Donelle Dadigan, goddaughter of famous film composer and conductor MGM legend José Iturbi, was so memorable as a child playing piano that Frank Sinatra recognized her decades later. Her meeting Iturbi at five years old was not only memorable; it would change her life forever.
Dadigan’s godfather started off as a child prodigy, giving piano recitals and supplementing the family income by playing for up to 14 hours daily at a silent cinema theatre. From there, he graduated with honors from the Conservatoire de Musique in Paris, and at the age of 24 occupied Franz Liszt’s former post as leader of the piano department of the Geneva Conservatory. In 1928, he made his London début as a concert pianist. He made a successful début in New York and then came to Hollywood, where Iturbi became the first artist to sell one million records and to receive one of the first stars on the walk of fame. Iturbi later played himself in several MGM films and worked with Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr., Gene Kelly, Esther Williams and many more.
In the 1940s and 1950s, classical music and its stars were common in many Hollywood blockbusters, such as musical hits “Anchors Aweigh,” with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Now Iturbi is known mostly to music connoisseurs, however the native Spaniard was at the time, along with Oscar Levant (“An American in Paris”), one of the most commercially successful classical artists in Hollywood.
Dadigan spent some time with Moviehole recalling her magical musical childhood and her meeting with Iturbi, as well speaking about her mentor’s new restored recordings being submitted for the Grammys.
Moviehole: How did you get to know José?
Donelle Dadigan: Because of his sister Amparo who was a concert pianist; she was not as well-known as José, and that was the time where there were not many female concert pianists. She was my first piano teacher, and I was her younger student by 20 plus years. She spoke highly of me to José. She had many other students who were doctors and judges who came back to be involved in music arts, and here was this girl four or five. I started from scratch, and she was very nice to my mother, she said, “I don’t take beginners or children,” but she was kind of surprised that I just sat still and didn’t fidget, I was very polite.
I was so fortunate, and my mother sold me so well, that they agreed to try for a month, then it became three months, six months, then a year and I became a bona fide student. I was a little kid, and everyone else was in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Amparo told José, you should see this little girl, she takes direction well. And so I think to myself, this is kind of amazing, José was doing 100 or 200 concerts a year, he wanted to meet me and he decided his sister was telling the truth. I shook hands, curtsied, said good-bye and thanked him. You can’t pick your family but you can pick your friends. Every time he was in town, he made time for me. Looking back all these decades I thought I was so fortunate; most godmothers or godfathers might give you a dollar bill for your birthday, but I would go to his house, meet his buddies, and play piano.
Moviehole: How did José become so famous?
DD: By that time my godfather had performed sold out concerts and he performed all over the world; he performed solo, they would put the overflow on stage and it was a regular occurrence, he was a rock star before his time. He had groupies, they would throw scented handkerchiefs and flowers on stage, they followed him around. He piloted his own plane and he would sometimes take an orchestra with him, he even drove a motorcycle with a side car. He was also into boxing, he felt it was important to keep up the stamina of the upper body and shoulders. He only boxed a boxing bag, never another person, he kept gloves on.
Moviehole: How did José get into composing pieces for films?
DD: He lived in Beverly Hills from the 40s on, he had neighbors like Jimmy Stewart, Harry Cohn, Lucille Ball, Gene Kelly, Jacky Benny. He said the thing about classical music is that you always have to be able to inspire and create importance and interest to younger generations, otherwise it will die. Interestingly in the 40s, movie studios were concerned that organizations were saying that films were too racy, so the studios included well known artists thinking it would help.
My godfather had neighbors who told him to be in films, but they didn’t know that José was always trying to expand his base to people who would not normally go to hear classical music. He asked in films for three things; to always play himself, be a good person and play piano and conduct the orchestra to promote classical music. A lot of people didn’t think it work, but he became more popular than ever. Some musicians who didn’t do this thought they were too high class; later they wished they had done it.
Moviehole: Did you meet his famous buddies?
DD: I did meet them and later met Frank Sinatra 30 plus years later. I was in real estate and was in a billionaire’s home and Frank came with his new wife Barbara Marx. Sinatra asked to sit on a stool while his wife looked at the home. I mentioned meeting him many years before and said I was José’s goddaughter who played piano. He looked at me and raised his hand a few feet up and said, “Was that you?” and said they had to stop smoking while I played piano. He said, “We all clapped for you, you curtsied and we thought that was so adorable. Afterwards we all started playing cards, picked up drinks and started smoking again.”
I also met Gene Kelly, Jimmy Durante and all the great conductors of the era. When I first met Sinatra, I would go to my godfather’s a couple times a week, he was nocturnal, I would go there at 4 p.m. and it was one of those grand old Spanish mansions. I would be doing my homework and he would be giving orders to everyone about dinner and the mail and put on his dress outfit to greet guests; I would be playing piano and he would make corrections and I’d play with the koi fish and in his koi pond. That day there was someone brand new, I came home at 6:30 p.m. and my mother asked who I met. I told her Kelly was there, my godfather and a new guy who I called “Mr. Sinner.” My mother waited until after I went to bed and then asked my godmother about “Mr. Sinner.” My godmother said, “Mr. Sinner? That was Mr. Sinatra! Out of the mouth of babes!” They laughed and laughed.
Moviehole: Please tell me about José’s recordings?
DD: Many have not been heard, they are from the vaults of RCA – Jose’s discography was just incredible. It was so much fun to digitally remaster recordings — thanks to Sony Classical Records and Michael Feinstein, they put together 16 CDs and a book. They are all so crisp and clear, you feel like José Iterbi is sitting in your living room. That’s what he always wanted in his lifetime, the last 30 years he wanted to have this more intimate feel, like he was there playing on his piano. He accomplished it, I have to tell you.
This is a labor of love, it’s a chance to tell the story of José Iterbi. It was his phenomenal performance, his tremendous charisma, that helped draw people into the theaters. In “Anchors Aweigh” there’s a scene of Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly running down the side of a mountain trying to get into the Hollywood Bowl from the bleachers trying to catch José Iterbi while he is rehearsing on stage. It’s a historical album.
Moviehole: Do you still play music?
DD: Yes I do, it brings back many memories of pieces I worked on with José. I graduated with a MBA from UCLA and played music for other teachers as well.
Moviehole: José was playing music until he was 80?
DD: He was sharp as a tack, with a delicious sense of humor, there was never a fact that escaped him, his memory was beyond belief.
Moviehole: Are you planning any recordings in the future?
DD: We will see! This project with Michal Feinstein and Sony Classical took a few years to put together, it was a labor of love. It all started when I got a phone call from Michael Feinstein and they needed help from the foundation to make it happen.
Please give these recordings a vote if you are a Grammys member, so that we can see future recordings from Iterbi.
The José Iterbi recording set #19439836502 was submitted in these categories for Grammy consideration:
BEST HISTORICAL ALBUM,
Producers: Michael Feinstein, Robert Russ, Donelle Dadigan
Engineers: Nancy Conforti, Jennifer Nulsen, Andreas K. Meyer
BEST ALBUM NOTES
Author: Michael Feinstein
BEST PACKAGING – BOXED OR LIMITED EDITION
Producers: Michael Feinstein, Robert Russ, Donelle Dadigan
Designer:`Donelle Dadigan/Michael Feinstein/(EC:KO) Communications /Jochen Rudelt/Marvin J Deitz/
IMAGE COURTESY OF: From Hollywood To The World