charlie-oscar2A weekly feature in which my four-year-old son is let loose on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Los Angeles, and chooses a star from among the more than 2,500 honorees. His “random” picks sometimes reveal unexplained connections such as the summer day in 2012 when he sat down on the star of actress Celeste Holm and refused to budge. We later learned that the Oscar-winning actress had died only hours earlier.

Knowing that we wouldn’t be able to make our weekly pilgrimage to the Hollywood Walk of Fame this past weekend because I’d be treading it on my own for the TCM Classic Film Festival, Charlie and I paid a visit earlier in the week so he could choose his star. His choice was an unusual one. To be honest, I was surprised that classical conductor Leopold Stokowski had a star but I was even more shocked when Charlie, who had been laughing a second earlier, stood on Stokowski’s star and immediately adopted a very serious look, reminiscent of the English conductor’s frequent expression in photographs. Charlie’s arms also began to assume a conductor’s pose. I’m telling you — that kid knows things!

fantasia2Leopold Stokowski was born in London on April 18, 1882. He was a child prodigy and had his first gig in the United States in 1905. Stokowski made his conducting debut at the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1912 where he stayed for many years. He later founded the New York Symphony as well as the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in Los Angeles. I don’t know why I was surprised to find the maestro on the Walk of Fame — I was certainly familiar with his movie connections, the most famous being his involvement in Walt Disney’s groundbreaking Fantasia.

Disney_taylor_stokowskiFrom the earliest days of his career, Disney had been interested in combining animation with classical music. The story goes that in 1937 he happened to run into Leopold Stokowski at Chasen’s restaurant in Los Angeles and mentioned his idea for an animated short featuring classical music. The conductor got excited about the idea and said he’d love to collaborate, even offering to conduct the piece for free. Disney later wrote that he felt “all steamed up over the idea of Stokowski working with us.” Fantasia opened on November 13, 1940.

onehundedmenandagirlBut Fantasia wasn’t Stokowski’s first cinematic foray — his flamboyant conducting style was perfect for the movies. He appeared in Paramount’s all-star Big Broadcast of 1937 with stars like Jack Benny, Burns and Allen and Martha Raye. The following year he appeared as himself in the popular Deanna Durbin film, One Hundred Men and a Girl, that also featured Adolph Menjou. And later on, Stokowski also made an appearance in the lesser-known Carnegie Hall starring Marsha Hunt that featured other renowned classical performers such as Arthur Rubinstein and Jascha Heifetz.


stokowski-garboI have to admit, however, that the first Hollywood connection I think of when I see Stokowski’s name is screen goddess Greta Garbo. Rumors abounded in the late 1930s that the two were headed for the alter even though the fiercely private Garbo denied it and some people who knew them claimed that they were just good friends. When the two traveled to Italy together in March 1938, reporters learned of their whereabouts and hounded the reclusive couple. Garbo eventually agreed to a very rare press conference in exchange for being left alone. Stokowski spoke first and begged journalists to leave them in peace “so that Miss Garbo can see something of Italy.” The press-shy actress maintained she had no intention of changing her single status. “There are some who want to get married and others who don’t. I have never had an impulse to go to the altar.” Garbo expressed her displeasure with the attention they were receiving. “I was naive enough to think that we could travel without being discovered and without being hunted. This kills beauty for me.” The two never married, of course, but Stokowski did end up marrying three times, including a ten-year marriage to fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt. He had five children with his three wives.

The other odd movie connection that comes to mind when I think of Leopold Stokowski is the Bugs Bunny cartoon Long-Haired Hare from 1948 in which Bugs poses as the famed conductor, imitating his energetic style including his signature shunning of his baton in favor of conducting with his hands.

Leopold Stokowski’s conducting career lasted over 60 years. He worked up until his death at the age of 95 on September 13, 1977. But we can’t talk about a consummate musician like Stokowski without listening to a bit of his music. Check out the first few minutes of One Hundred Men and a Girl with Deanna Durbin.