Oscar Levant

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Oscar Levant
Oscar Levant in Rhapsody in Blue trailer.jpg
from the trailer for
Rhapsody in Blue (1945)
Born(1906-12-27)December 27, 1906
DiedAugust 14, 1972(1972-08-14) (aged 65)
Years active1923–1965
Spouse(s)Barbara Woodell (1932–1932; divorced)
June Gale (1939–1972, his death; 3 children)

Oscar Levant (December 27, 1906 August 14, 1972) was an American concert pianist, composer, music conductor, bestselling author, radio game show panelist and personality, television talk show host, and actor. He was as famous for his mordant character and witticisms, on the radio and in movies and television, as for his music.

Composer person who creates music, either by musical notation or oral tradition

A composer is a musician who is an author of music in any form, including vocal music, instrumental music, electronic music, and music which combines multiple forms. A composer may create music in any music genre, including, for example, classical music, musical theatre, blues, folk music, jazz, and popular music. Composers often express their works in a written musical score using musical notation.

An author is the creator or originator of any written work such as a book or play, and is also considered a writer. More broadly defined, an author is "the person who originated or gave existence to anything" and whose authorship determines responsibility for what was created.

Game show Type of television or radio program where contestants compete for prizes

A game show is a type of radio, television, or stage show in which contestants, individually or as teams, play a game which involves answering questions or solving puzzles, usually for money or prizes. Alternatively, a gameshow can be a demonstrative program about a game [while usually retaining the spirit of an awards ceremony]. In the former, contestants may be invited from a pool of public applicants. Game shows often reward players with prizes such as cash, trips and goods and services provided by the show's sponsor prize suppliers.

Contents

Early life

Levant was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, in 1906, to Orthodox Jewish parents from Russia. [1] His father, Max, was a watchmaker who wanted his four sons to become either dentists or doctors. His mother Annie was a highly religious woman whose father was a Rabbi who presided over his daughter’s wedding to Max Levant. [2]

Pittsburgh City in western Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh is a city in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the United States, and is the county seat of Allegheny County. A population of about 301,048 residents live within the city limits, making it the 66th-largest city in the U.S. The metropolitan population of 2,324,743 is the largest in both the Ohio Valley and Appalachia, the second-largest in Pennsylvania, and the 27th-largest in the U.S.

Pennsylvania State of the United States of America

Pennsylvania, officially the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, is a state located in the northeastern, Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. The Appalachian Mountains run through its middle. The Commonwealth is bordered by Delaware to the southeast, Maryland to the south, West Virginia to the southwest, Ohio to the west, Lake Erie and the Canadian province of Ontario to the northwest, New York to the north, and New Jersey to the east.

Orthodox Judaism Traditionalist branches of Judaism

Orthodox Judaism is a collective term for the traditionalist branches of contemporary Judaism. Theologically, it is chiefly defined by regarding the Torah, both Written and Oral, as literally revealed by God on Mount Sinai and faithfully transmitted ever since. Orthodox Judaism therefore advocates a strict observance of Jewish Law, or Halakha, which is to be interpreted and determined only according to traditional methods and in adherence to the continuum of received precedent through the ages. It regards the entire halakhic system as ultimately grounded in immutable revelation, essentially beyond external and historical influence. More than any theoretical issue, obeying the dietary, purity, ethical, and other laws of Halakha is the hallmark of Orthodoxy. Other key doctrines include belief in a future resurrection of the dead, divine reward and punishment for the righteous and the sinners, the Election of Israel, and an eventual restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem under the Messiah.

Oscar Levant moved to New York in 1922, following the death of his father. He began studying under Zygmunt Stojowski, a well-established piano pedagogue. In 1924, aged 18, he appeared with Ben Bernie in a short film, Ben Bernie and All the Lads , made in New York City in the DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film system.

Zygmunt Stojowski Polish pianist and composer

Zygmunt Denis Antoni Jordan de Stojowski was a Polish pianist and composer.

Ben Bernie American jazz violinist and radio personality

Ben Bernie, was an American jazz violinist, bandleader, and radio personality, often introduced as "The Old Maestro". He was noted for his showmanship and memorable bits of snappy dialogue, being part of the first generation of "stars" of American popular music, alongside other artists such as Paul Whiteman, Ted Lewis and Al Jolson.

Ben Bernie and All the Lads is a short film made by Lee de Forest in the De Forest Phonofilm sound-on-film process. The film features Ben Bernie conducting his band All The Lads, and features pianist Oscar Levant and saxophonist Jack Pettis. At the time of the filming, Ben Bernie and All the Lads were a featured band at the Hotel Roosevelt in New York City.

