The following address was delivered by Alan "Buz" Kohan (BM ’55, MM ’56), after he was presented with Eastman’s Alumni Achievement Award.
Thank you very much for this honor.
Many years ago, I wrote a line for George Burns in a television special. He was 95 years old at the time and the line went, “When I was a young performer, I used to get a standing ovation … Now I get an ovation just for standing”.
Well, I’m not quite at that point yet, but I do thank you for the tribute.
Members of the faculty and the administration, honored guests, friends, and soon to be honored members of the graduating class of 2006.
It is an privilege for me to stand here surrounded by such an outstanding and eclectic group, to address the graduating class of 2006.
It has been fifty years since I left the concrete campus to try my luck in the cold hard world out there, a roll of the dice which you are about to take as well.
Fifty years of ups and downs, triumphs and defeats, meeting and befriending some of the outstanding persons and personalities of the past half-century, putting words into the mouths of beautiful but inarticulate people, putting notes into the throats of some of the most incredible voices of our time, and giving audiences a cause to laugh, to think, to be moved and even on occasion, to be inspired.
Though I love continuity and symmetry, in order for me to get some thoughts across to you in this limited amount of time, I’m going to be jumping around a bit, so bear with me, and we’ll all be able to throw our mortarboards in the air and shout, “Free at Last”, before you know it.
In thinking about what I could say to you this morning that would have some relevance and resonance from the perspective of a half-century of absence, I thought it might be easier if I put down some thoughts under one large heading.
The title of that umbrella was, “Things I Wish I Knew Then”, and here are some of the items that made the cut.
Back in 1951, I arrived in these hallowed halls, as a Composition major, fresh from the Bronx, with such a minimal concept of what I was getting into, that for my piano exam, I played “Tenderly”, in the key of E flat.
They graded me a 4-B-Question Mark and assigned me a teacher named Jerry Diamond, which sounded more like a private eye than a pedagogue.
In the four years that followed, my piano grade did improve numerically and alphabetically, but I believe the question mark remained to the very end.
So, the first thing I wish I knew then was to be better prepared to face new situations and number two, not to make out in the practice rooms because the doors don’t lock from the inside.
I think I got to Eastman on a fluke. There must have been a real shortage of Composition majors that year, because for my audition, I sent a recording of a piece I had written for a Memorial Day Assembly at the Bronx High School of Science. It was an anti-war piece for piano, trumpet, percussion and narrator called, “What Shall It Be?” and I was so unschooled, I played the piano part myself and taught the others their parts by rote because I didn’t know how to notate anything.
I sent this 12 inch acetate recording, made at the performance by some nerd on the audio-visual squad, as a sample of my work, and got a letter a short time later saying I was accepted as a Composition Major for the 1951 fall term.
As Groucho Marx once said, when informed he was accepted as a member of an exclusive country club, “I don’t think I want to join any club that would accept me as a member”.
I had similar doubts about coming here, but it turned out to be a wise choice, thanks in no small part to a number of extremely understanding, compassionate and patient teachers who threw me into the deep end, but stood by with musical life preservers in case things got too over my head.
There was the rail-thin Scandinavian Theory teacher Elvira Wunderlich, who looked the other way and smiled when I would harmonize a Bach Chorale and end on a major seventh.
There was the movie-star handsome Composition teacher, Louis Mennini, who in later years had to live down the shame of having a brother who headed up that inferior musical institution, Juilliard.
Louis was extremely caring and easy-going, and his greatest pleasure was to expose us to all kinds of music.
We would have listening sessions at his house on the weekends, and a lot of “long hair” was let down over wine and cheese. Mostly wine..the cheese didn’t do that much.
I guess he had particular empathy for me, having started his musical career as an accordion player with his brother, Peter,
Steve Allen once had bumper stickers made up that read, “Use an accordion, go to jail”. So when I got to be in Louis’s class, he had probably already felt the sting of being an “outsider”, and understood my “fish- out-of-water” status here.
I guess the, “I Wish I Knew” in those cases was, I wish I knew enough to express my heartfelt thanks for their care, and other faculty members, above and beyond the call of duty when I had the chance.
It’s really not good enough to assume they know how you feel.
