Composed Conductor : Despite Sun, Snafus, It's a Day in the Park for Oscar Winner

Times Staff Writer

The conductor who opened "Oklahoma" on Broadway in 1943, and won an Oscar for conducting in the movie 11 years later, brought the ever-popular Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to a Woodland Hills park Sunday.

In this performance, Jay Blackton, now 78, battled a withering sun, technical breakdowns, last-minute choreographing changes and the dregs of a bout of viral bronchitis.

And he even forgot his score. But the show went on. And through it all, Blackton remained composed, patient and dignified.

Just a trick he picked up during his 60 years in musical theater, learning to cope with the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando.

"You don't learn that at the Juilliard," Blackton said, just when everyone else began to get testy.

The event was the ninth in this summer's series of free concerts put on in Warner Park by the Valley Cultural Center.

Still ahead in the series, which ends Sept. 20, are concerts of classical music, swing, jazz, Polynesian folk music and choral music.

Besides his dozens of Broadway shows and movies, Blackton has conducted two previous concerts in the Woodland Hills park, which is just a few minutes away from his home in Sepulveda.

"They invite me maybe once a year and each time I come up with a mishmash," Blackton said. This year, he said, the Valley Master Chorale asked to join him in a program of his own design.

" 'I said, great, wonderful,' " he said. "It's like being given a birthday present."

Enlisted Soloists

He recruited six soloists and planned a program of songs from "Oklahoma" and "Carousel."

Blackton, who wore black slacks, a red polo shirt and a baseball cap and who walked with a pronounced limp from a childhood bout of polio, arrived about 2:30 p.m. For the next hour, he stood in front of the wooden stage and supervised the preparations for the arrival of 23 musicians and about 30 singers.

In between his duties, he reminisced.

"Broadway has been great to me," Blackton said. "If that's of any importance, I can remember Cole Porter. . . . I've worked with almost every important star in our business--Ethel Merman, Jack Cassidy, Shirley Jones, gosh. It's too many for me."

Rodgers and Hammerstein, he said, discovered him in St. Louis, where he was conducting the municipal opera, and took him to New York to open "Oklahoma." That was the beginning of a relationship that lasted until both of them died.

"Through Billy Hammerstein, Oscar's son, whom I've known since he was just a boy, we arranged to have this orchestration, the original orchestration that was used on Broadway," Blackton said.

Actually, he soon learned that he didn't have the orchestration with him, when his wife of 45 years, Louise, walked up nervously and whispered in his ear, then slipped away.

"Part of the experience of being a conductor," Blackton said with a shrug. "My wife just asked me, 'Did you bring the scores?' I said, 'No, I thought they were in the car.' Now she's got to go back and get them."

More serious trouble was developing. The sound manager, a burly young man without a shirt, was subbing for someone else who couldn't make it, and didn't have a stage plot.

Positions of the microphones, speakers and wires had to be worked out as they went along.

Behind the Scenes

"As you see, being a conductor can sometimes be everything else but," Blackton said. "It's that part of the job that everybody doesn't realize is happening."

As the musicians and singers began to squeeze onto the stage, Blackton, who had changed into a more formal white shirt, went over the program with the sound man.

"Here again, solo with heavy orchestra," Blackton told him.

The afternoon sun presented a problem to the violinists, whose instruments are held together by heat-sensitive glue. One said she brought her 300-year-old Guadagnini and wouldn't open the case in the sun.

A few minutes later, Clyde Porter, the president of P. L. Porter Co., a sponsor of the concert, came dashing up, toting a 10-foot step ladder and a tarp. Several young men tied the tarp to the stage rafters, fashioning a sunshade.

Meanwhile, the sound manager and his helper ran back and forth among the musicians and singers.

The audience of more than 1,000 began to clap ever so politely about a half hour after the show was to have begun.

Blackton raised his hands skyward.

At last, everything was ready. He raised the baton, then waved it vigorously.

The overture began.

The first song was "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning." Just as the soloist said that unforgettable line, "Everything's going my way," a great rumble issued from one of the speakers.

For a second, Blackton's face wilted into a frown. Then he and the orchestra and chorus went on as if nothing at all had happened. It was summer in the park.

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