I recently wrote about where I was when I heard that Kennedy was shot: in a high school assembly awaiting a recital by a famous violinist. Classmates from the era and I struggled to put a name to the memory. Was it Artur Rubinstein? Yes, many of us recalled. That was until I posted that memory here and Bryan reminded me in Comments that (oops) Rubinstein was a pianist. Bryan also pointed out that Rubinstein would never have consented to play in a high school assembly.
So back to work the class went after the correction, with people asking friends and relatives if they could put a name to our collective memory. Eventually, the sister of one of my classmates nailed it. It was not Artur Rubinstein the pianist but David Rubinoff the violinist.
What can I tell you? The names are similar. A bunch of suburban New England goyim one Jew in the whole school we didn’t know from Rubinstein.
So who is this guy? Do you remember David Rubinoff? I drew a blank, as did my classmates. But thanks to the Wonder of the Internet, you can find out a lot about the guy. He was indeed quite famous in his time, the Liberace of the violin.
Born in Russia, he was drawn to the United States by Victor Herbert, who discovered the 14-year old at the Warsaw Conservatory. After success as a soloist for the Pittsburgh Symphony and as a guest conductor in the United States and abroad, he hit the big time when Rudy Vallee helped him land a regular spot on The Eddie Cantor Show. That was big. In time he played at the White House for Presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, Eisenhower and, yes, Kennedy.
And consider his performance at the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago, an annual event since 1935. While current Grant Park outdoor concerts today draw about 10,000, the early ones drew the biggest concert crowds in American history, probably through Woodstock. Lily Pons holds the record for attendance at a single concert there: 300,000 in 1939. Rubinoff was not far behind, at an estimated 225,000. That’s over half the size of Woodstock. Yet Rubinoff is, like Lew Lehr, largely down the memory hole. Like Lehr, who went down the memory hole with the newsreel, Rubinoff went down with radio.
But that’s not all there is to it. There’s also the fact that the fine arts no longer command the high ground in American culture in the same way they once did. It’s not just the decline of the medium of radio that put Rubinoff in the shadows. It’s the general decline of Middlebrow culture. A current version of Rubinoff in the internet age is almost unthinkable.
Terry Teachout has written eloquently and often on the decline of Middlebrow. Ruefully, too. Here is one of his clearest statements of his double-sided feelings of progress and loss.
Teachout and I both grew up near contemporaries in age, both growing up in relatively small towns where inklings of the wider, more cultured, world were first made available on shows like Omnibus, Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert or even Ed Sullivan. That world is gone, as Teachout acknowledges.
. . . though whether it stays dead permanently was taken up by Fenster at 2Blowhards some time back, too . . . is this a case of genie out of the bottle forever or a pendulum swing?