Make it a point, while you’re in the moment, to express your thanks to those who touched your lives in a profound way. Write the note, send the e-mail, make the phone call. It means more than you can imagine to the recipient and saves you fifty years of, “I Wish I Would Have Done That”.
In the theatre today are three gentlemen whom I have known for over five decades. Two of them I have not seen in over five decades, but they are more than nostalgic touchstones to the past. They are friends.
One was my very first roommate, Sam Fricano. He was a trumpet major from Silver Creek, and back in those days, when there was no dormitory for men, we were roommates in a house at 90 South Union Street. We cooked bad Italian and Jewish food, shared dreams and a love of jazz, and swapped stories of two very disparate lives that ended up in the same place.
Another one was a cello player from Pennsylvania who actually made the U.of R. football team and played for the Yellowjackets while at Eastman. Probably the only thing more rare than a football playing cello player at the U.of R., was a cello playing football player at Eastman, and he was both. His name is Barry Hilbert.
The third gentleman, all of you know, but in a different context. He is the esteemed Professor of Percussion and longtime member of the Rochester Philharmonic who has been on the faculty here, it seems like, forever.
His name is John Beck, and when Sam and I moved to better quarters, the two of us, John and another trumpet player, Tommy Hohstadt, the “boy wonder of the trumpet”, from Stillwater, Oklahoma, shared the downstairs of a house at 201 Meigs Street.
Four other students lived upstairs, and we chipped in and bought a piano for $75.00, put it in the backroom, and sometimes, there was actually music coming out of that room.
I won’t tell you about John in those days, because he could probably tell tales about me, and it’s probably best that we both maintain a façade of dignity that befits our gray and/or thinning hair.
So, the “I wish I Knew Then” item that applies to those situations is as follows: The friends you made at Eastman are probably some of the best people you will ever meet in your career and your life. Keep in touch, share your joys and disappointments, and don’t lose track over the years.
To paraphrase the poet William Butler Yeats, “When you are old and grey and full of sleep and nodding by the fire..” those are the people who will warm your soul.
In Kilbourn Hall, on the armrest of four seats downstairs are four brass plaques honoring certain people in my life who are no longer with me, but will always be a part of me.
Two honor my parents, May and Charles Kohan, who, though not quite sure if it made any sense for me to go to college to study to be something I never wanted to be, which was a serious composer, nevertheless wrote out a check for $550.00 to cover a year’s tuition… and hoped for the best.
They put a corned beef sandwich with cole slaw and Russian dressing into my carry-on bag and put me on a train to Rochester, with hugs and kisses, extracting a promise from me to call once a week and bring my dirty laundry home to be washed at Thanksgiving.
One of the Ten Commandments says to honor thy father and thy mother, and I hope I have done that, not only with a plaque but with a life and a career that has made them proud.
The third plaque is for a dear soul who was a Composition major with me from the beginning. His name was Dick Lane from Paterson, New Jersey, and we kept in touch right up until the time he passed away a few years ago. When my twin sons were Bar Mitzvah’d, he flew out to California to share our joy, and when my daughter had her celebration, he wrote her a song which is still framed and hanging on her wall twenty-three years later.
The fourth plaque is for a lady named Sonya Haddad who also recently passed away. Though born in Akron, Ohio, she spent most of her life after college in New York, and was the senior translator for the Metropolitan Opera, and many PBS opera productions.
Though she was a freshman when I was a senior, we became fast friends, and during the year when I was writing a musical revue called “Once Over Lightly” for my master’s thesis, she was my costume designer, my good right and left arm, my biggest fan and strongest supporter.
I like to think that my folks, Dick Lane and Sonya Haddad are hovering above their seats in Kilbourn Hall, enjoying the great music that has emanated from that stage over the years.
If you would like to honor someone special in your life– after you pay off your student loans–, it is a lovely and not overly expensive thing to do, and the money goes to the Scholarship fund helping others who come after you.
So far, I have covered some of the “I Wish I Knew” things that happened here at Eastman. I’m sure, those of you who have read my bio, would like to hear some juicy stuff about what happened to me after I left the relative shelter of Eastman and what I learned in the glamorous, scandalous, high life of big time show business.
