Bobby De Niro, Broadway theater, Elaine Comparone, Greenwich Village, Group Theater, John Garfield, Manhattan, Marble Hill Projects, New York, New York City, Off Broadway Theater, P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village

Our Family’s Cultural Tradition: The last remnant of my NYC trip (Photos) with an update on the history of Russian piano factories

I scanned the memory card of NYC pics stored in my Sony digital camera and came across my mother, (on the extreme Left) and a few other key family members seated around a decorative party table. We were celebrating mom’s 97th birthday at her “baby” sister, Leepie’s regal and spacious Greenwich Village apartment off Fifth Ave and 10th Street, the last occupancy of three in the same neighborhood. All embodied significant musical and theatrical history.

A petite beauty of 95-years old, my auntie still percolated with energy. Featured in a riveting article written by Jerry Tallmer in the Villager, titled, “Dissidence and drama have filled up her life,” she made her biggest impression upon me in the theatrical centered phase of her life. For my birthday, I anticipated and received tickets to Sound of Music, Enter Laughing, Once Upon a Mattress, A Life in the Theater, Me Candide, A Raisin in the Sun and anything hot on or Off Broadway.

A political activist side-by-side with her involvement in the theater, she had a cultural persona that filtered down to her son Gregory, my first cousin, who was the original “pianist” of the family.

Ahead of my primary lessons by three years, he played Beethoven’s “Rage of a Lost Penny” and Chopin’s Prelude in C minor, Op. 28 on a small Baldwin grand. It was a performance so inspiring, that I scurried home to fumble around with a sound-like version produced by “ear” on my intolerable $50 Wieser upright. When I finally managed to catch up with cousin Greg after years of piano study, we played Pleyel and Diabelli duets, and less often I accompanied him after he took up the oboe.

Auntie Leep and her son, Gregory, were collectively cultural dynamos. Greg’s mom married Arthur Herzog, co-composer with Billie Holiday of the memorable hit song, “God Bless the Child.” According to Leep, her husband, a composer/lyricist, hung out at the Cafe Society Downtown where Holiday performed and one evening the two of them got together at the Village apartment on Waverly Place. They fooled around with some biblical lyrics and in a few hours they’d pumped out a song that resonated into the present, memorialized in a movie about the great singer.

Herzog’s discography is noteworthy:

A pipe smoker with a charming personality, my uncle had an engaging repertoire of magic tricks up his sleeve, and on more than one occasion he produced a few uproarious acting routines that were spell-binding.

I vividly recall the day he pretended to cry, wringing out a sopping wet handkerchief that he retrieved from behind a majestic, plumped chair. I’ll never know how he pulled off the stunt as the mystery remains well into the present. In 1957 a divorce buried any chance I could bring resolution to the enigma, and besides, details of the marital rift were not specific. I didn’t have any contact with my uncle thereafter, but apparently, he hooked up with a parade of wives with whom he had more children– among them, Arthur Herzog, Jr. the celebrated novelist.

The second Greenwich Village apartment Leep and Arthur had inhabited prior to their separation was located on W. 12th Street. With its dark, impressive winding staircase leading to the main level, it was a hub for artistic types. And well before actor, Bobby De Niro reached his pinnacle of fame, he’d visit the Village flat as the childhood friend of my cousin, Greg. Both attended P.S. 41 that boasted a list of famous grads in the fields of Science, Arts and Letters.

A houseful of visitors, composed of unemployed actors and writers often spilled into auntie’s living room each Christmas to be feasted on a royal, roasted turkey, prepped to the hilt. Among the guests was a fragile and emotionally needy woman named Anoushka who appeared to be my auntie’s adopted, waif-like, surrogate daughter. With short cropped blonde hair, and sad, hollow, moistened eyes, she always embraced a cocktail as she drank her sorrows away. Years later she married Marlon Brando’s father following the death of her previous husband who was decades older, and no doubt, a father substitute.

Leep’s link to the theater was pervasive. According to Jerry Tallmer’s article she was very active in the historic Group Theater and took progressive acting classes with heart throb, actor, John Garfield, though she never officially pursued a theatrical career.

Instead, a life-long betrothal to the theater grew out of employment opportunities that she counted out, having worked for Josh Logan, David Merrick, Irene Selznick, Perry Como, Mary Martin, and Actors Studio co-founder, Cheryl Crawford.

Incidentally, aunt Leepie’s piano-playing son, Gregory became a Chemistry professor at Rutgers, studying meteorites and moon rocks that were sent to his lab after the big, historic man bound Moon Expedition. His son, Christopher, followed in dad’s footsteps, pursuing an academic Physics career, while, daughter, Amy Herzog, a Yale graduated playwright, received stunning reviews in the New York Times for two warmly embraced plays.

I should mention in passing, that my late, aunt Espera, my mother’s oldest sister, was a hip hopping, jazz playing crooner at Harlem’s Cotton Club, improvising at the piano like a pro. While she worked as a legal secretary during the day, she turned loose at night in the company of Cab Calloway and other big name headliners.

