“My dear children, each character in this tale is represented by a corresponding instrument in the orchestra…” So begins one of many narrations in English for Prokofiev’s Peter and The Wolf, one I often heard as one of those enraptured children. Little did little Gordon realize that, one day, he’d be telling the same tale with members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
I heard those words multiple times, when various actors performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra. My father, Gordon Kahn, was a violist in the Orchestra, and regular visits to the Orchestra Children’s Concerts were part of an immersion into the music integral to my life.
Even then I dreamed of being a performer, not yet certain what kind or where. Always interested in acting, there was a brief career in New York for seven or so years with roles off-Broadway, in summer stock, marionette shows, TV, and movies. More marginal than significant. Even a brief appearance in radio drama in its waning days. Really, radio was my prime and continuing source of income, even becoming a minor celebrity from hosting classical music broadcasts on stations in Philadelphia (of course), New York, Albuquerque, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Omaha. Right. Change is a constant in the broadcasting business. For me: nine quits to move on, six times fired or let go. Breaks.
My career intersected with many famed musicians: Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Cannonball Adderley, Eric Dolphy, Ruby Braff, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Tony Scott, Joe Venuti, Mercer Ellington, Woody Herman, Jay McShann, and more, jazz-wise. Other musicians such as Moondog, Roy Harris, Morton Gould, Ned Rorem, Ravi Shankar, Alan Hovhaness, Leopold Stokowski, Philip Glass, Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, John Corigliano.
Here I am again narrating.
I was born Gordon Spencer Kahn. I didn’t drop the family name to deny being Jewish. I’m not Jewish. My mother was a Christian and as for my father’s side of the family, you’d call them ethnic Jewish; they practiced no faith.
Dad and Mother had wanted to christen me Leopold, after my father’s father, but decided that the choice might look sycophantic; Leopold Stokowski was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director. (FYI: I met and interviewed him in 1970. See below.) They didn’t want to name me Junior, so as a little kid, I was usually called “Sonny.”
By the way, my brother was named Eugene in 1936 shortly after Eugene Ormandy became the Orchestra’s music director. I don’t remember hearing any explanation about that.
Through my early college years, I was also known as Gordon Kahn. But, once I started to host classical music programs on Philadelphia’s WFLN (alongside Michael Igorevitch Peschkowsky and Morris Goldberg, aka Mike Nichols and Gilbert Morris…see below), some confusion arose. The Kahn name was the same for two people publicly involved with classical music. Dad suggested that I use my middle name to become Gordon Spencer.
The Performances Begin
I started out being prepared for a musical career, a tiny tot scratching away at a miniature violin, hating Orlando Cole’s lessons, resolving never to be a musician. All that practicing. Playing an instrument didn’t sound like fun. It sounded like work. Hard work. “God damn it!” Dad said, every time he missed a note or a beat practicing at home. It was work. His work.
I had no idea why he would be tense. I didn’t know that a trained artist, emotionally connected to music, music which means something personal, not abstract, could have exacting standards for him. It took time to discover that sitting on a chair in a symphony orchestra encompasses psychic perils which audiences rarely consider. No hiding in a crowd there. Hit a wrong note, or come in late on a cue and your colleagues can get thrown off and the whole sonic structure could come apart at the seams. Plus you’ve got that guy up front, the conductor, who doesn’t miss much when there are so few of you within his gaze. He’s the boss. Intimidating. Job-threatening. No wonder Dad practiced at home.
Finally my mother got me out of my lessons. She may have saved me from ending up as an adult, verbally flagellating myself because of similar professional terror. Dad said she was spoiling me. She was. Thank goodness.
Nonetheless, little Gordon stood on stage holding a little trumpet next to adult Gordon with his viola in a newspaper photo because Fabian Sevitsky, Serge Koussevitzky’s brother, news worthily, had conducted a bunch of us Orchestra kids playing toy instruments with some of the Philadelphia Orchestra, in what was then known as Haydn’s Toy Symphony. (Later research revealed it was actually composed by Leopold Mozart.)
