Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Two dads live on through tradition – and a passion for musical scores

My family poses at our home in Maryland, August 1968. My grandparents (seated) emigrated from Europe in 1922 with their baby (my mom), knowing all too well the plight of Jewish persecution and hardship portrayed in "Fiddler on the Roof." My dad's parents, too, escaped to America, circa 1910.  

When it came to show tunes from long ago, Harry Zubkoff was an expert, indeed a guru! I grew up listening to the albums “My Fair Lady,” “West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and on and on; my parents took me to plays, most in our D.C. area. Likewise, my husband and I took our two kids to musicals, old and new, many on Broadway. (And, what do you know, they grew up acting.) 

Well, the tradition was set! When my daughter and husband signed up for BroadwayCon, the first ever conference for Broadway fans, in January 2016, I tagged along – and I’m glad I did! I won’t go into details (you can find them on social media), however, one experience touched me in a big way.

You see, in a quiet snack area in the conference hotel, I had a nice chat with Michael Bernardi, son of Herschel Bernardi. Who? you ask. If you’re my age or older you may remember Herschel
Michael Bernardi and I discussed our dads.
Bernardi, the Hollywood actor and more. My dad and mom both were big fans. Because my dad tuned in, my brother and I watched him in “Peter Gunn” on TV (1958 – 1961), and listened to his Jewish-themed comedy album (“Chocolate Covered Matzohs” I think). Well, it turns out that Son Michael is following in his dad’s footsteps – literally. Michael now plays the role of Tevye, the patriarch in the “Fiddler on the Roof” Broadway revival. (He’s Tevye’s understudy, as well as Mordcha the Innkeeper.) On a panel with “Fiddler” cast members, he explained that his dad, too, played Tevye on Broadway. What’s more, Michael wears the pair of boots his dad wore – and, the shoemaker who sized the boots for Michael was son of the shoemaker who made the boots for Herschel!

Sadly, Michael was not yet 2 years old when he lost his dad at age 62; I was 62 when my dad died at nearly 93. Yes, our stories are different – on the other hand! (to quote Tevye) – as I told Michael, we are both perpetuating our dads’ legacy. I’m glad I approached Michael that day; it’s called synchronicity. And, who knows, maybe Harry and Herschel were there chatting, too. (By the way, Harry’s nickname back in the day was Heschel, no “r”.)

To complement my summary above, you’ll see two of Harry’s writings below. The first is a casual email that touches on his passion for show tunes. He wrote it to a young relative in 2010, when she was 18 and he 88. They were special “pen-pals” for a couple years, I
later learned, and continued to keep in touch through Facebook. From their emails, I found out pieces of my dad's life I’d never known. 

The second writing is one Harry posted on his original blog in 2011, in case you missed it. I added YouTube hyperlinks to his song titles, so you can click and listen if you like.

Harry's email – April 4, 2010

Here are some questions, if you want to answer them.

I got an album called “Showstoppers,” and it has some of the great songs from musical theater, both stage and screen. The trouble with me is that I get so carried away that I forget that most of these songs and most of the singers were popular long before you were born. I used to think that if you like musical theater you must naturally have to like all these old songs and performances, but I don’t think that way anymore. If you like all the musicals that became popular say in the last ten to twenty years, then chances are you won’t like these old songs and performances at all.

So, let me ask you a few questions. I’m going to list a bunch of the songs and the singers and ask you if you ever heard any of them, or even heard of any of them. For example, did you ever hear of Maurice Chevalier (a French star) who was in the movie “Gigi”? In that movie he sang, “Thank heaven for little girls, they grow up in the most delightful way.” For that matter, the title song, “Gigi,” was one of the great showstoppers of our times. (That’s my times, not yours.)

Now here’s a few more – singers and songs from musicals. Tell me if you ever heard them or heard of them. Gene Kelly – Singing in the Rain … Fred Astaire – The Way You Look Tonight … Judy Garland – Over the Rainbow … Gertrude Lawrence – Hello Young Lovers … Marlene Dietrich – See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have … Judy Garland – The Man That Got Away … Ethel Merman – You’re the Top …

I could go on and on, but that’s enough. My point, and my question, is: Do any of these songs and singers interest you? My guess is that they don’t. Of course, most of the great musicals, both the stage shows and the movies, of the 1930s and 1940s, get remade every 15 or 20 years. “The King and I” has been performed with new casts six or eight times since the original Broadway performance, and so has “42nd Street,” and so has “Fiddler on the Roof.” In fact, I’ll bet all the old musicals of the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s are still playing somewhere in the country, or in the world, somewhere right now, today.

