The Careers of Jose Iturbi and His Piano

Here’s a special guest post by my friend Sarah Owens

“When I don’t know what to do, I play the piano”

Josè Iturbi’s reply to Stanley Owens’ (Roddy McDowall) plea for advice on women in the 1946 movie, Holiday in Mexico seems like just another line from a movie, but it’s really the perfect description of Josè Iturbi’s entire life. Playing the piano is what he did. From an early age the piano and music, ushered him through so much, including a successful, meaningful career, the suicides of his wife and daughter, his movie career and all the accomplishments and awards he collected along the way.

 

Iturbi’s musical fate seems to have been sealed even before he was born – on November 28, 1895. His mother, Teresa Báguena Pons, went into labor with him during a performance of an opera in Valencia, Spain that she and her husband Ricardo Iturbi Navarro were attending. They rushed out of the theater half way through the performance and barely made it home before they welcomed their son, Josè Iturbi into the world. He was the third of their four children.

Ricardo worked for a gas company, but had a side business repairing and tuning pianos. Josè was already experimenting with those pianos by the age of three. It wasn’t long before he was helping his father’s business by fixing them too. Recognizing Josè’s affinity for the piano, Ricardo enrolled him in lessons at the age of five where he promptly sailed ahead of everyone else, including the instructor. It became clear to everyone that they had a special talent on their hands and his family did everything they could to encourage his progress. Josè’s first job, at the age of seven, was accompanying silent films in Valencia’s first movie theater. When he was done at the theater he played at cafes into the early morning hours. In those days he’d play as much as 16 hours a day, doing it all to help his struggling family financially, but loving every second of it.

At age 10, Josè began studying at the Conservatory of Valencia. It was the beginning of a formal education and career in classical music. He continued to play in cafes to help the family and also accompanied a local singing academy. It was here that he met the great pianist Emil von Sauer who encouraged Josè to give a recital so he could earn enough money to study in Paris. He did, and by 1911, Iturbi was able to take the entrance exam for the Conservatory of Paris. He was awarded one of only two spots available for foreign students. “It was a determining factor in the cultural vision he would hold close for the rest of his life,” says biographer Dagmar Ulythethofken.

The next few years were spent studying hard, working as an accompanist, performing recitals and giving piano lessons. In 1916, Iturbi married one of his piano students, Maria Giner de los Santos. They had a daughter, Maria, in 1917. He gave dozens of recitals and concerts during the next several years, continued his education and began studying orchestras to achieve his dream of being a conductor. He was on a trajectory to be one of the top pianists of his time.  Life was good.

On August 11, 1928, Iturbi was rehearsing a concerto when his wife Maria locked herself into a bathroom and took a large dose of pills. Iturbi rushed to her side when he was told, but it was too late, he found her dying. It wouldn’t be the last of tragedy in his life – his daughter Maria also committed suicide in 1948 just before the filming of Three Daring Daughters.

After his wife’s death, Iturbi threw himself into his work. He traveled the world eventually giving over 200 performances a year. He was often accompanied by his younger sister, Amparo. While she never received the formal education her brother did, Amparo was still popular and successful in her own right as an accomplished pianist.

Everywhere Iturbi went he met adoring fans and received critical acclaim. When he made his debut in the United States in 1929, critics were beside themselves in finding words to describe the “Iturbi magic.” One called him a “feathery pianissimo.” Another said, “his playing is like a column of smoke passing over the keys.” Another from Chicago said, “to hear how his fingers can make the piano sparkle and sing and dance is a marvel to the technicians and a delight to those who want their music served as it should be.”

Next to music, and fast cars, motorcycles and airplanes were a favorite part of life for Iturbi. Rumor has it he was reckless with all three. Once he even hitchhiked to a concert because he totaled his car. After several car accidents he decided he’d better learn to fly because it was safer. He promptly took flying lessons, bought himself plane, named it “El Turia” (after the river in Valencia) and began flying to engagements around the world. His escapades and close calls earned him the nicknames “Turbulent Iturbi” and “The Flying Fool.” The more popular he got, the more the paparazzi reported on him. They reported on how much he liked paella and enjoyed apples. Caviar was one of his favorite things, they said. The public learned he was interested in jazz, that he craved expensive cigars and had a pipe collection that he treasured. He loved boxing. Coco Chanel even designed a personal perfume just for him.

Movie producers were very aware of what was happening with Iturbi. They tried more than once to convince him that he needed to be in movies. Iturbi would have none of it, “Kissing girls on screen is just so much foolishness,” he said. After he turned down several offers it was Joe Pasternak, the musical guru at MGM at the time, who finally convinced him to do a movie. Part of how he convinced Iturbi to do the movie was a bet that Iturbi’s record sales would double. The object of the bet? A Baldwin piano, Iturbi’s favorite instrument at the time. He did the movie. His record sales quadrupled. He got the piano and just like that he brought classical music to a much wider audience.

That movie, 1943’s Thousands Cheer, was the first movie Iturbi appeared in. He played himself, (just as he did in every movie thereafter.) Gene Kelly starred with Kathryn Grayson where she played the daughter of an Army Colonel who decided to go along with him and the Army for moral support instead of going on tour with Iturbi. A romance between Grayson and Kelly developed while Iturbi accompanied the many artists in the movie, including Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. This was also the first pairing of Iturbi and Grayson in a movie. There would be three movies they were in together and the two would become close friends over the years. They never dated, however, “We were never romantically involved, just great friends. We went to dinner sometimes. We saw a lot of concerts together. If that’s dating so be it. We were just friends who went places together,” Grayson said.

