A musician’s story

A musician’s story

Mitchell Weiss of Oakland looks back on a long career on and off Broadway

Mitch Weiss at home, with his clarinet.
Mitch Weiss at home, with his clarinet.

When you go to Mitch Weiss’s house in Oakland, you drive down a nice but fairly standard suburban street. You park and walk into a nice but fairly standard house.

And then you look out the back door, and you see that at the end of his backyard there is a lake. A big one. In one direction, it winds on out of sight for miles, he said; the other side connects fairly directly to the Ramapo River.

It’s beautiful, and entirely unexpected.

That’s sort of what it’s like to meet Mr. Weiss.

He’s warm and welcoming and nice and smart; he’s great to talk to. That’s marvelous but not unexpected.

And then he tells you stories, and you stare at this entirely unexpected man, who played with Stravinsky and Bernstein and on Broadway and at the Met; who won three Grammys; who was married to the love of his life for 59 years; who raised show dogs, and showed them; who has been an active member of a Conservative shul, most recently Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, his entire life; who knew Mrs. Vanderbilt as an actual person.

It’s as unexpected and as miraculous as the lake sparkling just behind his house, invisible until you see it.

Mitchell Weiss was born in Rochester, New York, in 1932. It was a good place for a musically gifted child to grow up, because it also was — still is — the home of the Eastman School of Music. He played clarinet from the time he was in fourth grade. “Eastman had a very extensive program in Rochester’s public schools,” he said. “They nurtured me.” And his talent was recognized; he won awards from the citywide high school orchestra to which he’d been accepted. He graduated from Eastman’s preparatory program with awards for both the best performance and the best composition.

He knew exactly what he wanted to do.

“I always wanted to be a musician,” he said, and his path seemed clear.

But no. Not so fast. “My uncle, Hyman Cohen, my mother’s brother, was a very successful businessman in the wholesale paper business, and he controlled the whole family. His brother-in-law was David Diamond, a successful American composer “who was in the group with Lenny Bernstein and Aaron Copland. But he had certain personality problems — he had a drinking problem — and also he was gay.” His brother-in-law could not control him and did not like that. “So he said that no relative of his was going to be a musician.” He would help his nephew become Dr. Weiss. That was his destiny. So Mr. Weiss got into a premed program at the University of Rochester.

No problem, young Mitch thought. He still had a chance to do what he wanted. He’d try for a scholarship to Eastman. And he got a full scholarship. But his uncle said no, so for two years Mr. Weiss took premed courses, which left him stone cold. “And then I couldn’t do it anymore.” His family said no, “but I said I don’t care, so I transferred.”

By the time he finished college, Mr. Weiss was married. His new wife, Janet Kristensen, was from Duluth, Minnesota; she’d moved to Rochester because she also was a musician, a flutist, and she also earned a degree at Eastman. That’s where the two met. “That name, Kristensen, did not go over well with my parents,” Mr. Weiss said. As it implies, she was not born Jewish. “But she converted, and we belonged to a big Conservative congregation in Rochester, Beth El.”

This was during the conflict in Korea. Mr. Weiss graduated from Eastman and auditioned for the Army and Marine bands, and was accepted, but that would have been a four-year stint, and “my wife said that I will not spend four years in Washington. So I allowed myself to be drafted.” That would have been a shorter time in the military, but most of it would likely have been spent in Korea, getting shot at. But Mr. Weiss’s luck held.

“I auditioned for the Army band at Fort Meyers,” he said. “I was accepted but they said they couldn’t take me because I was married.” But the commander of Fort Knox took him anyway; he and his wife rented a house in Louisville, near the base, which they shared with their Pomeranian. Next, he mistakenly was ordered to Oakland, California” — the other Oakland — “and from there onto a troop ship going to the Pacific Command. “I went to the commander and asked him what happened, and he said ‘Your file was put into the wrong folder. You are going there, and there is nothing we can do about it.’

Mr. Weiss, left, plays in the Senior Orchestral Society of New York recently; he’s next to Stanley Drucker and James Jeter is at the right.

