KGB AND THE ZAMBONI

As told to me a few times by Morrie Chaflen. In his own style and his own words as I remember it. Here’s his adventure in the USSR.

“Hubert Horatio Humphrey came to the U of MN from a small, very small, town in South Dakota. The biggest business in the town was his dad’s drug store and soda fountain. The biggest events were the Church Fall Festival and the summer arrival of a traveling circus. The kind that consists of one extended family that change into the next act by changing costumes. So the lion, (one old toothless lion), tamer also was part of the high wire act, and so it went with everybody. Nobody was a one-act performer.

The one who never changed costumes was the head man. He wore his clown suit as the head clown and the emcee. Hubert said that clown was the best part of the show.. Hubert really liked clowns; and when he found out that the Moscow Circus with Popov, the Russian Sunshine Clown, was performing t the Brussels’ World Fair, he got the State Department to appoint him as a U.S. Ambassador to the fair. Once there he widened the culture exchange, got the city that had elected him mayor years before, Minneapolis, the first week engagement of the Russian Circus, and even got his old friend, me, a tour in Russia. And darn near broke up that old friendship when those two yahoos had their guns pointed at me.

But wait I’m getting ahead of myself.

The kids were all gung- ho about the tour, chance to see great ballet, art museums, Russian history and culture…but what they saw was USSR Collective farms, Collected factories, and Collected ruts on the roads we had to travel on. Each day had a short bus tour to see the sights and listen to somebody from the Propaganda Ministry drone on about how the USSR life was the best in the world. After the first couple rides, nobody wanted to go on another; but Smith, our State Department overseer, said we had to have a few go on each tour, and he suggested using a round robin so each skater went on one bus in every venue.

On the tour, our food was centered around the beet. Beets fixed every way imaginable… and dark bread, and chicken. To drink, there was water, vodka, water mixed with vodka. Most all of us stuck with the water, even if it had a gray color and a taste that varied from city to city.

But heck, we were making more money than ever before on a tour, thanks to the State Department. We had a small per diem to spend in the USSR, and the rest waiting, tax free, in our bank accounts back home. Since any money you received in the USSR had to be spent in the USSR. You couldn’t take it out of the country. You could leave it in an account and spend it when, if, you came back.

I was allowed to bring in one hand to be the stage carp to Russian hands. One wardrobe mistress to handle the Russian wardrobe gals. One sewing machine that the Russians never used…they argued they could sew better and faster by hand. And one ice-maker/Zamboni mechanic/driver…and Wee Willy was the best there was.

Wee Willy stood about 6’4”. He had a build that would qualify him to play tight end for the Vikings. Strong as a Russki weight lifter, gentle as a lamb, and a natural mechanic. I called him just Willy. Darned if I was gong to call someone wee when I to look up to talk to. I asked him once what was with the nickname Wee, and he said because he was the runt of the family. Hate to foot the food bill for that bunch.

I had hired him shortly after we got our first Zamboni. We were in Charleston, WV and the machine needed a tune-up. Our driver didn’t want to get his hands dirty and Willy, who surfaced the arena ice by hand, asked to take a shot at fixing the machine. Half hour later he was driving it like a pro. Hired him on the spot.

When the Russian tour came up, Willy had also just returned from a short visit to the factory of Peter Zamboni, the man who conceived and built the first Zamboni, the Model A.

Peter had built it just to use at the Zamboni brothers ice skating rink. Sonja Henie heard about it and demanded he build one for her tour. Now when Sonja spoke, the figure skating world listened and pretty soon Zamboni was making his machines for all the big skating shows, including Holiday.

We got one of his first Model B’s. Now, instead of just putting the ice scraper on top of a Jeep, it was on top of a frame built for it. And some new improvements to the scraper. We took a Model B on the Russian tour just like Humphrey told us to.

When we got to the first city we were briefed by Smith, the State Department liaison.

‘Glad to me you, Mr. Smith.’

‘Not Mr. Just Smith.’

‘Is Smith your first or last name?’

‘Both.’ Then he points over to the 3 men wearing black leather coats. ‘And these are your translators.’ I started to talk to them but Smith grabbed my elbow. ‘Don’t bother. They can’t speak English.’

‘Then why?’

Kilo. Golf. Bravo.’

‘Oh! What’s their names, Manny, Moe, and Jack? Hey, maybe…Larry, Moe, and Curly? Since they couldn’t understand English, I figured I’d get a poke at the bad ass KGB I heard so much about.

