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Music: Jack-of-All-Trades

3 minute read
TIME

When pudgy, pugnacious Oscar Levant went to Manhattan from his native Pittsburgh in 1922 with a copy of Romain Holland’s Jean Christophe under his arm, he expected to start a heavyweight musical career. Earning a living playing the piano in speakeasies and theatres, he spent his leisure studying with famed Music Teacher Sigismund Stojowski.

As the years went by and Pianist Levant showed no signs of becoming another Paderewski, he drifted off to Hollywood. As a friend of the late George Gershwin, he became successively a: 1) cinemactor, 2) assistant to a producer of Westerns, 3) composer of cinema scores, 4) one-hit tunesmith (Lady Play Your Mandolin), 5) one-piece piano virtuoso (the famed Gershwin-Grofé Rhapsody in Blue), and an intermittent pupil of famed Arnold Schönberg, who taught him how to write complicated high-brow music. When, nine years later, he returned to Manhattan to conduct and arrange music for shows by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, Oscar Levant was jack of a dozen musical trades.

In the summer of 1938 Radio Director Dan Golenpaul asked him to appear as a guest star on NBC’s Information Please program. Levant astounded radio listeners by answering glibly and accurately the most abstruse musical questions the quizzers fired at him. Soon he was engaged as a regular feature, today enjoys a reputation as U. S. music’s public brain No. 1.

His uninhibited wit, sloppy clothes and nocturnal habits have made him café society’s own Dr. Johnson. A fabulous night owl, he prowls from 52nd Street’s 21 to 57th Street’s musical hangouts followed by an army of press agents, newsmen, vaudevillians and cinemactors, puts on high-powered conversational exhibitions with his good friend Playwright Sam Behrman, drops pearls of grit-edged humor for all who will listen.

Last week, Oscar Levant added one more to his long list of trades by publishing a book of gossip and reminiscence. Modestly entitled A Smattering of Ignorance (Doubleday, Doran, $2), Author Levant’s book races bumptiously and gabbily through 267 pages of anecdote about the great, near great, and not-so-great of the music and cinema worlds, pats Toscaninis and Stokowskis on the back, mourns worshipfully at the late George Gershwin’s shrine, analyzes the musical gifts of Harpo Marx and Charlie Chaplin, chats wittily and continuously about Oscar Levant.

But surprisingly, in his book, Quiz Champion Levant slips on many a fact. Sample boners: that Leopold Stokowski taught the New York Philharmonic-Symphony to play Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps in 1930 (famed German Conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler had done it five years before); that Harpo Marx tunes his harp backwards (Harpo’s tuning, though unorthodox, is not backwards); that Toscanini cannot see the men in his orchestra (Toscanini, farsighted, can see quite well beyond six feet).

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