If you want to call Richard Glazier a throwback, go right ahead. He loves it. For Glazier, there’s nothing better than sitting at a piano telling stories about George and Ira Gershwin and their coterie of friends who advanced the American art form of the musical theater. And playing his own piano arrangements, and those he’s commissioned from others, of classic theater and movie songs – well, that’s heaven to him.
This Saturday, June 6th, you can witness this when Richard’s third PBS special airs on WETA. Called From Broadway to Hollywood With Richard Glazier, the program expands on Richard’s previous shows taped before studio audiences with what he calls work “in the field.” This time he’s interviewing people ranging from 100-year-old Patricia Morison, the original star of Kiss Me Kate, to Lalo Schifrin, composer of the theme to Mission: Impossible. He illustrates how a lot of early television and movie background music originated with serious composers from Europe who left for America and found work in Hollywood. And we learn the impact of “personalities” like pianist Oscar Levant, who swung from the concert stage to movies and wound up playing himself in early television programs.
I recently caught up with Richard by telephone at his home in Sacramento. We talked about his childhood in Indianapolis, his training as a classical concert pianist, and his relationship with Ira Gershwin, who he met at age 12 a few months after mailing him a letter. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
David: Can you tell our readers how you first got interested in this whole arena as a child?
Richard: I’ve always been attracted to old things. I had a fascination with them and I loved old movies. Every Saturday I used to spend with my aunt who was 18 years older than my mom, and she was like my grandmother figure. She used to talk to me all about the 20s and 30s and I was so fascinated by it. I saw Girl Crazy with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney on television when I was 9 years old and I fell in love with that music and the voice of Judy Garland. I asked my aunt about it one Saturday and she took me to the library and she introduced me to the music of George and Ira Gershwin.
We went back another Saturday and she introduced me to the sheet music you could just take from the stacks in those days. She introduced me to people like Eddie Cantor and Florenz Ziegfeld and Fanny Brice and Al Jolson. And she had all these old 78 records, and one day I pulled out the Oscar Levant recording of Rhapsody in Blue with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra that was made for Columbia in 1945 in conjunction with the biopic of Rhapsody in Blue starring Robert Alda as George Gershwin. I heard that opening glissando [the jazzy clarinet slide that starts the piece] and just started falling in love with the Gershwins.
At the same time we had a 16mm sound projector in our basement, and in those days you could go to the Indianapolis public library and check out pristine Technicolor prints for two days at no charge of all the classic films. I watched every classic movie in 16mm, and my mom, who was a local actress, told me about all these old actors.
Of all of this cultural heritage from that time, what is it about George and Ira Gershwin that gets rediscovered generation after generation?
They seem immortal. Like Leonard Bernstein said, “I know it in the dark.” You hear two notes and it’s nobody but George Gershwin. Gershwin above all really represents all the great things that the United States of America represents. He represents the voice of the melting pot, of many cultures that came to this country for a better life. His music is an amalgamation of all the voices of those cultures that came over in the late 19th and early 20th century. He heard those voices of black culture, of the Yiddish theatre, of Italian culture, all synthesized together to create this unique American art form.
And he discovered he could write for the concert hall. His songs just touch a chord in us, indeed they’re timeless. They work in any venue, they work in a jazz venue, they work in a cabaret venue, they work in the concert hall. That’s really a testament to the greatness of the songs.
Girl Crazy eventually was the loose basis for Crazy For You, a contemporary Gershwin musical by our local writer Ken Ludwig that’s often done here in Washington.
Crazy For You is done all over the world! It’s a very entertaining, funny show with all those great songs. We go to the theater and see a piece like that and we feel good on the inside. We feel happy, we laugh, we experience romance. So many of those songs are so romantic and human beings yearn for those kinds of emotions.
You had the experience of coming here to Washington and using the very piano at which George and Ira Gershwin worked. Tell us where that was and what that was like.
I had come to do a concert at the Smithsonian at the American History Museum. And my friend Jim Lehrer wanted to do a profile on me for the PBS NewsHour, so we decided to meet up at the Gershwin Room at the Library of Congress where the Gershwin piano is housed. You see, after Ira died in 1983, 40% of the money that his estate generates is donated to the Library of Congress. Therefore the Ira Gershwin estate is one of the largest benefactors to the Library of Congress.
There’s a Gershwin Room right across from the Coolidge Auditorium that houses a lot of the Gershwin treasures, and in the center of the room is George’s piano where he wrote “Love is Here to Stay” and “Love Walked In” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” not to mention Porgy and Bess. And I played that piano, and the last time I had played it was for Ira 35 years earlier when I was 12 years old and I played “Embraceable You” as he sang along.