‘Yeah, the second sounds about right. If you need help talking to a Russian, go through me or Svetlana. I was told she’ll be with us all the time.’ He nodded to a woman talking to Willy. ‘Call her Svet for short.’

There was nothing short about Svet. In her work boots, she was only about two inches shy from looking Willy straight in the eyes…when she wasn’t checking him all over. That gal had plans for Willy; but so did a lot of the skaters, and they had all struck out. Willy always put them of by saying he had a fiancée back home in the mountains, but that didn’t put off Svet. His mountains where far away.

Svet became his shadow. She sat next to him when they ate, or on bus rides, and was behind him when he was tuning up or driving the Zamboni. After the first venue, she knew enough to take over for Willy, if needed.

(It didn’t dawn om me at the time but Willy had a second shadow, Moe. On bus rides, Larry and Curly sat in the last row. Moe behind the driver. Willy and Svet in the next row. If Willy and Svet were not on the ride, neither was Moe.)

On the first day of our second city, Willy complained to me because Svet kept pestering him to let her drive. ‘Boss, I keep telling her, if you want to drive, get your own. And she says she can’t. There isn’t another Zamboni in the whole USSR. And then she says but there will be soon. I figure they must have some on order with Mr. Zamboni. Oh, and Boss, she keeps volunteering me to go on those darn bus tours’.

I couldn’t help him with Svet but I knew how to keep Willy off the tours. Once I said he has piano playing fingers, long and slim. When I asked if ever played piano, he said no, just my harmonica and he played You are my sunshine. I asked On the him to play another tune but he only knew Sunshine.

Next day tour I asked him to play a song for us. When he finished playing Sunshine, everybody applauded and asked him to play again. So we got another Sunshine. A little later, I asked him to play a tune for us… Yup no more demands from Svet that they go on the day tours.

We sold out every performance in the tour. Standing room only, even in the aisles. They sure loved figure skating. Smith said they grew up with ballet and skating was ballet on ice. I laughed and asked if they had a Bolshoi Figure Skating. He gave me a small smile and commented maybe in the near future.

The audiences liked the show, but the biggest applause was always reserved for Willy, Svet, and the Zamboni. Some of the audience came early to watch the ice being surfaced for the. They stayed in their seats at intermission and waited after the show until Wee Willy finished and parked the Zamboni. I thought maybe I should have left the skaters at home and just brought the Zamboni. Smith said those Zamboni lovers were workers at Russian ice arenas.

All in all, I was very happy with the tour. I had already talked to Smith about a possible China Tour. Get a little détente going there too. And then after the last performance of the tour, I got bite where it hurt most!

Looking in the rear view mirror, I should have known! But Russian mirrors are foggy. Heck, they’re so foggy, I grew a beard, for fear of cutting my throat shaving.

I had wrapped up the paper work, aka Red Tape, and was about to check on the final load out when Slats, our head carpenter came running. He was shouting something about the Zamboni.

I took off running. They weren’t going to pull something like that on me. No way! But I pulled up in a hurry when the KGB’s answer to the Three Stooges came from behind the Zamboni.

Moe, with his hands in the pocket of his black leather ankle length coat, stood in the center of his two stooges. He had that come-on-I-dare-you look on his face.

Larry and Curly were wearing their black leather knee length leather coats. And each had a BIG pistol pointed at me.

Thinking back I should have been praying; but at the time all I could think of was, “What in the name of Hubert Horatio Humphrey did I get into???”

Willy was standing by the machine watching as a herd of Russians, supervised by Svet, were tearing the Zamboni apart, piece by piece. He held out his hands palms up and came toward me; but Smith, who had placed a hand on my shoulder, waved him back.

As much as I wanted to stay, the sight of those BIG guns and the look on Moe’s mug, were more than enough to allow Smith to get me in his assigned car and drive away.

I cut loose with a string of swearing for a good five minutes. Once I got my over it, I apologized to Smith for my language. He said no sweat, he had heard the words before. So then I cut loose with some I figured he never heard before because I was making them up as I went along. And I didn’t stop until we got to the hotel.

I told Smith I had already packed and brought my luggage to the arena. Why did we come back to the hotel. Smith said to pick up something I forgot.

There was an U.S. Embassy ‘translator’, complete with a BIG bulge under his suit coat sitting in front of the room door. He nodded to us and stepped aside so Smith could unlock the door. I followed Smith into the dark room. No light on. Shades down over the window. Once we were in and Smith shut the door, he turned on the light.

