Remembering the Top of the Pops


By Masha Leon

Published June 09, 2006, issue of June 09, 2006.
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‘Tonight we celebrate the keyboard and the life of a man who didn’t just play it — he inhabited it,” said composer, conductor, pianist and emcee-tummler Marvin Hamlisch at the 23rd New York Pops Birthday Gala, 88 Keys for Skitch, held May 8 at Carnegie Hall. (Skitch Henderson, founder and musical director of the Pops, died in November 2004.) Before launching into song, Liza Minnelli spoke fondly about emcee Hamlisch: “When I was about 16, first time in show biz, this kid Marvin Hamlisch put it together for me.” Host Elaine Stritch sang a poignant rendition of “Fifty Percent,” a lament by songmeisters Alan and Marilyn Bergman about a woman willing to settle for half of a married man’s attention. And prize-winning pianist Chu-Fang Huang — 2005 Van Cliburn International Competition finalist — conquered the audience with her rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3.

There was something for everyone: Vintage-rock legend Darlene Love thrilled the audience with “Georgia on My Mind” and “Da Doo Run Run.” Declaring, “There’s a black person inside me desperate to get out,” Hamlisch insisted on joining Love’s backup trio in a rock refrain. “We bring Beethoven and the American Songbook into the [Florida] schools. How else would kids hear [George] Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’”? said Bob Lappin, founder of the Palm Beach Pops. Lappin performed a soaring piano rendition of Henry Mancini’s “Strings on Fire.”

“I am the son of Turkish immigrants,” informed Ahmet Ertegun, founding chairman of Atlantic Records. He recalled going to Nashville for an award: “I was just out of the hospital, used a walker to get on the stage, and a Southern lady told the audience, ‘This is the first time we gave this award to a foreign cripple.’” Ertegun introduced rock ’n’ roll phenomenon Kid Rock, whose orgasmic showmanship had the audience — including the 800 school kids in the balconies — screaming for more. “Skitch played every kind of music except for Gregorian chant which goes on at 2 a.m. on Pesach,” joshed Hamlisch, who closed the concert with a piano medley of such Atlantic label hits as “Killing Me Softly With His Song” and “Stand by Me.”

* * *

“We have not had so much brain power… since 1933, when Einstein and Freud were on the board of YIVO when it was flourishing in Vilna,” said Bruce Slovin, chairman of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, at YIVO’s 81st anniversary dinner, held May 8 at the Center for Jewish History. He was referring to Columbia University’s president, Lee Bollinger; Dr. Richard Axel, 2004 Nobel laureate and recipient of YIVO’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and Dr. Eric Kandel, 2000 Nobel laureate, 2001 YIVO honoree and the presenter of Axel’s award. Bollinger touted the importance to Columbia of Jewish studies programs. These included “the first chair in Jewish history studies; the first graduate program in Yiddish studies, [established] in the 1950s, and the upgrading of [Columbia’s] Center for Israel and Jewish studies to the status of institute.”

A whimsical Kandel — professor of physiology, cell biology, psychiatry and molecular biophysics at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons — sported his signature red bowtie. His Nobel Prize-winning research proved essential to understanding basic processes of learning and memory. Kandel declared jokingly that none of Axel’s many awards for molecular biology could match YIVO’s award, which, he said, “allows you to influence world events.” He told Axel that he names him “‘Jew of the Year,’ because you represent values [that Jews] cherish: creativity, generosity, accomplishment, decency.” Kandel then urged a dumbfounded audience to join in a cheer: “Richard! Richard! Melech Yisrael! King of Israel!” According to Kandel, the award now qualifies Axel to resolve such disputes as the succession impasse between the late Satmar Rebbe Moshe Teitelbaum’s sons. Kandel even dared imply that the time was ripe for a woman to be the leader of the Satmar Hasidim.

Axel responded with gravitas, lauding YIVO for “chronicling the threads of Jewish history in all its splendor.” Then, citing the “hundreds of e-mails” asking him how one becomes a Nobel Prize winner, Axel elaborated: “First you grow up in a Jewish home in Brooklyn, with immigrant parents from Poland [whose] education was disrupted by the Nazi invasion. They instilled in me a deep respect for intellectual striving. We lived on Eastern Parkway, flanked on one side by the Lubavitcher yeshiva of Reb Schneerson and on the other, a brothel. Walking out of my house each day, I was faced with a conflict: ‘Do I go to the right or to the left?’” His journey to the Nobel Prize began with delivering false teeth to dentists at age 11 and moved on to laying carpet at 12, and then to a waiter’s job in the Catskills! A scholarship to Columbia College disappointed his parents: “It was a known fact that the brightest children of Brooklyn’s Jewish immigrants went to City College.” After Columbia, he went on to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “I was a terrible medical student. I was allowed to graduate only if I promised not to practice on living patients. After doing 100 autopsies, I was begged never to practice medicine on dead patients. During my first obstetrics rotation, I [accidentally] sewed the surgeon’s finger to a patient. He looked at me, a Southerner, and said: ‘Son, am I going home with her or is she going home with me? Or are you going to cut that damn stitch!’ So I stand before you tonight, a Brooklyn boy who desperately wants to be a doctor but is a scientist by default.” Axel is now a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons who won the Nobel Prize for helping discover not only odor-sensing protein receptors in the nose, but how this information is transmitted to the brain so that we can recognize and remember more than 10,000 different odors. He concluded: “For me, science has been a joyous obsession and a great deal of fun.… It is an honor and a pleasure as a Jewish scientist to stand with you and YIVO. Tonight I celebrate you. L’chaim!” To life!

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