In the late 1950s, Mr. Max Dolin was a tenant in my grandmother's house on Romaine Street. The house was located in Hollywood, just off Western Avenue. The dwelling was a large three-bedroom 1920s Craftsman-style house. My grandmother, widowed a few years earlier and now alone, made the decision to rent out the two extra bedrooms. Max lived in the rear bedroom which was adequately sized for his needs. It had an attached bathroom with its own side-door access to the street. In this small room was a bed, an antique mirror above an elegant dresser, two large upright travel cases, and a violin case. The travel cases were adorned with stickers announcing many South American destinations. Max was always fastidiously dressed, usually in a three-piece suit complete with suspenders for both his trousers and socks! His brown shoes were always perfectly shined. Within his cases, travel and violin, were several mysteries which would continue to attract my attention for several years to come. And it was his biography provided in recent years on the Internet that finally made sense of the travel stickers. But the real fun was inside the two travel cases and the one violin case.
Max was a storyteller like none other. Whether it was his imagined escape from a Nazi prison camp or the bird that I could hardly believe was living within the travel cases, he always had a tall tale to tell. Nor was I sure what kind of bird it was. Perhaps a cockatoo, but more likely a parakeet. At least it sounded like one to me. On more than one occasion, I heard it whistling from within the cases. I guess it was beyond the capability of this eight-year-old to figure out how it was that it jumped from case to case! Actually it resided within the thin lips of Max Dolin who managed to animate the cases with a whistle always performed just out of my line of sight. The second mystery was within the violin case. Not the violin, which was beautiful, but within the bow. It was customary for a particular French bow maker to place a small sight glass through the frog of the bow. When one looked through it, one could see a slide picturing the bow maker. Max's bow was adorned with a French dancing girl who I came to believe was residing somewhere in San Francisco. The final mystery was the contents of the two small leather cases that he affixed to his body - one for this wrist and one for his forehead, the wrist one having leather straps which he adeptly wrapped around his arm. Max was an orthodox Jew and a man of ritual. From the moment he awoke until bedtime, he scheduled his day. Nothing seemed left to chance - not even the games of chance which he participated in regularly. Max loved the racetrack and card games. When he played gin rummy with Grandma, I always believed that he had memorized the deck and knew how to "read the cards." Game over.
The violin came out at precisely the same time each afternoon. As I had taken piano lessons since age 5, I recognized the two-octave scales he played: first the C scale, then the G, followed by the D, and so forth. Both scale sets were played, first the sharps and then the flats, and then the violin was returned to its case. In all the years I knew Max Dolin, the only piece he played for me was a quick rendition of "Turkey in the Straw." At family gatherings, usually Passover dinner, he would take out the violin and shoulder it, only to vibrate on a note, announcing to my mother that this action was VIBRATO!... and then, just as quickly, he would return the fiddle to its case. Several times over the years, he would carry the violin out to the living room table and place a mahogany shoulder rest on it. This was a style of shoulder rest that was popular in the late 1950s. Two small wooden "ears" hugged the back of the instrument and a large rubber band stretched from the rest to one of the side points which was part of the instrument's gracefully sculptured body contour. Yet again, he never actually played it.
Max was a professional musician. A trained classical artist, he worked for the movie studios. He was a friend of the famous Mischa Elman and was trained in the Russian school of violin playing. Max had used his talents as conductor of a small orchestra and for the film and radio work that he now engaged in from time to time. However, at this point in his life he was basically retired.
Several years later, Max proposed to my grandmother. She pondered the invitation for a few weeks and even asked my opinion. In the end, however, she refused him. She told me later that his gambling habits bothered her and that money and Max were surely and quickly parted. She felt that his real love was the race track!
Max Dolin gave me two 78 records, solo performances. I listened to these for many years. On the first record were his recordings of Ave Maria - Gounod and Toselli's Serenade. The second record contained his rendition of the Heifetz transcription, "I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair." The selection on the flip side was "My Old Kentucky Home." The first record resurfaced during my college years. I played it for Myron Sandler at CSUN, then Valley State College. The records have since been lost. The only recording that remains is a heavily scratched yellow long-play record on which a Persian Swami named "Firenze" chants about Shangri-La to prancing, spiccato passages provided by Mr. Dolin. The music is not particularly melodic, though admittedly I do not have meditational expertise nor proclivity. A harp was thrown in for good measure.
Max's playing of the the beautiful Toselli's Serenade stuck with me for many years and was in great part responsible for my desire to play violin. Having spent considerable time playing piano and guitar in my youth and discovering a violin closeted in my parent's home, at 36 years old, I began lessons. The instrument had been purchased for my father who as a child had been "coerced" into taking lessons. To say the least, my father was not keen on the idea and one day he used his remarkable engineering talents and designed a way out of his "predicament." He placed a Victrola, a wind up record player next to the instrument, attached the bow to its turntable, placed the bow hair-side down on the violin strings, and secured its position with clothes pins. He wound up the player and the bow merrily see-sawed back and forth. He quickly and quietly exited the house, leaving his mother to enjoy the squawking sounds of her budding virtuoistic son. Needless to say, after the machine wound down, the deception came to an end and fortunately for dad, his mother came to the realization that enough was enough. So ended his short lived music career.
...And so years later, Dad's instrument in hand, I took up with a great violin teacher named Eunice Wennermark. Eunice's husband, Charlie Price. was a former drummer turned music contractor. He, as Max had, wore hats which were purchased in San Francisco. I mention this because one day I showed Eunice an 8 x 10 of Max and asked her whether she recognized him. Eunice, a long-time studio musician herself, did not. I fully expected that their paths must have crossed at one time or another. But no. Charlie appeared and, eyeing the photo, exclaimed, "Max Dolin. He had a little orchestra in San Francisco. Haven't thought about him in years!" To say the least, I was floored. Come to think of it, Charlie and Max were two peas in a pod. They shared lots of things in common, including fedoras.
Max had been married previously and his wife Mary Dolin was buried three or four doors north of my Grandpa Dave at Hillside Memorial Park in Westchester. He, however, remarried in the '60s to a wonderful lady, Alice. Alice, a former singer, was delightful and for a brief time brought him great joy, until her passing. As the years went by, Max moved out, and I was later told by Grandma that he had become senile and could not even recognize her. He passed away and was also buried at Hillside. On an excursion with my grandmother we looked for his grave. He was not placed next to his first wife, Mary. My grandmother was vague and, motioning with her cane, explained, "Oy, they put him in a plot behind the mausoleum."
This seemed a sad end. However, Max had lived a long and happy life doing what he enjoyed. He played music, cards, and the race track. He was a professional and a gentleman and in a real sense a member of our family.