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The double life of Lincoln Maazel

Sunday, January 13, 2002

By Lynne Conner

CASTLETON, Va. -- Lincoln Maazel sits in his favorite blue chair, surrounded by piles of books, a few photo albums, a scrapbook spilling with old newspaper clippings, piano music, three volumes of his own poetry and any number of crinkled-up newspapers.

Lincoln Maazel lives among the rolling hills of Virginia on a farm that includes the usual animals, plus a zebra, several llamas and a camel he calls Sahara. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

An unlit but slightly chewed cigar is perched on a clean ashtray -- the remnant of a habit he (sort of) gave up a decade ago, at age 89. He's wearing a baseball cap, a gift from a local farmer in Castleton, Va., where he has lived for several years.

Maazel refers to his latest home as "the farm," though to others this large working ranch -- owned by his son, conductor Lorin Maazel -- looks more like a secular version of paradise. Set amid the rolling hills of north-central Virginia, Castleton Farms is home to the family's private residence.

As he prepares to turn 99, Lincoln Maazel is reflecting on his remarkable life. The scrapbook, photo albums and books of poetry provide the spark for what proves to be a remarkable memory. The cigar remains unlit, though he chews on it as he talks, his resonant voice filling the room.

And while it's a given that he is mostly known today as the father of Lorin Maazel (a fact he is immeasurably proud of), this is about the other Lincoln Maazel: singer, actor and poet-philosopher.

"My father is an 'original' from a time we can hardly conceptualize anymore," says his famous son, 71, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from 1988-96 and soon-to-be head of the New York Philharmonic. "That an offspring of his has accomplished a thing or two that others seem to value does interest him, does please him. But it is his own person as fashioned by almost a century of living that occupies stage front."

Others confirm the sentiment.

"He's had an extraordinary life," says Post-Gazette columnist Barbara Cloud, remembering their introduction in the mid-1960s when they were cast in a play together. "My first thought upon meeting him was, 'This is Lorin Maazel's father!' But that disappeared almost immediately, because Lincoln himself proved to be so fascinating."

A 99-year journey

Lincoln Maazel was born in New York City on Abraham Lincoln's birth date -- Feb. 12 -- in 1903. His father, Isaac, was a violinist for the Metropolitan Opera, and his brother, Marvin, was a piano prodigy. Maazel kept his own interest in singing largely to himself as a boy, and at the age of 19 set off for California to attend pharmacy school. He never completed the training, instead becoming a pharmaceutical salesman while also taking singing lessons and pursuing a career in the burgeoning entertainment industry of 1920s Hollywood.

  Three plays, three parts, one actor: Lincoln Maazel

By Lynne Conner

Lincoln Maazel was an in-demand actor on Pittsburgh Playhouse stages -- so much so that, at one point, he played roles in three plays that were running simultaneously. It was a phenomenon the Post-Gazette drama critic, Harold V. Cohen, labeled: "The Maazel Cartel."

"Washington should invoke the Sherman Anti-Trust law against Lincoln Maazel," he wrote in a piece that ran on Jan. 8, 1965, "on the grounds of being a monopoly. There are three shows current at the Playhouse ... and Mr. Maazel is in every one of them."

Cohen went on to describe with amusing detail the logistics of moving between three stages and three plays all in the course of three hours, including the application and removal of mustaches, sideburns and two tuxedos (one black and one white).

"At 10:55," wrote Cohen, "Mr. Maazel walks out on the stage of the Hamlet Street Theater to join ... 'The Inspector General' [and] in a few moments is taking his curtain calls with the cast. So far, he hasn't figured out how to take a bow, too, in the Theatre Upstairs and the Craft Avenue Theater, but Mr. Maazel is working on it."


In Los Angeles, he courted Marie Barnet, a pharmacist and fellow music lover. They married in Paris in 1928, where Maazel was studying voice, and set up house with Marie's son from a previous marriage. In 1930, Lorin was born, and shortly after they returned to Los Angeles.