I used a couple words Smith had heard before! On the bed, there was U.S. greenbacks scattered around, a lot of them; and when I looked closely, they all had old Ben Franklin’s picture staring back a me. Now in those days, a hundred dollar bill was as rare as a two dollar bill today. And a flock of them were sitting on the bed.

‘Should be enough to pay for the Zamboni,’ Smith said.

‘Probably three,’ I said, ‘And enough left over for a couple steak dinners when you and I get back to the good old USA.’ Smith laughed and said it was a date.

Then I came back to Earth.

‘Hell,’ I said, ‘We have to spend it all here. There’s no way we can get it out of Russia. Damn! Damn! Damn!’

Smith laughed and put them into a large metal attache case that had US Diplomatic Pouch painted on top and bottom with a chain welded to it and a handcuff on the other end. And while he took care of the money, he told me it was tax free to do whatever I wanted with it, and said there is also a new Zamboni waiting back in Minneapolis.

‘Now, let’s go home.’

In the car he broke the news that Willy was staying in Russia for a while. He and Svet had work to do, seeing that the parts the Russians had duplicated were assembled correctly to make ‘Russian Zambonis’, and Russians were taught how to drive them. For how long he was staying, who knows. There’s a lot of arenas in the USSR, and if Svet has her way, he might never come home.

‘Nah,’ I told Smith, ‘Wee Willy’s got a girl back in the mountains waiting to marry him.’

I fell asleep in the plane as soon as I sat down and buckled up. Hours later I woke up and immediately asked Smith how much did Hubert Humphrey know and when did he find out?

‘He was briefed last week,’ Smith said, ‘And ordered not to let you know. Then your old friend did some ordering of his own. That new Zamboni waiting for you…Senator Humphrey ordered that that be added to the money you would get because you lost your Zamboni to the Russians. Then he ordered that everyone on the tour receive a nice tax free bonus on top of their wages.’

‘Sounds like the Hubert Horatio Humphrey I know’, I said. ‘How about you? Did you get a bonus too?’

Smith smiled and told me no bonus but a jump up one pay grade and all his wages during the Russian tour were made tax free.

‘Good! Great!’, I muttered and went back to sleep.

After a couple weeks vacation, we began another tour. One stop was in West Berlin, as close to the wall as possible, hoping to spread a little detente by osmosis. I was in my office wagon with my back to the door when it opened and let the sunlight in, briefly, then disappeared because of the large man entering. Wee Willy was back!

‘Come to tell you, Boss, I’m back. Smith had told me I would still have a job when I was ready.’

I didn’t bother to look up. ‘Since when is Smith telling me who I have to hire?’ I said in the gruffest manner I could without letting on how happy I was. He began to hem and haw and I jumped up and gave him a hug. Well, as much as I could, my arms were too short to wrap my arms all around him.

I made him sit and tell me what happened after we left.

Seems the mechanics were working in 12 hour shifts turning out the machines. Soon as they built one, Svet would try it out. She had last say on whether it passed the test. Next was to line up the would-be driver and Willy would be the instructor. If any of the mechanics or drivers screwed up, Svet’s brother, Ivan, would ship them off to a collective farm.

‘He sounds like a real bad ass.’

‘He was bound and determined I was going to marry Svet. He didn’t want me to go back home because that would mean Svet would take charge of all the Zambonis in Russia and he didn’t want to see her with that kind of authority. Said he was going to see that I could never leave Russia.’

‘A Real bad ass. Glad I didn’t have him around on the tour.’

‘Boss. You did! Only you called him Moe

‘Little Moe was big Svet’s brother! Must have had different fathers. So how did Svet take it when you said you were leaving?

‘She loved it. Forgot all about trying to marry me. She said with me gone she’d be number one Zamboni expert in the whole USSR.’

‘So when is my number one Zamboni expert ready to get back to work?’

If it’s ok with you, I’d like some time yet. See I’m flying home and marrying Li’l Lou.’

I had to laugh. Wee Willy and Li’l Lou. ‘Lil’ Lou? She the runt of her family?’

‘Oh, no, Boss. She’s regular size. Li’l Lou is nickname. Her folks were thinking their first born to be a boy and name him Amos after his Pa, and have nickname of Junior. So when the first born was a girl, they named her after Lou Ella, her mom. And they nicknamed her Li’l Lou instead of Junior. They saved the nickname Junior for their first boy.

‘And what does Li’l Lou think about having a husband on tour most of the time?

‘Well, Boss,’ Willy said, ‘I know you have a hard time finding good wardrobe people and then keeping them. Li’l Lou can sew by hand or by machine. Can make a dress from a pattern or just from a drawing…’

Willy had it all figured out.

