From Broadway to Bluegrass!

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Francine Greshler spent 17 years with Broadway legend Frederick Loewe and has been married to Bluegrass giant Peter Feldmann
for 11.

 

Local People
by Jim Buckley
Santa Ynez Valley Journal, May, 2004.

Reprinted by
permission.

 
Santa Ynez Valley Journal article on Francine
   

 

    "Dear. Buckley," the letter read, "I was recently remembering the collaboration of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1974 score for the movie version of 'The Little Prince.' I was present during the entire creation of this project and once when Mr. Lerner was out here staying with Mr. Loewe in.Palm Springs," the letter continued, "close friends" persuaded them to make a simple recording with just Mr. Lerner singing the songs and Mr. Loewe accompanying him on the piano.

"I lived with Mr. Loewe for 17 years and... We thought your readers might be interested in this whole story."

Well, yeah. The "Peter" in Francine Greshler Feldmann's letter is Peter Feldmann, fiddler extraordinaire, early member of the Mountain Drive community in the hills above Santa Barbara and Montecito, and bluegrass aficionado and original member (and organizing force behind) The Scragg Family, a bluegrass string band that traveled up and down California for a decade. Francine, it turns out, has lived in the Santa Ynez Valley for nearly twenty years on twenty acres she'd purchased while  Frederick  "Fritz"  Loewe ("Brigadoon," "Paint Your Wagon," "My Fair Lady," "Gigi," "Camelot") was still alive.

Were we "interested?"  Do cows moo?  Our conversation with Francine took place at the Feldmann's log cabin home outside Los Olivos.

Francine grew up in southern California; her father, Abby Greshler, was a Hollywood agent (Diamond Artists Ltd.) and represented Dean Martin, David Janssen, Vince Edwards, and other stars.  Francine credits her father with discovering Tony Randall
and Martin & Lewis.

"I met Fritz when I was twenty-two and he was seventy," Francine says, wanting,  apparently, to get that age differential out there right away.  Her parents had a villa on the French Riveria [Cap Ferra] and every summer they'd stay there.  Frederick "Fritz" Loewe had a yacht that he brought every year to Cannes, and he would stay at the Carlton Hotel when not on the yacht. In July of 1972, Francine was in their home on the Riviera with her parents and her brother. Her father's New York partner, Fred Harris, informed the Greshlers that the following Wednesday, he'd be going on "Fritz" Loewe's yacht and asked Francine if she wanted to go.

Harris and Francine joined the family of movie mogul Jack Warner on Fritz's yacht. "I was a singer and a writer and I was fascinated by him," Francine recalls. Fritz, born in Berlin to Austrian parents, was a worldly sophisticate and introduced Francine to fine food and wine and even took time to explain the various cheeses of France. "I literally sailed off into the sunset with him. I didn't go home," Francine says with a big, disarming smile.  Meantime, naturally her parents did not look kindly upon this turn of events. "My father called the police," recalls Francine, "and by the time I got home, it was World War Three."

But Francine continued to visit the talented and charming man on the yacht who kept calling her. His entreaties proved irresistible. "At the beach club at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo," Francine recalls as one of many such incidents, "while I was lying there at a cabana, a guy comes out with a note on a silver platter with an invitation from Fritz for me to come back on the boat."  She did, and stayed with Loewe again until finally her mother accepted an invitation to visit the pair aboard the yacht.  That visit ended in what Francine calls "a gigantic scene", with her mother demanding that Francine come home with her.  "He went back to Palm Springs.  I went home to Brentwood, but I kept going to Palm Springs until eventually I moved in with him," she says.

 


Fritz and Francine in Montecito ca. 1978
 

 

Finding A Leading Man

Fritz Loewe was not actively working when he and Francine got together. "He retired at the age of sixty-two, much too early," she says. Fritz explained that because he'd had 'a very rough life' - he grew up and lived poor and didn't make it until he was 47 years old, with the success of Brigadoon. According to Francine, Loewe had slept in the snow in Central Park, virtually starving until he began to make money with his music. His father was a musical comedy star, but placed his son in a Prussian Cadet School while performing. "[Fritz] really, really wanted to enjoy the money he'd made," Francine says, "so he bought this place in Palm Springs and hired this amazing architect and designer and he didn't want to work. He kept referring to the stale coffee and the cheese sandwiches and the drinking... which he kept up."

During this time, Loewe's relation-ship with his longtime partner, Alan Lerner, had soured. The two barely spoke, and mirrored the same kind of relationship as another famous composing team: Gilbert & Sullivan (who, by the end of their storied collaboration were not on speaking terms and communicated only by telegram). Lerner, at least, kept himself busy and worked with other composers. Loewe did nothing until the movie version of "Paint Your Wagon" was being planned with Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood (1967) in starring roles. "They wanted Fritz to write four more songs for that, but he refused because he didn't want to work," Francine says, "so they got Andre Previn to write them. Fritz had asked for some outrageous amount of money to do it and they said no. He couldn't believe they said no!" In the meantime "My Fair Lady" money was it still rolling in, as was money from "Camelot."

"The Little Prince" was what Francine saw in progress. Lerner got the rights to the book and asked Fritz to work with him on it. Although he didn't want to do it, Alan talked him into it.

"The Little Prince was a saga unto itself," Francine recalls. She says that Frank Sinatra lived nearby in Rancho Mirage; she and Fritz lived in Palm Springs.  The two men knew each other, but not very well.  Sometimes Frank would invite Fritz over but Francine's parents knew Frank better, through their relationship with Dean Martin. During this time, Alan and Fritz were searching for someone to play the role of the pilot as the star of "The Little Prince." Fritz wanted someone who could sing his songs and had a good voice. He wanted a real singer.

