From 1937 to 1954, Arturo Toscanini was one of the most famous men in America.
Already acclaimed for his intensity, perfectionism and ear for orchestral detail as director of La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic, his appointment as music director of the NBC Symphony Orchestra — first on radio, then TV — brought him into nearly every household in the nation.
“He had a singular approach to music making,” says Lucy Johnson. “He was what today we would call a rock star. Thousands of people lined up for tickets to see him perform.”
Today, she says, his work and vibrant reputation remain. He may not be a rock star, but he is revered in musical circles. “People are still inspired by the man, his personality and his musicianship,” Johnson says.
She should know. The longtime Westporter’s father, Samuel Antek, played first violin with the NBC Symphony.
He died at 48, of a heart attack. Before his death — one year after Toscanini’s, at 89 — he wrote a series of essays about the conductor, from the point of view of an orchestra member. They were published posthumously, in a book called This Was Toscanini.
Two years ago, music historian Harvey Sachs wrote a new biography, Toscanini: Musician of Conscience. During his research, he and Johnson became friends.
She had quite a career of her own. She majored in art history, then got an entry- level job at NBC in New York. She worked in production with Harry Belafonte and David Susskind.
Moving to Los Angeles, Johnson became senior vice president of daytime and children’s programming with both NBC and CBS. She launched The Smurfs, and worked with the legendary Fred Silverman.
She met Bill Klein. Thirteen years ago, they decided to move back East.
Her LA colleague Sonny Fox — the former “Wonderama” host, now a broadcast industry consultant — had lived in Weston. He suggested she look at Westport, and introduced her to friends he thought she and Bill would like: library director Maxine Bleiweis, and Larry and Mary-Lou Weisman.
They moved here — and have remained friends with those first contacts. “Westport is a very cultured town,” Johnson says. She has met many people who remember Toscanini — either first hand, or through his recordings.
Several years ago, Johnson took Weisman’s memoir writing course. So when Sachs was speaking with her about his Toscanini biography, he told Johnson she should reissue her father’s old memoir. She did — adding her own essays before each chapter.
Thanks to the efforts of Johnson — and others — Toscanini still lives. Tomorrow (Saturday, March 9, 3 p.m.) biographer Sachs speaks about “Toscanini: Musician of Conscience” at the Westport Woman’s Club.
When World War II began, Toscanini fled the fascism of his native Italy. After Mussolini fell, Toscanini participated in a legendary film, “Hymn of the Nations.” It honored the role of Italian-Americans who aided the Allies.
Toscanini took Verdi’s 1860’s work, including the national anthems of European nations, and added arrangements of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and “The Internationale” for the Soviet Union and Italian partisans.
Sachs will talk about all that tomorrow. He’ll also include rare film footage of the NBC Symphony.
Perhaps Lucy Johnson will see her own father on screen, playing violin under the baton of one of America’s most legendary maestros.
(Hat tip: Joel Davis)