The Music Man

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ernst Katz shakes hands, introduces himself and says, "You're looking at a dinosaur."

A dinosaur in overdrive, perhaps.

In a few hours, he'll be on the podium, wielding his baton, telling his stories--and coaxing beautiful music out of his Junior Philharmonic of California, just as he has at every rehearsal, every concert, since founding the orchestra almost 60 years ago.

Our meeting was to have been an interview, but one doesn't interview Katz. One listens.

"I never stop talking, only when I sleep," he says, "and I don't sleep very well."

But, when he's asked his age, there's the briefest silence while he ponders his reply: "Ageless. Up until this year, I thought I was going to be 18 for the rest of my life." An emergency hospitalization in April disabused him of that notion, "but when I get up there on the podium, I'm still 18."

Katz was a mere lad when, in 1922, his family relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles. The following year, his father, William, founded the Golden Gate Hat and Cap Co., which today occupies offices on Fairfax Avenue across from the Farmers Market.

The only son, Katz is officially president of the company, which supplies movies and TV, is official purveyor of Roy Rogers hats for kids and turns out those black fedoras favored by Michael Jackson. But that's about the extent of Katz's involvement. "I never liked business," he explains. "What it means is that I get an office."

He conducts his symphony business from a corner space displaying a plethora of awards and proclamations honoring Dr. Katz (the doctorate is honorary), while his nephew, Terry Greene, 44, runs the hat business.

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The story of Katz and the Junior Philharmonic of California begins on Jan. 22, 1937, when Katz, having recruited the nucleus of an orchestra--four boys--gathered them at his home on Woods Avenue in East L.A. for their first rehearsal.

As the orchestra slowly grew, "We moved out every stick of furniture from the living room, dining room and kitchen" and set up folding chairs. "All the neighbors up and down the block came out to sit on their lawns" and listen.

To encourage the young musicians to keep coming back, Katz would pick them up in his rumble-seated Chevy roadster. In time, his Little Symphony, as it was called, boasted 30 musicians, including three girls.

"Everybody said I was crazy," Katz says. They thought he'd flop. It took 16 months of rehearsals to get it right, but on May 15, 1938, the Little Symphony debuted at a dinner concert at Poppy Trail Villa, a community hall in East L.A.

The stage was a bit makeshift: "My dad stacked wooden banquet tables one on top of another" and draped them. But the music, an ambitious program that included the overture to Mozart's opera "Il Seraglio" and Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony," was apparently the real thing.

Recalls Katz: "The silence in that room . . . it was just stunning. And then came the applause." Local music critics, out in force, were amazed to learn that culture was alive and well in--of all places--the Eastside. The next day, William Randolph Hearst Jr. invited the orchestra to perform each Sunday on his radio station (now KFI-AM [640]).

Among those at the Poppy Trail Villa were Mayor Frank Shaw, Laura Scudder--who'd started a little potato chip business in Monterey Park--and Carrie Jacobs Bond, composer of such syrupy standards as "I Love You Truly."

No one could have dreamed that they'd just witnessed the birth of an institution that was to become the California Youth Symphony and, later, the Junior Philharmonic of California. Or that Ernst Katz would still be conducting when some of those musicians were great-grandparents.

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Katz did not set out to be a conductor. When he was 12, his parents bought a piano and he began taking lessons. Four months later, he was on the concert stage. "I was a phenomenal pianist, if I do say so myself. I was a cute kid with a big head of hair and I was flamboyant. Everybody loved me.

"At that time," he recalls, "all the pianists were rather sedate, like Paderewski. They hardly moved." Not a style young Katz admired. Indeed, he wasn't flattered when, on his graduation in the early '30s from Garfield High (where he wrote the fight song), it was prophesied that he would be "Paderewski's water boy." In his view, Paderewski was "a terrible pianist."

Young Katz played the concert circuit throughout the United States for about 12 years, often accompanied by his mother. But it began to take its toll. "I was young and constantly away from home. That was the hardest part. I lived with only adults. I had no childhood friends. But I survived that because I thought I was the great genius of all time."

As "we had nothing here in Southern California as far as musical schools go," he sought out and learned from the great composers of the day while earning a master's degree in music from Chapman College.

But the reality became clear to him: Few concert pianists were making big money. So he composed. "I figured I would become the first serious American composer."

He figured wrong.

Katz would send his priceless compositions off to publishing houses, sealing the packages so he could tell if they were opened. "None of them ever was," yet all came back with form letters regretting that there was "no market for your music."