Lorin soon began exhibiting an unusually provocative musical talent (he hummed Brahms' "Lullaby" at 8 months and was memorizing scores by the age of 7), prompting the Maazels to seek the advice of Vladimir Bakaleinikoff, a Los Angeles-based conductor and composer. Bakaleinikoff became Lorin's teacher and mentor, and when Bakaleinikoff accepted a post at the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1940, the Maazel family followed him to the faraway steel town.

During the war years, Lincoln Maazel worked in a munitions factory at night and gave voice and piano lessons during the day. After the young maestro left the city to pursue his adult career, both Marie and Lincoln rejuvenated their own professional lives.

Marie founded two organizations that continue to thrive here: the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society. Lincoln Maazel taught voice and piano and began performing first as a nightclub singer, then as a character actor and symphony narrator.

After Marie's death in 1993, Maazel traveled with Lorin and his family, living for periods of time in Munich, Monte Carlo and Virginia, as well as Pittsburgh. Several years ago, he decided to stop traveling.

These days, when family members are away, Maazel relies on two Castleton Farms employees, Betty Hitt and Lanise Waites. But he is remarkably independent. His one pill each day is a vitamin, and he often prepares his own meals.

He spends much of his time reading or listening to music or the news, but he also swims almost daily and takes short walks to feed the animals he can see grazing from the living room's large picture window. These include the usual farm animals and a menagerie of exotic guests, including several llamas, a zebra and a camel he calls Sahara.

He's also learning to surf the Internet.

"At 98, he continues to look forward to every day," says Lorin Maazel. "He gives carrots to the donkeys, milk to the cats and delight to those around him."

The singer

"I was a closet singer as a boy," the elder Maazel says.

His mother was sickly and died during his childhood, and his father, busy with his own career, was often traveling. As Maazel remembers it, "No one in the family knew that I sang, because I was so shy I never did it when anyone was at home." He also remembers receiving little guidance from his musician father, who focused on older brother Marvin, a piano prodigy who went on to have a modest concert career.

There's no resentment as Maazel searches his memories of some 80 years past. "I don't blame my father for that. Marvin had a talent."

But so did Lincoln, although nobody knew it until he surprised them with his first public performance at the age of 16.

The year was 1919, and the New York World, in an effort to increase circulation, decided to sponsor a contest for talented young people. The prize was the opportunity to perform at the Shubert Theatre. "So many children signed up for the contest -- thousands of them -- that it took a whole year to audition everyone," he remembers.

In the end, they picked 30 children to perform at the Shubert. "I was the only male singer on the program. I sang the famous aria from 'Pagliacci,' which I knew very well because I had a recording of Caruso singing it."

Lorin Maazel remembers that record collection, noting that "as a child, my father heard many of the great singers at the Met in New York. Over the years, he put together a lovely record collection of legendary voices."

The very first clipping in his scrapbook offers verification. Headlined "Boy Tenor Combines Courage and a Real Voice," the small article from the New York World reads in part: "Lincoln Maazal [sic] is a boy with a real voice as well as a boy tenor's courage, for his rendition of the Prologue to 'Pagliacci' was better than acceptable. ... Lincoln's voice has sweetness of tone and a remarkable range for a youngster."

Isaac Maazel was in San Francisco performing with the Metropolitan Opera at the time of the performance, but when he returned, a friend of the family reported young Lincoln's success.

"My father immediately sent me to a famous singing teacher, an Italian woman, and she insisted that I start by singing scales. Well, here I was, singing arias at the Shubert Theatre, thank you very much, and what did I need with all this 'ahhhhhh, ohhhhhhh, eeehhhhh' stuff anyway?"

He pauses, as if to call attention to his youthful foolishness. "So I quit before I really began, because in my ignorance I didn't know the incredible value of basic exercises."

It's a decision he says he regrets, because when he was ready for real training, he never found another mentor. "I tried many teachers and even went to France to study with a well-known tenor. But he wasn't a good teacher because he could feel it in his own body but he couldn't help me to find it in my body. He couldn't give it over to me, if you know what I mean. So I had to become my own teacher, and eventually I did."

