January 31, 2011
Since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by instances in which multiple members of a family have worked in the same or similar fields. For example, the other day I heard an interview on WNYC radio with Louis Rozzo, a fish dealer who was making an argument for taking the trouble to buy fresh anchovies and sardines and other fish that are typically packed in oil and canned. The conversation was interesting enough, but a detail that resonated with me was that Rozzo is the fourth generation owner of F. Rozzo and Sons. I would have liked to hear more about that.
In a similar way, I like reading about people like the Delahanty brothers – five of them played major league baseball – or the Harrisons, who included a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a Virginia legislator and attorney general, two presidents of the United States, and two members of Congress. The five Marx Brothers have always interested me less for their comedy than for their family history, which started with their maternal uncle, Al (Schoenberg) Shean, who was a famous vaudevillian.
This topic has been on my mind because I had an opportunity recently to talk with actress Stephanie Zimbalist, who is soon to appear in a production of Frank Gilroy’s play “The Subject Was Roses” at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. On her own, Stephanie Zimbalist has built a substantial resume of performances on television and on the stage. However, her family’s background in the performing arts goes back at least as far as her great-grandfather Aron Zimbalist, who was an orchestral conductor in Russia in the 19th century. Her grandparents were both outstanding classical performers whom I have admired since I was very young. Her grandfather was Efrem Zimbalist, a concert violinist whose name can be mentioned in the same sentence with Jascha Heifitz and Fritz Kreisler. Efrem Zimbalist was married to Alma Gluck (nee Reba Feinsohn), who was one of the most popular female vocalists of the early 20th century. My family had 78 rpm recordings by both of these artists — along with others — and, long before I understood their significance, I listened to them over and over again on our wind-up Victrola.
Alma Gluck, who was born in Romania, was a soprano who was on the roster at the Metropolitan Opera Company. She also had a substantial concert career and was one of the first serious artists to make phonograph records, and that greatly contributed to her fame. She made more than 170 recordings for Victor between 1911 and 1924, choosing songs from a wide variety of genres. She and her husband made at least 32 recordings together, and he had a long list of recordings of his own. Zimbalist was also a composer and the director of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Efrem Zimbalist and Alma Gluck were the parents of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. – Stephanie’s father – who is a popular film and television actor whose starring roles included the TV series 77 Sunset Strip and The FBI.
Stephanie Zimbalist justifably has a great deal of pride in this heritage. I found that she enjoys talking about Alma Gluck – who died before Stephanie was born – and is well schooled in her grandmother’s career. Stephanie told me — only half joking, I suppose — that she didn’t pursue a singing career because she didn’t want to weather comparisons with her grandmother. Still, Stephanie Zimbalist has a trained voice and has given some performances. Speaking about her grandmother, she told me, “Daddy said she would have loved me, but I don’t know. She was tough task master on him. She wanted him to be a doctor or an engineer, and he wanted to be a dancer or a gymnast.” But the musical gene apparently didn’t skip a generation with the actor, Stephanie said. “He says he knows very little about music, but he knows an awful lot. He studied orchestration at Curtis, and he’s written a lot of things; he’s written many many pieces of music.”
Stephanie Zimbalist’s mother, the former Stephanie Spaulding, died in 2007. Stephanie cares for her mom’s pet, an elegant long-hair dachshund named Scampi, who participated in our interview. I asked Stephanie what would be next in her career after her run at George Street, and she said, “Nothing. I don’t have a career. I just have bumps in the road. That’s probably why I’m doing good work these days, if I am doing good work. Nothing’s an agenda. I don’t do anything to see where it will take me. I just do it for the work. On my plate in my life right now is this sweet little thing” — a reference to Scampi, who was on Stephanie’s lap. “And then, my Dad is 92, God bless him, and doing very well, but I spend quite a bit of time with him, just to be there.”