JULY 27, 2017 – Grandfather was pretty much addicted to music. It runs in the family. Our ancestors were a diverse lot: court painters for the Hapsburg kings, circus performers renowned throughout Mittel Europa for their acrobatic derring-do, a serious horde of pianists, and our great-grandfather, the actor.
“He was the Barrymore of the German stage!” my grandfather would bellow after a few shots of slivovitz.
Our family roamed central Europe, basically scoring any arts gigs going. Hungary was apparently rich pickings for wandering Viennese musicians. “Go to Pest! Never mind about Buda,” my grandfather would solemnly intone, and this geeky American girl would idly wonder how she’d ever usefully apply this seemingly highly significant information in her shy suburban life. But these stories stuck with me, as their constant reiteration signaled some kernels of significance – perhaps to be unearthed decades later.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire seemed so richly superior to suburbia, but there, too, danger lurked. “The barbarians were at the gates of Vienna!” he would storm, over his pickled herring. He wasn’t overly fond of the Turks. My brothers and I would play with the antique Punch and Judy-style puppet show (complete with velvet-bound stage) lovingly brought over from Europe, dramatically presenting the valiant Viennese battling their uncouth Turkish enemies. But by far our favorite puppet story was a more modern tale, acted out with the aid of the antique Judy puppet, a Barbie doll, and a G.I. Joe: Oma’s rescue of our beloved grandfather, with Oma the unlikely heroine who saved the life of her only son.
Oma had dreamt of a stage career since her cosseted girlhood, desirous of acting and singing her way into Viennese hearts. But an arranged marriage and a brood of bouncing babies soon put her plans for fame on ice. Thus, she invested her dreams in the little boy who became my grandfather.
So, grandfather’s life story loomed large in the family narrative, and in our epic puppet shows. A boy prodigy, he could play any instrument he picked up. He read dots and lines better than he could read words – a musical savant who thought in terms of notation, with time signatures and key changes punctuating his inner discourse. He thought in music. He spoke in musical terms. He owned, maintained, and performed on a roomful of rare instruments. And so it was in this setting that Oma, his sainted mother, came to act her greatest role, posthumously starring in our 1960s crypto-Jewish puppet show.
In Austria, Grandfather had performed on the streets and in military marches as part of a boy band, pumping out the “oompa music” for beer-sodden local events. Jewish weddings that went on for days, wild Gypsy gatherings under the dancing moon, Oktoberfest blowouts among the goyim – he played them all. Grandfather recalled the sound of the Klaxon car horn as the Emperor’s Benz limousine rolled down those leafy boulevards while the parties raged: “Mit deinem geld!” he would sing, to the horn’s distinct up-and-down melody. (In our puppet retelling, the Punch puppet, wearing a little velvet cape and tinsel crown, always played the role of Emperor Franz Josef, and we would sing his song.)
At 17, Grandfather decided he had enough of scrabbling in the sauerkraut belt. “I couldn’t go no further,” he’d mourn, his cigar stabbing luminous in the night air. “I just wanted to be somebody. Look at Mozart: he was somebody. He was the rock star of his day, you know. He got to be somebody. But … all down the drain. He drank himself away. Wine, women. I wanted something to show. Anything. Just a bookmark.”
So he sold his favorite woodwind, inherited from the previous generations, and booked a third-class passage to America in the hold of a stinky boat, gambling his future on a hazy dream. (In the puppet show retelling, we made a cardboard cut-out of a steamship and waved a piece of tattered blue silk to simulate the waves.)
Grandfather came through Ellis Island (I’ve traced his name in the granite) and landed in Harlem, where he would contribute wild klezmer horn riffs to the steaming New York City Afro-kosher gumbo. He worked as a dancing saxophonist, singing waiter, anything that brought in a dollar to pay for night school English classes. They called him “Eagle Beak” in honor of his prominent schnoz.
Soon enough, his reputation grew, and a young Toscanini tapped him for Cleveland – then brought him, shining, victorious, back to the New York symphonic heartland. With that opportunity came many offers for high-paying gigs in Germany and Austria. Grandfather took them all. He brought his parents, Oma and Opa, over from the Old Country, and settled them comfortably in the New York outskirts. He wished to marry, and wanted to purchase a brownstone in the Bronx before any proposal was made. Back and forth he went on steamships along the Great Circle Route, cashing in his talent for the wherewithal.
As war clouds gathered, Oma was growing concerned about Grandfather’s frequent sojourns to the Old Country. “The belly of the beast,” she’d mutter darkly (our Judy character always spoke these words sotto voce in the puppet show). “No amount of money is worth risking it all.” But Grandfather was making far too much money in Germany. Her ardent pleas affected him not.
Oma finally drew deep upon the family theatricality. From across the Atlantic she urged and eventually begged Grandfather to come and see his poor mother, for she was in failing health, and by the end of the correspondence was perilously close to death. Tragic schmaltz dripped in exponentially increasing amounts from the yellow telegrams. Nothing short of this would cause him to renounce the artistic glories and financial lure of the continent.
Yes, the news was very bad, and Grandfather finally had no choice but to give in. He packed his instruments and boarded a steamer just as the rabid dogs of war began to snatch at the heels of all the clan’s European friends and family. After a rough journey across the stormy sea (later depicted with our waving blue silk and a cardboard ship imperiled by scary armaments), Grandfather finally disembarked in the American harbor, ready to rush to bid farewell to his poor, dying mother.
And there she was on the dock: Oma, rosy-cheeked, waving gladiolas, the very picture of matronly health, welcoming her son back to the Promised Land, having nobly played her greatest dramatic role ever in the saving of her beloved only son. Two generations later, with Oma gloriously depicted by a victorious Judy puppet, her story lived on in the dramatic presentations she’d always dreamed of – albeit on a small enough scale now to fit in a suburban American living room.
Tspora Brenner is a writer and music producer.