Exiled king of harmonica survived Baltimore, U.S.

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

August 03, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

London -- He's a shameless name-dropper, an untiring braggart. But one thing he's not: He's not a phoney.

The infuriating thing about Larry Adler, the Baltimore boy who made good in the great world and never lost his unaffection for his hometown, is that he is or was on intimate terms or was acquainted with all the people he mentions in his conversation, people like George Gershwin, Maurice Ravel, Ingrid Bergman, Luciano Pavarotti. Even Sting.

You name it. If you don't, he will.

And he's got good reason to boast. He is one of the best known musicians in the world, and has been probably for more decades than most musicians have been on this earth.

Single-handedly he elevated to symphonic levels an instrument that for years was regarded as a child's toy, the mouth organ. Because of him there is probably more music for the mouth organ in the classical repertoire today than there is for the saxophone.

Some of the great composers of this century have written music for him. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold are among them. HeitorVilla-Lobos composed a concerto. ("But he gave it to somebody else," Mr. Adler recalled. "He expected to be paid.")

Mr. Adler has avoided the occupational curse of every aging entertainer: has-beenism. He is a star that declines to dim. When his name pops up in a conversation it rarely elicits the surprised remark: Is he still alive?

Very much so, though he's a bit run down these days, having just overcome a bout of shingles. But his voice is strong, his mind is quick. He's got the look of a man who, though aware he's still famous, has the energy to fear the arrival of the day he no longer is.

Mr. Adler was recently the subject of a 90-minute prime time television show here. It was just Mr. Adler playing his instrument, clips from his early films, famous Larry among the famous. The occasion was the approach of his 80th birthday, next Feb. 10.

You don't have to ask to hear about the great trouble in Mr. Adler's life. He's more than willing to tell you about it. With a lot of other people in show business he suffered at the hands of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his "Red" witch hunters back in the 1950s. He was blacklisted. His concerts and club dates were canceled one after another. The American Legion picketed him.

He came to London and found work, and the sense of home he never felt in Baltimore. As he recalled, "They didn't give a damn here," that he had been painted bright pink by Senator McCarthy's slandering minions.

In London he thrived. Today he looks back toward his homeland -- where he still performs and where he is still a citizen -- not so much with anger, but with the sad conviction of a man who thinks things haven't got much better there and aren't likely to.

"I'm not at home there; I'm not at ease," he said over a dish of pistachio ice cream in his north London neighborhood. "It [McCarthyism] could happen again . . . They still treat dissidents in America very bad. And race relations are bad. Look at the Rodney King case."

"It's not good here, either," he adds, evidently eager to be even-handed. "In certain parts, it's very bad."

The last American president Mr. Adler approved of was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He denounces Ronald Reagan as an informer for the FBI during his years in Hollywood. He has no respect for Bill Clinton owing to his support for the death penalty. He didn't like Harry Truman much, but admired him for his "guts." Nor did he admire John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Adler has no regrets, nor does he ask anything of the country where he was born, or of his old hometown. His life turned out better than he might have expected when he was a kid back in the Baltimore of the 1920s, where "Nobody seemed to like anybody," and where, as a Jew, he got "beat up once a week."

But, wait. There is something he wants. He said so. And it's in Baltimore. He wants to be invited back to the Peabody Conservatory to attend its 100th anniversary celebrations starting next month.

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