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Column ‘Green Book’ — brushing shoulders with greatness

February 21, 2019

Emile Buzaid’s wife Theresa dragged him to the movies the other week. She wanted to see “Green Book,” billed as a comedy/drama. He hadn’t heard of it. Then his friend Sam Hyman stopped in the store and told Emile: “Geez, you’ve got to see this movie. It’s really pretty good,” Emile recalls.

In his 65 years, Emile has seen a lot. He was being a good husband going to the movies that day. But not far into the plot, he perked up. “Honey, I know that name,” he whispered.

Don Shirley. Half-way through the bag of popcorn he knew — “I rented a piano to him — Don Shirley!”

How improbable is that? A famous jazz/classically trained pianist who had lived in a lavish apartment above the Lincoln Center in Manhattan came to Danbury — Danbury — to rent a piano? A Steinway, of course.

Emile teases out the memory. Yes, it was the late ’60s, could have been ’67 or ’68, maybe ’69. Emile was still a student at Immaculate High School in Danbury and worked in his parents’ store, Buzaid Music Company.

“I had no clue who he was, other than successful,” Emile recounts as we sat at a card table in the reincarnation of the music store on Lake Avenue in Danbury. “A lot of artists back then spent summers in the vicinity, either up at the lake (Candlewood Lake) or Sherman, or Ridgefield; back then it was nice to get out of New York.”

The music store his parents opened in 1952, to give piano lessons to local youngsters, had grown into a destination for high-end acoustic piano sales and rentals.

And now, the polite tall man who 50-some years ago came into Buzaid’s looking to rent a piano is depicted in a movie up for an Academy Award on Sunday, five in fact — Best Movie, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing. Mahershala Ali, as Shirley, is nominated for a best supporting actor role. Nothing against Viggo Mortensen, playing Shirley’s driver/bodyguard in the movie, but Ali should have been nominated for best actor, not best supporting.

“Green Book” is about a true friendship that developed between Shirley and “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, the Bronx bouncer he hired as his chauffeur and bodyguard for a 1962 concert tour in the South. Told from Vallelonga’s viewpoint, it is a journey through racism — both personal and societal. The movie’s title refers to a guide of places where black travelers could spend the night.

“If they can find common ground, we all can,” Director Peter Farrelly said of the film’s characters in his Golden Globes acceptance speech. “All we have to do is talk and to not judge people by their differences, but to look for what we have in common.”

Sometimes our lives shoulder with the famous, although we might not know it. Sometimes there are connections that pull on the threads of time. Let’s go back.

A child prodigy

Donald Walbridge Shirley was a virtuoso classically trained prodigy, a musical genius (though carrying, like so many of us humans, emotional baggage) born on Jan. 29, 1927 to Jamaican immigrants in Pensacola, Florida — his father an Episcopal minister, his mother a teacher.

He was not even 3 years old when he displayed interest in the piano and as a youth played the organ at church. “Around the time his mother died at age 9, Shirley traveled to the Soviet Union to study theory at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music and later received lessons in advanced composition at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.,” according to the site Biography.

At 18, Shirley debuted on the concert stage with the Boston Pops, playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat.

“But a few years later, the impresario Sol Hurok, who, paradoxically, had helped Marian Anderson break the color line as an operatic diva, told him that a black pianist wouldn’t be accepted in the United States, and pushed him to adopt a pop repertoire,” Giovanni Russonello wrote in The New York Times, Nov. 2.

By the early ’60s he was recording for Cadence Records and represented by Columbia Artists management, which sponsored the tour with the Don Shirley Trio depicted in the movie.

“Shirley undertook his tour of whites-only theaters and parlor venues out of civic obligation — and stubbornness. He refused to be told, yet again, what he could play where,” Russonello wrote.

‘Look like you’re having a good time’

Emile’s father was a professional pianist, playing in places such as Chicago, Detroit and Las Vegas, where he met Emile’s mother, a Julliard grad with a prestigious — and not common for the time — PhD in music. They returned to Emile Sr.’s hometown of Danbury to raise a family and opened the Buzaid School of Music on Liberty Street, just off Main and near the May Department store.

Right across the street, John Carvette had a competing business — selling Italian accordions with ivory keys and giving lessons to kids — Carvette School of Music. And he had a young son about Emile’s age, 7 or 8, at the time. Carvette had the savvy idea to put his young son in the picture window facing the street, playing the accordion for passersby on the weekend.

“Son, look at that,” Emile Sr. said. “He doesn’t look like he likes it. You go in our window and play the piano — and anytime somebody comes by, look like you’re having a good time!” Emile smiles impishly, now, improvising the keys. “Hee-hee.”

And so it was a piano-playing kid competed with an accordion-playing kid across Liberty Street, both trying to entice parents to enroll their children for lessons. (At Buzaid’s the $15-a-month lessons included a piano rental.)

Emile graduated from the music program at what then was Western Connecticut State College and became a professional musician, whose repertoire included a bar in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Now he plays the organ at St. Anthony’s Church, “believe it or not.” No way does he compare his piano playing to Shirley’s talent.

I am not making a direct parallel of their lives. Their backgrounds, and upbringings differ greatly. It’s more like a braided narrative of interests from across a connection in time, though Shirley died in 2013 at the age of 86.

As Emile feeds mini dog bones to Maxx, the lovable bulldog who can’t get enough, he reminisces about the days when acoustic pianos were sought-after.

Many famous people came through the Danbury store, which moved to Spring Street, then West. Liberace rented a second piano for his performance at The Palace in the mid-’60s. (“I remember he had a ring that was a candelabra,” Emile recalls with a laugh.) Zsa Zsa Gabor’s mother, who was summering in Ridgefield, rented a piano. Later years brought in Felix Cavaliere of the Young Rascals and singer, songwriter and pianist Laura Nyro. Business was good until electronic pianos took over in the early ’90s.

Recalling meeting Shirley

“Don Shirley. I think my father dealt with him, with the rental,” Emile recalls. “For some reason, I think I was on the truck” making the delivery across the New York border to Pound Ridge or South Salem.

“My sense was, he was very polite, very straightforward. The ones that are really good are nice; the wannabes give you all the drama.”

He hasn’t listened to Shirley’s albums, but would like to someday. “Right now I’m busy playing my own stuff,” he says.

These days Emile Buzaid Jr. carries on at the Maxx Gun and Pawn Shop on Lake Avenue where the phone rings often enough.

He doesn’t want to talk about the gun business, as I gaze at the life-size Samurai outfit from the 1850s (enclosed in a tall glass case) near a stuffed buffalo head on the wall. “I don’t get involved in anything modern or controversial.”

Emile and Theresa, who wrote a children’s book titled “The Great Danbury State Fair A to Z,” won’t be watching the Academy Awards Sunday night because they never do.

But Emile hopes “Green Book,” which triggered memories for him, wins lots of awards.

Jacqueline Smith’s columns appears Fridays in Hearst Connecticut Media Group daily newspapers and is the editorial page editor of The News-Times in Danbury and The Norwalk Hour. Email her at jsmith@hearstmediact.com.