I wish I knew when I was writing a television special for a group that was signed to the Motown label, that the little twelve year old bundle of talent who kept hanging around me, and suggesting we ought to write some songs together, would turn out to be Michael Jackson, whose songs, all but a very few of which I did not write with him, made him the largest record seller in the world.
I wish I knew 44 years ago when my agent arranged a meeting with this odd-looking singer on the same day as my wedding, and we drove into New York after the ceremony, to meet with her, that she would turn out to be Barbra Streisand. I’ve worked with her many times since then, and always remind her that I spent my wedding night with her.
Her husband is not too thrilled when I say that.
I wish I knew in 1967, when Carol Burnett called us in New York to ask us to join the staff of her new television series, taping in California, that the Golden State would become my permanent home. If I knew that, I would have bought real estate at ridiculously low prices and would be as rich today as, well, Carol Burnett.
I wish I knew back in 1962 that you don’t play a song you’d written and would like recorded for two singers who are mother and daughter. They both liked it, but when they found out it was submitted to both of them, Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli each decided not to offend the other, and neither one of them ever did it.
I wish I knew how painful it could be to give your heart to certain performers, and write their final farewell TV specials, knowing you would never have the pleasure of seeing Sammy Davis, Jr. or Frank Sinatra or Richard Pryor and others, work their magic on an audience again.
But I would do it again at the drop of a downbeat, and I guess that’s the point of many of these “I Wish I Knew’s”.
Even though you know certain things, and you can look back and think with the wisdom of hindsight, that you would have chosen a different path, or a different solution, everything that happens in life happens for a reason.
It’s the journey that matters, not the outcome. Fear is part of the equation when facing new challenges, but if someone says, “Can you do this?”, say yes, and then figure out a way to do it. A “no” closes the door immediately, a “yes” leaves it open for wonderful things to happen.
On May 25, 1956, fifty years ago almost to the day, there was a single performance given at Cutler Union of a musical revue called, “Once Over Lightly”. I had written it as a requirement for my Master of Music degree in Composition.
The show had sets and costumes, sketches and musical numbers, a full twenty-four piece orchestra, singers, dancers and all the elements of a professional production. Most of the music I had written and orchestrated was in the popular vein, with a big dose of Broadway thrown in, and it took a bit of doing to convince the powers that be, and they were powerful, to grant me permission to attempt this as my thesis.
I went to the Direcdtor, Dr, Howard Hanson, the power that was, with my unusual request, he listened to my proposal, stroked his beard for awhile, then said, “Well if that’s what you want to do, go ahead.”
The total budget for the show, including a keg for the after-party, was $600.00… today a paltry sum, but back then, more than I could raise by myself.
At the time I was President of Alpha Nu Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha, and turned to my brothers for assistance in every facet of the enterprise, including copying parts, building sets, being in the cast, and raising the necessary capital by two unusual methods.
One was the re-shelving of the books in the Sibley Music Library, for which they were paid a total of $200.00, which they donated towards the budget.
As fate would have it, the Eastman Dental Dispensary, in conjunction with the Dentyne Company was running an experiment on the effect of their chewing gum on stained teeth.
Those who qualified were required to chew a certain amount of gum, appear once a week for a light meter reading and at the end of eight weeks would be paid a fee for their co-operation.
As it turned out, a good number of brothers had bad enough oral hygiene to qualify, and at the end of the experiment, which happened on the day before the performance, they each handed over their checks to me, which totaled $400.00.
So that’s how we raised the budget for “Once Over Lightly”, which got me my Masters degree from what was then, a very serious institution, got Alpha Nu named Chapter of the Year, got national press coverage because of the way we raised the funds, and got me to realize that one could rely on the kindness of strangers if you truly make them your friends.
One last “I Wish I Knew” before we all go our separate ways.
I wish I knew how you all are going to end up fifty years from now, but since that’s not possible, all I can say is you’ve been given a golden opportunity to be a part of something special and nurturing here at Eastman, and the farther away you get from this day, the more you’ll appreciate what a gift it was.
Meliora to you all, thanks for inviting me, and remember to “Stop and Smell The Lilacs!!”
Alan "Buz" Kohan (BM ’55, MM ’56)
May 21, 2006