‘Tell you what, Willy,’ I said, ‘Get married and go on a four week paid vacation for my wedding present to you. Then come to Minneapolis and I’ll give Li’l Lou her present. A job so you both will be on the same tour. Now get moving.’

He wanted to say more but I waved him out. ‘Oh! Just one more thing, Willy. Play me a song.’

That sure made him smile and he launched into You Are My Sunshine. I never thought he had time to learn anything else to play like maybe the Russian National Anthem.

So now, anytime you watch a Russian win a medal for figure skating or a Russian score a goal in hockey, you can bet that the ice they learned on was surfaced courtesy of a descendant of the Zamboni the KGB got from me.

Of course, if you mention the word Zamboni to a Russian, he’ll tell you, with a straight face, it’s another earth-shaking invention the Russians came up with.”

And then when Morrie finished his story would hum a little of

You Are My Sunshine.

Like I said

Morris, (Call me Morrie} Chaflen was

One-Of-A-Kind

a risk taker, a warm human being, and

a great story teller.

If you ever met him, you would never forget him’

I know that for a personal fact.

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ON ICE PART III

The other of the big three ice productions came about when Maurice Chaflen took his ten year old roller blade touring show, Skating Vanities and converted the idea to an ice show, Holiday On Ice. It differed from the other two in that it had several productions traveling all at the same time and it carried it’s own ice making equipment, which meant they didn’t have to confine the tours to cities with ice arenas in the US or around the globe.

Holiday began it’s US operation in 1945. The first international company was called Ice Vogues and started with a tour of Mexico in 1947 and toured Mexico and South America. In 1956, the name was changed and Holiday On Ice now toured all over the globe.

Except for a few years when Sonja Henie joined the company, the show did not use big name skaters. It featured the spinning wheel, skaters linked arms one by one, ending in the spokes of the wheel skating from a central hub. Each performance ended with a kick line and fireworks.

To attract a new audience the reviews introduced kiddie themes like Bugs Bunny, Peter Pan, Ali Baba, and the like, the first of the costumed ice show that led to today’s Disney On Ice.

In 1964, the North American show was sold to Madison Square Garden, leaving Chaflen as owner of Holiday International, which grew to have three companies traveling around different countries at the same time breaking new ground in Russia and China. The US version ended in 1985, but the International shows are still touring.

Tom Collins, a Canadian skating champion, joined Holiday, and when his skating days ended, he and Morrie Chaflen started Champions On Ice. No sets or chorus lines. Just figure skating champions performing the routines that brought them fame.

Morrie Chaflen sold out his share to Tom, but not until he married Tom’s sister, Martha, also a Canadian champion skater.

At first Tom could use only amateur champions but when the rules were changed to allow professionals he brought in names like Brian Boitano, Katrina Witt and Michelle Kwan, and every big name skater in the 40 years he had Champions. Sometimes he used skaters that hadn’t made their mark yet, just talent and promise. One such promising youngster was 12 year old Dorothy Hamil.

When he staged his final tour in 2007 and sold his company, shortly after his wife died, he was regarded as the most powerful person in figure skating.

Tom’s father had been a gold miner, but never found a mine as rich as his son found in figure skating. He was grossing over 50 million a year. But when he was sitting backstage talking to hands like myself you would think he just one of the guys.

But Tom Collins wasn’t one to sit back and enjoy retirement. He went on tour with Neil Diamond and revolutionized the selling of swag at concerts. No more just a CD was for sale. Tom had T shirts and caps, posters and autographed pictures. Swag was now big business. He went on tours with other performers and bands. His brother, Butch, had been working for me as a stagehand and Tom got him involved in selling Swag for Sesame Street Live whose headquarters are in Minneapolis, and I lost a good hand in Butch.

The big shows of Ice Follies and Ice Follies are now just show business memories like Ziegfeld Follies and Vaudeville. Their time maybe over but they broke ground in figure skating. They proved there was a market for skating shows, and a career for skaters even if they never became household names giving a reason for the hours needed in the grueling task of becoming a figure skater. And they introduced the art of figure skating to a new audience, an audience that continues to support the ice shows that followed.

The people behind ice shows, past and present, had for the most part, one thing in common, ice skating was a big part of their life since they were old enough to have skates laced on.

But one of the biggest mover and shaker in the business was a non- skater, Morris Chaflen, a true entrepreneur. Chaflen, ‘call me Morrie’, was a man who dove into things without worrying about the depth of the water. Once you met him, you never forgot him.

