Born in Vienna, of Hungarian and Czech origin, one of five children of a factory worker, Anton Karas was already keen on music as a child. He desired to become a band leader, which due to the family's financial situation was impossible. However, he was allowed to learn to play an instrument, as were his two brothers and two sisters. He later reported that his first zither was one he found in his grandmother's attic, at the age of 12.
As ordered by his father, he started an apprenticeship as a tool and die maker at the age of 14, while also taking music evening courses at a private institution. He successfully finished his apprenticeship in 1924 and worked in a car factory until being unemployed in January 1925. Having already begun to study at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna in 1924, he subsequently earned his living as an entertainer in a Heuriger (a wine bar, typically with a garden, usually selling the year's new wine) and soon found himself earning more income than his father. He continued his studies until 1928.
In 1930, he was married, with the birth of his daughter following three months later. From 1939 to 1945 he was with German Wehrmacht anti-aircraft warfare, temporarily in Russia, where he also took a zither along. He lost more than one instrument due to war action, but always managed somehow to find another one.
The Third Man
The film—with the music a contributing factor—was a gigantic success, and Karas' life was changed drastically. As a result, he toured all over the world and performed for many celebrities, among them members of the British Royal family. Princess Margaret invited him to London's fashionable Empress Club, where he played twice a week during his stay at London. He also appeared before Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, members of the Swedish royal family, and Pope Pius XII.
By the end of 1949, half a million copies of "The Harry Lime Theme" had been sold, an unprecedented number for the time. The success of the score also caused a surge in zither sales.
In Austria, the film opened on 10 March 1950, in Vienna's Apollo Kino, and it initially offended some Viennese inhabitants, as it focused on the disgrace of the destroyed city. Vienna's newspaper critics hated the film, except for its music. When Karas returned to Austria after his first world tour in July 1950, he was welcomed by chancellor Leopold Figl and other members of the government. Most importantly, the public liked the film. In Brigittenau, where Karas was born, people queued for tickets which were sold out eight days in advance.
Karas, however, disliked all of the glamour. "I never was a star, and never felt like one. It is because of that film that I was pushed from one place to the other… My only desire was to be back home again." he stated later. However, he went on tour again in 1951, travelling to Montreal and Las Vegas, followed by a number of other tours, including Japan in 1962, 1969 and 1972, where he performed for emperor Hirohito.
In 1954, he opened his own Heuriger, which immediately was fashionable among cinema celebrities including Orson Welles, Gina Lollobrigida, Curd Jürgens, Hans Moser, Paul Hörbiger, Marika Rökk and Johannes Heesters, therefore becoming a tourist attraction. However, he was still not satisfied, as he would have preferred to perform for locals who would understand him, his language and music. Because of this, he retired and retreated from the limelight in 1966, explaining, "I'm not a tourist guy, and what I did there had hardly anything to do with 'Vienna Heuriger'."
- The Third Man on YouTube
- Where and how Reed and Karas met is not certain.
- "Wherever the film is shown you can almost see the procession from cinema to gramophone shop. In its first three weeks sales have reached 100,000." (The Continental Daily Mail quoted by Ulrike Granögger, p. 84.)
- Karas's biography by Peter Payer, p. 13.
- "Der Sieveringer Zithervirtuose hat den Streifen kompositorisch untermalt und ersetzt mit seinem Instrument wirkungsvoll ein Orchester. Er beherrscht die Zither mit einer Virtuosität, die aller Anerkennung würdig ist." (Die Presse, 1950-3-11) Rough translation: "The zither-virtuoso from Sievering has composed his accompaniments for the film and effectively replaces, with his instrument, a whole orchestra. He plays the zither with a virtuosity that is praiseworthy."
- Anton Karas page by his Grandson (English version)
- Karas with celebrities in his "Heurige"
- Biography at Allmusic
- In Search of the Third Man at Amazon.com
- Karas biography by Peter Payer from historical research, sponsored by the city of Vienna in 2005 (15 pages, in German).
- Anton Karas Zither, The Third Man