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The teenage exploits of a future celebrity

Rising to prominence at lightning speed during World War II, Leonard Bernstein quickly became one of the most famous musicians of all time, gaining notice as a conductor and composer of both classical works and musical theater. One day he was a recent Harvard graduate, struggling to earn a living in the music world. The next, he was on the front page of the New York Times for his stunning debut with the New York Philharmonic in November 1943. At twenty-five, Bernstein was the newly appointed assistant conductor of the orchestra, and he stepped in at the last minute to replace the eminent maestro Bruno Walter in a concert that was broadcast over the radio.

At the same time – and with the same blistering pace — Bernstein had two high-profile premieres in the theater: the ballet Fancy Free in April 1944, and the Broadway musical On the Town in December that same year. For both, he collaborated with the young choreographer Jerome Robbins, and the two men later became mega-famous for West Side Story in 1957. Added to that, the writers of the book and lyrics for On the Town were Bernstein’s close friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green, whose major celebrity came with the screenplay for Singin’ in the Rain in 1952.

So 1944 was a key year for Bernstein in the theater. Yet he already had considerable experience with theatrical productions, albeit with neighborhood kids in the Jewish community of Sharon, Massachusetts, south of Boston, where his parents had a summer home, and as a counselor at a Jewish summer camp in the Berkshires.

Some of these productions were charmingly outrageous, including a staging of Carmen in Sharon during the summer of 1934, when Bernstein was fifteen. Together with his male friend Dana Schnittken, Bernstein organized local teens in presenting an adaptation of Carmen in Yiddish, with the performers in drag. “Together we wrote a highly localized joke version of a highly abbreviated Carmen in drag, using just the hit tunes,” Bernstein later recalled in an interview with the BBC. “Dana played Micaela in a wig supplied by my father’s Hair Company—I’ll never forget his blonde tresses—and I sang Carmen in a red wig and a black mantilla and in a series of chiffon dresses borrowed from various neighbors on Lake Avenue, through which my underwear was showing. Don José was played by the love of my life, Beatrice Gordon. The bullfighter was played by a lady called Rose Schwartz.” Bernstein’s father, who was an immigrant to the United States, owned the Samuel J. Bernstein Hair Company in Boston, which not only prospered mightily during the Great Depression but also provided wigs for his son’s theatrical exploits.

Bernstein conducting the Camp Onota Rhythm Band. Courtesy of Library of Congress
Bernstein conducting the Camp Onota Rhythm Band. Courtesy of Library of Congress

The young Leonard’s summer performances also involved rollicking productions of operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan. In the summer of 1935, he directed The Mikado in Sharon. Bernstein sang the role of Nanki-Poo, and his eleven-year-old sister Shirley was Yum-Yum. Decades later, friends of Bernstein who were involved in that production—by then quite elderly—recalled going with the cast to a nearby Howard Johnson’s Restaurant to celebrate. After eating a hearty meal, they stole the silverware! Being upright young citizens, they quickly returned it.

In the summer of 1936, Bernstein and his buddies produced H.M.S. Pinafore. “I think the bane of my family’s existence was Gilbert and Sullivan, whose scores my sister Shirley and I would howl through from cover to cover,” Bernstein later reminisced to The Book of Knowledge.

As a culmination of this youthful activity, Bernstein produced The Pirates of Penzance during the summer of 1937, while he worked as the music counselor at Camp Onota in the Berkshires. His future collaborator Adolph Green was a visitor at the camp, and Green took the role of the Pirate King.

A photograph in the voluminous Bernstein Collection at the Library of Congress vividly evokes Bernstein’s experience at Camp Onota. There, the youthful Lenny stands next to a bandstand, conducting a rhythm band of even younger campers. This is clearly not a stage production. But there he is – an aspiring conductor, honing his craft in the balmy days of summer.

As it turned out, Bernstein’s transition from teenage artistic adventures to mature commercial success—from camp T-shirts to tux and tails—took place in a blink.

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