The next movie Iturbi appeared in was Two Girls and a Sailor from 1944, starring Van Johnson and June Allyson. In this musical comedy, a sailor (Johnson) helps two sisters start a service canteen. Both sisters wind up falling in love with the sailor. Iturbi had just a small part in this movie that involved dialogue with Gracie Allen who mistakes him for a singer. Iturbi gets to play the two piano version of “Ritual Fire Dance of DeFalla” in this movie with his sister Amparo.

In 1944, Iturbi appeared in Music for Millions starring June Allyson. She plays a pregnant bassist in Iturbi’s orchestra. She hasn’t heard from her husband, who’s been in combat with the Army, for a long time. She assumes the worst. Other girls in the orchestra try to protect her from any bad news that might hurt the baby by intercepting and hiding a telegram addressed to her from the Army. Jimmy Durante and a young Margaret O’Brien also have parts. Iturbi, as always, plays himself, the respected conductor and pianist.

 

Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson appear with Iturbi in the 1946 movie, Anchors AweighTwo sailors on leave in Hollywood meet “Aunt Susan” (Grayson) who desperately wants an audition with Josè Iturbi. The two sailors Clarence (Sinatra) and Joe (Kelly), one who wants a girl, one who loves THIS girl, try to connive the audition for her. This popular musical was one of the top five profitable movies of the year and was nominated for several Academy Awards. It won an Oscar for Best Original Score.

Jane Powell, Roddy McDowall and Walter Pidgeon star with Iturbi in 1946’s Holiday in Mexico. Christine (Powell) is the daughter of an Ambassador (Pidgeon) who falls in love with Iturbi, angering both her father and potential boyfriend (McDowall). In this movie, Iturbi’s real life granddaughters play a small role as his onscreen granddaughters. His sister Amparo also appears for a boogie-woogie duet with her brother.

The next movie Iturbi appeared in was Three Daring Daughters in 1948. Jeanette MacDonald plays a divorced woman with three teenage daughters. Louise (MacDonald) has convinced her girls that their father is a good man, even though he’d actually abandoned them. Things are going along nicely when Louise goes on a cruise without the girls for some much needed rest and relaxation. She meets Iturbi and marries him before the end of the cruise. The daughters aren’t happy about that and plot to get Iturbi out of their lives so their father would come back.

Right before the filming of Three Daring DaughtersIturbi’s daughter Maria committed suicide. “It was extraordinary to see him become, for a brief moment, his usual gay, warm, charming self. Off the set, the life had gone out of him. I have never seen anyone suffer so or change so much,” his companion Jean Dalrymple said.

 

Iturbi’s third and last movie with Kathryn Grayson is That Midnight Kiss from 1949. It’s also the last movie Iturbi appeared in. Mario Lanza also stars. As the conductor of her grandmother’s (Ethel Barrymore) opera house, Iturbi plays a maestro who gives Prudence (Grayson) the chance to lead an opera. When she goes looking for a replacement for the tenor she doesn’t feel comfortable with, she notices truck driver Johnny (Lanza) singing opera and begs Iturbi to give him a chance. Prudence and Johnny fall in love, but there’s a hiccup. Both Iturbi’s sister Amparo and her daughter Amparin have small parts here as well.

Though he didn’t appear in the movie Adventure in Music in 1944, the piano you hear throughout the film is Iturbi. He also played the music, but didn’t appear in A Song to Remember (a biography of Chopin’s life) in 1945 and Song of My Heart (biography of Tchaikvsky’s life).

After That Midnight Kiss, Iturbi received eight more movie offers but refused them all. Was it all the negativity and criticism from “serious” musicians that made him stop? Maybe. There was a lot of it. Many of those musicians wouldn’t have anything to do with him during and after his movie career. Some of them even criticized him while trying to get into the movies themselves. They accused him of “prostituting his art” by doing movies. Kathryn Grayson said, “If he was prostituting his art, then I’m grateful he did it…. we gave the world some wonderful films!” Indeed. Despite the negativity and criticism from other musicians, Iturbi’s movie appearances did benefit the classical music genre in general. Because of those appearances, classical music enjoyed a swelling of support during the mid-century. There was a much wider audience for it, record sales were up, and because many more were taking up classical piano, piano sales went up too.

After his movie career, Iturbi returned to performing with gusto. He performed as a pianist and conducted orchestras around the world for several more years. Most of which he flew himself to in his own airplane, El Turia of course. He played dozens of recitals, including a concert at the Brussels World’s Fair. He even made 20 performances on the Bell Telephone Hour radio show (that later became a TV show). Both he and Amparo were very popular and in demand all over the world.

It wasn’t until his beloved sister Amparo died of a brain tumor in April, 1969 that Iturbi started to slow down. He resigned from two orchestras within a few weeks of her passing and never really recovered from the loss. The two had been inseparable throughout their lives. He never left Amparo’s side while she was sick.

After Amparo passed away, there were a few more recitals and performances over the years, including celebrating his 80th birthday by conducting his former orchestra, the Rochester Philharmonic at The Lincoln Center in New York in 1975. He still drew big crowds. There was a concert tour in 1976-77 with plans for another one in 1979, but ailing health was slowly taking him away from the spotlight by then. Josè Iturbi died on June 28, 1980 of a heart attack. His coffin is with his daughter Maria and sister Amparo at the Holy Cross Mausoleum in Culver City, California.

“Most artists have heart and emotion when they play their instruments, luckily for us, Iturbi had them as a person too.”

He knew exactly what to do, he played the piano.

This post is part of the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen on October 15. I’m honored Aurora let me be a part of it, despite being a novice at this.

 

4 thoughts

  1. I had no idea José Iturbi faced so much tragedy in his life. And to film a comedy when you’re dealing with such grief about your daughter – I can’t even imagine.

    Thanks for sharing your research, Sarah, on this remarkable man.

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