The Block Island Times

His life, in his words

Oscar J. Berlin penned this autobiography in 2002; it was transcribed this week by Peter Voskamp
Dec 01, 2012
Photo by: Kari Curtis Oscar "OJ" Berlin with his cab.

I was born in Devon, England, where my parents had gone after leaving their native city of Kiev in the Ukraine. My father was a professional musician, having studied the cello at the conservatory in Kiev. After a time, they decided to move to the United States, where they both had family. I grew up in Manhattan, around the time of the Great Depression. That was when the unfortunate had to stand in line at soup kitchens, and it was really a hard time. I attended New York University, but did not matriculate.

When I was about 18, I met the son of the wife of Sol Hurok, the great Russian impresario. Hurok’s stepson and I were about the same age, and he had just come to America from Europe. We had become good friends, as he was Russian and spoke that language as well as French and many others, and I had a Russian heritage and could speak Russian, too. By then I had gotten rid of my British accent and was a real American kid. I introduced him to a lot of my friends. Through him, I had the opportunity to work for Hurok.

Hurok really started the whole business of cultural exchange. He brought the Ballet Russe and the Bolshoi Ballet to the general public. He took them to towns where people had never seen live ballet before. He was the first to bring the famous Russian folk dancers, the Moiseyev Dance Company, to the United States. They were seen on the Ed Sullivan Show — who had the greatest names and performers on his show — and were seen from coast to coast. Hurok’s work gave Americans a chance to speak to the Russians about something other than armies and weapons. We began to really talk to each other.

Hurok was also the first person to put Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton into Carnegie Hall, which was then primarily a classical concert hall. He was a creative man, and truly advanced the entertainment business and the arts in this country.

I took all of the cultural exchange companies Hurok brought from overseas on tour throughout the United States. I didn’t speak much Russian, but I understood it fairly well. In fact, by the time I got through working with the Russian artists, they were all speaking broken Russian just like I did!

I traveled with the musicians or dancers, and was responsible for everything they needed: hotel rooms, food, and weekly payroll. I also dealt with the local people at the theaters where the groups were performing. In other words, I was the company manager. I was learning the company business at the time, so the New York office basically instructed me on what to do.

We used to charter steam trains to take us around the country on tour. We had 70-foot baggage cars to carry the scenery in; six or seven sleeping cars; and a dining car. The steam was like a living, breathing animal, huffing as it pulled us on our way. And if we had to go over the Rockies, for instance, a second steam engine had to be attached to the back of the train to push up the mountains. I can still hear the cars clacking against each other, whistle blowing, as the steam engines moved us along.

It was quite an interesting job. I met various fascinating people. I went on tour with Marian Anderson, the Leningrad Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet. I met Rudolph Nureyev after he defected, when he was in Paris dancing with Margaret Fonteyn. Arthur Rubenstein, the famous Polish pianist, regaled me with stories that would curl your hair.

One of my more memorable moments working for Hurok was when Sadler Wells played in Washington D.C. at the Capitol Theatre (which has since been torn down). All the big names from England were with the company, and, as usual, I was managing the transportation. At the time, John F. Kennedy was president, and he and the first lady were coming to opening night. I went over to the theater early to work with the Secret Service. I had to wear a little button in order to pass inside, and I walked around to see the setup. We went upstairs into the box where the president would be sitting. The people from the White House had brought a special chair for him that he always sat in because of his back problems. The floor was uneven, and the chair would have moved, so I suggested rubber caps for the bottom of the legs. That was done, and everything else went smoothly.

That evening, the whole lobby was jammed with all the celebrities of the time. People like Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren showed up. I was standing right inside the lobby with Hurok when, all of the sudden, a limousine pulled up. Hurok dashed out, opened the door of the limo, and out stepped the most beautiful couple that I’d ever seen in my life: the President and the First Lady. I was about two feet away from them when they walked by, and I was beside myself. I walked over to Hurok and said, “My God, isn’t this something, Mr. Hurok?” I was still relatively young, just learning the business, and had just been standing inches away from the leader of the free world. It was one of those moments I’ll always look back on and be able to say, “I was there.”

Another time, when the Bolshoi Ballet had just played Vancouver, we were on our way to the airport to get on the plane I’d chartered. A tall Canadian policeman approached me and asked, “Are you with this company?” When I replied that I was, he said, “I just wanted to let you know that President Kennedy has been shot.”

We got on the plane, and as we flew from Vancouver to Ottawa, we didn’t know what was happening. When we disembarked from the plane, we heard the news that the President had died. All of the Russian dancers, men and women, burst into tears. It was a “free” night for the dancers — one night a week they didn’t perform and usually we’d all go out to a movie. That night everyone stayed in his or her rooms. It was a moment of shock for all of us.

When I was in my early 40s, the time came for me to leave Hurok. Various national companies offered me jobs, and I went into the Broadway scene. Name any show you saw years ago and chances are I took it on the road. I was the manager that toured with Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim’s company. “Fiddler on the Roof,” “1776,” “Man of La Mancha,” “West Side Story,” “No No Nanette,” “Peter Pan” … We’d go out for three or four months at a time. In those days, we’d go into a town and play a one-night stand, then be up bright and early to move on to the next stop. It worked well, because everyone in the U.S. had the chance to see a hit show.

I also traveled internationally. I worked for MGM in Thailand, when the country was still called Siam. I was the MGM manager for the whole country! The company had quite a few theaters there, but the main one was in Bangkok.