Can you tell us about Ira’s search for another composer after George died in 1937? Many people here in Washington remember that Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill wrote the musical Lady in the Dark, which was done by the American Century Theater in 1998.
Well, that was very difficult [after George died] but Ira made it very clear he only wanted to work with people that he kind of had a history with and he had a close association. Richard Rodgers approached him and he actually turned him down. But Kurt Weill, he accepted that collaboration. And of course he was friends with Moss Hart as well. They were like a family.
When you watch the home movies of the Gershwins, you see Moss Hart, you see Dashiell Hammett and you see Lillian Hellman and Oscar Levant and Vincent Minnelli and Yip Harburg and Harry Warren. They’re just sitting around the pool and being served by butlers and leading the good life and telling stories and probably fighting with each other and bickering and having professional jealousies. It was just like a family.
Actually, all these guys, including Gershwin, they hated Hollywood, they didn’t have artistic control like they did on Broadway. The moguls were taking their music and blowing it into something they didn’t even conceive of, that’s how you were treated in the studio system. But still they had the good life out there, they were making money, they were enjoying the sun. George was a tennis player, George was a ladies’ man. Ira was more intellectual, he would just stand in the background and really just admire the genius, the golden child known as his brother George.
Didn’t Ira go back to George’s music for new songs even after George was dead?
Right, in 1947, I believe. Well, there was an unpublished song file of 100 or so 32-bar melodies that George never did anything with. It just laid in Ira’s drawer. And in 1947 William Pellberg of 20th Century Fox approached Ira about doing a movie for Betty Grable and Dick Haymes called The Shocking Miss Pilgrim. They were trying to think of somebody to collaborate with Ira and they couldn’t think of anybody. And so Ira said look, there’s these unpublished melodies. He picked his favorite ones out and he set lyrics to them and he had a posthumous show by his brother. Like “For You, For Me, For Evermore,” that an example of a song that’s from that movie. And all those manuscripts are now in the Library of Congress.
Did that happen once?
It happened one other time. Billy Wilder got him to lend out some unpublished songs for a horrible movie called Kiss Me, Stupid in 1964. Dean Martin I think was in it, Ray Walston was in it as well. And Ira wrote a score for it. The problem was that somewhere along the line, Billy Wilder lost interest in it and the movie just kind of fell apart. After that movie they just closed up the unpublished song file.
But did Ira find that “working with” his brother, even though he was gone, was easier or more gratifying than any of these other composers he tried to work with?
Listen, Ira loved him [George], he adored him. They were two halves of a whole. Ira never really fully recovered from the loss of his brother at such a young age.
And I hear it in your voice, that Ira could have so easily been jealous of George, but he never was.
Oh no. And Ira was brilliant in his own right! Think of the wonderful lyrics he wrote for Judy Garland with his dear friend Harold Arlen for A Star Is Born. You know, the great score for that film, with songs like “The Man That Got Away.”
Did Ira ever look down on other lyricists for being hacks?
He would never do that because Ira was not that kind of person. If you read his book Lyrics on Several Occasions, you know he slaved over every syllable of his lyrics. It was so hard for him to write a ballad. He worked to get the rhymes just right, to make them clever, to make them organic. And when he saw lyrics [by other writers] that weren’t worked out like that, obviously he was not as happy, but he wasn’t going to single them out, because he really didn’t say bad things about anybody.
Richard, you’re not just a guy who knows a lot and tells stories, but you are a legitimate professional pianist. Were you ever a classical recitalist?
I was. I have a doctorate from the Cleveland Institute of Music, where I won the Alumni Achievement Award in 2007 for my contributions to the American popular song. But I’m a classically trained concert pianist. I’ve won two international piano competitions. I did a recital debut at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, I played Schumann and Mozart and Debussy and Scarlatti. But of course this [popular] genre has always been dear to my heart because of the experience that I had when I was 12 years old meeting Ira. And so I decided along the lines when I was about in my early 30s that I was going to devote my energies to this genre of just telling stories and playing these songs in a very disciplined, romantic way, and interpreting these songs and rare transcription forms with the same respect as one would interpret a Chopin nocturne.
Your first show with PBS in 2010 was called From Gershwin to Garland. How did that come about?
I’ve always wanted to make a television show. I developed a relationship with my hometown PBS affiliate, KVIE here in Sacramento, and we made the show, edited it, finished it, we took it to American Public Television which is a distributor on PBS, and they accepted the show and that’s how it started.
The title From Gershwin to Garland refers to what exactly?
It’s just me playing repertoire and telling stores. It’s on a different set, it’s not quite as elaborate as my new show.
