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Manny Harmon, 93; Music Director for GOP Conventions

Obituaries

March 12, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Manny Harmon, big-band-style orchestra leader who knew just what to play when Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan or Gerald Ford entered a Republican National Convention hall from 1956 through 1992, has died. He was 93.

Harmon died March 5 in his Century City home of natural causes, his family said.

Asked repeatedly if he were a Republican himself, Harmon always replied with a twinkle, "I belong to the Cocktail Party."

Although he became nationally known for his televised quadrennial GOP convention gigs and playing for inaugural balls of both Democrats (Franklin D. Roosevelt, for one) and Republicans, Harmon built his reputation playing for cocktail and dinner dancing in Los Angeles. He gladly struck up the band in venues as small as private homes and as large as the Ambassador Hotel's Cocoanut Grove and the Biltmore Hotel's Bowl.

He liked to say he played "good commercial music" including classic songs by Cole Porter and George Gershwin and knew some 700 tunes. He prided himself on knowing the favorite songs of any recognizable face likely to enter the room.

Reagan's favorite was the theme song from the film "Dr. Zhivago," but on a convention floor, Harmon chose the more rousing "California, Here I Come" and later, after Reagan was elected president, "Hail to the Chief." For Gerald Ford, Harmon would cue the Michigan fight song.

The quick-thinking Harmon was almost stumped once -- when Reagan suddenly announced at the 1980 convention that his vice presidential running mate would be George Bush and not Ford as many had anticipated.

"I couldn't think where Bush was from," Harmon said later. "I knew it was a couple of places [Maine and Texas]. Then someone remembered that he went to Yale." The bandleader whipped up "Boola Boola."

The bandleader was also something of a psychologist. One of his favorite convention memories occurred at the raucous 1976 GOP event in Kansas City, when Reagan and Ford delegates got into a shouting contest.

Harmon started playing "God Bless America" to promote calm and unity. After the floor fight drowned out two run-throughs, he said later, "The third time, we went slow and solemn and slower and solemner. Then the finish: a flourish. They all cheered together."

Born in Philadelphia, Harmon spent most of his life in Los Angeles. A violinist, he honed his musicianship in the pit orchestra for vaudeville shows at the old Orpheum Theater on downtown's Broadway.

But he decided he preferred "playing dance," and switched to the hotel bands of Earl Burtnett and Art Hickman. Then he went out on his own with Manny Harmon's Orchestra, and quickly adapted to the needs of his clientele.

"The maitre d' of the Biltmore gave me a tip I never forgot," he told The Times in 1957. "Stop the orchestra when the first course is served. Since then I've always worked with the maitre d' and captains to see that the food was hot."

He would direct the full orchestra between courses, and then take two or three violinists and a bass to stroll among tables as diners ate.

Harmon landed his long-running political convention gig through Hollywood connections. Beginning in 1942, he spent 17 years as orchestra manager for Howard Hughes' RKO studio. There he met actor and dancer George Murphy, later a Republican senator from California, and Reagan, who would become California governor and then president.

Murphy, who organized entertainment for Eisenhower's first inaugural, was asked to produce the 1956 GOP convention in San Francisco's Cow Palace. He turned to Harmon for the music, and the bandleader kept the job through 10 straight conventions.

Harmon already had experience with extravaganzas. He had been musical director for the Miss Universe contest for several years. He had stayed on the bandstand as long as 11 straight hours for fund-raising telethons. And he played for the lavish premieres of the 1956 motion picture "Around the World in 80 Days" and the 1951 musical comedy "Two Tickets to Broadway."

The bandleader fondly remembered the big-budget premiere of "Two Tickets to Broadway," which he once described for The Times: "We had a $35,000 budget and close to 350 musicians -- a parade from La Brea to the Pantages, a street dance, 40-piece band on the stage, then a party at the Studio Club. Man!"

Information on Harmon's survivors was not immediately available.

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