The name Matt Dennis may not be familiar, but if you’re an Ernie Kovacs fan you may know it. Or maybe not. You’d have be a credits-reader who also paid attention to the details in the back of the “Ernie Kovacs Collection” DVD box sets’ booklets.
Who was Matt Dennis? My introduction to him was as the interviewee in the first iteration (as far as I can tell, so far) of the infamous Kovacs sketch “Welcome Transients”. The one where a talk show guest keeps forgetting the events of the story he’s been brought on to tell, is prompted by host Kovacs, and keeps saying “Yes, it is something I will never forget. It is etched in my memory forever,” (airdate December 19, 1955 on NBC).
Dennis plays in many other sketches with Ernie, Edie and Bill Wendell throughout the 8-month run of the late-morning half-hour show Kovacs did on NBC. It’s the show Letterman’s writers drew on for inspiration for his earliest shows for that network.
Dennis is fine in the sketches, but is not necessarily a comedian or comedy performer. He wasn’t one, but was pressed into service as one just as Wendell and anyone else on-camera on Ernie’s shows was. He was one of the two singers on Ernie’s comedy-variety show, along with Edie Adams. They each performed a number on every show, around Ernie’s opening monologue, sketches and other material.
If it weren’t for the fact that Edie sang a number of songs that were in the public domain, you might not have seen as much of her either.
In writing my notes for the booklet for the first “Ernie Kovacs Collection” DVD box set I looked up Matt Dennis online, and was embarrassed that I wasn’t more familiar with him. He’s a talented singer and pianist, as evidenced from the surviving 70+ kinescopes of Ernie’s daytime show for NBC, but I had no idea he’d written quite a number of pop tunes, including a few that have become standards to some degree.
Perhaps you’re familiar with: The Night We Called It a Day, Everything Happens To Me, Angel Eyes, Violets For Your Furs, or the tune I was familiar with…Let’s Get Away From It All.
Clearing the songs both he and Edie performed on the 1955-1956 NBC Kovacs shows would have cost an arm and a leg for Shout Factory and while it would’ve been fantastic to present the shows intact, the songs published after 1922 were excised for the DVDs.
An online search for Matt Dennis (1914-2002), songwriting partner with Tom Adair, yields a handful of bios. Most of them do not mention his being on the 1955-56 Kovacs show. Odd, considering the run may have been one of the biggest exposures to the public Dennis had.
Ernie’s taste in picking people who were part of his ensemble was rather unusual. They were either card-playing buddies — like Joe Mikolas — or performers he just took a liking to because of something uniquely off-beat about their style. Leona Anderson, Ferrante & Teicher, Yma Sumac, and Al “Double-Talk” Kelly come to mind. There were one or two ensemble players who had worked with Edie — Henry Lascoe, who was an ensemble player on Ernie’s 1956 summer-replacement show, had played the landlord Appopolous in Wonderful Town.
While Matt Dennis may have been hired by someone at NBC for the show, I can’t help wondering if Ernie and Edie had caught his act in a Manhattan nightclub.
Here’s Matt singing Violets For Your Furs from a 1957 Rosemary Clooney show I found on YouTube. (If it gets yanked, email me and I’ll replace it with something else.)
Here is “Welcome Transients” (the name is a spoof on a mid-1950s TV show called “Welcome Travelers”: