If these incidents happened today, I could sue for $1 million. In the 1950s and for many decades afterward, women just accepted sexual harassment and abusive behavior as an unpleasant fact of life.
It was 1951. I was not yet 18 and had just graduated from the High School of Music and Art in New York City. I had already been a professional accordionist for 10 years, playing on radio, TV, entertaining troops during World War II, performing a solo classical concert at Carnegie Chambers Recital Hall, and winning the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout contest at the age of 14.
My agent secured an audition for me with the much-venerated Phil Spitalny, founder of the Phil Spitalny All Girl Orchestra. I was told to meet Spitalny at the Park Lane Hotel across from Carnegie Hall. To my surprise, Spitalny came to the door in a bathrobe.
He had me sit in the living room, open the accordion, and play for him. During my performance, he sat with legs akimbo, displaying his (ahem!) underwear, and puffing on a big cigar. I played a few numbers, including the ever popular “Lady of Spain,” and he grunted at me to leave. My agent later told me that Spitalny wanted me to tour with his orchestra as a soloist for the then generous pay of $200 a week.
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Joining the orchestra as its youngest member, I got a taste of what my life would be like during rehearsals at the Capitol Theater. Spitalny was a small, self-important man with a Napoleonic complex. He was the complete dictator to his entourage of women ranging in age from 17 (me) to late 50s.
Twice during rehearsals he stopped the orchestra to yell at me because he didn’t like the way I parted my hair. He also verbally abused many other members of the group, including his wife, the renowned Evelyn and Her Magic Violin.
Rehearsals finally ended, and we traveled in style from New York to Las Vegas in a private railroad car, stopping at large nightclubs to perform. In December 1951, we played two shows a night at the Last Frontier Hotel in Vegas for a month, and I celebrated my 18th birthday by winning at roulette.
We returned home soon after and began more rehearsals for another tour. Halfway through my number one day, Spitalny rapped on the stand with his baton and stopped the music. He again criticized my hairdo. I had had enough. I took off the accordion and announced I was quitting.
I went home crying. I could not or would not articulate why I felt so bad, and my parents were dumbfounded that I would leave the “great” Spitalny.
The happy ending is that I went on to college, where I met my husband, and eventually received an advanced degree in school psychology and a doctorate in educational administration. I still consider myself a musician and began studying the cello when I was 70.
As for Spitalny, an evocation of the distant past occurred a few years ago when a book was published by a female author about the history of all-girl orchestras. We went to hear her lecture at a nearby college. She spent the first 15 minutes talking about Spitalny’s group and recounted that many women had told her that when he auditioned them, he was in his underwear!
With a little prodding from my husband, I raised my hand during the question-and-answer period and said, “I was one of those women.” The gasps from the audience gave me long overdue gratification and validation.
A few years after the Spitalny episode, I was a senior in college. One day I wore a sleeveless dress. After admiring it and touching my bare arm, my Philosophy 101 professor, a courtly gentleman in his late 60s, invited me to his house. I declined.
Many years later, as a patient undergoing a routine gynecological visit, the aging doctor leaned over as I reclined on the examining table and whispered, “You’d be perfect if you just lost some weight,” and then kissed me!
I was terribly embarrassed and shocked and changed to another doctor in the same group. Several years later, I felt comfortable enough to tell him about his colleague. I felt from his nod that this was not the first time he heard a story like this.
Although these incidents were a long time ago, the memories still hurt. I remember them vividly and am glad I can now say openly “#MeToo.”
Francine M. Farber of Fresno is a retired school district administrator and a fulltime community volunteer. Connect with her at email@example.com.