And your next television show in 2012 was called From Ragtime to Reel Time.
That was in front of a live studio audience at KQED in San Francisco. So I’m more spontaneous in that show, it was like going to a live concert basically.
In this new show, From Broadway to Hollywood, you’ve got some fascinating people on it.
Yes, I went into the field this time. We did our own videography, my wife and I. And we interviewed all these wonderful people. We became very friendly with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. at the end of his life. You have to remember the lineage of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. – his father was Efrem Zimbalist Sr., the head of the Curtis Institute of Music [in Philadelphia], and his mother was Alma Gluck, the great opera singer.
So you have discussions with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in this new show. What do you talk about?
He talked about Bronislaw Kaper, who wrote the theme for his television show, The F.B.I. He was a Polish composer. He had immigrated. These composers, like [Erich] Korngold and [Franz] Waxman, all those guys came to Hollywood, there was work there, you know? And he tells the story about how Bronislaw Kaper came to Hollywood to write Hollywood music because of Efrem’s father, and they were very close friends. You remember the theme to The F.B.I.? Well I had it transcribed and I play it in the show.
I also play the theme from Mannix with Mike Connors written by Lalo Schifrin, who of course also wrote the theme to Mission: Impossible. And we went and talked to Lalo Schifrin at his home Beverly Hills. He talked about when he played Rhapsody in Blue and discovered Gershwin when he was 11 years old in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
I understand in the show you also interview Patricia Morison.
Yeah, she’s 100 years old!
She’s 100 years old, so tell me about that.
She was the original Kate in Kiss Me Kate in 1948 on Broadway. And she talks about her relationship with Cole Porter and the song “So In Love,” which I play in the show. She’s an incredible woman and at 100 her mind is as sharp as a tack. She can still sing! And she sang for us.
And you play “So in Love” for the show.
Well I have to play Cole Porter, I’m a Hoosier! Also in the show I play this really wonderful medley of My Fair Lady, it’s a seven-minute medley of the show.
These medleys and transcriptions for solo piano – how do you work on varying up the moods, the style, the devices you use to keep up the interest?
It’s interpretation. Like I say I treat every note with the same respect as I would a Chopin nocturne. Each note that you hear on this television show was hand-crafted by me, was chiseled by me. It has a focused energy and emotion behind it to make it interesting for the listener.
Are you consciously modeling after some of the jazz piano transcriptions, for example, that George Gershwin made for himself of his own songs to present at parties?
No. I play piano very differently than George Gershwin.
If you listen to George play, he was a song-plugger from Tin Pan Alley. My approach to this music is very romantic, which really wasn’t George’s approach to his own songs. But that doesn’t mean that it’s better or worse except that people are different and that’s what makes the world go round.
Tell people who Oscar Levant was, and why you cite him in your stories.
I love Levant. Unfortunately he’s a forgotten character in musical history. But do you realize 1949, as a touring concert pianist, Oscar Levant was making the same amount of money as Jascha Heifetz and Vladimir Horowitz because of his celebrity in the movies playing the same eccentric character that he was in real life – in films like An American in Paris and The Band Wagon and The Barkleys of Broadway, and countless other movies. He was also was the star of a radio show called Information Please from the late 30s to the mid-40s. And he was a wit and a curmudgeon and he was funny and he was tragic and he was a drug addict and he suffered terribly from mental illness, but he always made light of his mental illness.
And he was always tormented about the relationship that he had with George Gershwin because he was George’s best friend in a lot of respects, but he felt he was never as brilliant as George and he had to live in his shadow, and that had a psychological effect on Levant throughout his whole life.
As a storyteller, do you model yourself in some ways after Levant?
I would say no, but I am inspired by him.
There’s a great story about Levant, he was on the Jack Paar show, the poor guy, he had just had shock treatments, he’s addicted to Demerol, his body is wracked by all these effects of not taking care of himself and chain-smoking and drinking 60 cups of coffee a day, can you imagine? But still he was cracking jokes. He says to Jack Paar, “I’m very impressed with the talents of Lenny Bernstein, but not as much as he is.” And he says, “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” He lived a very tortured life. But he never lost his sense of humor in all his tragedy.
Richard, we look forward to seeing you on WETA, and hopefully live again sometime here in Washington!
I hope so too! Thank you.
From Broadway to Hollywood With Richard Glazier airs Saturday, June 6, 2015 from 2:30 pm to 4:00 pm on WETA, Channel 26 in Washington, DC. The show will be rebroadcast on Tuesday, June 9, 2015 at 8:30 am. The running time is 90 minutes.
For more information about Richard Glazier’s live appearances around the country, see his tour.