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AL QUAGLIATA'S INTERVIEW WITH ERNIE KOVACS' ABC CAMERAMAN BOB KEMP
A while back I purchased an item on E-Bay from a gentleman named Blair White, who had been a cameraman at ABC television for 35 years. I asked Blair if he had worked on any of Ernie’s shows from the ABC period but as it turned out he had arrived right after Ernie died. Blair, however, is close friends with the legendary Bob Kemp who was an instrumental part of Ernie’s crew at ABC during the early 1960's. Bob was the head cameraman on all the EK specials from that time and in addition was a photographer who took many pictures to document the period.
Blair contacted Bob to see if he would be interested in talking with me about his work with Ernie. The interview follows. I have done some editing for clarity, but for the most part have printed Bob's answers verbatim.
Q1: Bob, how and when did you get started in the business? Did you start at ABC?
A1: Fresh out of USC, I started at ABC when I was 19. At that time I was the youngest engineer ever hired by the network.
Q2: How did you first get assigned to the various Kovacs' Shows you worked on?
A2: My early years at ABC were filled with menial chores in the Engineering Department. The title "Utility" is the name given for a "Grip", etc. One runs cables, places monitors, microphones, carries, and generally does most things others don't want to do. Little skill is required. That was my first assignment on the Kovacs' shows.
Q3: Tell me about the first time you ever met Ernie. What kind of impression did it make on you?
A3: My first encounter with Ernie was on stage while we both did our jobs. Ernie was perfect to fit a "Larger than Life" name tag. He was a big man, loud, and did exactly what he wanted, yet, he was quiet and kind, thoughtful and understanding, a gentleman. Previously I had not heard of him. It scared me a bit to overhear his tirades and watch his craziness. I didn't know what he was doing.
Q4: You worked on "Take A Good Look." How was it working on that show? Did Ernie enjoy doing it, or was it more for the ready cash due to the IRS stuff?
A4: During my early years at ABC, I found photography pleasing. I bought a camera and began photographing Ernie and the crew. This led me to the position of "Cameraman". "Take a Good Look" was pleasant, with a quicker pace than the "Specials". Ernie appeared to enjoy the shows. His cash problem was known, but he never showed it or spoke of it. Quite the opposite.
Q5: Did you play cards with Ernie? Was he really as bad of a gambler and as terrible of a player as is noted in some books?
A5: Cards, I played a bit, but the stakes were well beyond me so I avoided the table. I recall Ernie playing for the fun, not the money. I think he let friends win. He was that kind of guy. He really didn't want the money, though he needed it!
Q6: In the book Kovacsland by Diana Rico, you're quoted as saying "If management put up a barrier he (Ernie) would tear it down," this in relation to overtime on the Kovacs Specials, catering for the cast, etc. From much of what I've read, Ernie would buck the middle management types at every opportunity. Having worked in production, I can see entirely where he was coming from, and I applaud it. Did he have a hard time with all kinds of executives trying to thwart him, or would they generally let him have his way? (in my opinion the only way the type of art Ernie was putting out can be successful is if the interference of corporate flunkies is kept to a minimum)
A6: Diana's book was well done and as far as I can tell it's the most accurate book on Ernie, though a great work was done by a student in Texas. Ernie was tough with management, in fact anyone in his way. The crew went along with anything because of the money, the food, and, of course, the fun. Once a Vice President wrote Ernie. Ernie replied in the negative to the letter, with his reply written on a piece of toilet paper! Ernie found authority difficult, as it stifled his creative nature.
Q7: You purchased a 35mm camera after you took an interest in photography. Ernie became interested in this, offering you advice, buying pictures, etc.