Morrie grew up in Minneapolis. He was still in knee pants when he started his first business, selling newspapers and candies on a street corner. His first big-boy enterprise was a combination pool hall and bowling alley.

I knew a lot about hawking newspapers and playing pool. That’s how I grew up, not shooting basketballs or ice skating.’

In 1947, he and his partner, Ben Berger, bought the Detroit Gems, a professional basketball team, to Minneapolis and renamed it the Minneapolis Lakers. Luck of the draft brought them George Mikan when the Chicago team he played for two years folded. Mikan helped establish the NBA into a major sports organization and was name the Greatest Basketball Player of the 1st half of the 20th Century.

In 1957, he and Berger sold the team to Bob Short, another Minneapolis entrepreneur and politician, who moved the team to Los Angeles, three years later’. It broke a lot of hearts including your truly.

Yeah, Short was always running in state or federal elections. Running but never winning. Maybe some voters figured he’d sell them out just like he did with the Lakers. You think?’

Morrie was active in politics also. A behind- the- scenes worker. Never a candidate. In 1944, he was in the liberal arm of the MN Democratic Party when, under the leadership of Hubert Humphrey, merged with the larger MN Farmer Labor Party. He became friends with Humphrey from the time Humphrey came to study at the University of Minnesota and he worked for Humphrey’s city, state, and federal campaigns, as Humphrey went from Mayor of Minneapolis, to MN’s Senator in DC, to Vice President under Johnson, and back to Senator. The two remained close throughout their lives.

US Senator at that time, Hubert Humphrey met with Morrie Chaflen at the 1958 Brussels’s World Fair and the meeting resulted in a warm up of the Cold War and the beginning of the Cultural Trade Treaty between the USA and Russia as it was originally intended to be.

When Hubert worked out that exchange of the Moscow Circus and Holiday On Ice, a lot of people said it wouldn’t work, but we showed ‘em. Up til’ then it was just we’ll send you a piano player and you send us a cello player. After we went to Russia, the exchange went big time with theater groups, museum things, opera, and ballet. Just think, without ballet companies coming over, all those dancers never would have defected.’

Humphrey had purposed that the US would send over the Ringling Brother’s Circus with America’s famous clown Emmett Kelly, even though Kelly was no longer with Ringling. In return, Russia would send the Moscow Circus with it’s great clown, Popov. The USSR said da and nyet. They would send Popov and the circus to the US, but they wanted Holiday On Ice, instead of a circus…and it had to bring everything including the ice making equipment and the machine that shaves the ice.

Without asking Chaflen, he quickly signed the agreement, He knew Morrie would be more than happy to take the show to Russia. Humphrey had a caveat though. The first stop on the tour would be a week’s engagement in Minneapolis, MN where he started his political career.

Soon after the Russian adventure, Holiday broke the barrier of another closed nation, China.

Chaflen traveled around the world with his Holiday On Ice shows playing before European Royalty and World leaders like Nikita Khrushchev, and a Who’s Who of celebrities at the time like Princess Diana and Elvis Presley.

Morrie lived a life he never could have imagined as that ten year old kid standing on that corner in Minneapolis back in the day.

But it also had two tragedies that could have had driven him into a life changing depression, if he had been a weaker man.

On St. Patrick’s Day 1960, his wife, Martha Collins Chaflen and their three children, ages 2, 6, 7, were flying to Miami when the plane broke into pieces in the air and crashed. Morris Chaflen’s beloved wife and children were among the 63 people who lost their lives in that still unexplained horror.

On Oct 31st, 1963, at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Arena, just as the opening night performance of Holiday was into the finale, a leak from a LP tank, stored under the bleachers, was ignited by an electrical short and blew up, killing 81 and injuring some 400 more. Morrie was not there and none of the cast or crew were hurt; but the fact that there was 81 deaths and so many of the over 4,000 in the audience, and a statement from the sheriff stating that if the show had not started 15 minute late, the deaths and injuries would not have been as great, hit Morrie hard.

Criminal charges against six of the arena’s staff were dropped after more investigation. The arena reopened and hosted a cattle show six weeks later, and The Beatles a year later, followed a month later by a return of Holiday On Ice, which broke the arena’s attendance records.

It took Morrie quite awhile to get back to being the easy going person he was before, but slowly he reverted to the man who was so much fun to be around. He remarried and had two sons with his second wife. He lost his ownership in Holiday International by a court ruling over a stock issue. He started Chaflen International and dabbled in various businesses. He died in 1949 at the age of 72, a year after the death of his good friend, Hubert Humphrey.

