Wednesday, March 6, 2013

An "Evening" With Van Cliburn in LA

An ad in TV Guide for "Evening."

Life being short, I spend as little time as possible looking back. It is only on rare occasions that I even recount the adventures that came to me because of my career in television. This week, reading about the funeral of the great pianist Van Cliburn, reminded me of one of those occasions worth remembering.

It was a night in Los Angeles, and it never would have happened but for the minor celebrity that comes to those of us who've been on the air in local television news. I can't complain: it got me a seat at the Hollywood Bowl for a rare, live performance of a legendary talent.

In addition to anchoring the 11:00 p.m. news in those days at KGW-TV in Portland, Oregon, I was also anchoring a news magazine show each night at 7:00 p.m., called "Evening" (later copied by those derivative folks at the Westinghouse stations who called it "PM Magazine"). We needed lots of feature material, so, when NBC-Entertainment sent us an invitation to come to L.A. and interview the stars of NBC's fall line-up, our bosses told us we should go. Our news programs shunned such "junkets" but we had a lot of time to fill each night of "non news" and so, we went.

It was August, I think, and the weather in L.A. was sunny and warm. Dozens of local television news crews from all over the U.S. set up their cameras around the swimming pool of a hotel in Hollywood, the name of which escapes me now. It was a bit like sorority rush, if you know how that works: we remained stationary and the stars moved from place to place giving interview after interview.

Bear with me. I'll get to Van Cliburn in a minute.

I don't remember most of the names of the "stars" we interviewed, though I know Tom Brokaw was one of them. I remember him especially because he kidded me about the sundress I was wearing (we were in the sun all day, for heaven's sake, and the dress exposed, eh gad, my bares arms!) as being a bit outré for a news woman. My how times have changed.

We also got to interview the stars of "Saturday Night Live" which was very hip and new in those days. I remember someone asking Gilda Radner about the perfume she was wearing: it was that long ago.

My co-anchor, Dick Klinger, had lived in Portland much longer than I and knew a lot more people of note in the Portland community. Someone he knew was a friend of Van Cliburn and she called our hotel to ask if we would like tickets to Van Cliburn's concert at the Hollywood Bowl that Saturday night. Would we? I'll say!

Van Cliburn didn't perform often so, this was a pretty big deal for his audience. I don't know if you've been to the Hollywood Bowl, but it is a beautiful place on a summer's night. Dick Klinger's friend got us box seats, right up front, and, as we sat down that evening, we gazed in awe at those bejeweled folks around us who were drinking champagne and dining on linen table cloths as they "picnicked" before the performance.

Van Cliburn came out as the sun was setting.  Settling himself on his piano bench, he played all the Russian composers that were so associated with him--Tchaikovsky,  Rachmaninoff, even Rimsky-Korsakov, if memory serves. 

He knew the Russian composers well. He had gained his first fame in 1958 when, at the age of 23, he won the  International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. It was quite a feat for a young American at the height of the Cold War. He was dubbed, in the lingo of the time, the "American Sputnik" (I'll let you look that one up). He became the most famous classical pianist of the twentieth century.

It was a sublime evening. On that lovely Los Angeles night, with the stars shining down on this gifted man, we were privileged to share something transformative. Not recorded. Not lip synced. Not dubbed. But a talent in his prime creating beauty that carried us all away. 

I've never forgotten that evening, which came to me, as many of the best things seem to, thanks to good luck.

Van Cliburn died last week at just 78, which is young to leave this life these days. We shall never again hear his music on a starry night under the skies of Los Angeles. But we can still be carried there in our memories. I am very grateful for that.  

Harvey Lavan "Van" Cliburn (1934--2013).

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1 comment:

Robin Chapman said...

My colleague Richard Klinger wrote to remind me that our benefactress that night was, "City Council member Mildred Schwab," and Dick added, "She gave us her tickets then quietly pulled a chair just inside the curtain to watch for herself." That's how close a friend she was with Van Cliburn. Classy lady.

I remember there were some big stars in the audience that night and that one near the front row just several rows in front of us, was a bit plastered and fell off his chair during intermission. But I can't remember who it was. I guess I was blinded by Van Cliburn, and my memory has selected only the good things that happened that night, to store in my memory.