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From Steel Town to Tinsel Town: The Life of Composer Henry Mancini

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 15, 2023 3:04 am

From Steel Town to Tinsel Town: The Life of Composer Henry Mancini

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 15, 2023 3:04 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, today, Henry Mancini is recognized as one of Hollywood's greatest composers, creating the 'Pink Panther Theme' and 'Moon River' from Breakfast at Tiffany's among other pieces. Lesser known, however, is that Henry's life started in a steel town outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here to tell his story, and the story of their life together, is Henry's wife, Virginia Mancini.

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Here's his wife, Virginia, or Ginny, with the rest of the story. Henry grew up in West Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh, in a steel town. And his father worked at the Jones and Laughlin steel mill. And Henry had a very modest childhood.

West Aliquippa, you have to understand, is on the wrong side of the tracks. And many Europeans settled there, especially Italians. They were a very poor Italian family, and they were very close. And it was a very small town. So his life was fairly simple. And once his father realized that he didn't want his son to go to work in the steel mill, he turned him on to the flute, because his father played the flute. And when his father came down with the months in his frustration, he handed Henry the flute and taught him to play.

And they both played in the Sons of Italy band in West Aliquippa. So that was Henry's introduction to music. And he loved it. And there's a part in his history that talks about his father taking him into Pittsburgh to see the movie and the stage show at the, I forget the name of the theater, but one of the most popular theaters in Pittsburgh. The drama captured Henry in ways that he never realized because he thought the music was being played live behind the screen. And when he found out that it was recorded, he was fascinated with the whole way movies are put together and the music is there to create the emotional reaction that you're looking for.

And that fascinated him to the point where his instincts told him to just do what he felt like doing. Eventually, you know, he followed his intuition and it paid off because once he graduated from high school, he had a chance to go to Juilliard and the music business. Mancini would also serve during World War II, where he'd make strong connections with fellow musicians, meeting members of the Glenn Miller Band. After the war, and when the Glenn Miller Band reformed sans Glenn Miller, he'd become their piano player.

But how did Ginny meet Henry? It starts with American musician, Melitorme. I worked with Melitorme for three and a half years, some of the most fun times of my young life. And when Mel was advised to go out on his own as a solo performer, I didn't know where my next meal was going to come from. So I got a call one day from a friend who said that Tex Benecke was out here with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and was going to be at the Hollywood Palladium.

And the vocal group that had been with the band decided to leave in Hollywood and they needed a new girl singer. So I had nothing better to do and I went down to the Million Dollar Theater in downtown LA and walked into Tex's dressing room where the auditions were being held. And there was a tall, young Italian at the piano named Henry Mancini, who was playing for the auditions.

All the rest of the orchestra was out on the golf course. So he was a little bit peeved that he had to stay back to play for the auditions. I don't remember what I sang for my audition, but I did get hired. And never having been out of California before, I left on a train with 36 strange musicians for a tour for two months, for a tour across the country, starting with a week at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco. On the way to San Francisco, the young Italian piano player sat down on the train beside me and said, you know, I do some arranging for the band.

Is there anything in particular you would like to sing? And it was October of 1946 and Nat King Cole had just recorded the Christmas song, the one that is such a standard today, Chestnuts Roasting on the Open Fire, that one. It was about to be released and it was timely.

So I suggested that. Meanwhile, we're in San Francisco and now we're on a tour for two months across the country. When we arrived in New York mid-December, I, who was rather stupid about weather, arrived in a cloth coat mid-December in freezing New York City. At any rate, it was there that I heard what Henry wrote on score paper that got my attention. I knew I never wanted to be married to a traveling musician because I saw how hard it was on the orchestra wives. It was only when I realized that he had potential that I really sought his attention. And I, on one side of the stage, he at the piano on the other side of the stage, the band certainly knew that I had eyes for the young Italian piano player. We began to date, go out to dinner after the job.

And on our week off at Christmas time, I didn't have, I wasn't making enough money to fly home to California. So he said, I'm going to my home in Aliquippa and you're welcome to come with me. So I agreed to go, knowing that would give me an opportunity to see what his relationship was with his mother. My measure of a good husband was a loving relationship with his mother. And I had the opportunity to witness Henry's loving kindness with his mother.

And I was impressed with that. And you've been listening to Virginia Mancini tell the story of Henry Mancini, the world famous composer. And when she met him, he was a keyboardist piano player for a large traveling band, the old Glenn Miller band. And in the end, they struck up a romance and she got to take not only the musical measure of the man, but the character of the man as well. As she said, I had eyes for the young Italian piano player, but by invitation to his home, she was able to, as she said, quote, take my measure of a good husband, which as she said, was his relationship with his mother.

When we come back, more of the life story of Henry Mancini and in a way, the story of his bride, Virginia Mancini and the story of a time in America, a distinct time in America, post-war America, here on Our American Stories. There's a recipe for getting your car running just right. And whatever you're cooking up in the garage, you'll find what you need at eBay motors.com. They have over 122 million car parts and accessories in stock, all at the right prices. And that can help you turn your ride into something really tasty.

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All that available at meaningfulbeauty.com. And we're back with our American stories and the story of Henry Mancini, the composer of such classics as Moon River and the Pink Panther theme among other compositions. And it's being told by his bride, Virginia Mancini. We were commenting during the break about the fact that Henry Mancini came up and grew up in a steel town. And what a thing about this country that you can grow up in a working class town like that and imagine yourself to become well, almost anything. When we last left off, Virginia Mancini, his widow was telling us about Henry's early life in Pennsylvania and how they met after World War Two. Let's continue with the story. When we got married, I was making $36 a year on a 15 minute radio show. Henry was making $52 unemployment insurance and we didn't have a care in the world.

