Tag Archives: Morris Guest

Dimitri Tiomkin interment place, Los Angeles

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Dimitri Tiomkin (Dmitry Tyomkin) surely is one of the greatest success stories among those refugees from the Russian Empire who found a life and fame in Hollywood. There are a lot of these stories – enough to ask seriously what Hollywood would have been without Russia – but I always come back to Tiomkin as the one who holds the banner for the rest. It’s a subjective call, but this is a space for subjective opinions.
Tiomkin (the spelling he used in the U.S.) was born in the small Ukrainian city of Kremenchug (now known as Kremenchuk) in 1894. His family was Jewish – his father Zinovy a prominent doctor, his mother Maria Tartovskaya an amateur pianist. She taught her son to play the piano in his earliest childhood and by the age of 13 he had entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory. There he rubbed shoulders with some of the greats of Russian classical music, including Alexander Glazunov (under whom he studied harmony). But his heart was drawn to the Stray Dog cafe, one of the most famous bohemian hangouts of that time in Russia. As he put it later in his memoirs, “I began living a double life – I spent my nights in the Stray Dog, and in the mornings I would appear at the conservatory.” It was here, at the Stray Dog, that he would have become acquainted with the avant-garde poetry, literature, painting and music of his time. All the greats hung out here, and Tiomkin, who played the piano all night to pay off his debts for food and drink to the owner, heard an earful and saw an eyeful. After the Revolution, he went to work for the political administration of the Petrograd military district. It was his job to provide music for special occasions, the most memorable of which was the famed re-staging in 1920 of the Storming of the Winter Palace. Directed by Nikolai Yevreinov, this theatricalized, mass public event, provided the film clips of frenzied soldiers overrunning the palace walls that, even today, we still see in place of non-existent historical films of the real event.
Things got a little hot for Tiomkin in St. Petersburg, however, and he soon realized it was time to get out. He was living in the town of Gatchina, a Petrograd suburb, in the home of a family friend, who happened to have been a general in the Tsar’s army. One night the Soviet police came and took him away to prison. Tiomkin, perhaps not knowing better, visited his friend in prison a few days later, but got stuck there for several days when a new set of guards, following a change in shifts, refused to believe that Tiomkin was not a prisoner himself. He finally was able to get a note out to his teacher Glazunov, who extricated his student from his predicament. It was not long before the budding pianist chose to join his father in Berlin, where he stayed from 1921 to 1923. He made his concert debut in Berlin, performing Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Berlin Philharmonic. He moved to Paris with his friend Mikhail Khariton in 1924, where he began writing foxtrots and waltzes, and made the acquaintance of Fyodor Chaliapin. Tiomkin and Khariton, who formed a piano duet that had no little success, then made the leap across the Big Pond to New York in 1925 upon invitation from the Ukrainian-born, American impresario Morris Gest.

