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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

The Music Man

For 60 Years, Ernst Katz Has Kept His Junior Philharmonic Going and Going and . . .

December 08, 1996|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ernst Katz shakes hands, introduces himself and says, "You're looking at a dinosaur."

A dinosaur in overdrive, perhaps.

In a few hours, he'll be on the podium, wielding his baton, telling his stories--and coaxing beautiful music out of his Junior Philharmonic of California, just as he has at every rehearsal, every concert, since founding the orchestra almost 60 years ago.

Our meeting was to have been an interview, but one doesn't interview Katz. One listens.

"I never stop talking, only when I sleep," he says, "and I don't sleep very well."

But, when he's asked his age, there's the briefest silence while he ponders his reply: "Ageless. Up until this year, I thought I was going to be 18 for the rest of my life." An emergency hospitalization in April disabused him of that notion, "but when I get up there on the podium, I'm still 18."

Katz was a mere lad when, in 1922, his family relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles. The following year, his father, William, founded the Golden Gate Hat and Cap Co., which today occupies offices on Fairfax Avenue across from the Farmers Market.

The only son, Katz is officially president of the company, which supplies movies and TV, is official purveyor of Roy Rogers hats for kids and turns out those black fedoras favored by Michael Jackson. But that's about the extent of Katz's involvement. "I never liked business," he explains. "What it means is that I get an office."

He conducts his symphony business from a corner space displaying a plethora of awards and proclamations honoring Dr. Katz (the doctorate is honorary), while his nephew, Terry Greene, 44, runs the hat business.

*

The story of Katz and the Junior Philharmonic of California begins on Jan. 22, 1937, when Katz, having recruited the nucleus of an orchestra--four boys--gathered them at his home on Woods Avenue in East L.A. for their first rehearsal.

As the orchestra slowly grew, "We moved out every stick of furniture from the living room, dining room and kitchen" and set up folding chairs. "All the neighbors up and down the block came out to sit on their lawns" and listen.

To encourage the young musicians to keep coming back, Katz would pick them up in his rumble-seated Chevy roadster. In time, his Little Symphony, as it was called, boasted 30 musicians, including three girls.

"Everybody said I was crazy," Katz says. They thought he'd flop. It took 16 months of rehearsals to get it right, but on May 15, 1938, the Little Symphony debuted at a dinner concert at Poppy Trail Villa, a community hall in East L.A.

The stage was a bit makeshift: "My dad stacked wooden banquet tables one on top of another" and draped them. But the music, an ambitious program that included the overture to Mozart's opera "Il Seraglio" and Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony," was apparently the real thing.

Recalls Katz: "The silence in that room . . . it was just stunning. And then came the applause." Local music critics, out in force, were amazed to learn that culture was alive and well in--of all places--the Eastside. The next day, William Randolph Hearst Jr. invited the orchestra to perform each Sunday on his radio station (now KFI-AM [640]).

Among those at the Poppy Trail Villa were Mayor Frank Shaw, Laura Scudder--who'd started a little potato chip business in Monterey Park--and Carrie Jacobs Bond, composer of such syrupy standards as "I Love You Truly."

No one could have dreamed that they'd just witnessed the birth of an institution that was to become the California Youth Symphony and, later, the Junior Philharmonic of California. Or that Ernst Katz would still be conducting when some of those musicians were great-grandparents.

*

Katz did not set out to be a conductor. When he was 12, his parents bought a piano and he began taking lessons. Four months later, he was on the concert stage. "I was a phenomenal pianist, if I do say so myself. I was a cute kid with a big head of hair and I was flamboyant. Everybody loved me.

"At that time," he recalls, "all the pianists were rather sedate, like Paderewski. They hardly moved." Not a style young Katz admired. Indeed, he wasn't flattered when, on his graduation in the early '30s from Garfield High (where he wrote the fight song), it was prophesied that he would be "Paderewski's water boy." In his view, Paderewski was "a terrible pianist."

Young Katz played the concert circuit throughout the United States for about 12 years, often accompanied by his mother. But it began to take its toll. "I was young and constantly away from home. That was the hardest part. I lived with only adults. I had no childhood friends. But I survived that because I thought I was the great genius of all time."

As "we had nothing here in Southern California as far as musical schools go," he sought out and learned from the great composers of the day while earning a master's degree in music from Chapman College.

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