One thing about Ernie, he was friends with his crew. So many so called
"stars" treat the crew like non-people, hardly acknowledging them or even
knowing their names. But Ernie seemed to treat everyone like people,
which is as it should be. Everything I've read indicates his crews loved
him. Would you:
A7: See #4. Ernie bought thousands of dollars of pictures from me. He always asked about the prices and sometimes complained, saying that in his youth he too sold photographs. But, he always paid and would not let me reduce the fee ever. Ernie liked the crews because they wanted to do what Ernie had in mind. There is really so much to tell and unless it's all put together right, it doesn't make too much sense, but... on occasion we would have completed the shooting and were about to be released for the night when Ernie would say that one more thing must be done. He ordered in a meal complete with fine wine. We rested afterwards as he played cards, then as we reached a point due to the length of day and the lateness of hour where our salaries would be raised by 50% for the entire day, he then decided we should go home. He kept us for the meal and the most generous pay. Each member of the crew probably feels as I. Ernie was my friend. Now, don't get me wrong, we worked hard and long. Most of the time we had no idea what we were doing, but we knew that Ernie knew. I received an Emmy that at this very moment looks down upon me as I type these words. Sure, the money was good, the prestige, the cutting edge in the industry, but we paid dearly at times for this as many of the crew became divorced, ill, and tired. Sure a thousand dollars a day is fine but that day is more than 24 hours with no meal period, never to see sunlight for several days on end. But, we LOVED it! Every moment.
Q8: Ernie did so much with so little technology. What do you think he'd be able to do today, with all the computer and technological advances in media production? Do you think he'd be able to take it even further than what is being done today? Perhaps he would create or suggest some new technology?
A8: Technology? Yes, he'd be an electronic genius. It would be UNBELIEVABLE!
Q9: So much of television today is by committee, with one-hundred and one people signing off on almost everything thats done. When you work in TV today you realize that if you have an idea, and you pitch it to the higher ups, it may not resemble your original idea when and if it hits the air. Ernie always seemed to me an iconoclastic type with a very strong singular vision, not really interested in a committee deciding the content of his show. Do you think he'd be able to survive in today's television environment, where you try to make visionary decisions and somebody always changes them?
A9: Today? Hummm, well it would be awfully difficult, probably not a possibility, even for Ernie.
Q10: One of my favorite oscilloscope gags is the one where Joe Mikolas is watching some sappy movie on the late show. Bobby Lauher and Jolene Brand are in a row boat on the screen making googly eyes at each other. Joe gets disgusted, gets up, takes a plumbers drill, and drills a hole through the tv making the boat sink. How was this done?
A10: I don't recall how that one was done, but probably an electronic key was used. I'll think on that one.
Q11: Give me your insight, and any anecdotes you can think of, about what it was like to work on the classic "Eugene." (the "Silent Show")
A11: Each show, no matter what was different and unique. Surprise, awe, and unusual met us each day we walked on stage. Unusual was usual.
Q12: Did you work on the Dutch Masters commercials? Talk about that experience.(they are absolutely classic)
A12: Yes, the commercials were shot at about the same time as the show. We might shoot a scene for the show and then one for a commercial, then back to the show. Lou Gamovits (sp) was the rep for Dutch Masters and got along marvelously with Ernie. We seldom had conflicts with the shoot. For many years my photos hung in the lobby of Dutch Masters headquarters as the only decoration, save a few plants. The commercials went along without a hitch.
Q13: I've read where you guys were so proud of the specials Ernie did for ABC that you took out full page ads in Variety telling people to "watch the next Kovacs show." How did this come about (who's idea was it) and for God's Sake, how much did it cost?!!
A13: It was my idea, though we all embraced the idea. Actually we did it a few times. The cost was high, very! I don't recall how expensive, but we all saved to get the page. Years later we realized that our overtime went up a bit those weeks after the spread. Ernie was generous.
Q14: This is for some of the youngsters getting into the business and for my curiosity:
A14: (ED. NOTE: PLEASE REALIZE WHEN READING THIS ANSWER THAT BOB IS TALKING ABOUT THE EARLY 1960'S!)
Q15: The Dancing Office Furniture bit to the music of "Sentimental Journey." Brilliant!! Ernie was the best with music, which I love because in addition to being a comic I'm also a jazz musician. I've read pages of text on how this was done and I still don't get it entirely. Its so great. How long did it take to do, and some insight on how it was accomplished. (ED. NOTE FOR THE FANS: There is a CD called "The Ernie Kovacs Record Collection" which features all the music from Ernie's shows. It is on the Varese-Sarabande Label. See the LINKS page for more info on Ernie Kovacs' books, videos and music.)