Tiomkin and Khariton played vaudeville gigs and classical recitals at Carnegie Hall, and played in the orchestra of a ballet company. There Tiomkin met his second wife, Albertina Rasch, the head of the ballet troupe. In 1928 Tiomkin performed the European premiere of George Gershwin’s Concert in F at the Paris Opera. His life continued to unfold as it had way back in St. Petersburg/Petrograd – wavering back and forth between serious and “frivolous” music. And, while by the end of the 1920s, Tiomkin could look back at a varied and accomplished decade in his musical career, nothing could come close to comparing what was still in store for him ahead.
Chased by the bad times brought on by the Stock Market Crash in 1929, Tiomkin and his wife ended up in Hollywood. Tiomkin’s career in Tinseltown got off to a slow start, with several uncredited jobs. That would change very quickly, however. Tiomkin would soon become one of the greatest Hollywood composers ever. Imdb.com lists 126 credits for Tiomkin as a composer. It lists 163 in the soundtrack category and another 144 in the music department division. But that doesn’t come close to painting the complete picture of this man’s work, his influence on American cinema and on American culture. Let me drop one tidbit here: Tiomkin was the composer of the Rawhide TV series, all 217 episodes. Yes, that’s right, the music to that “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, Rawhide!” song was written by Tiomkin. If you are of my age or older, Tiomkin’s music was in your household every week of every year from 1959 to 1965.
The Rawhide connection brings us to, perhaps, the most amazing feature of Tiomkin’s career as a composer. He almost single-handedly created the sounds of America for Hollywood in its great golden age. From his very first Hollywood job in 1929, to his last in 1979, he was the composer who found the music and sounds that made America believe that it knew itself. This gentle, friendly, easy-going Jewish man from Ukraine created our musical perception of ourselves. His work on westerns and noir detective tales set the standard for the genres, two of American cinema’s greatest. He was nominated for 17 Oscars, winning four. He wrote the music for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1944), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), High Noon (1952), Dial M for Murder (1954), Giant and Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), The Old Man and the Sea (1958), The Alamo (1960), The Guns of Navarone and Town Without Pity (1961). The list of directors he worked for is a who’s who of the profession: Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, John Wayne, John Huston, John Sturges, Howard Hawks, George Cukor…
Upon his death in 1979, Dimitri Tiomkin was interred in the wall of the Columbarium of Memory in the Memorial Terrace of the Forest Lawn Mausoleum in Glendale. Next to him are his second wife Albertina Rasch and a Maria Tiomkin whose only identified date is 1960. I am guessing that this is his mother, who might have died in 1960, but I do not know that for a fact.
If you look for the Tiomkin urn, don’t follow the directions given in the Forest Lawn office. In fact, as soon as you enter the Columbarium of Memory, turn immediately to your left and look down. The urn is right in the left-hand corner of the long hall.

 

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The Almost Russian Theater, Los Angeles, CA

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Among my far-flung searches for places connected to Russian culture this surely is one of my favorite finds. As I was doing my scattershot, though deeply immersive, research this summer on Russian artists in LA., one thing led me to another which led me to another and I ended up reading bits and pieces of Sergei Bertensson’s book In Hollywood with Nemirovich-Danchenko, 1926-1927. Imagine my astonishment (well, you can’t if you already knew this, but it was new to me) when I read the following diary entry from June 1927:
Two of the directors of the Hollywood Playhouse payed a visit to Vladimir Ivanovich to discuss the possibility of organizing a permanent drama theater in Hollywood, a true art theater. Both of them are naive and primitive enough, one of them is frankly thinking only of profit. Vladimir Ivanovich spoke about three possibilities: 1) to organize a permanent company on the basis of the Art Theatre, 2) to stage one play using the tasks and methods of the Moscow Art Theatre in order that this play becomes a model for the future work, 3) to work out a detailed plan (artistic, administrative, juridicial) according to which the owners of this theatre could run the company without the help of Vladimir Ivanovich. Vladimir Ivanovich promised to inform them of his acceptance of the first or second plan no earlier than in a month when his plans for the future became clear. He could work out the third plan now. It has been decided to have a tour of the building of the Hollywood Playhouse in two days’ time and after that to come to the conclusion.”
Holy Moses! There was almost a Moscow Art Theater, or maybe a Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater in Los Angeles! Well, as you read on, you realize that this “almost” – like so many “almosts” in life, especially in the life of anyone trying to bridge the cultural gap between Russia and the United States – probably wasn’t much of a real “almost.” And yet, and yet… Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, while in Hollywood, actually visited this theater, the Hollywood Playhouse, and actually did consider – at least for a few moments – the idea of opening a Moscow Art Theater-type theater in Los Angeles.
Indeed, two days later, on June 17, Nemirovich-Danchenko and his secretary Sergei Bertensson headed over to the Playhouse, which you see photographed here in loving delight, for a meeting with the owners. I think it’s interesting – though it may or may not be important – that when the director discovered he had mistakenly scheduled two meetings at the same time, he chose to honor not a meeting with a big Hollywood honcho (Irving Thalberg, the boy wonder at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) who wanted to do a film with him, he went to the Hollywood Playhouse for a tour of the plant and a discussion of the possibilities of collaboration.
The idea – at least of Nemirovich-Danchenko directing a play – remained alive until mid-October. Simeon Gest, brother of the more famous Russian-emigre producer Morris Guest, conducted the negotiations for the Russian director with the American theater owners.  According to Bertensson, the owners were to have informed him of their decision to go ahead with the project or not on Oct. 12, but asked for another day to consider. On Oct. 13 Bertensson writes in his diary, “All the business with the Hollywood Playhouse has fallen through, as the management either cannot or do not want to risk giving Vladimir Ivanovich the necessary financial guarantees. When from high-sounding words we proceeded to dollars, all their pathos disappeared immediately. And the Academy refused to support the initiative officially, referring to the point that the stage is beyond the scope of their interests as they only deal with pure cinematography. However, admitting the general significance of such an event as a production by Vladimir Ivanovich, certain members of the Academy promise their assistance!? Words, words, words...”
Ah, yes, Words! We have heard words, too. But allow me to brush aside my lyrical outburst and provide the proper bibliographical information for my quotes. They were drawn from pages 129-30, and 156 in Bertensson’s published memoir.

