John Wallowitch is a sophisticated sprite of Manhattan, an impish composer, pianist and cabaret performer who celebrates New York and chronicles its often bizarre customs and mores.
He sings the music of Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Rodgers and Berlin too, but he also performs his own compositions, usually songs about Manhattan filtered through the sensibilities of the 1960s, '70s and '80s. He can lament the loneliness of big-city life in "I Live Alone Again," laugh at growing old in "I'm 27," or luxuriate in the pleasures of high living in "Back on the Town."The classically trained musician sings anywhere and with little coaxing: in his cluttered, score-strewn apartment, once the home of actress Katharine Cornell; on his weekly cable television show; in tiny nightspots around town, or even on the street, where his yearly serenadings of Irving Berlin - a Beekman Place neighbor - have attracted more and more media attention.
The impeccable Wallowitch, who seems always to be dressed in white shirt and bow tie, has worked since 1984 with Bertram Ross, once a leading dancer in Martha Graham's company.
"We have tons of material," says Wallowitch, a fanatic collector of old sheet music. "Three separate evenings of theater songs, including one about New York. I could go through a year and not repeat one song - which I have done."
With Wallowitch providing piano accompaniment, Ross can launch into obscure Berlin comic ditties like "Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars" or "Sadie Salome Go Home." Wallowitch can handle a tender, lush love song, "Come A Little Closer," that he wrote himself. Or the duo can rip through virtually unknown songs from forgotten Broadway shows like Rodgers and Hart's "Chee-Chee."
Wallowitch's early world wasn't anywhere near the bright lights of Broadway. He grew up in an isolated area of South Philadelphia, a neighborhood across from the city dump and surrounded by gas tanks of the Atlantic Refining Co. His father owned a butcher shop.
Young John, the first of four children, was precocious, he admits. After all, how many youngsters sing "Genevieve, Sweet Genevieve" at the age of 3 months? In a few years, Wallowitch was picking out tunes on his grandmother's piano, and having poems published in a children's column of the local newspaper.
`I guess it was desperation," he recalls. "When you are born in a neighborhood like that, you'd better do something."
Wallowitch did. He took piano lessons.
Every Wednesday, the Wallowitch family would listen to the Lithuanian Furniture Company Radio Hour. Their eldest son, wearing knickers and anklets, made his piano debut on the program, playing a Berlin song called "So Help Me."
Wallowitch eventually became a regular on the show, usually performing short classical pieces. His musical education continued at Edwin Vare Junior High School, where he would sneak into the building before classes to play a grand piano. He was caught one day by the school's music teacher. Instead of punishment, he got free lessons.
He went to Temple to major in education so he could become a high school music teacher, but was drafted.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life," Wallowitch says. "But when I got into the Army something happened to me."
Each night, he went to the USO to play the piano.
"I became violent about it," Wallowitch says. "I would push people away from the piano and say, `I play better than you.' I was terrible, but this was my life."
While in the Army, Wallowitch gave his first public performance in front of an audience, 10,000 people in a stadium in Jacksonville, Fla. He was to play "Clair de lune," but forgot part of the piece.
"I found myself talking over the microphone and pretending to be doing a comedy routine,"