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Eugene Jelesnik

Published: Friday, July 18 1997 12:00 a.m. MDT

Any book about Eugene Jelesnik has a thousand possible covers: There's the photo of Jelesnik laughing with Bob Hope during a USO tour; the photo of him playing "dueling violins" with Jack Benny, the shot of him chuckling as Jimmy Durante makes fun of his nose.

But the cover of "An Improbable Journey" (Gerald M. McDonough; Shadow Mountain; $25.95) shows Jelesnik in a classy dinner jacket next to a handsome desk and some sheet music from "Carmen." In short, it's Eugene Jelesnik: Impresario - the image of the man most Utahns carry with them."When people finish the book," says the Maestro, "I hope they feel I've accomplished things that were theirs for the asking. They didn't have to pay. And I hope they say, `I really didn't know Eugene until I read this book.' "

The latter wish will undoubtedly come true. One reason Jelesnik has lasted so long on the local scene is his relative anonymity. Like his peers Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson, Jelesnik kept himself in the shadows in order to showcase the talents of others. But now, with "Improbable Journey," his life and times are on full display.

The irony is that Jelesnik himself didn't know a lot of his own history - history unearthed by author Gerald M. McDonough.

"Eugene himself was continually surprised by what we found," says McDonough. "He had no idea about the history of his hometown in Russia, for instance - how it had changed names and the way it was controlled by six different forces during just seven years."

Other secrets popped up, too. Jelesnik learned, for instance, that his father had not only been married before, but that there were children from that marriage.

But if Jelesnik had much to learn, he had even more to share. Readers will give a start at his run-in with the mob. Not to mention a sense of anxiety as he flees persecution as a boy. And his impressions of celebrities often have a unique touch.

"Eugene knew everybody," says McDonough. "We were forced to choose just a few photographs out of 1,200 he has. The time he spent in New York was fascinating to me. The coming of radio and motion pictures. And just how much Eugene was involved in the new experiments with television was impressive."

For McDonough, too, the book was a groundbreaking task. He found himself studying book after book of Russian history ("They don't teach a lot of that in Utah high schools"). He learned to use the Internet to do research and found himself sifting through dozens of hours of taped interviews.

Now, when he and his subject look back, they don't see just an "improbable journey," but a rather miraculous one.

Jelesnik's own favorite experience?

"I guess the memory closest to my heart was my appearance for a year at the Hollywood Restaurant," he says. "That's where I was discovered by Sophie Tucker."

At the end of the book, Jelesnik himself takes a few paragraphs to get in the last word. He writes:

I am still alive and well. I am 83 years old. I just wanted to pause a moment and tell my thousands of friends here in Utah and around the world, and especially my six children of my wife, Carleen, that I am the most fortunate man alive.

The genius of Eugene Jelesnik was his ability to take that good fortune and share it so openly with others.

- GERALD MCDONOUGH AND EUGENE JELESNIK will be at the Utah State Historical Society, 300 S. 455 West, from 2-4 p.m. on Tuesday, July 22, to sign books. At 7 p.m. July 30 they will be at Sam Weller Books on Main Street.

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