When I set out in search of this little theater-that-couldn’t-quite, I never expected to actually find it. I thought for sure it would be one of those places that has since fallen to the bulldozer and the parking lot. But no. As I drove north on Las Palmas Ave. toward Sunset Boulevard from De Longpre Ave. with my sister Margie riding shotgun, my eyes began to grow bigger and bigger as we drove through a mostly residential block in which a strangely theater-like building stood up ahead on the left, right about where 1445 N. Las Palmas Avenue should be. I jumped out of the car and began taking photos, hoping against hope this was what I thought it was. Then I walked around a big bougainvillea plant and looked up. I might as well have seen a live dinosaur. There it was, the old Hollywood Playhouse sign still intact. A bit worse for the wear, a bit faded for the years, but there was no mistaking what it said. I must also say that the maniac in me began having incredibly wild ideas, because there it is, written on two places on the building – the place is available for rent. Anybody got a couple million dollars they want to invest? With Russians flooding abroad these days (I recently read an article about 100 top Russian intellectuals who have abandoned Putin’s Russia in recent years), this could be the next big thing in L.A. Anybody think? I’ve got contact information here, if you get my drift… I got ideas…
Back to earth, however.
As much as it pains me to say it, this location had at least one more brush with Russian emigre cultural figures. I happened upon that tidbit recently when researching Ivan Lebedeff’s biography. You see, Alisa Rosenbaum’s debut play was staged here. Alisa Rosenbaum? Oh, you mean, Ayn Rand. Ugh. Yes. Ayn Rand.
As reported in Anne C. Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made, Rand’s first stage play, The Night of January 16thopened as Woman on Trial at the Hollywood Playhouse in October 1934, in a production by sometime actor E. E. Clive and featuring former silent-screen actress Barbara Bedford. Critics and a star-studded first-night audience, including Rand’s Polish idol Pola Negri, Frank Capra, Jesse Lasky, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, three members of the White Russian aristocratic diaspora, and Rand’s friend Ivan Lebedeff, among other film celebrities, praised the plot and were beguiled by the volunteer jury” [drawn from the audience].
So there you have it. Stand back and squint. Do you see Nemirovich-Danchenko, looking not at all Hollywood-like in his heavy Russian beard, entering the door? Is that Bertensson – who would immigrate to the U.S. a few years later and would publish his notes of his time with Nemirovich and later write a biography of Sergei Rachmaninoff – following his friend in the door? Or is it Rand, the Russian wannabe emigre writer, sneaking out after the premiere of her play, not wanting to be noticed because she really didn’t like people? Or might that dashing figure coming out now be Lebedeff, monocled and mustachioed, who absolutely loved opening nights and Hollywood crowds!
Whoever it is, there are some pretty good Russian ghosts here.