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Monday, March 25, 2013

A Lifelong Pursuit of Beauty: Remembering Uncle Peter

Our first photo together? Circa 1975.
For some who have wondered just why it is that I have such a strong attachment to and knowledge of the music of an era that existed decades before I was even born, the answer is simple: I had the distinct privilege of a childhood in which I was surrounded by an extended family made up of some wonderful, eccentric, often outrageous and endlessly fascinating individuals who happened to have lived during that earlier era. They gave love to my sister and me, and also gave us a wealth of knowledge and experience beyond our years.

For most of my life I lived in Brooklyn, in very close proximity—walking distance—to the house where resided my grandparents, as well as my grandmother’s three siblings. It was one of those loud, massive Italian families you see in the movies (or maybe in your own life if you were as lucky as me). Recent years have been bittersweet, as we’ve begun bidding our fond farewells. First to my grandmother in 2007. In 2011, it was my grandfather, whom I remembered at length right on this site. And now, my beloved Uncle Peter, who passed away on March 7 at the age of 85.

Publicity headshot, 1981
Unfortunately, I no longer live within that close proximity, and so I was unable to be at my Uncle’s side on that fateful day, as I had been with my grandfather, who had already moved up to Connecticut. His memory lives within me, however, thanks to many years of close companionship—listening, learning, sharing and discovering. They’re all with me—it’s getting loud in there!—but no voice booms louder than that of Uncle Pete.  

My Uncle Pete was a man of great passions. A passion for good music. A passion for art. A passion for theater and film. A passion for performing. A passion for nature and animals. A passion for food and cooking. A passion for laughter and good conversation. A passion for life.  

He had such a zest for life, and he passed it along to everyone around him. He once told me that before he died, he wanted to make sure he left a good taste in everyone’s mouth, and everyone remembered him fondly. I think he accomplished that goal.  

He had a love for beauty, and he sought out beautiful things. He shared that with my sister and me. I can honestly say he helped shape the way I look at the world. More than anyone in my young life, he understood me, he nurtured my mind, and he helped me develop into the person I am today. I still remember him taking my sister and me out to help in his garden. I remember him taking me up to his room to play his opera records, and how he would get tears in his eyes listening to them.
Publicity shot, circa 1960
(he later came to despise smoking!)

He was the kind of person who could get emotional eating a delicious piece of cake. We’ll never forget the sound of his voice, or that unmistakable laugh. He enjoyed life to the fullest. He chased his dreams, and he made our world a happier place.  

As I’ve discussed in the past, my bond with my grandfather was the closest of all. But Uncle Pete was the one who was most like me—he “got” me in a way no one else did when I was growing up. One of the most valuable things you can do for a child is to validate them; to nourish who they are as people. My uncle did that for me. Whether it was buying me works of great literature to read before I even knew books didn’t need to have pictures; engaging me in discussions about science and humoring my little kid insights; trying to show me the inherent beauty of a Verdi aria or Rachmaninoff concerto even when I wasn’t always the most patient listener; or encouraging me to write from as soon as I showed the aptitude to do so, and always taking time to critique my work. In short, my uncle was the first person to make me feel intelligent, and to instill a confidence in my abilities that has never left.
As Earthquake McGoon in the Forestburgh
Summer Theater production of Lil' Abner,
late 1950s.
When it came to music and my interest in it, there can be no doubt that the two most influential people in my young life were my grandfather and my Uncle Pete. But whereas Grandpa fostered the love of classic crooners and traditional jazz stylists, Uncle Pete had a slightly different approach and set of interests. A very talented actor and singer, he had spent many years performing in summer stock productions, had appeared in the first national tour of Camelot, and even briefly on Broadway in the somewhat ill-fated 1965 musical, Pickwick. In short, he was a theater person, and so his love of music was very high-brow, centered on the great classic show tunes (in their original, non jazz-inflected forms)—Rodgers and Hammerstein, Noel Coward, Cole Porter, etc.

