May 11, 2009
Did you always believe what your parents told you when you were young? I certainly did. I may not have always had the good sense to obey them or heed their advice but their wisdom was unquestionable. Take education, for example. My parents believed mightily in the importance of formal knowledge and therefore the need for good grades in school. So I studied… occasionally. But occasionally was not good enough. “If you don’t buckle down,” mom and dad warned, “you’ll wind up like Billy Levine.” Whether Billy, a child I occasionally played with, was simply not smart or just plain lazy, I did not know, but according to my parents, his grades were dismal. In their estimation, Billy’s future was bleak and so would mine be if I slacked off.
As a budding violinist, my practice habits were no better than those in school. My parents had another dire warning for me: I would never amount to anything in music if I didn’t practice. They trotted out the worst of my violin teacher’s students as an example of the grim consequences of not practicing. Talent wasn’t necessarily the boy’s issue. (Let’s call him Jimmy.) Jimmy simply preferred to play ball and hang out with his friends rather than practice those dreary scales and exercises every day. When our teacher, Peter Meremblum, presented his students in performance, Jimmy inevitably played weakly. “There’s only room at the top,” dad told me over and over. I practiced… sometimes.
Peter Meremblum made a living playing in one of Hollywood’s film orchestras. As such, he occasionally received requests from studio producers who needed child musicians for small, non-speaking roles. I landed a tiny part in “The Big City” starring June Allyson, Edward Arnold, and the child actor Margaret O’Brien. What excitement to be on a real movie set even though the scene I appeared in, one in which I only mimicked the motions of a violinist, lasted a mere instant. A year or two later, Meremblum announced to his students that a film in production, “On The Riviera” starring Gene Tierney and Danny Kaye, needed a young violinist who would actually be heard as well as seen. A playing role in a film with Danny Kaye, one of the funniest men alive, and the ravishingly beautiful Gene Tierney! My adolescent heart beat faster thinking of the possible fame and glory afforded me if I landed the part. In the two weeks preceding the audition, I upped my practice easily by an hour each day. Dad was right I had to admit. There is only room at the top.
On the day of the audition, dad drove me to a sprawling film studio where the guard first checked my name on his list before lifting the gate and waving us through. We entered an enormous sound studio bustling with activity. Cameras mounted on cranes moved to and fro like prehistoric beasts, actors in makeup and costume appeared in every corner, and scores of people scurried around with their appointed tasks. Dad and I were introduced to two men in charge of the auditions. They led us into a small room where I was to play. This, I thought to myself, was my chance for stardom. I would not let it slip through my fingers.
I played as well as I ever had. Dad beamed with approval and both men smiled broadly. One of them got up, shook my hand energetically, and told me I was a wonderful violinist. I could practically taste “On The Riviera.” Would my name be up on the marquee along with Tierney and Kaye’s? “You’re a wonderful violinist,” the man continued, “but that’s the trouble. We need a very bad violinist for this particular scene. You see, it’s supposed to be funny.” I was crestfallen. Practice hard, play your very best, and then this? The two men, seeing disappointment all over my face, offered to introduce me to Gene Tierney as a consolation prize. One led me to the movie star who sat regally bathed in a white ermine stole and diamond tiara. She might as well have been the queen of England. “Miss Tierney, this is Master (I distinctly remember him saying that) Arnold Steinhardt, a gifted young violinist.” “I’m so pleased to meet you,” she said, proffering her hand as if it were a rare piece of porcelain. For the moment, I forgot about my dashed dreams of fame and fortune.
I went to see “On The Riviera” when it appeared at my local movie theater a year later. At one point, Danny Kaye’s character strides into a room, turns on the TV, hears a young violinist playing awfully, and turns the set off in disgust. Everyone in the theater chuckled. Everyone, that is, except me. The violinist picked for the part was none other than Jimmy, Meremblum’s worst student. To make matters even less funny, my parents reported that Jimmy earned enough money from his appearance to put him through a year or two of college. There was apparently not only room at the top, but at the very bottom as well.
What’s that? You’d like to know whatever happened to Billy Levine? I once asked mother about Billy when I was already an adult. “Billy?” She laughed with a wave of her hand. “Why, Billy owns a construction company with a fleet of helicopters.”
Mother lowered her voice just a notch. “He’s very, very rich you know.”
Watch Danny Kaye and Louis Armstrong singing When the Saints Go Marching In:
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