It was the Depression and there were few prospects for young or old. Katz, who was teaching piano, thinking of a way to give youngsters hope, hit upon the idea of a youth orchestra. To this day, its motto is "Give Youth a Chance to Be Heard."

But even a onetime prodigy had to eat. "I thought it was condescending for me to work at a motion picture studio, so I took a job as a ghost [writer]." Some of his tunes, he mentions, "got Oscars that had other people's names on them, the biggest of names." He won't say more.

In the orchestra's second year, Katz figured out that you've gotta have a gimmick.

His is the Battle of the Batons. Each year, five celebrities are invited to conduct, unrehearsed, at the anniversary concert. It's a bit of a sendup, with the audience choosing the winner, and it's garnered more than a little media attention for the orchestra.

The first winner was actress Marjorie Main (Ma Kettle). Other baton-wielders have included Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, George Segal, Danny Thomas, Ed Asner, Chevy Chase, Glenn Ford, Leslie Nielsen, Ben Vereen, Connie Stevens, Richard Pryor, Ryan O'Neal and Helen Reddy.

"One night we had a no-show," Katz says. Spotting Cesar Romero in the audience, he persuaded him to fill in. He did. He didn't win.

One of the more bizarre was pop parodist Weird Al Yankovic, who "conducted with one leg on the podium and one on his shoulder." He won.

Henry Fonda was also memorable. Raising his baton hand, he froze with fear. The musicians awaited the downbeat. Says Katz: "I finally took his arm and brought it down and the orchestra went on automatic pilot." So a celebrity has a tin ear? All the better. It's those who try to play it straight who make Katz cringe. "Charlie Chaplin Jr., he was the worst. A real, real mistake."

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To talk with Katz is to be a voyeur peeping into the lives of the beautiful people of long ago. To dine with William Randolph Hearst Jr., Marion Davies and Charlie Chaplin at Hearst Castle ("These famous people acted like kids up there"), to rub elbows with the glitterati, conducting benefit concerts at Mary Pickford's Pickfair.

His scrapbook photos are a who's who that includes those few who've been granted honorary orchestra membership or have been guest soloists or emcees: violinist Isaac Stern, composers Dimitri Tiomkin and Meredith Willson, Jose Iturbi, Rudolf Friml (who played his last concert with the orchestra) and Lauritz Melchior, Shirley Jones, Edgar Bergen and Mortimer Snerd.

Though a link to a time past, Katz is no relic. "My youth is in my heart," he says. His young musicians call him "incredible . . . inspiring . . . terrific . . . he really puts his heart and soul into it."

"When you play music, everyone relates to everyone else," says violinist Debra Greene, 14, who happens to be Katz's great-niece and the daughter of first violinist Gary Greene, 47, Katz's attorney nephew, who joined the orchestra when he was 12.

Pianist Joanne Chang, 15, says, "I don't even want to ask how old he is. He goes, 'I remember World War II' or whatever, and it's like, 'OK, I read about it in my history text.' But I think he's a wonderful conductor."

Says cellist Iljie Kim, 17: "He's young at heart, totally. It's unbelievable. Some of his stories never get old, like he was acquainted with so many famous, beautiful women. They amuse us. He's a phenomenon."

Musicians from 12 to 25 may try out at the February auditions, which last year drew 1,700 hopefuls. Once, says Katz, "We used to drop them when they were 25. It was wrong. Now, if they're committed, they have a home." Most stay three to four years.

But today's orchestra includes dentist Janet Statman, 41, who joined when she was 13. "I just love it," says the mother of four, who looks forward to Wednesday night rehearsals at Wilshire United Methodist Church as "my relaxation for the week."

Others, like Russ Graham and Terry Blalock, also have day jobs. Graham, 38, a TRW research assistant who plays French horn, joined in 1972. He's set up an Internet Web site to gather alumni for the gala diamond jubilee concert, tentatively set for May 28 at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Katz's energy astounds him--"He's virtually unchanged since I met him."

Violinist Blalock, who's in marketing, joined in 1944 at the age of 12, left in 1960, came back to play as an alum for the 50th anniversary concert and has stayed. Of Katz he says, "I think I still have that same awe. . . . I'm probably less afraid to talk to him now." He does mention, "He tends to repeat his stories."

Yervand Kalajian, 26, an Armenian-born violinist who joined at 17, is so dedicated that he once played a concert in Palm Springs two days after an appendectomy. "Dr. Katz is a very good man, very caring. I have great respect for him."

