She was married (still is!) to George Schlatter, best-known for producing "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In".

The only member of any of Ernie's ensemble still living, she was interviewed, along with her husband, for the Ernie Kovacs Collection DVD set in December 2010 and this is the first time that first-hand insight into Ernie's working methods on his later shows has been documented in any way.

Ms. Brand continued doing TV series work through the mid-1960s







* * * Last updated  January 10, 2010 * * *