“So Janet went back to Duluth, to stay with her family, and I took a train across the country. We had to wait for two weeks, for the troop ship. So one of the Friday nights, I was walking around Oakland in uniform, and I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. I turned around, and this man said ‘I want to introduce myself. I am a rabbi here. Would you like to have dinner with me and my family?’ So I did, and I had a wonderful time.”

How did this rabbi know that Mr. Weiss was Jewish? “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I looked Jewish.” From behind? Maybe, he said.

“So I got on the ship, it was a 1,500-man troop ship going to one of the islands off Korea. We docked in Honolulu, and out of the 1,500 men, eight of us were called out to report onto the deck. I was one of them. We all were musicians. We got our gear and we disembarked, and the band played ‘Aloha.’

“And then the commanding officer said to all of us, ‘You will be stationed here, in the band.’ And he made me the concertmaster of the Pacific Command Band.”

During his stay in Honolulu, Mr. Weiss and one of the other musicians who got off the troop ship with him “formed a club date band, called the 7 Up Beats. We played in Pearl Harbor.” He also played bass clarinet with the Honolulu Symphony, using an instrument the commanding officer allowed him to borrow from the base. He rented a house, and Janet and the dog came out.

As the dog played in the local dog run, Janet’s dog met two poodles, and Janet met the poodles’ owner, Mrs. Henry J. Kaiser (aka Alyce Chester). That’s as in Kaiser Aluminum, Kaiser Steel, and Kaiser Permanente, the Kaiser Family Foundation. “They became very close friends, and she got us into the Honolulu Kennel Club. She was an outstanding poodle raiser, and that’s how we got into raising show dogs.”

After two years, Mr. Weiss was discharged. It was 1956; the family moved back to Rochester, but “I couldn’t take the winter there,” he said. So they moved to California, where he got into the University of Southern California. “I was ambivalent about a career in music, so I applied in psychology,” he said. “I was accepted and I got an assistantship in the department of clinical psychology. I was going for a doctorate.”

Janet Weiss also lined up a job, as an assistant to the dean at USC, so the two “drove cross-country in a Riley,” a now-discontinued British car “that’s like a small Rolls-Royce,” Mr. Weiss said. “We packed up the dog, and we went.”

That sounds ritzy, but it wasn’t, he added. “We had no money. We saw an ad in the paper for a ’53 Riley for $500, and that was just about all we could afford. So we took off.” They drove to Chicago, and then took Route 66 from Chicago to L.A. (“More than two thousand miles all the way…”)

The Weisses settled into their new life. Mitch “was working in clinical psychology, and one of my clients was the head accountant at Warner Brothers, and he said, ‘I hate my job. Can you give me a test to find out what I am suited for?’

Mr. Weiss played in Franco Zefferelli’s Don Giovanni at the Met in 1972. The orchestra’s costumes were custom made; the Italian-made boots — which they could not keep and audiences could not see — were $500 a pair.

“So I gave him a whole battery of tests, and it turned out that he was suited for either teaching or rabbinical work. (Yes, he was Jewish!) So he said that he’d try teaching, and a few months later I got a letter from him that said ‘Mr. Weiss, I want to thank you. I am teaching, and I have never been happier in my life.’

“And I looked at it, and I said, ‘What am I doing in psychology, when what I really want is to be a musician?”

He started taking lessons with a famous clarinetist, Mitchell Lurie, and he transferred the scholarship that was paying for his education in psychology to the music department, where he began to work on a degree in musical arts, and to perform as much as he could.

“Mitchell called me and said that we would do a chamber piece by Igor Stravinsky, his Elegy for JFK.” It was 1964 by then. “We rehearsed at Stravinsky’s house, right under the Hollywood sign,” Mr. Weiss said. “His wife Vera served us lunch. And then we went to play it at the concert hall for a Monday evening concert.

“We did a run-through, and we were walking to do the performance, and someone said ‘Maestro Stravinsky, why are you still performing all over the world, at your age?’” (He was in his mid-80s.)

