Chicago Daily Tribune, “Radio Editors Again Vote 1st Place to Benny,” February 1, 1937.
The Other Side of the Record, by Charles O'Connell. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, ©1947.
The New York Times, “Hotels Picketed in San Francisco,” May 3, 1937.
The Los Angeles Times, “Former Los Angeles Girl in Philadelphia Orchestra,” April 11, 1937.
The Appleton Post-Crescent, “Pianist to Give Opening Concert of Concert Series,” September 28, 1938.
The New York Times, “12,000 at Stadium Cheer Two Iturbis,” July 8, 1937.
NY-Hollywood, syndicated column by Charles G. Sampas, July 23, 1937.
Los Angeles Daily News, “Music,” column by Dr. David Bruno Ussher, August 5, 1938.
Los Angeles Daily News, “Music,” column by Dr. David Bruno Ussher, December 19, 1938.
The American Mercury, “Fantastic José Iturbi,” January 1950. Note: The quote referred to in the “Mercury” article had been made right after Teresa's birth much earlier, not in 1950.
The Oshkosh Northwestern, “The World of Music,” December 24, 1938.
Iowa City Press-Citizen, “Famed Artist his Pupil,” January 11, 1939.
Lima News, “Pianist Will Tour Continent in Own Plane,” April 10, 1939.
The Helena Daily Independent, “The Prospector in Last Chance Gulch” (local column), May 1, 1940.
The Troy Record, “Anything Can Happen-And Usually Does,” September 13, 1943.
Syracuse Herald-Journal, “José Iturbi Ill,” March 24, 1941.
Saturday Evening Post, “The Prodigious Señor,” September 25, 1947.
The Los Angeles Times, “José Iturbi Joins Air Patrol,” January 13, 1942.
Movie Glamour, “Mr. Iturbi Goes to War,” undated, Volume 1, Number 2.
NEA Service, “There's no Time for Temperament When Stars Go on War Bond Tour,” September 22, 1943.
Movie Stars Parade, “The Bondardiers Stage Billion Dollar Bond Sales Blitz,” December, 1943.
The New York Times, “Iturbi Aids Stamp Sale,” May 25, 1942.
Easy the Hard Way, by Joe Pasternak. Published by WH Allen of London, ©1956.
September Child, by Jean Dalrymple. Published by Dodd, Mead & Co, ©1963.
Part 7: All Dressed Up...
One has to wonder if José Iturbi was at the harbor to meet his mother, sister, and little niece when they arrived in America, and if he said, “Well mom, well sis, little Joey hasn’t done so badly for himself after all, eh?”
It would have been true. For all his run-ins with the press and various concert management groups, Iturbi was still wildly popular—and becoming more so all the time. The New York Telegram’s annual radio poll, released February 1, 1937, listed Iturbi as one of the USA’s top five conductors and top three instrumental soloists.
In 1936 he had become principal conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra—the third in the orchestra’s 14-year history. He would remain conductor until 1944, and make several records with this orchestra, being the first regular conductor to record with the RPO. Among their recordings together were Dvořák’s Symphony #9 in E Minor (“From the New World”), Mozart’s Concerto #20 in D Minor for Piano and Orchestra (K466), Mozart’s Concerto in E-Flat Major for Two Pianos and Orchestra (K365) (the second piano was played by Amparo), Morton Gould’s Latin-American Symphonette, and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #3 in C Minor.
He also found time to take a trans-continental tour as co-conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra together with Eugene Ormandy. This five-week train trip went from East Coast to West Coast, as far south as New Orleans and as far north as Montreal. One has to wonder how Iturbi, with his passion for speed and airplanes, enjoyed this trip. He must have been reluctant to spend much time on the train, since according to Victor record producer Charles O’Connell, he was invariably “almost late” when boarding, and probably turned a few stationmasters’ hair white, wondering how they would have to rearrange the train schedules to accommodate the tardy maestro.
Even without that, it would have been an interesting trip. When the 111-member orchestra arrived in San Francisco on May 2, the city’s hotel employees were on strike—about 3,500 of them, from six different unions, were picketing the hotels. All dressed up but with no place to go, Iturbi and the orchestra camped out in the train station until they could locate a hotel that wasn’t on strike.
Times with the Philadelphia Orchestra were not all tense, however. And Iturbi went a long way toward regaining the respect of his female fan base when the L.A. Times announced that the Philadelphia Orchestra had gained a fourth female member: a violinist named Lois Putlitz. This was of special interest, the Times observed, “considering Mr. Iturbi’s aversion to women in art and sports.”
“If a woman is able to play an instrument better than a man, we want that woman in our orchestra,” Iturbi said, adding that women could certainly stand the “grind” of long rehearsals, and that while they were less fitted for some of the more “strenuous” work, they made up for it by playing with a sensitivity and intuitiveness men often lacked. Besides, he observed, “a woman who must grow accustomed to the moods of a husband has nothing to fear in the moods of a conductor.”
