Friday, June 12, 2009


Last week I visited one of the most wonderful and interesting cities in America: Altoona, Pennsylvania.

I confess the only reason I had even heard of Altoona was because of George Burns's first book. I am a big Burns fan; I own literally all of his books. His first one was entitled, "Living It Up, or, They Still Love Me in Altoona."

I presumed, therefore, that Altoona was a town that had a vaudeville theatre. That was all I knew about it.

Who knew what an imporant city this once was! It was an important railroad stop en route to Pittsburgh -- important enough that Hitler plotted to destroy the stretch of tracks known as the Horseshoe Curve. Who knew that steel magnates Andrew Carnegie and his successor, Charles M. Schwab (not the later Charles R. Schwab of financial fame), threw so much money 'round these parts? Who knew that Altoona and its environs contained such a stunning array of architectural gems, large and small? Altoona's Cathedral is like a mini-Vatican, perched on a hill and visible for miles around. Such a sight as this I have never seen outside of Europe. Also very European is the quantity and architectural quality of churches which dot this landscape.

And then you have the theatre ...

The great Mishler Theatre was built in 1906, burned down six months later, but was immediately rebuilt, they say even more opulently than the original. It is a spacious yet intimate auditorium whose walls still seem to echo with all of the greats who have performed there -- everyone from Al Jolson to Jascha Heifetz ... and, of course, George Burns.

The piano, a Baldwin concert grand, was perfect for much of the repertoire I was playing. But it was the Gershwin that felt like magic. To play Gershwin in that hall ... I shall never forget it.

It's said the Mishler is haunted. It's even been featured on one of those ghost-seeking TV shows. I'm happy to report that I encountered nothing resembling a ghost. The scariest person there was undoubtedly yours truly.

To be continued ...