Morrie was a natural story teller, and you never forgot him or his stories. He loved to sit backstage and regale young stagehands like your truly.

Now did I ever tell you about…’

You probably heard the story before but any story Morrie told was worth hearing again. He had a twinkle in his eye and just a slight accent. He used his hands in telling a story. He could have had a career as a story telling comedian.

He had that gift of entertaining through the art of telling stories that seems to be second nature to those who lived in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Like the Boston barber, Max Nimoy, father of Leonard Nimoy, who told stories of living in and escaping from a shtetl in Ukraine.

And like Myron Cohen who came to the US from Russia at the age of two. Cohen was a traveling salesman who endeared himself to his customers by telling them funny stories. He was talked into performing at comedy clubs and soon became a household name because of his appearances on the TV variety shows of the 50’s.

And like Zero Mostel,’If I were a rich man’, who, when cast as the original Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof’, balked at the concept that the original stories by Sholem Aleichem, who lived in a shtetl in the Ukraine before coming to the US, being ‘too Jewish’ to succeed. Using stories he heard from his father of life and dreams of the inhabitants of an East European shtetl, he crafted the Fiddler we know today. And over the years his Tevye was adhered to by actors like Herschel Bernardi, Theodore Bikel, Leonard Nimoy among others.

Morrie’s favorite story was what happened on that first Russian tour. It also is my favorite Morrie story.

I took off running. They weren’t going to pull something like that on me. No way! But I pulled up in a hurry when the KGB’s answer to the Three Stooges came from behind the Zamboni.

Moe, with his hands in the pocket of his black leather ankle length coat, stood in the center of his two stooges. He had that come-on-I-dare-you look on his face.

Larry and Curly were wearing their black leather knee length leather coats. And each had a BIG pistol pointed at me.

Thinking back I should have been praying but at the time all I could think of was, “What in the name of Hubert Horatio Humphrey did I get into???”

Whoa! Whoa! Morrie’s story needs a post of it’s own.

Stay tuned for KGB AND THE ZAMBONI.

KGB & THE CELLIST

cellist

The KGB caused fear in the people they ‘guarded’ on tour in foreign countries. Not so with the great cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich. He laughed at the agents that were sent with him on his tours. He defied his ‘jailers’ and the power of the Kremlin with a wicked sense of humor. I was so fortunate not only to hear him perform, but also to see that wicked sense of humor.

Born into a long time classical music family, he was taught piano by his mother at the age of four, began his study of the cello by his father at the age of ten. At sixteen, two years after he gave his first solo performance, he was admitted to the Moscow Conservatory and five years later became a professor of the cello at the Conservatory. He won first place in three International Music Awards before he was 23 and at the age of 23 was awarded the Stalin Prize, the highest civilian honor in Russia.

Not only a great favorite of audiences, Rostropovich was in great demand among composers. He premiered over 100 cello pieces written especially for him by such composers as Dimitri Shostakovich, who was one of his teachers at the Conservatory and a life long friend. Others included Sergei Prokofiev, Leonard Bernstein, and Benjamin Britten.

From his early years Rostropovich was an outspoken critic of the lack of freedom in the USSR. When Shostakovich was dismissed as a teacher at the Conservatory for writing a piece condemning the lack of breaking out of the strict classical tradition, Rostropovich, only 21 at the time, quit the Conservatory. He believed in the concept of artists without borders and championed the cause of civil rights for everyone.

In spite of his ideals, he was permitted to tour, first in Western Europe, and then America. He toured accompanied by two KGB ‘translators’. His wife, a prominent soprano in Moscow opera, and their two daughters had to stay behind in Russia and were also under the ‘protection’ of the KGB during these tours.

One of the orchestras that had him as a guest soloists was the Minnesota Orchestra under the baton of the Polish born conductor and composer, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.

The Orchestra’s home at that time was Northrop Auditorium at University of Minnesota. I did not work for the Orchestra directly; but I was the stage manager for Northrop, and as a result I was present for the week of rehearsals leading up to Rostropovich’s guesting with the Orchestra.

The first rehearsal started with Rostropovich coming on stage to the standing applause of the Orchestra members. He acknowledged their tribute with his ever present smile and a quip about not being able to follow his entrance. Then he and Skrowaczewski talking to each other in Polish. In addition to being a world class cellist, he was also a respected conductor, and there was no secret about who was really conducting when Rostropovich was involved in the pieces where he soloed. Rather than show up Skrowaczewski, he made his suggestions in Polish. Although there were times when he stopped the rehearsal to make a change himself.