And now there was a new Iturbi to add to the mix, to share the spotlight…and perhaps take some of the heat off her brother. Amparo was José’s baby sister, the last of the Iturbi siblings. Although she had never had José’s good fortune with conservatory scholarships, she shared his talent, his dexterity, and his passion for music. She also had had a good mentor in Professor Eduardo Lopez-Chavarri Marco, who had championed her brother before. Amparo would describe her own musical education as “a little savage” but her debut at age 15 in Barcelona had been impressive. She had joined her brother in Paris in the 1920’s where she had enjoyed her own lasting success, both at playing piano duos with José and on her own in tours throughout Europe. She had married a Valencian gentleman named Enrique Ballester in 1931 but neither her marriage nor the birth of her daughter a year later deterred her from following her career. Whether this unusual career determination (for a woman in those days, especially a Spanish woman, one’s life goal was supposed to be becoming a wife and mother, and little else) contributed to the deterioration of her marriage is not known, but within a few years Ballester returned to Valencia alone, while Amparo remained in Paris with her daughter and her music.
He was nosing around in a hangar in San Francisco when he fell in love with a plane there—a Benny Howard “DGA” (Damn Good Airplane). He called the manufacturer in Chicago and said, “Send me a plane like that.” The plane, which arrived in early April of 1939, was a five-seater cabin plane with a 450 horsepower “Wasp” engine, capable of cruising at the then-incredible speed of 208 miles per hour for 1250 miles without stopping.
Iturbi was occasionally accused by the newspapers of doing things for “effect.” His soloing while conducting was referred to as a stunt; the newspapers seemed to think the airplane was another stunt. In truth it was the simple practicality of the shrewd Mediterranean. “It’s a great time saver,” Iturbi shrugged, when asked “why fly?” Besides, he loved it.
He took off in his new plane—dubbed “El Turia,” after the river that ran through Valencia—and spent the next few months hopping from country to country on an extended South American tour that enabled him to perform some 35 concerts all over the continent in less than two months—and, according to Jean Dalrymple, brought its own level of excitement in at least one near-miss over the Andes mountains.
The newspapers must have expected the flying “stunt” to be a mere fad, for in 1940 an interviewer expressed some surprise not only of Iturbi’s love of flying, but his extensive knowledge as well. “He just about eats it and sleeps it,” said the writer. “Aside from someone actually connected with the industry, it’s doubtful you can run across a man who knows more about planes and what makes them fly.” With the help of his plane, Iturbi was making three transcontinental trips a week for some 100,000 miles a year.
Of course, El Turia also turned out to be a great way to win friends and influence people as well. Iturbi frequently performed as a soloist in his tours, and his airplane seemed to be a great tool at captivating conductors and bringing them to his point of view. On a visit to Oklahoma City, where he was to appear as soloist with the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra, he introduced himself to the conductor Victor Alessandro and invited him on a flight. According to Alessandro, Iturbi “got me up there”—and put the plane into a steep dive. He then turned to Alessandro and asked him if the orchestra was going to “do everything just right.” On Alessandro’s hasty assurance of full cooperation and a perfect orchestra performance, Iturbi leveled off the plane. Asked for a comment, Iturbi merely said, “I thought it an ideal place to reach an agreement.”
On rare occasions, Iturbi’s strenuous schedule caught up with him. In March of 1941 a sinus infection and nervous exhaustion knocked him flat and he was laid up with a high fever for several days. Even then, his natural energy was formidable—a doctor gave him a shot guaranteed to knock out a moose, and Iturbi never felt it.
CAP duty was fine, but it wasn’t enough for him. Iturbi had never been one to do things by halves. Whether it was bond drives, USO shows, entertaining troops at their bases, or performing for the wounded soldiers in hospitals, he was there, doing it all. At one Army post they could only find an elderly baby grand of indeterminate parentage for him. Without a word of protest, Iturbi began to play. For a while, things went swimmingly. Then during one number a key literally popped off the piano and whizzed into the audience. Iturbi soldiered on. More keys began popping off, and soon the audience was laughing too hard to continue—even if there had been enough keys remaining! Iturbi, himself convulsing with laughter, stopped the concert and asked if there was a piano dentist available to fix the piano’s “teeth.”
At another post he was invited to accompany the soldiers on their training exercises after the concert. It was a bad day, though, with rain pouring and mud up to the ankles. After the concert while Iturbi was putting on his raincoat, an officer approached, apologized for the weather, and said he was sorry Iturbi wouldn’t be able to watch the maneuvers. “Why can’t I?” Iturbi asked. Surprised, the officer began to stammer something about the weather. Iturbi laughed. “I bet the sergeants didn’t ask those fellows out there whether they wanted to wade about in the mud and rain. Come on, let’s go.”
