Oscar Levant (1906-1972) was an American pianist, composer, author, comedian, and actor. He was famous for his mordant character and witticisms, on the radio and in movies and television, as for his music.
Levant traveled to Hollywood, where his career took a turn for the better. During his stay, he met and befriended George Gershwin. From 1929 to 1948 he composed the music for more than twenty movies. During this period, he also wrote or co-wrote numerous popular songs that made the Hit Parade, the most noteworthy being “Blame It on My Youth” (1934), now considered a standard.
Around 1932, Levant began composing seriously. He studied under Arnold Schoenberg and was offered an assistantship by him (which he turned down, considering himself unqualified). His formal studies led to a request by Aaron Copland to play at the Yaddo Festival of contemporary American music on April 30 of that year. Successful, Levant began composing a new orchestral work called a sinfonietta.
“I consider myself fortunate in being able to convey my musical intent on a so superlative and unrivaled piano as the Steinway.”
Levant was perhaps best known to American audiences as one of the regular panelists on the radio quiz show Information Please. Originally scheduled as a guest panelist, Levant proved so quick-witted and popular that he became a regular fixture on the show. He was often challenged with musical questions, and he impressed audiences with his quick-witted responses and jokes.
Kieran praised Levant as having a “positive genius for making offhand cutting remarks that couldn’t have been sharper if he’d honed them a week in his mind. Oscar was always good for a bright response edged with acid.” Examples include “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin,” “I think a lot of Bernstein — but not as much as he does,” and (after Marilyn converted to Judaism when she married playwright Arthur Miller), “Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher, Arthur Miller can eat her.”