Portland pals parlay violin prowess to Hollywood fame

In the first decades of the 20th century, two Jewish boys in South Portland took up the violin and became lifelong friends. Later, they would each make contributions to film music in addition to other achievements.

Louis Kaufman, called “a violinist’s violinist and a musician’s musician” by the New York Times, was born in Portland in 1905, the son of Romanian Jewish immigrants.

David Tamkin, born in the Ukarine in 1906, moved to Portland with his family before his first birthday.

Both boys attended Shattuck School and became friends when they studied violin with Henry Bettman.

Kaufman left for New York right after his bar mitzvah to study with Franz Kneisel at the Institute of Musical Art, now Juilliard.

In 1928 he had his solo recital debut at New York’s Town Hall and later played chamber music with Pablo Casals, Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz and Efrem Zimbalist, among other musical luminaries.

In 1934 Kaufman was asked to play the violin solos for Ernst Lubitsch’s film The Merry Widow, and for the next 14 years, Kaufman and his wife, Annette, his piano accompanist, juggled film work in Hollywood and concerts on both coasts.

When another violinist asked him how he – a serious musician – could work in Hollywood films, Kaufman replied quietly: “No one ever asked me to play badly, and the checks are always good.”

His film performances included such classics as Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, The Diary of Anne Frank, Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath and Spartacus. But he also did lighter fare –Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella and Pinocchio.

“I recall Pinocchio sliding down into the whale to the sound of a glissando on my E-string,” he notes in his memoir, A Fiddler’s Tale: How Hollywood and Vivaldi Discovered Me.

Tamkin, meanwhile, stayed in Oregon for much of his education, though he, too, traveled to New York for advanced music studies.

He eventually settled in Los Angeles, and composed film scores and arranged music and orchestration for more than 50 films, beginning in 1939. His credits include Swell Guy with Ann Blyth, The Fighting O’Flynn with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and orchestration for Stagecoach.

In 1932 Tamkin and his brother, Alex, completed an opera based on S. Ansky’s Yiddish play The Dybbuk. A concert version of the opera for tenor and orchestra premiered in Portland in 1949 with Metropolitan Opera star Jan Peerce, followed in 1951 by the world premiere of the full production at the New York City Opera. But after that, nothing, despite rave reviews.

After a phone call from his old friend in 1972, Kaufman became concerned about Tamkin’s failing health. He told his wife, “We must do something … to raise his spirits.” Kaufman contacted another Shattuck School classmate, U.S. Judge Gus Solomon, who encouraged Kaufman’s efforts.

Eventually, Kaufman and a small committee arranged for recordings of the opera, autographed by Tamkin, to be sent to both opera houses and Jewish educational institutions in the United States, along with copies of the libretto.

After Tamkin’s death in 1975, the composer Miklós Rózsa said The Dybbuk was a “masterpiece which will perpetuate his name in the world of opera forever.”

By the time of his death in 1994, Kaufman was perhaps the most recorded musical artist of the 20th century. In addition to his film work, he made more than 100 musical recordings, including a recording of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons that is credited with reviving interest in Vivaldi’s music.

He and his wife were also avid art collectors, and donated many works, including paintings by Milton Avery and Mark Rothko, to Reed College and other institutions.

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