the man in the pink suit

When the family lived in Los Angeles, the tzaddik showed early signs of what was to come.  Only it was a bit more theatrical down there in Southern California. The tzaddik produced an opera, believe it or not—the opera David, by Darius Milhaud—at the Hollywood Bowl. He even borrowed back the bible story engravings that he had given Malkah, and used the images for the back page of the opera program. Malkah never got her bible stories book back.  But then again, she never asked, did she?

So. The tzaddik used to take Malkah with him as he dealt with the bits and pieces of putting an opera together. It was the biggest production he’d ever put together. Very exciting.

The Magnes Museum has all the archives on the tzaddik’s lifetime as a producer in Hollywood.  Milhaud had written the opera David to commemorate 3000 years since the founding of the Kingdom of David.  I’m not sure how papa decided to take on such a major production. I found boxes of correspondence piled up in the apartment on Dana Street. A lot of the letters show how the tzaddik worked. He was always such an optimist, and the letters document it.

Orson Welles turned him down to stage the production.

Leopold Stokowski turned him down to serve as an honorary chair.

Cecil B. deMille turned him down (for what, I’m not sure) because he was busy working on The Ten Commandments at the time.

Pierre Mendes-France turned him down, I think to just show up. It seems like papa invited everyone he could think of to take part in the grand production.

There are also the letters of those who did not turn him down.

Ernest Bloch accepted as an honorary chair.

So did the Governor at the time. And the Mayor. Artur Rubenstein. Gregor Piatigorsky. The stage director was Harry Horner. The chorale director was Roger Wagner. Marni Nixon appeared as Abisag. Giorgio Tozzi appeared as Samuel. And Harv Presnell as David.

And that’s what the final program says.

But Malkah remembers it differently.  She thought it was Sal Mineo as David.  But there’s no record of such a thing.  I mean, doesn’t he just look like what David must have? I’m sure my papa must have thought so. So. What happened with that? Maybe that was just a Malkah fantasy. Maybe papa had tried. Maybe he’d been turned down by Sal Mineo. We’ll never know.  Memory’s funny that way.

And then there was the Man in the Pink Suit.  Malkah got to go with the tzaddik to the airport to pick him up. She could never remember his name, but he made an enormous visual impression.

“Papa, who was the man in the pink suit?” Malkah would ask.

She needed reminders over the years. She’d remember him so vividly—and then, once more forget his name.

“Papa, who was—?”

Papa—?”

It wasn’t until years later that she could remember his name all by herself. By then he was on television giving children’s concerts. And then, who could forget his name after West Side Story? But still. He’ll always and forever be the Man in the Pink Suit to her.

I always thought that it was the Man in the Pink suit conducting Milhaud’s David at the Hollywood Bowl.  But the archives show that he was yet another one of the Honorary Chairs of the production. What was papa thinking? Oh. It was Izler Solomon conducting.

But this isn’t just another post about how great my father was and look, look at all he accomplished. How brilliant he was, how talented and chutzpadik to even think he could put a production like this together. It’s a post about bad memory. About trying to piece together the objective experience and separate it out from the subjective.  What if all my memories of my father are just plain wrong? A child’s eye view, catching only fragmentary glimpses of truth. With major lacunae and misunderstanding. What if all my tzaddik stories are just stories, and could have happened to anybody. Or worse, might they have not happened at all?

I pick up the telephone and complain of this to Mrs Tzaddik, who’s up a bit late tonight. I ask her to straighten me out. She doesn’t remember anything about Sal Mineo at all. But she remembers my obsession over the Man in the Pink Suit. We talk for hours and I learn the politics of Milhaud’s opera David. My child’s-eye view is shattered, but not entirely.

“It’s not bad memory,” she insists.

“Remember Roshamon?” asks Mrs Tzaddik. “You and Erin should rent it and we should watch it together. You have your own truth.” She repeats this. She forces me to hear it.

Permission to remember what I remember. I guess it’s okay after all.

I remember that papa took my bible picture book of engravings and never gave it back.  You can see my favorite pictures reproduced on the back page of the David program.

I remember that we ended up with a lot of the costumes for the opera, including the scratchy beards. I remember trying on the beards a lot.

I remember that the next Halloween my mom decked me out as David, the shepherd boy. She pulled my hair back tight. The costume was as authentic (I now know) as any shepherd I’ve met in North Africa. And she put on my shoulder a water skin that really was a Middle Eastern water skin. It was so big that it hung down to my knees. The entire costume itched like crazy. How could David sing his lines itching so?

I remember that the other kids all were wearing plastic costumes that tied with plastic ties in the back over their clothes.

I remember the Man in the Pink Suit. And picking him up at the airport.

And I remember Sal Mineo as David.

About mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She’s most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

This entry was posted in essays, kaddish in two-part harmony, Seymour Fromer z"l, tzaddik stories and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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