Aaron Copland student entices audiences at S.F. Home

Every Wednesday morning, Ernest Waxman lifts himself from his wheelchair onto the piano bench in the activities room of San Francisco's Jewish Home. His offerings include such pieces as Beethoven's "Pathétique," a Chopin etude and a Schubert sonata.

A resident at the Home since July, Waxman, 86, uses an oxygen tank and has trouble walking, but his fingers are nimble and his ear sharp. He keeps an upright piano in the room he shares with his wife, Fritzie, 84, along with music from a career that spanned much of the last century.

"I consider myself a classical composer," he said, reflecting on his own work.

A student of Aaron Copland, Waxman was among the first studio musicians in the early days of radio and television. Broadcasts were aired live from CBS's Studio 50, from which "The Late Show With David Letterman" is now taped.

As a staff pianist and organist from 1945 to 1962, he played in the orchestras of the Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Arthur Godfrey and Robert Q. Lewis shows.

These days, his audience is fellow residents, mostly women, who likely listened to Waxman on the radio decades before hearing him in person.

Waxman's love for music began early. Born in 1913 in Manhattan's Lower East Side, he studied music from the ages of 6 until 16 at the Third Street Settlement House. The youngest of seven children, Waxman grew up in an Orthodox home. His given name was Yona.

His parents came to the United States in 1907 from Ukraine, where his two oldest siblings were born.

Waxman's mother encouraged his musical education, which he continued at Brooklyn College, New York University and Columbia University. He earned two master's degrees in music, specializing in composition, and later taught "Ear Training, Musical Form and Composition" at NYU and Brooklyn College.

Copland, who was also the son of Eastern European immigrants, became Waxman's private composition teacher. It started with an ad in the newspaper saying that Copland "will be receiving a few pupils." Applicants were required to submit an original composition. Waxman showed him "Spoon River Rhapsody," inspired by Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology."

Waxman also had the opportunity to meet Leonard Bernstein professionally, whom he described as "an excitable person, volatile."

Waxman's own compositions include a piano concerto, music for stringed instruments and an oratorio, "The Story of Ruth." A piano concerto was broadcast over WQXR Radio in New York. While all of his works were performed and are on tape, none was published. "I never did bother," he said. During World War II, Waxman served in the Air Corps as a musician. His color-blindness may have prevented him from being shipped abroad. "I wound up in Florida," he said.

During that time, he met Fritzie. They married in a Reform synagogue after a short courtship.

Waxman's son Sid, a systems integrator and former budget director at San Francisco Opera who lives in San Rafael, fondly recalls taking lessons from his father as a small boy

"They lasted only two weeks as every time he caught me at practice time, he would teach," he said. As a result, he had no practice time alone.

Sid's sister, Marjorie Waxman Silberman, is now director of external affairs for the Staten Island Children's Museum. During their childhood, he said, they didn't see much of their father because he worked seven days a week from early morning rehearsals until long after the dinner hour. Broadcasts were aired at about 6 in the evening.

The Waxmans sold their home in Little Neck, N.Y., and moved to a condo in Palm Beach, Fla. In 1998 they moved to the West Coast. In July, they moved into the Home.

But in return, they give back.

When Waxman's recital ended and the applause ceased, several residents commented on how much the musical experience meant to them.

"He plays the classics with great heart," Frances Newman said.

Lorraine Litvin agreed. "It's a great joy to listen to him."

Said Shirley Krongold: "He's just Ernie."

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