But more than anything, music for him meant classical and opera. As a testament to that, in his room sat shelves full of fairly valuable vintage opera LPs collected over a lifetime, which he would play at maximum volume, often to the consternation of everyone else living there. I can still remember hearing him singing along upstairs--his urgent, Mario Lanza-esque baritone filling the house; or sitting in his room and watching the windows vibrate as he described how the music made the hair on his neck stand up. If this wouldn’t give you a lifelong love of music, nothing would. As I look back now, I see someone who did everything in his power to foster a sensitivity to beauty in a young person in whom he saw that same quality he had in himself. I’m glad he succeeded.  

During our regular visits to the house, my Uncle would host what he called “Songfests”, in which my sister and I would join him at the organ singing our own renditions of classic songs. These included anything from traditional chestnuts like “Polly Wolly Doodle” and “My Wild Irish Rose”, to timeless standards like “This Is My Song” and “I’m in the Mood for Love”, and of course a wealth of Christmas carols, which I was proud to be the only kid in class to already know the words to whenever we’d cart them out in school every year. Happily, he also had the foresight to record some of these sessions, the tapes of which are now treasures in my family.  

For whatever reason, music and movies played such a strong role in my childhood, which is probably why they still play such a role today. I was lucky enough to have these people who were so involved in my young life, and who had such a love for these things. In the case of Uncle Pete, he was also talented in them himself, which might have been what made him the most downright fun to us as kids. His loss will be felt profoundly--but so will the impact of his life on us.
Palm Sunday 2011
Just this past weekend, my girlfriend and I attended a live performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony at the Palace Theatre in Stamford. This had been a piece which my uncle specifically had delighted in playing for me, skipping ahead to the breathtaking chorus in the final movement in his eagerness to share its power with me. Thinking back to that as the live performance played before me, it was hard not to become overwhelmed by emotion. Eventually, I gave in to it. As the piece neared its conclusion, I closed my eyes, allowing the music to wash over me. And as the Ode to Joy played out its final thrilling crescendo, voices singing in ecstasy, brass blaring triumphantly, strings frenetically filling the auditorium with sound, I thought to myself:  

“Thank you, Uncle Pete.”


John Rushing said...

the beauty of this essay is all-encompassing. I'm about ten years older than you maybe, but the pop standards that you shared in part with your grandfather (earlier post) was a similar experience for me with my parents. great blog. i shared it on my FB timeline with many literary types. hopefully you'll get some new followers. cheers. john.

B-Sol said...

John, thank you for your kind words. I'm glad you enjoye my essay, it was something I wrote from heart. I'm glad that came through. Uncle Pete was a man worth remembering. Also, thank you for passing this post along so that others may see it. I hope they, as you, will be able to relate to my relationship with this very special person in my family.

John Rushing said...

what started it for me was my parents had these cheap "Best of the Big Bands" LPs. But we also had a lot of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Harry James. Plus, I spent the late 60s and 70s watching every old movie on TV. And my mom took me to Broadway shows after they had left Broadway and were touring the country in the summer. I saw everything. My mom hung on to all of her Song Hits magazines from the 40s, and at Holiday parties -- after a few drinks -- she'd break out the magazines and they would sing along to the lyrics.

B-Sol said...

Sounds like we had very similar childhoods! And I'm wondering if my Uncle Pete was actually in any of those touring summer shows you went to see as a kid.

John Rushing said...

1975-80 were the years I saw the B-way summer tour shows:

75 – Odd Couple
76 – Fiddler, Oliver, Showboat, King and I
77 – Meet Me in STL, Guys and Dolls, Hello Dolly, Sound of Music
78 – 7 Brides, Oklahoma, Music Man, Damn Yankees, Man of La Mancha
79 – Funny thing happened …, Brigadoon, Bells are Ringing, Carousel
80 – Bye Bye Birdie

B-Sol said...

My Uncle's heyday of summer theatre was a little before this--late '50s though early '70s. He was in the original touring production of Camelot in 1964, for example.

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