Famous Artists maestro Murray Bernthal has taken his last bow
The No. 1 Syracuse impresario Murray Bernthal liked to declare, “There will be no retirement.” He was a man of his word. Bernthal remained engaged with running Famous Artists, the company that brings touring Broadway shows to Central New York, until a few weeks before he left us last Thursday, Dec. 9, even playing tennis in his last decade. He was 99 and would have achieved a round 100 if he had lasted until next April 15.
If anyone could be said to have lived a charmed life, Bernthal would have a strong claim. A Syracuse University music professor for 46 years, he co-founded (with the late E.R. “Curly” Vadeboncoeur) Famous Artists, one of our soundest cultural institutions, and hobnobbed with thousands of unquestionably famous artists. His marriage to former beauty queen Rose Wartsky was famously romantic after four decades, the subject of a Syracuse New Times Valentine’s Day cover story in 2001. And it was a long, long life. Bernthal, a child prodigy violinist, played Carnegie Hall before he was 10.
Such a life is hard to summarize, but longtime thespian Lucille Markson, former head of the Landmark Theatre Wing, stood up to the challenge. “He brought New York to the city,” she explained. “Local people who could never get to New York City for the great performers, first the classical musicians, like Artur [sic] Rubenstein, Van Cliburn and Mischa Elman, and later the big Broadway shows, could see them right here.”
Ed Sayles, artistic director of Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, had similar good vibes regarding Bernthal. “That Murray was a class act and a man of his word,” Sayles recalled. “Even when I was just starting out Murray always had time to take my panicked phone calls. I will miss him. He was the last of his kind: a real showman.”
Although born in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge section, Bernthal—who came to town on a basketball scholarship—seemed determined to prove that Syracuse is not a hick town. What he brought touched the lives of thousands. He offered more than just a stylish good time for 64 years. A ticket to a Famous Artists show connects the audience with what’s happening in the arts and in show business.
Despite early acclaim, Bernthal as a young man divided his time between music and athletics. Along with talents for basketball and semipro baseball, he was a highly competitive tennis player, supplementing his income as a professional at posh Catskill resorts during the 1930s. Then again, the early basketball schol arship was soon replaced by one in music.
That allowed Bernthal to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Syracuse University and, unusually, to take a position on the faculty. He stayed with SU until 1977, retiring as head of the string department.
Early in his academic career, Bernthal restlessly sought out ways to be active in the community, especially to bring music to a wider audience, even if it meant dinner concerts at the legendary Schrafft’s Restaurant.
He had played in two community forerunners of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra in the early and late 1930s, and he commuted to perform with the Utica Symphony, where he was associate conductor. Striking out on his own, he also founded the all-string Syracuse Sinfonietta before World War II, and the Syracuse Pops, modeled on the Boston Pops, from 1945 to 1948. These drew huge crowds to the Thornden Park Amphitheater and were affiliated with WSYR-AM, where Bernthal was music director. He also played with the new professional Syracuse Symphony under Karl Kritz, 1961 to 1966, serving for a while as concertmaster (first violin).
The link to WSYR also meant an association with the station’s general manager, E.R. Vadeboncoeur, and the oft-repeated story of their mutual challenge. Both would put up $200 to see if Syracuse would support bringing in big-time talent, or “famous artists,” in Bernthal’s signal phrase. No duffers or over-the-hill hacks would be allowed. The initial bet to bring the Boston Symphony to the New York State Fairgrounds (before the Onondaga County War Memorial was built) paid off. This launched Bernthal’s 64-year run.
While the partnership with Vadeboncoeur and Edward Green of Cazenovia lasted, the company promoted only classical musicians, who appeared at Lincoln Auditorium of Central Tech High School, glamorless but acoustically attractive. As Vadeboncoeur left he urged Bernthal to expand into popular theater in the summertime.
This led to the Fayetteville Country Playhouse at Wellwood School for 14 years.
That venture returned to the Famous Artists aegis in 1964, when the series moved to Henninger High School, continuing to the opening of the Civic Center in 1976.
For theater-goers of a certain age, those summer shows remain an indelible memory, with indeed famous artists like James Mason, Joan Fontaine, Basil Rathbone, Burgess Meredith, Bela Lugosi and a young Charlton Heston. Local theater great Ken Bowles, a gifted utility infielder, could show up in almost any role short of drag. The greatest of them all may have been Julie Harris in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1967.
The winter Famous Artists series remained dominantly highbrow until the well-received arrival of Auntie Mame with Sylvia Sidney in 1957. For the next 25 years Broadway competed with classical music until the early 1980s, when Bernthal reluctantly admitted that the audience for the music closest to his heart was shrinking and unlikely to resurge. Bernthal was by this time in his 70s and confessedly immune to the lure of rock music, but he remained an astute observer of the Broadway musical and other music written for the stage, like Riverdance. Regardless of fluctuations in taste and the shrinking of disposable income, the Famous Artists season subscription series has remained a hot ticket. The sellout extended run for Stephen Schwarz’s Wicked earlier this year demonstrated that he still knew how to pick winners.
As recognizable to Syracuse audiences as Bernthal was, in part because of his curtain speeches at most performances, Famous Artists had entered into a partnership with Albert Nocciolini’s NAC Enterprises, Ltd., of Binghamton in 2001. Nocciolini, 41 years Bernthal’s junior, had been a friend for nearly three decades prior to that. In October, however, Bernthal sold his share of the partnership to Nocciolini.
Murray Bernthal enjoyed two happy marriages. The first, to Rose, lasted from 1937 until her death in 2002, and raised two children. Eric “Rick” Bernthal of Potomac, Md., and Barbara “Bobbi” Schlesinger of West Caldwell, N.J. Among Bernthal’s five grandchildren and great-grandchildren are musician Adam Schlesinger, who wrote the Academy Award-nominated song “That Thing You Do” for the Tom Hanks movie of the same title, MSNBC producer Thomas Bernthal, and Harvard-trained actor Jon Bernthal, now seen in the American Movie Classics cable series The Walking Dead. Murray’s second wife, Sherly Day-Bernthal, moved back from Florida to spend the last decade with him.
A “Memorial Celebration of the Life of Murray Bernthal” has been announced for 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 19, at the Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St. Guests may choose to enter via Bernthal Way, the passage between the Civic Center and the Court House, into the BeVard Studio door. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Humane Society of the United States at www.humanesociety.org.