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High Notes in a Lifetime of Friendships

December 08, 1996|BEVERLY BEYETTE

The names of the rich and famous of a bygone era roll casually off Ernst Katz's tongue:

* John Philip Sousa. Journalism was Katz's "second love" and, while interning as an obit writer at the Los Angeles Times in 1932, he wrote the final farewell to the bandmaster-composer. Katz, a fan, used to seek Sousa out after his concerts and pester him for advice. "Nobody wrote a march like John Philip Sousa, nobody."

* Albert Einstein. While teaching at Caltech, Einstein--a violinist--often came to Katz's concerts and they visited frequently. "He didn't play very well, but he didn't know that."

* Atwater Kent, radio pioneer. "He once said to me, 'Ernst, you know everybody asks me for money. Why don't you?' I said, 'All I want of you is your friendship.' " Katz prides himself on never having asked for a dime for his orchestra, even while he scrounged to buy sheet music and sometimes tuxes and dresses for his musicians.

* Donald Duck. "My old friend. He used to come every single year and sing 'Happy Birthday' to the orchestra."

* J. Paul Getty. "I knew him through his last wife, an actress." The orchestra played a fund-raiser under the stars for Santa Monica Hospital on the Getty Museum site. Later, lumber from the shell built for that concert went into construction of the museum.

* Jayne Mansfield. "A very dear, very close friend. A lovely lady." Katz coached her on the violin for her debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show." "It just broke my heart," he says, when she was decapitated in a grisly car accident in 1967.

* Mae West. "A tough lady." For about 20 years, the Junior Philharmonic musicians honored stars-du-jour with "oscarettes." The night West won, a photographer told him to cuddle up to her, "so I took my arm and put it around her and she said, 'Don't touch me.' "

* Howard Hughes. "I knew him through my friend Terry Moore, who came to the concerts. He didn't want to sit in the audience. He would stand in the wings."

* Aggie Underwood, feisty onetime city editor of the old Herald Express, a Hearst newspaper. "Marion [Davies] called Aggie to tell her to put my picture with Marion on the front page" to publicize a concert. "She was furious." But she did it. "Aggie used to come and sit on my deck and we'd talk all day long."

* Rita Hayworth. "Yasmin [Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, Hayworth's daughter with Prince Ali Khan] grew up in my backyard" in Malibu, where Hayworth lived during her brief marriage to crooner Dick Haymes.

* Jack Dempsey. "Whenever I needed a celebrity, he was there. He never said no. He just loved music."

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