By Neena Arndt
“I played an unsympathetic part—myself,” quipped Oscar Levant in a 1946 interview about his role in Humoresque, a film in which he portrayed an accompanist and sidekick.
But contrary to his comment, Levant’s fans always found him sympathetic as he built an eclectic career as a conductor, composer, concert pianist, actor, author, radio game show panelist and television game show host. Born in 1906 when radio and film were in their infancy, Levant expertly traversed new media gaining popularity for both his world-class piano playing and his incisive—and often self-deprecating—wit.
Originally from Pittsburgh, Levant was born to Max and Annie Levant, Orthodox Jews who had immigrated from Russia. He moved to New York at age 15 to study piano under Zygmunt Stojowski, a Polish composer and teacher. In addition to attending classical concerts, Levant also frequented nightclubs, where he developed a taste for popular music. In 1925, he appeared in Ben Bernie and All the Lads, a short film made with then new technology that recorded sound and film together. For an audience accustomed to silent films, the movie—which consists of a group of men playing a medley of songs, with 19-year-old Levant at the piano—represented an exciting technological advance. Perhaps entranced by this new medium, Levant moved to Hollywood a few years later, where he quickly impressed and befriended George Gershwin and found work in films playing the piano and later, composing and appearing as an actor. Still, he maintained an interest in classical work, and one of his compositions caught the ear of Aaron Copland, who invited him to perform it at a festival in 1932.
Throughout the 1930s, Levant maintained a delicate balance between Hollywood, Broadway and classical composition. Upon George Gershwin’s death in 1937, critics and audiences considered him the leading interpreter of Gershwin’s music, a role that Levant took on as both an honor and a chore for the next two decades. In his memoir A Smattering of Ignorance, Levant later noted that the first time he had heard Gershwin play the piano, he felt the first stirrings of “the two characteristics I have nurtured ever since as the dominating influences of my life—jealousy and revenge.” Though Levant’s words can be interpreted as a joke, he likely felt overshadowed by the enormity of Gershwin’s fame and talent. Carrying the Gershwin torch must have been a burden.
Fortunately, Levant’s career didn’t stall. Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, Americans had bought radios en masse, and for the first time in human history, voices and music could be broadcast live into living rooms. Levant began appearing regularly on the radio in 1938, but surprisingly, he didn’t usually play music. Rather, he appeared as a panelist on Information Please, a radio quiz show on which listeners sent in questions to try to stump the panelists; if they succeeded, they won a cash prize. Levant impressed viewers with his knowledge of music, but he also regaled them with his witty repartee; he often buried cruel truths within jokes. For the first time, he had a large audience for his wisecracks, which he later continued to showcase through television and memoirs. “I think a lot of Bernstein—but not as much as he does,” Levant quipped about the famous composer. “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin,” he remarked about the famously innocent-seeming songstress. Levant knew many people in Hollywood, and he used his fame to discuss and dissect stars, becoming a de facto cultural commentator. Ironically, his success also led to more appearances as a concert pianist, since promoters booked him on the assumption that audiences would want to hear the famous quiz show man play the piano.
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Levant enjoyed major supporting roles in a string of successful movies: The Barkleys of Broadway, starring Gingers Rogers and Fred Astaire; An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly; and The Band Wagon, starring Astaire and Cyd Charisse. In these boisterous musical films, Levant more or less played himself: a slightly acerbic pianist or composer. Frequently seated at the piano, he provides some of the accompaniment that the musicals’ songs require, and sings smaller parts. In An American in Paris, Levant plays Gershwin’s Concerto in F Major in a dream sequence that diverges from the movie’s plot for the sole purpose of showcasing his virtuosity. In one of The Band Wagon’s most famous musical numbers, That’s Entertainment!, there is no piano to be seen, and Levant gamely (if a bit awkwardly) performs choreography alongside legendary dancer Fred Astaire.
Levant’s upbeat performance in The Band Wagon belied his failing health. A year before the film’s release, in 1952, he had suffered a heart attack. After receiving treatment with Demerol, Levant soon developed an addiction to the narcotic. From this point on, he faced professional difficulties, and his faithful wife June shuttled him between mental hospitals, professional engagements and rest at home. Despite his struggles, Levant had one more medium to conquer: the small screen. He appeared as a panelist on the NBC game show Who Said That?, and hosted his own television show from 1958 to 1960. On The Oscar Levant Show, which appeared on KCOP-TV in Los Angeles, he played the piano and interviewed guests including Fred Astaire and Linus Pauling. Levant was also a frequent guest on talk shows, including The Tonight Show.
By the 1960s, Levant made few appearances. But during this period he wrote two of this three memoirs: The Memoirs of an Amnesiac and The Unimportance of Being Oscar. That title, a pun on Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, indicates how Levant thought of himself: he’d spent his life not being George Gershwin. But he’d done something Gershwin hadn’t: he reinvented himself repeatedly as new technologies offered different ways of reaching audiences. Today, he might be playing the piano on TikTok—or avidly seeking the next app.
Neena Arndt is the Resident Dramaturg for Goodman Theatre.
Left Photo Credit: An American in Paris trailer – 1951. (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)
Right Photo Credit: The Band Wagon trailer – 1953. (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)