Career

In 1928, Levant traveled to Hollywood, where his career took a turn for the better. During his stay, he met and befriended George Gershwin. From 1929 to 1948 he composed the music for more than twenty movies. During this period, he also wrote or co-wrote numerous popular songs that made the Hit Parade, the most noteworthy being "Blame It on My Youth" (1934), now considered a standard.

George Gershwin American composer and pianist

George Gershwin was an American composer and pianist whose compositions spanned both popular and classical genres. Among his best-known works are the orchestral compositions Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928), the songs Swanee (1919) and Fascinating Rhythm (1924), the jazz standard I Got Rhythm (1930), and the opera Porgy and Bess (1935) which spawned the hit Summertime.

"Blame It on My Youth" is a jazz standard written by Oscar Levant and Edward Heyman in 1934.

Around 1932, Levant began composing seriously. He studied under Arnold Schoenberg and impressed him sufficiently to be offered an assistantship (which he turned down, considering himself unqualified). [3] His formal studies led to a request by Aaron Copland to play at the Yaddo Festival of contemporary American music on April 30 of that year. Successful, Levant began composing a new orchestral work, a sinfonietta.

Arnold Schoenberg Austrian-American composer

Arnold Schoenberg or Schönberg was an Austrian, and later American, composer, music theorist, teacher, writer, and painter. He is widely considered one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century. He was associated with the expressionist movement in German poetry and art, and leader of the Second Viennese School. With the rise of the Nazi Party, Schoenberg's works were labeled degenerate music, because they were modernist and atonal. He emigrated to the United States in 1933.

Aaron Copland American composer, composition teacher, writer, and conductor

Aaron Copland was an American composer, composition teacher, writer, and later a conductor of his own and other American music. Copland was referred to by his peers and critics as "the Dean of American Composers". The open, slowly changing harmonies in much of his music are typical of what many people consider to be the sound of American music, evoking the vast American landscape and pioneer spirit. He is best known for the works he wrote in the 1930s and 1940s in a deliberately accessible style often referred to as "populist" and which the composer labeled his "vernacular" style. Works in this vein include the ballets Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid and Rodeo, his Fanfare for the Common Man and Third Symphony. In addition to his ballets and orchestral works, he produced music in many other genres, including chamber music, vocal works, opera and film scores.

Yaddo Artists community in Saratoga Springs, New York

Yaddo is an artists' community located on a 400-acre (160 ha) estate in Saratoga Springs, New York. Its mission is "to nurture the creative process by providing an opportunity for artists to work without interruption in a supportive environment." On March 11, 2013 it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

1938 saw Levant make his debut as a music conductor on Broadway, filling in for his brother Harry in sixty-five performances of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s The Fabulous Invalid. In 1939 he was again working on Broadway as composer and conductor of The American Way , another Kaufman and Hart production. [4]

George S. Kaufman American writer

George Simon Kaufman was an American playwright, theatre director and producer, humorist, and drama critic. In addition to comedies and political satire, he wrote several musicals for the Marx Brothers and others. One play and one musical that he wrote won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama: You Can't Take It with You, and Of Thee I Sing. He also won the Tony Award as a Director, for the musical Guys and Dolls.

Moss Hart Playwright, screenwriter, theatrical director and memoirist

Moss Hart was an American playwright and theatre director.

The American Way is a play by American playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

At this time, Levant was becoming best known to American audiences as one of the regular panelists on the radio quiz show Information Please . Originally scheduled as a guest panelist, Levant proved so quick-witted and popular that he became a regular fixture on the show in the late 1930s and 1940s, along with fellow panelists Franklin P. Adams and John Kieran, and moderator Clifton Fadiman. "Mr. Levant", as he was always called, was often challenged with musical questions, and he impressed audiences with his depth of knowledge and facility with a joke. Kieran praised Levant as having a "positive genius for making offhand cutting remarks that couldn't have been sharper if he'd honed them a week in his mind. Oscar was always good for a bright response edged with acid." [5] Examples include "I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin," "I think a lot of Bernstein — but not as much as he does," and (after Marilyn converted to Judaism when she married playwright Arthur Miller), "Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher, Arthur Miller can eat her." [6]

From the 1930s through the mid-1950s, Levant appeared in a number of feature films, often playing a pianist or composer. He had major supporting roles in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), [7] starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, An American in Paris (1951), [8] starring Gene Kelly, and The Band Wagon (1953), starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.

From 1947 to 1949, Levant regularly appeared on NBC radio's Kraft Music Hall , starring Al Jolson. He not only accompanied singer Jolson on the piano with classical and popular songs, but often joked and ad-libbed with Jolson and his guests. This included comedy sketches. The pairing of the two entertainers was inspired. Their individual ties to George Gershwin—Jolson introduced Gershwin's "Swanee"—undoubtedly had much to do with their rapport. Both Levant and Jolson appeared as themselves in the Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue (1945).