Violinist Denise Kane, a member for 13 years and a legal assistant, wanted to move once but "just couldn't leave" the orchestra family. Violinist Irene Bogner, 44, a hospital cancer registrar, was a teenager when she joined. Of Katz, she says, "I was so afraid of him, just terrified. Now I see how worthwhile the discipline was, how it shaped my work and my personal life."

A rehearsal is part practice, part reminiscing, part discipline. Before a run-through of "Jealous Lover," Katz digresses, boasting that, sick or well, he's never missed a rehearsal. Not even in 1989 when he fell while running and broke his nose. He did, however, give up running.

Chatting is taboo. "I won't tolerate anybody who won't listen to what I'm saying."

Miss two rehearsals in a row without a valid excuse? You're out.

Katz delights in saying, "I'm the last dictator left on this Earth." Among his manifestoes: In concert, men must wear black socks, without clocks. One miscreant had to wrap his bare ankles with electrical tape.

*

Now the music is Bizet's "Carmen." Trills Katz, "Toreador, don't spit on the floor." His musicians seem a bit puzzled. Then it's Dvorak's "New World Symphony." Katz can't resist telling of having studied with a man who roomed with Dvorak while he was writing it.

Katz grunts. He groans. He goes "Yip!" He taps his feet. "I'm not Jack LaLanne. I'm not here to exercise. Watch me!" A false start on "Pictures From an Exhibition" makes him grimace. "No, no! I heard better in Venice this weekend. Make it sound like boiling water!"

The orchestra has played venues from the Hollywood Bowl to the Wilshire Ebell. From the start, it's been a family--literally. Also in the original orchestra was Katz's sister, Silvia--who had played with the Gypsy Troubadors on the Orphem Circuit with the Gumm Sisters (featuring Judy Garland). Her sons, Gary and Terry Greene, play violin, and daughter Lori Gordon Greene, 41, is harpist and special events coordinator.

Young musicians have met here and married. Whereas the first orchestra was primarily Jewish, today's, 125 strong, is primarily Asian American. But little else has changed. The musicians pay no fees and Katz even provides some of the percussion instruments.

Katz, who made a few judicious real estate investments, has dug into his pockets to keep the orchestra going--"a very costly 60 years." He doesn't want to know about government grants to the arts--"socialized music. I won't let anyone tell me where, when or who we can play for." He prefers to cajole, to barter. To charm.

"There is no budget," he says. Nor is there a fund-raising auxiliary, which he eschews on principle: "This one gets control, that one wants control. . . ." Once, the orchestra played weekly concerts but today it's fewer than 10 a year. The orchestra will kick off its 60th year with a concert, free to the public, at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 22 at Wilshire United Methodist Church.

He frets about music education cutbacks and dwindling audiences for serious music. With an eye to their futures, he encourages his young musicians to take up "exotic" instruments such as bassoon or oboe--rather than the popular flute or clarinet--to boost their chances of getting college scholarships.

Former members play in ensembles--both pop and classical--around the world. He's equally proud of both. "Sixty years ago, the critics said, 'How dare I put show music on with Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms?' Well, I happen to love show music and I think it has a place. Today, the L.A. Philharmonic makes more money from show music than classical."

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The "r-word," as in retirement, comes up. "I don't believe anyone should retire," Katz says. Period.

"There's one thing I want you to say about me. I'm not handsome. I'm an old man. But I've never deviated from the promise I made 61 years ago"--to give promising musicians a place to play, free of commercialism. Concerts have raised millions for causes ranging from restoration of the Hollywood sign to flood relief in Mexico.

Not a penny goes to the orchestra, Katz says. The annual anniversary concert is free, a gift to the community. "You can't put a money sign on young culture because it's not that developed. I don't believe in exploiting young people."

For 60 years, through earthquakes, riots and wars, the Junior Philharmonic's show has gone on. Now, Katz says, "I only hope to God that the seeds will take and others will come along and do the same thing. We can't just leave footprints in the sand."

"Don't applaud for me," he tells his audiences. "I've had my applause." It's the kids' turn.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Ernst Katz

Age: "Ageless."

Native? No; born in Detroit. Lives in a TV-less, telephone-less house in Malibu.

Family: Never married.

Passions: Music, people.

On his musical talent: "It's God-given. My paternal great uncle was kapellmeister [music conductor] to the last czar of Russia."

On bachelorhood: "I've had beautiful girlfriends, but at this stage of the game the gold's a little tarnished."

On happiness: "The joy of my life is the people I've met. I still get a thrill out of meeting someone who is a creator. I'm a sponge. Every single day I'm learning a new idea."

On the future of the arts: "Today we're not creating the artists through the universities. We're cloning people--and that's not what art is."

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