He joined a group of Hollywood stars on a huge nationwide tour to sell war bonds. Calling itself “the Bondardiers,” the 75-person group of musicians, movie stars, and managers traveled in a special red, white and blue train, stopping in 15 cities to perform. The stars were a veritable constellation: Greer Garson, Jimmy Cagney, Kay Kyser, Mickey Rooney, Lucille Ball, Betty Hutton and Dick Powell, just to name a few. At bond drives Iturbi was frequently found playing the piano while Fred Astaire danced and Harpo Marx clowned on top of it. The tour’s goal was to sell $500 million dollars worth of bonds. Actual bond sales totaled over a billion dollars—in 1943 currency!
Besides this, Iturbi occasionally teamed up with other stars on an individual basis to do fundraising, such as the time he and his friend the famous Spanish dancer La Argentinita did a joint concert. Rather than buying tickets, people could only get in by buying war stamps, and more than $6,000 dollars worth of war stamps were purchased for the event by the 2700 people who managed to get in.
Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, a fellow named Joe Pasternak was punching out musicals for MGM. “To Europeans,” Pasternak said, “America is the installment plan, canned soup, and used car lots. They always act surprised to learn that Americans like good paintings, good music, good dancing. They think that because everything is big here, it can’t be good. I want to prove that the American people also appreciate quality of the highest sort.” Pasternak was from Hungary and had gotten his start making movies in Austria and Germany. He had already proven to the world that classical music and ordinary audiences could be compatible by putting Leopold Stokowski in “One Hundred Men and a Girl” and was looking for new blood when Jean Dalrymple suggested José Iturbi. “Iturbi? Is that a hair tonic, or a soft drink?” Pasternak said. But he listened to Iturbi’s recordings and pronounced him a brilliant showman. He paid a call on a reluctant Iturbi.
“I’ll tell you how it usually works (with movie producers),” Iturbi said. “You’ve got to go and see him…you’re kept waiting in his outer office. ‘I’ll be with you in a minute,’ he says, so you wait and wait…then there’s a lot of jabber, and it turns out not only that I wouldn’t be interested, but it was only a vague idea anyway. No, I’m afraid pictures are not for me.”
Pasternak had other ideas, and explained to Iturbi his plans for popularizing classical music, and just how he would use Iturbi in his movie, but Iturbi was still doubtful. “I’m a pianist. My job is to play the piano.”
“I’ll bet you that after a movie with me you’ll double your record sales.”
Iturbi laughed. “But what will we bet?”
“How about a piano?” Pasternak suggested.
A few months after the release of Iturbi’s first movie, Pasternak’s wife called him at his office. “Did you order a piano?”
“There are some fellows here to deliver a brand new Baldwin grand!”
Baldwin, of course, was Iturbi’s favorite piano.
Hollywood had been after Iturbi for years, and in 1938 it looked as if they had him. Iturbi had been signed—and duly shown up for work—on “Sweethearts,” in which he was to star with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. It was not to be, however, for within a couple of weeks Dr. David Bruno Ussher reported in his column, “José Iturbi has definitely shaken the cinematic stardust of the Culver City variety from his shoes. He will neither play nor conduct for the MGM production Sweethearts and for the present the great world of celluloid will be a void…” He was ultimately replaced by another nationally noted pianist, Dalies Frantz.
To this day the reason for Iturbi’s abrupt departure has never been publicly confirmed, although Ussher, on seeing the finished product, said, “I was amused….to see and hear the way Dalies Frantz played a wholly negligible short piano obligato, while Jeanette MacDonald sings Herbert’s ‘Badinage.’ When José Iturbi was asked to perform these silly few snatches he walked off the set and out of the studio…I must say I respect him for refusing to participate in this inglorious bit of utter superfluity.”
Ussher was prophetic when he said, “Personally, I do not believe Iturbi has put screen-actorial ambitions completely out of his mind…I believe he is biding his time until such a day, when a producer approves a script which will do justice to his legitimate musical powers.”
At any rate, in spite of Iturbi’s non-appearance in movies at that time, he still had plenty to do. At the age of 42 he had become a grandfather (“she’s only a baby and already so full of personality she makes me sick,” he had said proudly of his first granddaughter); and his mother, sister and niece were getting accustomed to their new home. Amparo joined Iturbi and the Rochester Philharmonic on a successful concert tour; she would make her Carnegie Hall debut shortly after, and within a few months Amparo and José gave a joint recital there which received rave reviews.
Iturbi had made his home in the United States almost from his first visit, and had been “strongly encouraging” Amparo for years to join him. With World War II looming on the horizon in 1937, Paris was no longer safe, and Spain was embroiled in a bitter civil war. Now was the time to make the move, and so Amparo, her five-year-old daughter, and her mother boarded the Ile de France and sailed to New York. Within a couple of months she had debuted in Detroit and on radio, and in July of 1937 she made her local debut with her brother and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Lewisohn Stadium, where they performed Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in E-flat to an audience of 12,000. (“Her attainments so closely rival his that there was little to choose between them,” said one reviewer of Amparo's talent and skill, and “their similarities gave them an unusual degree of unity and coherence.”) She would go on to great success in her own right in this country, but throughout their lives the Iturbi siblings would frequently play together, in concerts, on recordings, and on radio and later, television.