TAMPA — Most of the celebrations of John Wayne’s centennial took place in May, the month the Duke was born in 1907. But there were three more tips of the cowboy hat to the Duke last weekend in an unexpected place, the symphony hall.
Three symphony halls to be exact, in the major cities of the Tampa Bay Area, where the Florida Orchestra’s first pops program of the season, “A Salute to the Duke,” featured music from four of John Wayne’s great westerns. The concerts, well-attended and rousing successes by the way, were the brainchild of Richard Kaufman, principal pops conductor of the Florida Orchestra.
Kaufman, a personable fellow who eschews the honorific “maestro” as “so much hoo-hah,” also regularly conducts the Dallas Symphony, Orange County’s Pacific Symphony, and does guest gigs across the country and in Europe. He’s conducted and/or recorded with such as the London Symphony Orchestra, The Brandenburg Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. He’s a well-respected music man, and obviously a frequent flyer.
What Kaufman also is — and this is what makes last weekend’s events as surprising as they were enjoyable — is a man of Hollywood. A native and lifelong resident of L.A., it probably increased Kaufman’s chances of going into that company-town’s main industry that his Youth League baseball coach was Burt Lancaster. Kaufman is convinced the movie Bad New Bears is modeled after his and Lancaster’s Youth League team.
It was music, not acting, that that got Kaufman — who has played the violin since age 7 — into the flicks. He played for the scores of such classics as Jaws, Close Encounters, Saturday Night Fever, Animal House, and Rooster Cogburn. He’s conducted for Andy Williams, Mary Martin, Nanette Fabray, and Art Garfunkel. He’s recorded with artists such as Barbara Streisand, John Denver, Burt Bacharach, and Ray Charles. He was music coordinator for MGM for 18 years. He’s coached actors in musical roles, folks like Jack Nicholson, Dudley Moore, Tom Hanks, and Susan Sarandon.
All these names and all this pedigree are to establish that Kaufman is a man of Hollywood and a man of the movie industry, an industry, most of whose current members can be counted on to have a view of the world about 180 degrees out from the Duke’s. Many of these folks have a pretty jaundiced view of the Duke himself. “John Wayne” is often used as an adjective in contemporary Hollywood, and not a flattering one. So it was a privilege and a pleasure to meet with Kaufman before a rehearsal last week, and to listen to a true fan of the Duke and of western movies, the old westerns before the anti-heroes moved into town.
Kaufman on the Duke:
“I’ve always been fascinated with John Wayne as an actor. He just had such a strong presence on the screen. Some people followed his politics and thought he was an extraordinary American, and others thought he was out of touch. I’ve described him as ‘Mt. Rushmore with Legs.’ I mean, think about Mt. Rushmore and the quality of people there. He’d be right at home there, wouldn’t he?
“If you had to choose an entertainer who most embodied patriotism and a love of country, there’s no one else you could choose but the Duke. I mean how can you disagree with someone who loved his country, cared about its future, valued its heritage, and who held people accountable who lived in a country that gave them liberty and freedom. He established for many what being ‘a real American’ was. How many actors have that effect on people?
“We’re talking about an actor who had standards in his life, moral and ethical values that he stood by. Most of his movies showed the difference between right and wrong. And today you just don’t find that all that often. You find people making a lot of excuses, and trying to find reasons why it’s OK to be wrong. Or, if they’re wrong, trying to blame somebody else for their being wrong. But John Wayne told is like it was — absolutely straight ahead.”
Exactly so. Why is this so hard for most in today’s Hollywood to understand? Tens of millions of regular Americans have been able to figure this out easily enough for more than half a century now. This is part of why the Duke’s movies are still being rented, purchased, and watched. And why any list of America’s favorite actors always includes the Duke, more than 30 years after he made his last movie (The Shootist — 1976). For many of a certain age, John Wayne is America.
IN ADDITION TO BEING fine morality plays and great action stories, the Duke’s movies feature some fine music by some first-rate composers. Kaufman and the Florida Orchestra gave us music from The Comancheros, The Alamo, True Grit, and The Cowboys. (That is, after Kaufman asked the audience to remember our servicemen and women overseas and then led the orchestra in a high-octane rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” — Duke would have liked that.) The composers were Elmer Bernstein, Dimitri Tiomkin, and John Williams, three of Hollywood’s best. Yes, the guy who wrote the music for Star Wars, E.T., and Indiana Jones (Williams) also wrote the music for The Cowboys, one of the Duke’s best horse operas.
“I’ve done this music with the Chicago Symphony, with the Pacific Symphony, and the musicians really enjoy it,” Kaufman said. “They get a chance to stretch out and plant their feet and off they go. Some like it better than playing Mahler. It’s truly valuable music. It’s inspiring, it’s exciting, and it can stand by itself without the film and the dialogue and the soundtrack. It’s not easy music for the orchestra to play, but it’s rousing stuff. It gets your blood flowing. It’s very beautiful too.”
Right again, as Kaufman and the Florida Orchestra demonstrated in this weekend’s concerts. Friday night’s performance at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center fetched me in, along with about 700 other Duke fans, to hear the soaring themes and rousing rhythms that supported the Duke’s heroic struggles on the silver screen. Not a bad turnout considering it was high-school football night, and that the University of South Florida was playing the biggest game of its football history against West By-God Virginia just a couple of miles away. Like elsewhere in the republic, the old cowpoke hasn’t been forgotten in Tampa. Kaufman and the Florida Orchestra did a great job of stoking those fond but old memories.
I don’t know if the Florida Orchestra musicians liked playing this cowboy music more than they like playing Mahler. I’ve heard them play Mahler, and they’re very good at this too. But old Gustav had his gloomy side, and his music reflects this. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why he doesn’t have an airport named after him like the Duke does.
In the old West there was an expression that denoted an agreeable guy who was skilled at his job and could be depended on to pull his weight and be there when you needed him. The expression was, “He’ll do to ride the river with.” Surely we could have said that about the Duke. I believe we can say it about Richard Kaufman as well. A Hollywood guy, and a great American. A Bad News Bear who turned out well.