With the successes of "My Fair Lady," "Gigi," and "Camelot" behind them, resumes were coming to them from an A-list of Hollywood actor-singers. Danny Kaye, for example, sent his press kit to convince Fritz he'd be the right person for the role. Another one, according to Francine, was Richard Burton. "I thought he would be fabulous," she admits. "He sang good enough and he was such a good actor. I thought he'd be the right one." And then, of course, there was Sinatra, and he really, really wanted to be the pilot. The thinking was that the role would have been good for his image. Fritz too, thought Frank Sinatra might just be perfect. He certainly had the talent and he certainly could sing.

 

 

 

"Fritz banged his drink on the table and said 'Not in MY show he won't!'

"Everyone stopped.  Gilly gets up at the other end of the table, pulls back his jacket and exposes his gun.  Barbara pulls me away and tells me we're going to the ladies' room.

   

 

The Sinatra Episode

The following is Francine's recollection of events surrounding that episode.  "'Don't go near him,' Alan told Fritz. 'You don't want to work with Sinatra; he has an entourage with him all the time, he takes over. Everything has to be his way. He literally rips out pages of scripts when he works. He's very, very difficult.'

"Fritz said, 'Why? I know him; he's never been that way. And, he can really sing. I think he'd make a great pilot.'

"Alan is saying 'No, no, don't! We don't want to go there!'

"Sinatra was being aggressive about it and invited Fritz over to dinner at the Dunes in Palm Springs [Vegas ???] and I was there. Barbara [Sinatra] was there and he had his usual ten or twelve people with him, including Gilly, his bodyguard. Everybody had been drinking and Frank looked at Fritz, who could be Germanic and dramatic.

"Frank says, 'Now, when I do the Little Prince, when I'm the pilot, I'm going to bring in Nelson Riddle, he's been my arranger forever and he's gonna arrange the show.'

"I'm sitting next to Fritz and he's, like, drinking and spits it out.

"'Vas? Nelson Riddle?'

"'Yeah, he's gonna arrange your music the way I'm gonna sing it.'

"Fritz banged his drink on the table and said 'Not in MY show he won't!'

"Everyone stopped.  Gilly gets up at the other end of the table, pulls back his jacket and exposes his gun.  Barbara pulls me away and tells me we're going to the ladies' room.

"I didn't get to see what happened,  but we went home and he was not happy.

"The next morning, I don't know how Alan heard about it, but a telegram arrived. It was a copy of a telegram Alan had sent to Sinatra saying something like 'I do not appreciate you upsetting my partner of forty years and I will not have my partner of forty years guillotined.'

"It made the papers.

"Alan said 'I told you.'"

 

 

Success as a Cult Classic

Francine speculates that Sinatra would probably have been the right person for the role and might even have helped make the movie a success but, "You would have had to deal with Frank. I think sets would have been damaged," she says. They ended up with Richard Kiley as the pilot; the rest of the cast included Steven Warner as the Little Prince, Bob Fosse as the snake and Gene Wilder as the Fox. It was directed by Stanley Donen. The film was received poorly by critics (and presumably, audiences) and was a commercial failure; neither Lerner nor Loewe were accustomed to that.

Before "The Little Prince" was made and before the music was to be recorded (in London) for the film, Fritz had made a reel-to-reel tape demo, with him on the piano and Alan Lerner singing the songs. Fritz thought it would be a good idea for the arranger on the film to hear the correct way the songs should be done, and Fritz, at 73 years of age, didn't want to fly to London to oversee the arrangements.

As to how she ended up living in Santa Ynez, Francine explains that as Fritz grew older, he no longer enjoyed traveling back and forth to Europe. He asked her, as someone that had grown up in California, if there was a place nearby "that isn't a hundred and fifteen degrees in the summer and was near the ocean." She recalls saying some-thing like, 'Duh, there's beautiful Santa Barbara,' which she says she had always loved.

 

 

The Move To The Valley

In 1976, they contacted real estate agent Guy Roop (who died about five years ago) who found them a rental in Montecito across from actor Jim Brolin's place on Buena Vista.  Later, they rented a house off East Valley Road near the Valley Club. Loewe never bought anything, Francine explains, because he had a big place in Palm Springs with 13 acres of formal gardens and didn't want to own another house. She, however, did see a piece of land in Santa Ynez Valley and bought it in 1979. The twenty-acre spread is where she and Peter Feldmann have built their log cabin, made from a Rocky Mountain Log Home kit. It was "put together" by Ted Hotchkiss, who, Francine reports "wanted to take a break from building palaces in Montecito." Hotchkiss built the handsome and sturdy house alone, according to Francine, who chose the site. Nearby is a large pond the couple call their "animal watering hole." The front porch, overlooking the pond, seems like a perfect place to play and create music. It probably is.

Francine married Peter Feldmann at an outdoor ceremony in March, 1993, at the Biltmore Hotel in Montecito. Judge Joseph Lodge officiated and a passel of fiddlers led by Gilles Apap played as Francine walked down the aisle accompanied by her father, Abby Greshler. Other musicians included a band from South America, classical musicians of every persuasion, former Scragg Family band members, and Byron Berline, one of the top bluegrass fiddlers in the United States. There were over 500 guests at the wedding.

If you'd like to hear Peter Feldmann, founder of the Old-Time Fiddlers' Convention, check out BlueGrassWest.com for more info.  We'll cover Peter's story in an upcoming issue.

 


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