Uncle Bernie was everyone’s uncle. This was told to me by the child of one of his friends. It rang true. My friends called him “Uncle Bernie” my parents, aunts and other uncles called him that, at least in our presence. It would not surprise me if they called him Uncle Bernie in his favorite restaurants.
Bernie was a pianist, but to call him that seems thin, it does not contain him.His house was mad. He had beaded lamp that could have been used to upscale the set for “The Adams Family”. He lived in a duplex across Jefferson from Bell Isle in Dowtown Detroit for most of his adult life. The duplex was all hardwood trim and floors, the lighting insufficient. It was full of antiques.
When I was young my brothers and I would go into the attic and play a cylidrical record player. It was scratchy and a lot of fun. He also had a Victrola. It was cool, but not like the Edison record player.For a while we were told to be careful in the attic.The floor was insecure. This was from roof leaks. Rent was inexpensive. There was not money for repairs unless he paid.
He had a a canopy bed with curtains. It was short. It was a copy of a much older bed. His house was full of paintings and prints, tableware, pottery, and Mason Hamlin grand that was built special of Ossip Gabrolovich. It was a glorious piano. It had a bass that to my ear sounded both rich and brilliant. It was a dream to play.
Bernie was generous. It was not just things or money. He wanted to hear me play each time I came over. He played for me and let me sing. But he also showed me how to do things when I was young. He had me make espresso at one of his parties and introduced me to Turkish Coffee.
There was nothing like Uncle Bernie coming to visit, nothing. He would pound on the door, Boom Boom Boom. The three of us Katz Boys would put on our father’s felt hats and run around like crazy as we fought over who would open the door! Bernie would be standing with his arms stretched out and wiggling slowly like Frankenstein and then shuffle in. He almost always had something special. These are the gifts that I remember. But you have to think back, this was in the 1960’s exotic food, was.
He came with Okra dried on thread. A few times he came with green or brown licorice. It was decades before I saw it again. He came for dinner and had a can of truffles (mushrooms), I was maybe 8 years old. I hated mushrooms but I tried these. I remember thinking, “These taste like dirt.” We probably ate the truffles with plastic silverware and on paper plates as they are hunted by pigs.
He gave my mother a pound of paprika. My brothers once got a five year subscription to Mad Magazine. Spumoni Ice Cream was a frequent treat. Occasionally we ate at his house. Once he made us pizza. I do not remember what was on it, but it was unusual. For all I know it could have been a frog leg pizza. He often made souffles.
Bernie served us Steak Tartar. I wish I remembered more. He had great spices. He ate at fun restuarants. The owners knew him. He shopped at the large Eastern Market. His coffee was luscious. It was the first coffee I enjoyed drinking.
Bernie’s brother Bill had piano lessons. Bill was in the kitchen talking with his father. “Bill, I thought that was you playing the piano. Who is it?” “Oh, that’s Bernie, he copies me.”. “You know Bill we cannot afford more piano lessons.”
Bill took Bernie down to his piano teacher to show him off. The piano teacher asked if he had had any lessons. Bill said “no”, we can’t afford them. The teacher said, “he is for free”.
When Bernie was 12 a friend of his father’s took Bernie to a bar to play. Bernie came home with more in tips than his father made in a day. The first day, dad, whose name I have, was mad. After a week he got his head screwed on straight and realized that there was now more money.
About the time Bernie was 22 he recognized that he had a problem with alcohol and stopped drinking. It was affecting his ability to play.
Some people read music. Bernie devored it. He developed an incredible memory, and could fake anything, in any key. He could count seven against nine or any other odd combination of rythms with two hands. A couple of times when I was growing up we got to go the Detroit Symphony and hear him play. The phone calls informing us went like this. I am playing with the symphony tonight at 7:30. Be there by seven and ask for my tickets at the box office.
At his end it would go like this. The phone would ring. “Bernie, the pianist got stuck in a snow storm, can you play XXXXXXXXXXX?. Bernie would say “yes”. Then he would say, “someone has to get my tux to the cleaners”, I need the music delivered, and dinner picked up at the Chinese Restauarant. It was near his house and had booths with walls and I think doors. I at there a few times when I was young.
My parents were going on an international trip. They were working on a will in case something happened to them. The got the Katz brothers together and asked us, “If something happened to us which aunt or uncle would you like to live with. We had three choices. In unison we said, “UNCLE BERNIE”.
I tried out for Fiddler on the Roof. Bernie was the music director. I did not get selected. But during the tryouts he would accompany people. One person kept switching keys. After the second time Bernie would play ahead of the key switch modulating so that it sounded intentional.
Sometime, and I am not certain of the year, Bernie had a stroke and lost most of the function in his left hand. They told him that they would give him physical therapy. He was elated.
They came to take him and told him that they were going to teach him to walk. He said, I need to learn to use my hand. They said you have to learn to walk first. He told them to “xxxx off”.
They came back the next day and said that they would take him to learn to walk. He was prepared. He said, “I will do anything you want all morning long, anything”. In the afternoon you teach me to use my hand. ” They agreed.
After a few days of this he said, “You know, this is really boring around here, you need some music, What about a piano? They thought he was joking and said, where would we put a piano. He said “over there” and pointed. To get him off their case they said, “ok”.
Bernie could be a pain. But Bernie has friends. They are still his friends even though he is no longer with us. He called one of them up, met them at the back door in his wheel chair and suddenly, Physical Therapy had live music.
I was told to come into town. Bernie was dying. I talked with him for a while in a nursing home. It was a dismal place. I said, “Hey Bernie, do you want to play the piano in the cafeteria? ” He said , “yes”. It was a piece of junk. I move the bench and rolled up his wheel chair. There were about five people in the cafeteria just sitting in chairs staring off into space. He started to play. They started to act alive. Bernie played for about 15 minutes. I flew home. A few days later I flew back in for the funeral.
There was no one in the world like Uncle Bernie. The lives of all that knew him are richer because of it. He was a devoted musician, cook, friend, and an incredible uncle.
This video of am extravaganza at his house when Alessandra Mark was posted by one of his devoted friends. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmH_-fLX49E