Levant in An American in Paris (1951) Oscar Levant.jpg
Levant in An American in Paris (1951)

In the early 1950s, Levant was an occasional panelist on the NBC game show Who Said That? , in which celebrities would try to determine the speaker of quotations taken from recent news reports. [9]

Between 1958 and 1960, Levant hosted a television talk show on KCOP-TV in Los Angeles, The Oscar Levant Show, [10] which later became syndicated. It featured his piano playing along with monologues and interviews with top-name guests such as Fred Astaire and Linus Pauling. A full recording of only two shows is known to exist, [11] one with Astaire, who paid to have a kinescope recording of the broadcast made so that he could assess his performance.

In 1960 Levant was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in recognition of his recording career. [12]

Personal life

Levant was briefly married to actress Barbara Woodell; they divorced in 1932. [13] In 1939, Levant married for the second time, to singer and actress June Gale (née Doris Gilmartin), one of the Gale Sisters. They were married for 33 years, until his death in 1972, and had three children: Marcia, Lorna, and Amanda. [13]

Levant was open about his neuroses and hypochondria. The 1920s and 1930s wit Alexander Woollcott, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, once said of him: "There isn't anything the matter with Levant that a few miracles wouldn't cure." [14] Despite his afflictions, Levant was considered a multifaceted genius by some. He himself wisecracked "There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line." [15] In later life Levant became addicted to prescription drugs, was frequently committed to mental hospitals by his wife, and increasingly withdrew from the limelight.

He was the inspiration for the neurotic, womanizing pianist "Henry Orient" in Nora Johnson's novel and subsequent Hollywood film, The World of Henry Orient (1964). [16]

Death

Crypt of Oscar Levant at Westwood Memorial Park Oscar Levant Grave.jpg
Crypt of Oscar Levant at Westwood Memorial Park

A lifelong heavy smoker, Levant died in Beverly Hills, California, of a heart attack in 1972 at age 65. His death was discovered by his wife June when she called him from their bedroom to meet for an interview with Candice Bergen, a photojournalist at the time. He is interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. In citing an old joke, comics tell an apocryphal story about Levant: that his epitaph reads, "I told them I was ill." [17]

Filmography

Quotations

More examples of his repartée:

[18] [19]

Broadway

Memoirs

Notes

  1. Kashner, Sam (1994). A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant. New York: Villard/Random House. p. 3. ISBN   1-879505-39-8.
  2. Kashner, Sam (1994). A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant. New York: Villard/Random House. pp. 4–5. ISBN   1-879505-39-8.
  3. Oscar Levant, The Unimportance of Being Oscar , Pocket Books 1969 (reprint of G.P. Putnam 1968), p. 113. ISBN   0-671-77104-3.
  4. http://www.classical.net/music/comp.lst/acc/levant.php
  5. On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Books.google.com. Retrieved November 13, 2014.
  6. "Oscar Levant - Wikiquote". En.wikiquote.org. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  7. "The Barkleys of Broadway". IMDb.com. September 1, 1949. Retrieved December 30, 2017 via www.imdb.com.
  8. "An American in Paris". IMDb.com. November 11, 1951. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  9. "Show Overview: Who Said That?". tv.com. Retrieved June 12, 2011.
  10. Ethan Thompson (2011). "5". Parody and Taste in Postwar American Television Culture. New York: Routledge. Retrieved November 13, 2014.
  11. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on July 8, 2012. Retrieved December 28, 2009.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  12. http://www.walkoffame.com/oscar-levant
  13. 1 2 "The Palm Beach Post - Google News Archive Search". News.google.com. Archived from the original on April 11, 2013. Retrieved November 13, 2014.
  14. Teichman, Howard, Smark Aleck, the Wit World and Life of Alexander Woollcott (William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1976), p. 170
  15. The Author of Love. Books.google.com. Retrieved November 13, 2014.
  16. Colapinto, John (April 3, 2012). "A Star is Born, Lost, and Found". The New Yorker . New York City . Retrieved December 12, 2015.
  17. "Oscar Levant". Answers.com. Retrieved November 13, 2014.
  18. "The Memoirs of an Amnesiac". Classicalmpr.org. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  19. Levant, Oscar. "Quotations at wikiquotes". En.wikiquote.org. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  20. Burlesque at the Internet Broadway Database
  21. Ripples at the Internet Broadway Database
  22. Sweet and Low at the Internet Broadway Database
  23. The Fabulous Invalid at the Internet Broadway Database
  24. The American Way at the Internet Broadway Database
  25. The American Way at the Internet Broadway Database

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