“And he turned around, and smiled, and said, ‘To get even.’”

Soon after that, the family — which by then included two children, David and Cecilia — moved back East; a three-year-old musicians’ union strike made work hard to get in Los Angeles, but there was plenty of it in New York. “So we got in the car again — this time it was a Peugeot 403 — with the two kids, two dogs, and two hamsters.”

Once they got to New York, Mr. Weiss started working at Radio City Music Hall. They lived on the Upper West Side. It was the late 60s; they found a rent-controlled apartment that his kids still tease him about giving up. The family loved the city, but “it was the time of Needle Park and drugs and the kids went to a wonderful school, PS 87, but they were getting mugged going to school. We realized that we had to get out of there.”

The Weisses moved to Englewood; “the children went to Dwight Morrow, and I taught at Dwight-Englewood. We belonged to Temple Emanu-El there.” That’s when Emanu-El’s rabbi was Arthur Hertzberg.

Mr. Weiss worked at Radio City Music Hall for many years, and he started subbing on Broadway. “Finally I got so many calls from Broadway that I quit Radio City and started doing shows full time, first as a sub, then to open them.

“I did Lenny Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story’ in the 70s. It was the first revival. I did his ‘Candide’; it was in the round. And I did the world premiere of Bernstein’s ‘Mass’ at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

“After the world premiere of ‘Mass’ there was a reception. Everyone waits for Bernstein, and then Bernstein comes in with his entourage, and he walks over to the reception table, and he sees a buttered bagel. With lox. And he says ‘goyische kop.” (Non-Jewish thinking. What Jew would think of lox on a buttered bagel?) “And then he walks out.” What was it like working with Bernstein? “It was great,” he said.

The Weisses lived in Englewood until after David and Cecilia married and moved out. One of their very good friends was a drummer, Nick Cerrato; “we played together on ‘West Side Story,’ and on ‘On the 20th Century,’” Mr. Weiss said. “It was just before New Years Eve in the 1980s, and he invited us to a New Years Eve party. He said, ‘I would love to have you come to my house — and bring ice skates.’ I said ‘What?’ and he said ‘Yeah. I live on this lake. Crystal Lake.’

“Janet was a big ice skater, back in Duluth. So she brought her figure skates, and I brought my hockey skates, and we fell in love with the area. So I told Nick that if a house opens up in the area, let us know.”

Six months later, one did. “I walked in, I took one look outside, and I said ‘We’ll take it.’ Janet said, ‘Zunnie, you gotta bargain.’”

(A side note. Zunnie? “That’s because my real first name is Zundel,” he said. That’s on my driver’s license and on my army enlistment papers.”)

Back to the non-bargaining. “I said I don’t care. I love this place. I gotta take it, no matter what the price is.” That was in 1984.

Mitch Weiss stands with his daughter, Cecilia, a television producer.

Back then, the Weisses belonged to “a synagogue right next to where the Dairy Queen is, on Route 202. I belonged there — it was Conservative — and then they decided to link up with Temple Emanuel in Paterson. And then they decided to move to Franklin Lakes.” He’s been a member throughout all these transformations since 1984.

There’s another story about Oakland. A musical one.

“I also played at the 70th birthday celebration of Aaron Copland,” Mr. Weiss said. “It was in Carnegie Hall, with the American Composers Orchestra. I was also a member of that.”

He played several concerts for and with Mr. Copland, “including ‘Appalachian Spring’ and ‘Fanfare for the Common Man.’ “Once you got used to his style of conducting, he was very very nice to work with. There was a lot of hand stuff. He would get the orchestra to sound big. He was big on sound.”

“‘Fanfare’ was written in Oakland,” Mr. Weiss continued. “Copland used to rent a cabin off Route 202, on Ramapo Valley Road, up where the Boy Scouts have their retreats. He used to live there every summer. It was very rural, and he loved it up there.” (Mr. Copland, of course, also was Jewish.)