After moving to Los Angeles, his singing career developed in fits and starts. He gave a series of privately sponsored recitals, sang small roles with the Los Angeles Grand Opera Association, did a three-month stint on the vaudeville circuit and eventually began teaching vocal technique at the Fanchon and Marco Dramatic School on Sunset Boulevard. When asked to explain a faded newspaper clipping featuring a photograph of a handsome young man called "Armand Lezaam," he rolls his eyes.

"Oh, that," he says, sighing theatrically. "An example of one of my silly moods, I'm afraid. I thought it would be good to give myself a new name, and I did manage to land a radio show." The show aired during the '20s on KFWB, a radio station in the Los Angeles area.

In these years, music filled every corner of the Maazel household. "My father loved to sing," recalls Lorin of his childhood. "He would rehearse at home the songs he'd be engaged to perform, and I would listen, enraptured."

Around the mid-1930s, however, Maazel's scrapbook goes dry.

"It's because the Lorin thing burst through," he explains. "He showed such a talent for musical expression that I began to devote all my time to his development."

Lorin remembers these lessons fondly, recalling that his early attempts to accompany his father's singing on piano or violin: "He was very patient with the many mistakes I made."

The clippings start up again in the early 1950s. By then Lorin was independent, allowing Maazel to rethink his own career, this time in Pittsburgh. He hired an agent and began singing in nightclubs and on local television.

One clipping from the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, dated July 12, 1954, is headlined: "Lincoln Maazel Launches Career." Others show a debonair figure in an evening jacket and offer evidence of a busy club career: "On the bill at the William Penn Tavern"; "Lincoln Maazel, the singer, gets a return engagement tomorrow night at Marion's on Route 51"; "Headlining the Twin Coaches this weekend is Lincoln Maazel ..."

The actor

"Marie got me started as an actor," he recalls, paging through two albums of production photographs. "She urged me to answer an audition notice for singers at the Pittsburgh Playhouse." He didn't hear back for six months and had forgotten about the audition when Fred Burleigh, the longtime producing director of the Playhouse, phoned him and offered him a nonsinging role in Agatha Christie's "The Mouse Trap."

"I told him, 'Excuse me Mr. Burleigh, but you're mistaken. I'm not an actor, I'm a singer.'" Burleigh urged him to come in and audition anyway. "The idea of being an actor was very appealing to me," Maazel remembers, "but because I had been a lifelong stutterer, my good sense had always told me I couldn't do it."

With Marie's support, he memorized the whole part. "I gave a performance, not an audition," he laughs. "I didn't know any better. I thought that's what I was supposed to do!"

The year was 1959; Maazel was 56.

During the next 15 years, he acted in dozens of character roles for the Playhouse, the Civic Light Opera, Little Lake Theatre, Mountainview Playhouse, Odd Chair Playhouse and White Barn Theatre, earning his Actor's Equity union card along the way. His roles were mostly of a type.

"Lincoln was the consummate gentleman in real life," remembers Allan Pinsker, a local actor who did five shows with Maazel at the Playhouse. "Directors regularly used him for the suave roles, because he looked and sounded very continental and because he was a good actor."

Maazel remembers his casting as related to the character's facial hair. "I always seemed to need a mustache or a beard," he notes. "So eventually, I just grew my own. So much simpler."

During its heyday, the Playhouse was the center of Pittsburgh theater -- with three stages and three different plays often running simultaneously in the building complex now owned and operated by Point Park College.

"It was a busy and exciting place," Maazel recalls. "I was perfectly at home there."

But it was not always an easy transition from singer to actor. "On my first show, I was very worried about my stuttering," he admits. "Then I remembered that when I went to a party and had a drink, I would loosen up and speak without any problem. It gave me the idea to take a drink before the show to give me a certain feeling of confidence, so that I wouldn't stutter my lines."