I didn’t know how to play the trumpet; my gig was with a ratchet but it didn’t make a good picture. Show business.
Dad was always proud of being a member of one of the world’s great orchestras. And he loved how that connected him to many famed people who appeared with the Orchestra. In fact, he introduced little me to a couple of them, Ray Bolger and Oscar Levant.
Bolger narrated a performance of Peter and The Wolf. So when I went backstage, thrilled to stand in the tall shadow of the former Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, I looked up at his magnificence and saw something I’d never seen before. Long hair in the nose. That’s all I remember from that encounter.
Levant was to solo with the Orchestra at a summer Robin Hood Dell concert. Dad took me to Levant’s dressing room. “Oscar,” Dad said proudly, “this is my son, young Gordon.” Oscar was trying to put on his suspender-suspended pants but he let them drop to reach out and shake my hand. “Hi there, sonny,” he said. “Oops. Excuse me: I’d better get dressed.” The rest of that connection with fame has also faded.
At the age of nine I led the Sammy Kaye dance band (“Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye.”) By the way, he was born Samuel Zarnocay, Jr. (more show business). We merged our talents on the stage of the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia. The band was featured live prior to an Edgar Kennedy short to be followed by Abbott and Costello in Rio Rita. Kaye’s tours always featured “So You Want to Lead a Band,” wherein selected audience members competed for prizes, such as free tickets. When Sammy called out to the audience “OK, fellas and girls, who wants to lead the band?” I waved my hand like crazy from the front row, having arrived early enough with my mother to grab one of those seats.
“Me! Sammy! Me!” I squealed.
“OK, Sonny, c’mon up.” “Sonny!” He even knew my name! I zipped up the steps to the stage to stand in front of a bunch of guys who played music I knew very little about. Pop music. I was a symphony orchestra kid.
Sammy also invited three other people, including a chunky, middle-age grey-haired lady who must have been at least 45. Plus a soldier in uniform.
Kaye lined us up, side by side, and walked down the line, microphone in hand, asking each of us a few questions about ourselves. He asked me who I was. “I’m a housewife,” I said. Big laugh from the audience. Wow. I was going to sweep that contest.
My turn to lead. Sammy gave me a foot-long baton, the lower part black, the upper white. He told me and the band that we were going to present the wartime hit “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” I lifted the baton and the band started playing that bouncy tune. Once I started waving my arms, the musicians followed my tempo. Which wavered. Which varied. It sounded almost like Spike Jones. Lots of laughs again in the darkened house. But now they were laughing at me when I didn’t want them to. I was no Stokowski.
When the soldier conducted, the selection was Sammy’s own wartime hit, the sweet ballad “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen.” The band sounded great. It was a perfect fit. The soldier who might never come home to his sweetheart.
Soon thereafter, Sammy walked along us, holding his baton, sequentially over each contestant, asking the audience to applaud for their favorite. The soldier won. Of course, he should have, no matter how he conducted. It was wartime. I wasn’t disappointed to not get the biggest applause. Sammy let me keep my baton, a sort of prize. It was autographed in INK. I treasured it for many years.
Afterwards, as compensation, Mother took me to the nearby Mayflower Donut Shop which had fresh donuts popping onto a conveyor belt past the counter where we sat. I chose one with cinnamon.
Some time in those early days I had another encounter with a famed performer. When I was in my teens I introduced myself to pro-wrestler Gorgeous George. This was relatively early in the wide-spread popularity of pro wrestling and he was one of the best-known villains, given his on-mat preening and superior-to-everyone attitude. He was standing on a train platform opposite mine in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station and wearing an elegant camel hair topcoat. I just wanted to say hello to him but couldn’t resist a kid-type question. I approached him, asking with a smart aleck grin, “Really, what is your actual first name?” Neither snide nor showy, he earnestly replied. “It’s Gorgeous, of course.” End of that story.