Rostropovich sat down and just before the oboe sounded to have the concert master begin the tuning, he raised his cello bow and called a halt to the start of the rehearsal.

He explained that he was neglecting his manners and he wanted to introduce the two men, one standing stage right, the other stage left. ‘These are my two translators,’ he said. ‘You will see a lot of them this week. They never are too far from me in case I don’t know a word in English. That lump under their suit coats, is their translation books. I think.’

He motioned for the big man standing in the wing stage right to come on stage. ‘This is Bear,’ he said. ‘I forget his real name, but I call him Bear, the symbol of Mother Russia. Suits him, don’t you agree.’

He got no argument from anyone. The man was huge. He had dark black hair and a shadow of a black beard. He lumbered on stage and stood next to Rostropovich.

The problem with having the Bear for a translator is he only knows a few words in English. Show them Bear, your extent of the English language.’

It was evident the man didn’t have the slightest idea of what Rostropovich was saying in English. Rostropovich said something to him in Russian. And then waved a hand to the big man and ordered him to speak his favorite word in Russian.

‘Vodka!’ the man bellowed out.

Now in English.’

‘More vodka,’ Bear said. He had a big smile on his face.

Rostropovich smiled and told the man he was proud of him. Then he said something to him in Russian.

‘Nyet! Nyet!’ the Bear said shaking his head.

English! Speak in English!’

‘No? No?’

Rostropovich laughed. ‘Yes, it is no.’ Then he spoke to the orchestra. ‘The word for please is seldom used anymore. Now the key word is Siberia.’ He spoke softly to the Bear but he said the word Siberia loudly.

The ‘translator’ opened the left side of his suit coat and revealed a large shoulder holster with a very large gun in it.

Rostropovich said he must have been wrong about the bulge being a translation book. ‘In the Soviet Union, a translator is spelled KGB, I guess.’

He thanked the Bear and motioned him back to his position. Then he turned to the man standing in the wing on stage left.

‘Now this man, who looks like he is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, I call him, Sir. Everyone calls him Sir. Even the Bear calls him Sir.

‘When I was assigned my two companions and my wife and daughers were given their group of protectors, I was shown a film of the Bear lifting weights. And a film of Sir doing his thing. He did a lot of grunting and weird noises. And he did a lot of chop motions with his hand and kicks with his feet. He destroyed numerous wood pieces and cement blocks. Bear was impressive but Sir was scary.

‘It was explained to me that these two were experts at finding the way back home to Russia. If I would get lost, say here in Minneapolis, these two would be able to find me and help me back to Russia.’

Having finished his introductions he suggested to the Maestro that the rehearsal should start. Even though it was just a rehearsal, both he and the Orchestra were in prime form. When he was doing a solo, he captivated the attention of the Orchestra. They sat taking in every note, instead of looking bored and even some leaving the stage when they were not in use.

After the break, Rostropovich once again spoke to the Orchestra. ‘I have had to promise to the Ministry of Arts that I would make sure you all knew about this cello that I am fortunate to play. Now you might look at it and listen to it’s sweet tones and think that it is the work of an old Italian Master like Stradivarius, perhaps a 1711 Duport Strad; but I can assure you, this is not the case. It was built by a Russian Master just a few years ago. It seems as though the Soviet Union has broken the secret of the old Italians and now make instruments that rival theirs.

‘And if you believe that, I break the secret that the Ministry of Agriculture will soon introduce their latest achievement, a flying pig.’ He waved to his two companions and assured them in Russian that he fulfilled his promise to the Ministry of Arts.’

Strad or Russian- made, there wasn’t anyone in the theater that didn’t believe Rostropovich could have rigged a broom handle and strings to a cigar box and still played beautiful music.

The rehearsals that week went by swiftly. My crew and I spent a lot of time in the wings watching and listening, both to the music and to the words of Rostropovich. The concerts, one in Minneapolis and one in St. Paul, were received with rave reviews both by the audiences and the critics, many of whom came from cities that was not on Rostropovich’s tour.

While on this tour, Rostropovich continued to fight for his ‘artists without borders’ and the inhumanity of the U.S.S.R.. One of his most vocal fights was to release Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from his imprisonment in gulags for committing the Soviet sin of criticizing the inhumanity of Stalin. Imprisoned in 1945, Solzhenitsyn was a teacher and historian, and the latest in the line of great Russian novelists. After his sentence ended in 1953, he was sent into exile in Kazakhstan. Basically still a political prisoner. It was during this imprisonment and exile that he began to write his works.