We managed to pay our bills, pay our rent. I was still singing backup for people. One of them was Betty Hutton, major, major star at Paramount Studios. And she asked me if I would accompany her to London where she was playing a month at the London Palladium. And she was opening on my first wedding anniversary. And she was offering me some good money. So I went home and I said, Henry, I would never do this except without your permission, but Betty Hutton has asked me to go with her to the London Palladium for a month. How do you feel about that? And he said, well, why don't you do that? He said, it's okay with me.

So on our opening night, my first wedding anniversary, a big bouquet of flowers came into my big tub of a dressing room, a washing tub. While I'm at the London Palladium, he has a gig at the Hollywood Palladium playing the glockenspiel on I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover. And he hated singing it. He didn't mind playing the glockenspiel, but the whole band had to sing I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover. And he would not sing.

He would play the glockenspiel, but not sing. And one night the band leaders saw him not singing, fired him off the bandstand right then and there. So when I came home from the London Palladium, he picked me up at the airport and I said, Henry, how did he go with the Hollywood Palladium? He said, I got fired because I wouldn't sing I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover.

Anyway, that was that. That was that chapter in our lives. And in 1952, Mancini would join the Universal Music Department, where he'd go on to have a hand in working with the scores of over 100 different films. His time at Universal was like going to Harvard. Great training experience for him to be on salary and we knew we could always depend on a check at the end of the week. And that's where he got his training. He was working constantly on every film you can think of. And it was there that he meet Blake Edwards, an American actor, director, producer and screenwriter.

If you don't know him, he directed Breakfast at Tiffany's. Just by accident, Blake Edwards and Henry were on the Universal lot at the same time. Henry was there to get a haircut and they were about to have lunch and they met in the commissary. Blake happened to mention to Henry that he was about to do a television series called Peter Gunn. Would he be interested in doing the music? Henry, of course, thinking it was a Western, said sure why not? He said no, no, no, no. This is not a Western.

This is about a private detective named Peter Gunn. Well, that was a turning point in our lives because it became such a worldwide hit. And still today, that album cover is treasured worldwide. We had always tried to plan to go to Europe at some point in our lives and we would say, one day we're going to go to Europe, one day we're going to go to Europe. And I said, Henry, I don't care when, but let's book it. Let's book it now. So we booked a trip from New York to Southampton on the SS France. First class all the way for six weeks. We had saved $6,000. So when we sailed on the SS France, it so happened that Blake Edwards and Maurice Richland were writing a script on a story called The Pink Panther.

So they would be in their estate rooms writing all day long. And at dinner time, we would all converge at the dinner table for drinks and laughs and the rest of the evening. We were on a six week tour of every wonderful country, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden. We did it all in six weeks on $6,000.

Can you imagine? So while we were there, it's when Peter Gunn hit. And we knew that when we came home, we didn't have to worry. The first royalty check from ASCAP for Peter Gunn was $32,000.

We couldn't imagine having that much money in the bank. When Henry had an assignment, I used to hear him composing away upstairs in his music room. And it always sounded so beautiful to me just to hear the notes come out. Anyway, when he was finished with a segment, he would call me on the phone.

He said, you want to come up and hear something? And I was always the first one to react to what he had written. And it was mostly always, always positive. I loved the experience of hearing what he wrote for the first time of anybody on the planet. And one song that Henry composed and Ginny managed to hear pretty early on was Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany's.

It's a song that's since been covered by Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Chevy Chase, Frank Ocean and Morrissey of all people. But the song almost didn't make it onto the big screen. You know, when Breakfast at Tiffany's was finished, Paramount decided to take it to San Francisco to preview it.

And when it was over, we all met in Blake Edwards Suite in San Francisco to discuss, you know, what worked, what didn't work. And it was obvious that things that was a little long and there needed to be cuts made here and there. One of the suggestions by the head of the studio was that they cut the song Moon River.

There was such silence in the room that even Audrey took exception to that suggestion after having worked so hard to do it and learn it. And anyway, it definitely stayed in the picture, as you know. And thank God it did. He had a sense of melody that very few good musicians have. And Moon River, I do believe will live longer, longer, longer than any of us. People will know that song forever.

It has a lasting quality about it that expresses everybody's feelings. Henry Mancini would pass away on June 14th, 1994, at the age of 70. And Ginny adored every second of their time together. My life with Henry was such a joy because his temperament was so even. He would never get angry. He would always, he used to say Ginny, when I used to fly off the handle he used to say Ginny, let four bars go by.

Meaning four bars of music before you say anything, before you react. Anyway, he taught me a lot. He taught me a lot. My time with Henry was over much too early.

This year we would have celebrated 69 years of marital bliss. Unfortunately, I was not able to keep him that long. So I keep him alive through listening to his music all the time. He's always there.

He's always there. And a great job on the production by Monty Montgomery. And a special thanks to Philip Graham for helping us gather the audio for this story. And a special thanks to Virginia Mancini for telling her story and the story of her husband, composer, Henry Mancini. And it turns out that Universal Music Department gig was life changing.

The story of Henry Mancini here on Our American Story. How are you spending your weekend with friends and family or at the car dealership? Why lease a new car the old way? With Roto, lease your vehicle in three easy steps all from our app. Shop real time inventory and see the clear cost. That means the best price personalized to you with no haggling. Then complete your lease right from your phone.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-19 15:02:33 / 2023-02-19 15:10:40 / 8

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