Anyway, have you heard of some of the great musical performers of my generation – like Mary Martin, Eddie Cantor, Noel Coward, Lena Horne, Al Jolson, Eartha Kitt, Ted Lewis, Jimmy Durante, Sophie Tucker??? I would guess not, and I’d further guess that you would not be much interested in hearing any of their performances, either. And, I wouldn’t blame you at all, but, I thought I’d ask, anyway. Just so you know I’m thinking of you.

"Words and music" 

Every now and then someone asks me which is more important in a song – the lyric or the melody. That’s like asking which leg is more important, your right or your left. But the question reminds me of the famous story about Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein. She was at a party once where she heard two women talking about the musical “Showboat”.

“I just loved that song ‘Old Man River’ that Jerome Kern wrote,” one woman said. “Oh, no,” Mrs. Hammerstein broke in, “Jerome Kern did not write that song. What Jerome Kern wrote was ‘Tum, Tum. Tetum, Tum Tum Tetum’.  It was my husband, Oscar Hammerstein, who wrote ‘Old Man River’.” She was right, of course. Kern wrote the music and Hammerstein wrote the lyric, and no one can say which is most important to the song’s success. The two fit together perfectly. You cannot imagine any other words that would fit so well to that melody. And it is this coming together of words and melody that demonstrate the musical genius in American popular songs of our era – say, the first half of the 20th century.

Harry in his blogging days, 2011
Another question I’m often asked is which came first, the words or the melody. That’s a little harder to answer. It depends on who the composer is and who the lyricist is. There are examples of both instances. In another instance of the partnership between Kern and Hammerstein, when the Germans took Paris in 1941, Oscar Hammerstein wrote a nostalgic little poem mourning the loss of one of his favorite cities. It was The Last Time I Saw Paris and he gave it to Jerome Kern who promptly wrote the melody that made the poem famous. Who of us has not heard that song and ached for the people of Paris because of it? I was in Paris not long after we liberated it in the fall of 1944, and the song was played everywhere, no longer an ode to sorrow but now a joyful paean to triumph and liberty.

There are examples the other way, too. Richard Rodgers, in the first half of his musical career, worked closely with Lorenz Hart, the genius lyricist who gave us so many memorable songs. Rodgers would compose a melody and play it for Hart who would seem to forget it immediately. Days later he would scribble some words on a scrap of paper or an old envelope, and out of that process would come such unforgettable songs as Manhattan, My Funny Valentine, The Lady is a Tramp and dozens of others. So, in the end, who can say which is more important, the words or the music. We can only marvel at the poets of Tin Pan Alley, as they have been dubbed, and the masters of music who, together, gave birth to American popular music.

These “Fiddler on the Roof” cast members inspired thousands with personal stories, at NYC's first BroadwayCon. Michael Bernardi (far left) is reviving his dad's role. I hope I'm able to see their show.

Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman


  1. Harry's dear friend, Gene Sands, wrote:

    One of my favorite memories I have of your dad is our discussions about the musical stage. He was, indeed, a guru on the subject. Although I was familiar with the productions from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, I knew more about the ones from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. When I was in college, I did a weekly show on the university’s radio station called “Shuffle off to Broadway.” A lot of fun,
    especially since so many in my audience were familiar with the shows.

  2. Cousin Michael Miller wrote:

    I saw Herschel Bernardi several times in Fiddler. He was great! FIDDLER and I arrived in NYC the same week, so I remember what a stir it made. After intermission, I used to go and sneak in to see the second act. It was such an amazing thing that a show like that was performed to cheering crowds night after night.

  3. Harry's email to his 18 year old relative, reminds of conversations I've had with my 18-30 year old nieces. Do you like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, etc. The answers generally vary from "They're OK to I've never heard of them." Time and musical tastes march on.