Soon his preshow drinking became a pattern, even a habit. Then another actor in the Playhouse company reported it to Burleigh, who made it clear to Maazel that any further drinking before or during performances would get him fired.

"He asked me if I'd be willing to try it that evening without a drink," recalls Maazel, "and I knew I had to do it." He went on that night quite afraid but completely sober. "And do you know, it went like a dream," he says, smiling broadly. "All those months of performing, I had become a confident actor without even knowing it."

Though Maazel did not have future problems with alcohol, he never shied from discussing that early experience or from using his own failures as a kind of object lesson for others.

During the '70s, Maazel appeared on National Educational Television and in several films, most notably a leading role in "Martin," George Romero's 1977 cult film that enjoyed a showing at Cannes and a national release. Maazel played a patriarch of a vampire line who must destroy Martin, a blood-drinking, homicidal maniac.

John Amplas, who played the title role and is now an assistant professor in the Conservatory at Point Park College, remembers Maazel as a "terrific actor. It was truly a pleasure to work with such a kind and generous man."

Maazel recalls a similar feeling of good will among the cast, though he acknowledges he was taken aback when he saw the complete cut of the film. "So much blood," he says with mock horror.

Lorin Maazel has his own "Martin" story to tell. "I saw the film in an English film festival of cult movies. I didn't know who was in the cast, and unexpectedly seeing my father up on the screen all but catapulted me right out of my first-row balcony seat."

The last section of Maazel's scrapbook is stuffed with programs and clippings chronicling the final phase of his acting career as narrator for symphony orchestras. He has performed with the Pittsburgh, Cleveland and New Jersey orchestras and with smaller ensembles. His repertoire has included Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," Hovhaness' "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam," Kahlil Gibran's "The Prophet" and a stint as Ben Franklin with the Pennsylvania '76 Bicentennial River Tour. But his most popular and enduring work is Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," a text seemingly made for Maazel's majestically timbred speaking voice.

Over the years, he has given many performances of it, most memorably in Cleveland in 1980 under the baton of Lorin Maazel and at Point State Park in 1994 in front of an estimated 50,000 people -- during the summer of his 92nd year.

The poet-philosopher

The least public but most prolific aspect of Maazel's creative life has been his poetry, written over the years for colleagues, family members and the occasional drama critic. Three volumes of his collected poetry were recently printed privately for distribution to his wide circle of friends.

"I began writing poems during my Playhouse years as gifts to my fellow actors," he says. Often these short verses functioned as witty commentary on the current play or, sometimes, on the play's reviews.

One titled "To write or not to write" and dated 1961 is addressed to the drama critic from the Squirrel Hill News. In it, he cleverly and politely -- in rhyming couplets, no less -- chastises the critic for the "sin of omission." (She made no mention of his performance in her review.) It must have made an impression, for included in his scrapbook is her response, also politely worded, and also in rhyming couplets. "Rhyme carries a certain charm," he comments, a Cheshire smile spreading across his face.

Another volume is devoted to family and friends and includes many poems written to his wife, son, daughter-in-law Dietlinde Turbin Maazel and grandchildren. "His feel for the language comes from much reading [he adores Edgar Allan Poe] and a musical ear," says Lorin. "His thoughts are tender, his approach to subject matter at once naive and sage."

That certainly characterizes his more recent poetry, much of which is devoted to a deep belief in reincarnation.

He ascribes Lorin's early demonstration of musical genius to his son's "reincarnation through a German conductor of some earlier time. It's the only explanation for his early genius. I just know it is so."

Maazel's belief goes back to his teen-age years. The first time he looked up the word "reincarnation," "it hit me immediately as an actuality." He points to a poem he wrote in 1994 to punctuate his deep conviction:

Along the way there's much I've learned
And much I must forget.
'Tis not all good for what I've yearned
And much that I regret.

Yet many lives await me,
More lives to gain the height.
A thought that does elate me:
More time to get things right.

Lynne Conner is a free-lance writer, playwright and assistant professor of theater history at the University of Pittsburgh.

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