Born December 27, 1906, to Max & Annie Levant in Pittsburgh, Oscar Levant was an individual worth celebrating. In the Levant family, as reported in 1940 in The Pittsburgh Press, the first child learned violin, the second piano, third violin, fourth piano. Oscar’s fated position was fourth, piano. Oscar’s oldest brother Harry was so taken by music that he sought a musical career. Their father objected, Harry went to two years of pre-med, but then went back to music, becoming a director of Broadway musicals. The second son, Benjamin, did become a doctor; the third, Howard, became a violin-playing dentist; and Oscar went on to become famous for piano, conducting, composition, writing, acting, and wit. In the movie An American in Paris, with Gene Kelly, Oscar Levant conducts an orchestra of many Oscars. As a child, he was a reluctant prodigy, learning fast so he could go play baseball and dream of becoming a Pirate. Forced to practice, he woke up at 7:00 a.m. to do so loudly. Apparently, though, the piano grew on him.
In the middle of 12th grade, in 1922, Oscar informed his mother that he was leaving for New York to become a pianist. Mrs. Levant went with him, and Oscar soon found work with Ben Bernie and his orchestra. They played at the Rivoli Theater, which simultaneously employed Oscar in its own orchestra. Moving among the Tin Pan Alley crowd, Oscar published his first composition in 1926, “Keep Sweeping the Cobwebs Off the Moon.” Soon he wrote “Lady Play Your Mandolin,” and his career was at least moving in a positive direction. He began writing for musical comedies, playing night clubs, and eventually went west to compose and do bit parts in the movies. He wrote scores for the movies Nothing Sacred and Made for Each Other.
Meanwhile, Oscar met George Gershwin, who appreciated Oscar’s interpretations of Gershwin’s works (often different from his own), and he requested Oscar as pianist performing them. In his private life, Oscar was known as something of a schnorer, moving between staying (sometimes suddenly and for a long time) with George Gershwin and with Harpo Marx. Harpo said that Oscar often would be found in the middle of the night sitting alone at the piano, playing and saying humorous things to himself. Harpo said he presumed Oscar had “wit to burn.” Oscar’s first symphonic composition was Dirge (premiered with the Pittsburgh Symphony at Syria Mosque, 1939), in memory of Gershwin. He was often invited to conduct it with orchestras around the country.
Author of books A Smattering of Ignorance (1940), Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965), and The Unimportance of Being Oscar (1968), composer of the hit song “Blame It on My Youth” (1934), Oscar was a popular guest on radio shows (he could accompany a singer and also provide witty repartee) and later on tv talk and game shows and his own The Oscar Levant Show. He was well-known for his neuroses, too; Alexander Woollcott (critic and mogul of the Algonquin Round Table – we shall explore the table’s Jewish connections in a future column) said of him, “There isn’t anything the matter with Levant that a few miracles wouldn’t cure.” Oscar would say, “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.” Happy birthday, Oscar Levant!