In 1960, he sent the manuscript of his novel, A DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH, to a publisher. The book impressed the publisher; but also frightened him because it was so anti-Stalin. The publisher brought it to the government. Surprisingly, he was told to publish it. Premier Khrushchev thought it would be a good tool to erase the stain of Stalinism that was hindering Russia both at home and in the world. It became a best seller in Russia, although it was largely unknown in the West. It was even used as a schoolbook along with several Solzhenitsyn short stories.

But when Khrushchev was removed as premier, the stranglehold on the arts resumed, and Solzhenitsyn became a non-person in the Russia. In 1965, the KGB seized all of his writings and warned him to stop writing.. He managed to have his manuscript for what would be his most famous work, THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO, smuggled into Estonia. However, by now, he had become recognized in the West as a great novelist.

He also developed a severe form of cancer, which he wrote about in his novel, THE CANCER WARD. His cancer went into remission and he lived to the age of 89 when he died of a heart attack.

Led by the very vocal Rostropovich, the cries of releasing Solzhenitsyn from exile were heard not only in Russia but around the world. It worked.

Solzhenitsyn was released from exile in 1970. Rostropovich had just come home from the tour which had included Minneapolis. Being the kind of person that backed up his demands, Rostropovich brought Solzhenitsyn into his own home. This fact was did not go unnoticed by the Soviet government and the KGB. Both artists were subject to close scrutiny and harassment by the KGB.

Both Rostropovich and his wife were forbidden to leave Russia and their musical engagements were cut back to almost nothing.

To make matters worse, in 1970, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature, making him a household name around the world. He refused to go to Stockholm to receive the award however. He felt that if he left Russia, he would never be permitted to return. The idea of having a special ceremony in Moscow to present him the award was turned down the Swedish government who felt it might harm Soviet-Swedish relationships.

(In 1970, the Guthrie Theater, where I was now working, gained exclusive rights to the one play, (?) by Solzhenitsyn, ARTICLE 58/A PLAY. They premiered it at the end of the season and brought in a guest director, Michael Langham, who would come back the next season as the Artistic Director. The play ran in stock for almost a month to full houses. It was reviewed by critics from all over the world. It was long, sad, and had probably the largest cast ever for a Guthrie production. It was also a work of art. To my knowledge I don’t think it was ever done by any theater since then.)

In 1971, the KGB tried to assassinate Solzhenitsyn using a favorite weapon, ricin. The attempt failed. In 1974, he was exiled and sent to West Germany. From there he went to Switzerland and finally to the U.S., where he spent 17 years. In 1994 he returned to Russia.

Unlike the non-person, Solzhenitsyn, Rostropovich was a considered a Russian treasure. They touted him as the greatest cellist of all time. To disgrace him as they did Solzhenitsyn was not feasible. And they could not get him to back off on his artists without borders talk and his criticism of the lack of freedom in the Soviet Republic.

Add to this, Rostropovich was more and more setting the cello aside for the baton of a conductor. He felt that with the new movement in classical music, the movement espoused by Shostakovich way back in his Moscow Conservatory days, he was one to interpret it to orchestras and audiences around the world. The government loved him as a great cellist; but as a conductor, he was just one of many.

Rostropovich was ‘allowed’ to leave Russia with his wife and children in 1974. He was not allowed to come back as a cellist or conductor anywhere in the Soviet Union. He came to America where he became Musical Director and chief conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C.. Unlike Solzhenitsyn, who never accepted living in the West with it’s ‘TV pop culture’, Rostropovich embraced life in the West.

He conducted orchestras all around the free world. His fame as a great musician increased and the smile that he was famous for never left his face; nor did his love of his fellow man.

In 1989 when the Berlin Wall was taken down, he went to Berlin and gave an impromptu cello concert along side the Wall. In 1990 he had his Russian citizenship restored. In 1991, when he saw footage of tanks outside of Moscow ready to move in during a political crisis, he got off a plane and talked himself into being allowed to join Boris Yeltsen in an effort to prevent the tanks from moving on the city. Two years later he conducted the Russian National Orchestra in Red Square during the constitutional crisis.

He lived a full life right up to his death in Moscow from intestinal cancer just prior to his 80th birthday. His death was mourned around the world. His list of achievements and awards go on and on. He will be remember as one of the greatest cellists, a great conductor, and a great humanitarian.

And for those of us who were fortunate to have met him, he will be remembered as a brave man with a wonderful sense of humor. A man who laughed in the face of the KGB.