Just three days after arriving in New York, 17-year old Miklos Grabovsky sits at a piano to audition at a New York silent movie theater. The room is dark, illuminated only by the film rolling on the screen.
The boy, watching the movie for the first time, plays music to capture the movie’s mood. He adapts selections from opera, classical and other complex compositions to accompany a rainstorm, a traveling train, and a love scene.
Grabovsky, who speaks only a few words of English, lets his fingers speak for him. He gets the job.
In the following years, he plays in exclusive New York clubs such as The Versailles Club, performs at Carnegie Hall, composes and arranges nearly 90 compositions, and plays piano in “Platinum Blonde,” a Columbia production starring Jean Harlow.
The composer and pianist, who later changed his name to Nicholas Grabow, has lived in Phoenix since 1977. He will celebrate his 95th birthday Saturday, Aug. 12.
Grabow, who currently teaches four piano students, was born in Odessa, Russia. When he was just 6 months old, his family – his parents and at the time nine siblings – escaped in a hay wagon to Poland, later settling in Budapest, Hungary.
He discovered his love for music when he was 3 years old.
“My older brother, who was a violinist … used to practice in the morning and I would sneak in, open the door and (go) to the piano. I would play (two keys) with two fingers,” Grabow says.
“My brother went over to my mother and said, ‘He has to be a pianist.’ ”
Both of his parents played piano, and they and their 12 children filled their home with sounds of music from violin, cello and piano and voice.
When Grabow was 12, he played with a band of gypsies performing at a restaurant outside of Budapest.
“I learned the gypsy life and I was very proud,” he says. “They’re tough people to please.”
He joined a Budapest musical band at age 15.
Grabow speaks five languages: English, Hungarian, Yiddish and a “little bit” of German and Russian.
When he was in his mid-teens, one of his sisters married a Canadian, and his mother – his father died in Budapest – moved the rest of the family to Canada. When he was 17, he and his brother, a violinist, moved to New York.
A large scrapbook holds memorabilia from his performance life. Printed concert programs from Jewish organizations, musicals and beauty pageants grace the scrapbook’s pages. He has kept menus from Moskowitz & Lupowitz, a New York Romanian restaurant where he played piano from 1939-1953, signed by Milton Berle, Eddie Cantor and Sid Caeser.
Grabow played at the Versailles Club restaurant from 1936-1939 and performed on a New Jersey radio talk show called “Pick a Tune” in 1950, where he played any song a listener requested.
At age 27, he married Esther, a ballet dancer from Rochester, N.Y. The couple were married for 61 years until her death in 1993.
He has a son, Howard, in Florida; a daughter, Diane Goldy, in Paradise Valley; two grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Soon after his wife’s death, Grabow was introduced to Leah Rosenbluth, 87, through mutual friends. The two have been together since.
“Leah gave me more life,” Grabow says. Grabow and Rosenbluth enjoy dancing, performing and traveling. They try never to miss a family wedding or bar or bat mitzvah, wherever it is in the country, Rosenbluth says.
When he listens to music, Grabow prefers something “lively.” He enjoys playing “everything.” “He’s never gone after fame and fortune,” Rosenbluth says. “He’s very, very modest about his skills.”
Grabow shares lessons he’s learned throughout his life.
“I get along with everybody, that’s the main thing – to get along. Listen, listen. Give a little, take a little.”
Pamela Nilsson, 54, has taken piano lessons from Grabow since 1989 and admires him greatly. “He has such a positive outlook on life,” she says. “He’s always looking at the good side and stressing being happy and healthy.”
For his 90th birthday, Rosenbluth threw Grabow a birthday party at the Sheraton Crescent Hotel in Phoenix. Sixty-one of his relatives from eight states came to celebrate.
He will commemorate his 95th birthday with three parties – two with friends and one with family. “We’re saving the big party for the 100th birthday,” Rosenbluth says.
This article first appeared in the Aug. 11, 2000 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.