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By some reckoning, Anton Karas was the quintessential one-hit wonder, a man associated the world over with one song, and one song only, "The Third Man Theme" (also known as "The Harry Lime Theme.") Few musicians, however, ever did more to insinuate the sound of a single, relatively obscure musical instrument on the consciousness of the world — Karas and the "Third Man Theme" did for the zither what George Harrison and a handful of Beatles tunes did for the sitar, only in a much bigger way, selling many millions of copies. That piece of music turned Karas into a wealthy man after 28 years of toiling in obscurity in relative poverty in Vienna.
Karas was born in Vienna in 1906, the son of an automobile worker. He began playing the zither — a stringed instrument vaguely similar to an autoharp — at age 12. By 1921, at age 15, he was earning a living of sorts entertaining patrons for tips in Vienna's taverns. Karas remained in the city throughout the tumultuous years of the rise of Nazi sympathies and the German takeover, the war, and the Allied occupation that followed. He supported a wife and three children on as little as $15 a week in those days, and then, in September of 1948 (some sources say the spring of 1949), fate took a hand.
British director Carol Reed was in Vienna shooting a thriller called The Third Man, based on a story by Graham Greene. Most of the details of the final film had been worked out, but not the music — Reed had decided that there would not be any Johann Strauss waltzes, but not what would be used for the score. One night, he was passing by a Heuriger, a wine tavern where growers offer their own wines for sale directly, and heard Karas' playing in the background. Reed had never heard a zither before and found the sound to be attractive. He approached Karas and persuaded him to play for him at his hotel, where he made a recording and brought back to the studio to test. He liked the effect when the zither's sound was placed against the recorded dialogue and, ignoring the protests of many around him, hired Karas and brought him to London for 12 weeks.
It wasn't always a harmonious time in London, as Karas, who had never traveled outside of Austria before, quickly grew homesick. Reed (in whose home Karas stayed — with Reed's wife Penelope translating German and English between them) promised to let him return home after the score was completed. Karas screened the movie hundreds of times, devising music for each scene. The Third Man ended up with a vast amount of music, scored in virtually every scene of its 104 minutes. Ironically, the piece that became known as the "Third Man Theme" was something that Karas had written two decades earlier and hadn't played in over 15 years. As he later explained to Reed, playing the zither for a whole night for tips was hard work, and one tended to play the easiest pieces the most often, to save the fingers.
The movie put Karas' score into the foreground as much as any of the actors. The opening credits showed the strings of a zither in close-up, and the instrument was heard somewhere in virtually every scene, often as prominently as the dialogue. The "Third Man Theme" (also known as the "Harry Lime Theme") was alternately brittle, jaunty, bittersweet, romantic, wry, and even sardonic piece of music — which fit the mood of the story and the film perfectly — that, once heard, couldn't be forgotten.
The Third Man was finished and prepared for release, and Reed and the production company, London Films, tried to raise interest in it through the music. None of the record companies, however, was interested in recording Karas or releasing the "Third Man Theme." The music was too strange and different, and although British movies had produced some soundtrack successes in the past, those were usually more conventional light classical pieces, such as Richard Addinsell's Rachmaninov-like "Warsaw Concerto," not a jangly piece of music played on a central European folk instrument.
Finally, the movie opened in late 1949 in England, and within days requests started to be heard at record stores. Word quickly filtered back up the line to the record companies, and England's Decca label (London Records in the U.S.) cut the single, and then an accompanying LP, the jacket of which used the black silhouette of the mysterious Harry Lime (the Orson Welles character associated with the theme) against a red background.
The single sold a half-million copies in its first month of release, an astonishing number in postwar England, and became a number one hit in England and later in America, where the movie didn't open until 1950. At least 13 cover versions appeared, recorded on everything from guitars to organ, and sheet music sales, transcribed for either piano or guitar, were huge as well. Karas, who'd returned to Vienna immediately after seeing the movie at its opening in London, didn't know about these events for several weeks — he was back at his old place, playing for tips. Then the messages began coming in, from the film's production company, music publishers, and finally the Royal Family, with invited him back to London for a command performance. Bookings for performances in England followed and, with the help of the Selznick Organization, which distributed the movie in the United States, he came to America.
Karas recorded a several follow-ups to "The Third Man Theme," and even wrote a "Karol Theme" in tribute to Carol Reed, but none took off in the same way. He was able to retire from performing for a living, however — by the early '50s, he'd bought his own Heuriger, named "The Winehouse at the Sign of the Third Man" and only played and recorded for pleasure after that. In his performances, audiences were often puzzled by the fact that he saved "The Third Man Theme" for last, preferring to play Viennese folk songs and popular standards (even "In the Mood"), and then proceeded on some occasions to finish with the hit, playing 30 minutes of variations on "The Third Man Theme."
Other zither players never got it to sound just right. The truth was that as recorded for the movie, "The Third Man Theme" was one of the first practical examples of overdubbing on a hit record, rivaling Les Paul's work — Karas had gotten just the right effect working underneath Reed's kitchen table, and had gotten the piece just right by recording and mixing more than one zither part.
Karas later re-recorded the theme several times, and it was also covered by instrumental acts such as the Shadows. Meanwhile, he'd started a zither craze — not only did he get to cut several albums during the early '50s, but suddenly there was serious international demand for zither music. One musician, Ruth Welcome, recorded at least a half-dozen LPs of the instrument in the United States. And even Edward D. Wood, Jr., the renowned bargain basement auteur, was inspired by Karas' theme. He wanted to use a zither as the source of background music for his 1954 crime-drama Jail Bait, but zither virtuosi were hard to come by in Hollywood, especially in Wood's non-existent price-range, so he tracked in classical guitar music to the finished film instead.
The "Third Man Theme" was later used on a radio series spun out of the movie's success, with Orson Welles reprising his role of Harry Lime in a somewhat more benign guise, and a television series called The Third Man, starring Michael Rennie as an international adventurer named Harry Lime and Jonathan Harris (Lost In Space) as his nervous assistant, and re-using Karas' theme again, the show ran for two seasons in the late '50s, and was in reruns for years in the '60s. The theme continued to turn up on albums, covered by instrumental rock acts, well into the '80s, while the reruns of the movie keep adding to the ranks of listeners familiar with the zither — a 1999 nationwide theatrical reissue of a restored edition of the movie will undoubtedly continue the process.