I’ll never forget one event. The Asian audiences loved Tarzan, the old Johnny Weissmuller movies. So, to promote the latest Tarzan movie, I had to create what must have been a 10-foot-high papier-mâché Tarzan. He had a motor inside, so that his hands would beat his chest. I placed a papier-mâché gorilla next to him. Most people don’t realize that Tarzan’s call was actually done by a female soprano. She did it slowly, and the sound engineers sped up the recording, which gave it the “Aaaeeeaaaeeeaaaaa!” sound. I asked the MGM offices in Los Angeles to send me a copy of the tape, and I played it with the papier-mâché figures. All day long, through out the Chinese section of Bangkok you could hear Tarzan’s wail. It was a big hit.

Another time, I worked for NBC, and managed the original “Peter Pan” with Cathy Rigby. One night we had a short circuit in the cables that powered the lines that moved people through the air. No one could fly, and I finally decided to call off the performance. I gave everyone a free coke and their money back.

I met my wife, Mitzi Wilson, in New York City. She was also in the theater business and had her own career — first as a contralto singer, then later contracting singers for other groups and performances. She even worked with Toscanini!

Mitzi and I first heard about Block Island in an Italian restaurant that a friend of mine owned on 54th and 7th called Santa Lucia. One fellow, who worked in “Voice of America,” used to come into the restaurant often. He’d had a place on Block Island for many years, and he described it to us many times. He even filmed a spaghetti commercial on the island, with the tag line, “I kissed her in the kitchen.”

He was the first to mention Block Island, but we heard from others that the fishing was great. One day, we saw an ad in the New York Times for a rental and decided to go to the island and see for ourselves. That was it — we just kept coming. We would charter a plane out of Flushing, N.Y., bringing our cats and my paints — I used to paint as a hobby — and fly to Block Island. I was working freelance at that point, so I was able to come out between shows. The first place we rented was the old lifesaving station (Westward Ho).

I’m a city boy, right? So what did I see in Block Island? First of all, the fishing was great, just as I’d been told. I often went surfcasting in the early days, and Mitzi would ride up on her bicycle and hand me a martini as I fished. It was great.

Another aspect of the island that is so terrific is the people. In their own way, they’re quiet, but when you need them, they will be there for you without any to-do. Many people have needed help over the years, and help was provided without anyone shouting, “Hooray for me!” It’s very commendable. They’re all such good people.

The first time Mitzi and I decided to stay the winter was 1976-77. We called Dorothy Sullivan, a realtor on the island and a wonderful woman, and said, “We want to spend the winter on Block Island. What do you have?” She told us the home of Gertrude Ball was available. We paid $150 a month.

We moved here year-round because I am also a sculptor, and wanted more time to do my work. I was never able to study the craft because I was busy working in the theater business, so I am self-taught. In 1958, Hurok ordered 125 medals that I designed and gave them to every member of the Moiseyev Dance Company. I have also done commissions for Black Star and Gorham in New York. Black Star once commissioned me to sculpt a bull in sterling silver for Winthrop Rockefeller. They once purchased from me a silver elephant mounted on a map of the United States. One day I received a call from Black Star informing me that John Dulles had purchased the elephant, who intended it as a gift to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Upon hearing this, I decided to destroy the mold, and I wrote to the White House to tell the president how honored I was that he now owned this piece that I had sculpted. He in turn answered me, and informed me how fond he was of the gift!

When President Bill Clinton visited the island in 1997, I made a silver belt buckle with a Viking on it for him. He sent me a note and a photograph thanking me for the gift. I gave Hillary and Chelsea Clinton each a “Paradise Pin” — which is a map of the island. I call it the “Paradise Pin,” because when I drive first-time visitors around the island on taxi tours, many of them say, “My God, this place is like paradise.”

I started driving a cab to augment my income. I love driving the taxi. I meet very interesting people. I find island lore to be just as interesting as the tourists do. I learn new things too. For instance I once met a paleontologist who told me about cormorants, and how they are descendants of the pterodactyl, going back millions of years. I remember that often when I pass by Cormorant Cove.

During the winter I keep my cab on the road, because I have a year-round contract with Washington Trust. Otherwise, business is slow, so I make all of my jewelry models then. I can’t settle down and do sculpture full time; I have to drive a taxi, because I have a housing problem, as many have. I drive taxi to help pay the rent. Mitzi and I still rent out here, but we’re hoping to be able to buy a place.

I am worried about Block Island. I’m worried that it will be over-developed. What I see now is Block Island being over-manicured to death. Thank God there are organizations like The Nature Conservancy to preserve unbuilt land on the island.

Once in a while, in the winter, I like to drive to the North Light. It’s cold as ice, and the wind is shrieking. And I get out of the car for about two minutes, before I have to run back and warm up. But when I’m outside, I look at the spray going up, past the lighthouse where the tides meet and crash up against each other, and such beautiful sight awes me.

Maybe it’s because I was in the theater business, but I always want a good finish.

I finish my island tours at the Mohegan Bluffs — not at the stairs, but at another cliff that overlooks the Southeast Light. It’s there that one has a peripheral view of the Atlantic Ocean, from the lighthouse to Montauk. One day, taking in this majestic view, I realized that when your eye roved from Montauk to the Southeast Light, across the horizon, you were going uphill, until you hit the middle. From there, it went downhill. I realized I was looking at the curvature of the Earth. Some people look and see nothing, but eight out of 10 can see it there.

When I stand there, overlooking this magnificent sight, I feel like I am the only man in the world… and that I could reach out and shake the hand of God.

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