Born: July 7, 1906 Died: January 10, 1985
But for a chance encounter with filmmaker Carol Reed, Anton Karas might've spent his life anonymously playing his zither in Vienna's taverns; instead, he ended up the world's most renowned virtuoso on the instrument. Born the son of an automobile worker in 1906, Karas picked up the zither, a stringed instrument bearing a slight resemblance to an autoharp, at age 12, and by his mid-teens was playing in Vienna's taverns. He lived quietly through the ensuing decades of economic depression, forced Nazi annexation, and war, marrying and raising a family on his income from tips. It was on a visit to a wine garden that Reed heard Karas' playing -- the director was in Vienna preparing his upcoming thriller The Third Man and had yet to decide on how it would be scored, except that he would not use Strauss waltzes. Karas was chosen to provide the music for the movie and Reed took him to London. In the finished film, his music ran continuously over virtually every shot and scene -- the strings of a zither being plucked were even seen close up in the opening credits -- and audiences all over the world fell in love with his title theme, a gently lilting, sentimental, yet jaunty piece that he'd written in the 1920s. No record label was interested in issuing the music ahead of the movie, but after the movie opened, requests began pouring in and Decca/London Records recorded Karas. The single of The Third Man Theme (aka "The Harry Lime Theme") sold half a million copies in England alone and the subsequent 10" and 12" LPs and of Karas' work also did well. The music was also able to pave the way for the movie's 1950 release in America, where it became a huge hit. Karas had returned to Vienna after his work was done and was astonished to receive requests for concert appearances in England and the United States. He toured in the 1950s and recorded other albums, none of which sold as well as his work associated with the movie. By the early '50s, Karas was able to afford a wine house of his own, where he performed for pleasure. He spent the rest of his life a beloved celebrity in Vienna, delighting audiences with zither performances that, to their surprise, were usually heavy on Viennese waltzes and operetta themes by Strauss, Millöcker, Zeller, Kálmán, and Lehár, saving the Third Man Theme for last.