A15: Most often a raised stage allowed room for devices that were hidden and pushed up from below to move the chairs etc. Look at things with the raised stage in mind and you will see how much was done. Yes, Ernie was excellent with music.
Q16: Editing in those days was a bit different. I remember reading that Ernie would have you guys fade where he wanted to make an edit. Then, when he went to edit he would cut the tape where the fade was and splice it like radio tape. I find this amazing. If you would, please talk about this a bit. (Its an amazing thing and should be of interest to anyone who edits with avid or any of these electronic editing programs. My sister does avid for a living and would love to know!)
A16: Well, editing was different, but then it was normal. The tape was played and when a spot for an edit was found, it was marked. At the mark a microscope was used to find the alignment of electrons where a picture was not. At this point a razor blade was use to cut. Once the two pieces were found and cut, a gluing process was used to reunite the 2" tape. This doesn't sound too bad, but remember all the tracks are not aligned vertically. The audio track ended differently than the video or the control tracks. So an editor was burdened with this most difficult chore. Ernie's editor is alive and well and still editing shows, but now with a computer.
Q17: Every time I read about Ernie's death, I'm saddened. It was such a waste, such a great talent snuffed out in its prime. Do you remember what you were doing when you found out Ernie had died? How did it affect you?
A17: Yes, it was very sad, and still is.
Q18: Only one movie (in which actors portray the principals) has been made about Ernie's life, the 1987 "Ernie Kovacs: Between The Laughter," starring Jeff Goldblum in the title role. It mainly dwells on the kidnapping of Ernie's daughters by his ex-wife. While this was an important aspect of Ernie's life, I've always felt that a movie should be made that really shows what Ernie accomplished as a comic and pioneer of television, kind of like the movie "Chaplin," as we could say that Ernie Kovacs was the Charlie Chaplin of television. How would you feel about a movie of this nature, and do you think one will ever be made? And on the same note, how do you feel about the stuff thats been written about Ernie up to this point?
A18: It's funny that you mentioned "Between the Laughter", I saw that as I scanned the TV yesterday. No, I didn't watch it all. I saw it before and I remember it. But, I'd rather remember Ernie as he was, not some interpretation. It was well done though. Good questions. Chaplin was a visual comic without much help from the outside. One could see his genius as he did it. I think Ernie used the help of many to carry out his thoughts. They were similar ... but, different. As mentioned earlier, with today's technology.......... Well, Ernie would dazzle them as never before. A movie to be made? I don't know if anyone could produce what Ernie thought. I mentioned earlier of previous works on Ernie. I have deep personal thoughts on Ernie and for people who never met him to write about him will never please me. But, it's that way with all of us. None of us will ever be able to understand Einstein, Mozart, Hitler, Sinatra, Disney, Capone... but we try and that's good to try. Others that don't try at literary skills do enjoy reading the famous and those not so too, so we must try to convey the truth as best we can for the curious and for history. And that Al is what you and I are doing today.
Q19: Ernie's original show on WPTZ (NBC) in Philadelphia, "Three To Get Ready," does not seem to exist anywhere on tape or film. As a matter of fact, the Museum of TV and Radio has it on their top ten wish list and will ! Did Ernie ever talk about it? Also, I'm wondering if you ever had a chance to see it at some point during the fifties or sixties?
A19: Ernie had several shows prior to Hollywood. I have seen many. I may even have some, I'll look. (Again, in storage) Ernie did talk of those early days fondly. I think he had trouble finding people to go along with him. He was so far ahead of everyone that he struggled to accomplish his dreams. Ernie did talk about his personal troubles but only in private to close friends. We did talk and his feelings were deep and troubled regarding his family's separation.
That's the final question. My sincerest thanks go to Bob Kemp for his time, courtesy and desire to keep the memory of Ernie Kovacs alive.
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