Turning 180 degrees over to aunt Leepie’s sister, Jessie, my mother, I credit her with surrounding me with beautiful 78s of Zino Francescatti playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Bidu Sayao singing Villa-Lobos, “Bachianas Brasilieras,” Edie Piaf, “the street singer” pumping out heart-wrenching melodies, and an assortment of folklorists, like Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Marais and Miranda lending atmosphere to a one plus room flat on 93 Featherbed Lane in the Bronx. This preceded our move to the Marble Hill Projects. Once settled into our 4 and 1/2 room apartment, I ingested the great recordings of Jan Peerce, and believe it or not, Perry Como singing, “Kol Nidre,” for Yom Kippur. Performances by violinist, Jascha Heifetz and pianist, Jose Iturbi rounded out the repertoire.

The upright pianos that passed through the apartment in the joyful company of musical parakeet, Tykie gave voice to my own musical expression, though the infamous Wieser, (Pronounced WHEEZER) had blank notes and chipped keys. It’s a wonder I stuck it out.

Luckily, a Sohmer, moved in a few years later, salvaged the musical damage incurred by the eyesore that had zero musical value.

My late father, a railroad worker, who possessed a heap of undeveloped musical talent, managed to flood the living room with music he personally selected to play on our Victrola. Later he rigged up a fancy Hi-Fi system that had stereo speakers and boomed Van Cliburn’s regal opener to the Tschaikovsky B flat minor Concerto–the pianist’s banner performance under Kiril Kondrashin that temporarily allayed the Cold War.

Not to forget my brother, Russell, who made me his practicing dancing partner as he blasted Rock’n Roll hits of the day on a portable radio: “Earth Angel,” “Rock Around the Clock,” “Love me Tender,” “Little Darlin'” and more. It was the era of Chuck Berry, Johnny Mathis, Elvis Presley, Paul Anka, The Penguins, Johnny Ray, The Platters, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, as well as Fabian, James Dean, and “Kookie,” Lend Me Your Comb, Ed Byrnes, star of 77 Sunset Strip.

(Russ, aka “Rucky Rolls,” is pictured at the birthday table, beside his partner, Jane)

Not only did bro’ race to the Paramount in a leather motorcycle jacket to hear the Rockers, but he had a Classical music profile that encompassed his fondness for Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, the works of Cesar Frank, including his Symphony in D minor, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture,” and Tschaikovsky’s “War of 1812 Overture,” among an impassioned list of orchestral works.

To say the influence of this music was profound is an understatement.

Least popular on the home front was the blasted in Milton Cross-hosted opera broadcasts on WQXR F.M. sponsored by Texaco. I considered most of the productions to be way above my head, with the exception of two favorites, Traviata and Carmen that hummed along my life’s journey. To this day I prefer concert versions of operas to the staged variety.

So this sums up my family’s cultural/musical heritage that in fact, springs from Eastern Europe in Belarus where a piano factory was said to have been owned by some obscure relative. Never confirmed, it remains a myth that’s been perpetuated by the family for decades. Aunt Leepie is the biggest surviving purveyor.

PS I contacted a Russian Piano Factory researcher with a Ph.D. at the City University of New York several years ago, and she insisted that such were non-existent in the areas of Eastern Europe that I’d mentioned. St. Petersburg would have been a safer bet, though definitely off the map as pertained to our family and its eventual emigration to Ellis Island at the turn of the century.

Nice try.


Here’s the email from Professor Swartz in response to my inquiry about piano factories in Russia:

Dear Shirley,

“Thanks so much for your very interesting e-mail. I apologize for not getting back to you earlier, but I’ve been out of the country and away from my e-mail. I was fascinated to find out that members of your family were employed in the music industry in Latvia. The history of the piano in Russia is a sweeping subject and lends itself to a great deal of research and discussion. First, to answer your question concerning the cast iron foundries, I have found evidence that the Becker (Bekker) piano factory in St. Petersburg housed different types of machines, mechanical workshops, and its own copper-casting and cast-iron foundries. This property was nationalized after 1917 and became transformed as the Red October Piano Factory. I found no evidence of the contracting out of the cast iron or copper casting work for the metal plates and inner workings of the piano. I understand from a Finnish scholar that many Finns worked in the piano factories in St. Petersburg, in particular, at the Tischner factory, and I have evidence that European artisans (from Germany, Belgium, and France) worked in the Becker factory, but I’ve not come across any documentation concerning factories in Dvinsk, or in Latvia. There may have been a cast iron foundry associated with the Strobl’ factory in Kiev, although I don’t have first-hand documentation concerning the iron and copper workings there. I know that the Strobl’ factory employed a large number of workers, and that artisans worked primarily with rare woods (rose wood and the like). The Becker factory was founded in 1841, so you are correct that the iron foundries would have been put in place after 1836 or 1840.

“In St. Petersburg, at least, the piano factories were founded by successful European artisans who settled in Russia in the first half of the nineteenth century. Yet the nobility did maintain ownership of other types of factories. The Dowager Empress Maria Feodovna, for example, owned textile factories, and I feel strongly, although I have no documented evidence, that other members of the nobility and wealthier members of the nineteenth-century landed gentry may have owned piano factories in other parts of the empire. The piano itself represented upward mobility, modernity, and elevated social status, as the wealthier members of the middle-class sought to distance themselves from the enserfed classes.

“So, to conclude, to this point in my research I have come across no further evidence of the iron foundries elsewhere in the empire. I will definitely think about your question concerning the foundries as I continue my work on Russian pianos, and I will get back to you when I have any additional evidence.

“Again, thanks for your interest in my research on pianos. I wish you all the very best success in your continuing career as a concert pianist, teacher, and writer.

With all best and warmest wishes,”

Anne Swartz
Professor of Music
Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the
City University of New York

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