Spelled Out

I can’t digest the word: “Influencer.” This whole cock-eyed realm of self-anointed online taste stokers makes me dizzy or nauseous, I’m not sure which. 

Lately, though, I have found myself thinking about my own “influencers” down through the years, and the whole bygone pleasure of learning about something good from someone you actually know ­­­­– live and in person. Like Danny Feldman.

It is absolutely extraordinary that I remember his name. Danny Feldman was my kindergarten classmate and I don’t even think we were friends. But, clueless as I was (so forgivably) at six, I knew, without yet knowing the word, that Danny Feldman was “cool.” How did I know? Because Danny Feldman carried himself with a knowingness that I lacked (attributable, I now suspect, to his having older siblings) and Danny Feldman wore Hushpuppies (laced, not loafers) which, to me at age six, set him apart.

It was a back-to-school Monday morning – ­February 1964, I now realize. A crush of kids surrounded Danny Feldman. Our teacher had not yet called us to order. Danny was talking and everybody was listening. I listened too. 

“The Beatles,” I heard over and over. The Beatles on Ed Sullivan last night. 

Who were these insects? I wondered, but kept my mouth shut. 

Danny turned toward me. He wasn’t a bad kid. Had I watched? No. Didn’t I love The Beatles? Dunno.

He had a child preacher’s fire about him. The following Sunday night, I made sure to turn Ed Sullivan on, still not exactly sure what The Beatles were.

By the end of the evening, I knew.

Now, doubtlessly I would have gotten to the Beatles without Danny Feldman. One day. Soon. The Beatles were inevitable. 

But I will always associate them, just a little, with Danny Feldman. Who was quickly gone from our school, as I remember, for a far better one, no doubt. 

The Monkees I next found on my own.

Jay Glazer was my day camp counselor in my last day camp year, 1969, when I was…11? Jay looked and talked exactly like David Crosby, I later realized, once I discovered David Crosby; drooping mustache and all. Jay was a Pied Piper kind of a counselor with a stoner’s inscrutable effervescence (before stoner was even a word). He played WNEW-FM for us throughout the day on a little portable radio and named names, sharing Hendrix, The Who, The Dead, The Doors. 

And then one afternoon he told us about Woodstock. Some kind of three-day music thing in the Catskills, come August. He was going. Happy to take us along.

I bought a ticket, by mail.

My father and I never really stopped fighting about the fact that he would not let me go. For years.

Now, if my daughters had come to me when they were 11 and said they were going to Woodstock, I would have said exactly the same thing, of course, as my father. Just way, way less…so, I’d like to think.

Jay Glazer did, in fact, take two of my campmates to Woodstock. They got drenched and came home early. Jay, nevertheless, really opened my ears to a whole lot of music that I still listen to, and to that great ear-opening “progressive” radio station of the Woodstock Age, WNEW-FM here in NYC. When Jonathan Schwartz, then-one of the station’s most singular disc jocks, said on the air that the greatest tragedies in American music were the premature deaths of Jimi Hendrix and George Gershwin, my still-evolving bifurcated musical soul found a confirming kindred voice.

Another “influencer.”

Four years later, it was the 75th anniversary of George Gershwin’s birth and I was in high school, miserably cutting classes for any reason, or no reason at all. The Fifth Avenue Doubleday bookstore on 56th Street (not 53rd, can you imagine, there were two Fifth-Avenue-in-the-50s Doubledays just blocks apart then?) was presenting a George Gershwin birthday exhibition in its spacious lower floor, with cool stuff he’d once owned on display and lunchtime singalongs around a piano. I spent a lot of lunchtimes down there. I also learned about, and wound up attending, a Gershwin film festival on Sundays (when I also had school – don’t ask), at 2 Columbus Circle, an architectural monstrosity then-known as the Huntington Hartford building. This basement series of rare Gershwin-scored flicks proved a revelation. The Playbill handed out (it was an actual Playbill, I believe) informed me that the festival had been assembled by something called The Institute of the American Musical. Its president, a guy named Miles Kreuger, contributed a terrific article about his enterprise, mentioning in it a collection of silent movies that the Institute possessed, shot live and illicitly in Broadway theaters over the past 40 years by some musical theater fan from Florida, I think; films of every classic Broadway musical, practically, that I’d never seen, but loved to imagine.

I wrote Miles Kreuger a letter asking to see these home movies. And, to my astonish-ment, he wrote back.

That’s how I wound up spending lunchtimes (and other school times) down at Miles’ rambling apartment in the West 90s, hand-cranking a film editing machine and watching, in color, no less, stuttering film images of Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza in South Pacific; an incredibly young Gene Kelly in Pal Joey

Miles showered me with data and stories about Broadway musical history. I lapped it up and came back for more. One day, he invited me to sit in the back of his living room as he screened for the lyricist Yip Harburg all of the home movies the Institute held of Harburg shows (including Bloomer Girl, Finian’s Rainbow  and  Jamaica ). He also insisted on introducing me to Mr. Harburg and shaking his hand because, as Miles put it, “Somebody from your generation has to pass this on to the next.”

It was Miles who first touted the name Stephen Sondheim to me. The very next time I cut class on a Wednesday, I scrambled to the brand-new half-price ticket booth in Duffy Square and bought a single in the balcony for A Little Night Music.

The rest is history and, in time, my book, Ever After.

Thanks Miles, you old influencer, you.