Aside from music, and of course his family, dogs were a huge part of Mr. Weiss’s life. “When we lived on the Upper West Side, I used to take the kids to Riverside Park, and they started playing with a dog, and my daughter said, ‘Daddy, Daddy, I want a dog just like Watson.’ So I went to Watson’s owner, and said ‘My kids love this dog. I want to get the name of the breeder.’

“We talked, and she gave me the breeder’s name, and said to tell her ‘I recommend you.’ And she wrote down the name Mrs. Vanderbilt. The commodore’s wife.

“She gave me the number, and I called, and I said that I was recommended, and she said ‘that’s fine. I have a big kennel in Connecticut. Why don’t you come up?’”

Watson was a Skye terrier; Mrs. Vanderbilt bred Skyes, and the Weisses soon showed and then eventually also bred them. “Mrs. Vanderbilt was lovely” Mr. Weiss said. “She introduced me to the kennel manager, and she said we have a pet-type dog, who is very friendly. She gave it to me for $100.”

Eventually the Weisses moved on from pet dogs to show dogs (which also are pets, and are treated as pets, but also have the physical and emotional traits that allow them to be groomed and trained to show).

“My wife had an amazing ability to make friends,” Mr. Weiss said. “They hit it off, and Mrs. Vanderbilt got us into the New England Terrier Club.”

The Weisses had more than 20 show dogs; they were shown all over the country. “We always had dogs until up to two years ago, when the last one passed on,” Mr. Weiss said, with visible sadness. “This is a great place to bring up dogs.”

Mr. Weiss’s Broadway career included the 1976 production of “Porgy and Bess”; astonishingly, that was the first time it had been on Broadway, he said. He was in “Les Miserables” from 1987, when it opened, to 2008, when it closed, and he also played in its cast album. “It was a great show to play in,” he said. He has stories. Here’s one. “One night, the lights went out when I was in the pit, and it was completely dark,” he said. “We were able to keep playing, because most of us knew the show by heart.

“At the intermission, the conductor came over and said ‘Mitch, as usual that was great, but you missed one solo.’ And I said, ‘Sorry. I read the newspaper when I play the show, and my cue for that solo is when I hit the sports section. But because there was no light, so I couldn’t read the paper, I missed the cue.’”

His story for “West Side Story” is darker. “I sat next to the drummer, my friend Nick, the one from Oakland. At rehearsal, the conductor said, ‘I need more drums. I need more drums!’ So they got louder and louder. After, I said, ‘Nick, I can’t hear from this ear,’ and he said, ‘I can’t help it.’ As a result, I lost the hearing in one of my ears.”

He also lost part of his lung because of the chemical cloud that was part of “Les Miz.” “It landed right in the pit, and three of us developed lung problems as a result.” They sued; the chemical composition was changed, but they didn’t get any damages. “That is one of the hazards of Broadway,” Mr. Weiss said.

He won three Grammys, he added; he’s played in more productions and on more recordings than he can remember; when you talk to him, more and more come to his mind.

Janet Kristensen Weiss died in 2011; she’d been an active musician, an even more active dog breeder and shower, and an extremely active parent. The Weiss’s son, David, is a musician, a flutist like his mother. “He lives in Park Slope; he’s been the flutist for ‘The Lion King’ for more than 20 years. He plays all the ethnic flutes.” He’s also the father of the Weiss’s grandson, Daniel, who just graduated from LIU, lives in Brooklyn, and works at the Barclay Center there. “My daughter, Cecilia, is a producer for NBC,” he continued. “She lives in Santa Monica, and right now she’s doing the Kelly Clarkson show every afternoon at 2 o’clock. And she’s married to the son of a Lord Mayor of London.”

At 88, Mr. Weiss is extremely busy. He’s an active member of the Senior Orchestral Society of New York, and he was a member of the committee that worked with Rabbi Joseph Prouser to pair classical music to the Book of Esther for the megillah reading at Temple Emanu-el.

And the lake behind his house still sparkles. Spring is coming. On to the next adventure.

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