If this were a television program (and it would be very appropriate for the person we're profiling today - considering that he made his first appearance on a TV show in 1933 - an experimental broadcast in the CBS Building in New York), the easiest thing to do would be to haul out the old "This Is Your Life" format.
And, if it were possible, we'd invite folks from throughout the life of our subject - both living and dead - to revive the many memories of his experiences.So . . . a little fanfare music, please . . . Maestro Eugene Jelesnik, in honor of your 75th birthday this past Sunday . . . "This Is Your Life!"
(As his friends and colleagues know, Gene Jelesnik wears a variety of hats, so we'll take this one hat at a time.)
-FROM HIS EARLY YEARS, we'd invite his father, Jacob Jelesnikoff, a wealthy Russian aristocrat from the Ukranian town of Alexandrovsk, where Eugene (then Sascha) was born in 1914 and resided until he was 8, when his father died and the family's estate was confiscated by the Bolshevik regime.
And we'd have to invite his widowed mother, Jenny, who brought little Sascha to Germany in 1923, then to New York City in 1925, where the budding young musician's name was Americanized to Eugene Jelesnik.
Jenny Jelesnik worked in one of New York City's infamous "sweat shop" dress factories to support her son while he went to school. (She died 10 years ago at the age of 82.) Eugene noted last week during a reception at KSL-TV's Broadcast House that he decided early on that, while it might've been nice to pursue a concert career, financial rewards would be more realistic in the popular music field, so he changed directions.
The concert hall's loss was pop music's gain.
And, also from his early years, we could invite some of his chums from high school in the Bronx - including the pianist and cellist who joined him to form the International Trio, one of his first musical endeavors.
And we could invite the late Sophie Tucker, who gave him his first big break in 1935 when she encouraged the owner of the Hollywood Restaurant on Broadway to audition the young man, and he ended up as a violin soloist at the cafe for two years, after which he formed a 12-piece orchestra and toured the eastern United States.
Then we could invite Meyer Davis, his one-time manager, who was responsible for encouraging Jelesnik and his orchestra to accept an eight-week engagement in Salt Lake City in 1938, playing at the famous Hotel Utah.
The eight weeks eventually turned into 10 months, including stints in both the Empire Room and the Roof Garden.
The Hotel Utah booking wasn't the only engagement for Eugene that year. He also met, fell in love with and married Virginia Belle Washburn, who was in Salt Lake City for a convention. (They had hoped to observe their 50th wedding anniversary at the Hotel Utah last year - but the closing of the stately hotel changed those plans.)
-FOR "TALENT SCOUT" JELESNIK, whose "Talent Showcase" (and its forerunner, "Cafe Continental") ran for 31 years on local television, we could invite Maj. Edward Bowes, whose "Original Amateur Hour" inspired Jelesnik's local version, and Ted Mack, who later took over for Bowes and who was a long-time friend of Jelesnik's.
And, of course, any "This Is Your Life" tribute to Jelesnik would have to include some of the nearly 10,000 "Talent Showcase" performers, including Robert Peterson, Tanya Tucker, the Osmond Brothers, Billie Loukas and the Brunson Burners, a trumpet quartet. (Peterson, who took over for Robert Goulet in the Broadway and touring production of "Camelot," and Loukas are both frequent stars of Jelesnik's regular pops concert series.)
-THEN THERE'S IMPRESARIO JELESNIK, who was responsible for bringing such famous stars as Frank Sinatra, Ferrante & Teicher, Jose Iturbi, Liberace, Hal Holbrook's one-man "Mark Twain Tonight" and Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians to Salt Lake City. He also brought such Broadway touring productions as "The Music Man" and "Candide" to Utah.
Naturally, we'd have to invite these stars and the casts of the shows to the Jelesnik version of "This Is Your Life."
-FROM HIS 19 USO TOURS we could invite dozens of amateur performers and some of the hundreds of thousands of appreciative servicemen who enjoyed his far-flung talent shows.
Jelesnik's tours for the USO spanned three major wars (World War II, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War), during which he logged nearly four million miles - none of it, unfortunately, qualifying him for "frequent flyer" status aboard today's commercial airlines.
He still flies in and out of Salt Lake City frequently, and we can also honor him for his work as . . .
-ENTERTAINMENT DIRECTOR for both the Utah State Fair and the annual Days of '47 Rodeo. To attract and negotiate with top-notch entertainers for these outstanding Utah events, he travels to special expositions in Denver and Las Vegas and elsewhere, where agents and stars congregate and are booked for the season's fairs and rodeos.
From these projects, we could invite such stars as Dottie West, Rex Allen Jr., the Jets, the late Ricky Nelson, Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, Crystal Gayle . . . our list would probably take in nearly half of the Nashville celebrity register.
-COMPOSER JELESNIK could be honored with a visit from the late President John F. Kennedy (who personally sent a letter to Eugene on Nov. 6, 1963, expressing his appreciation for Jelesnik's composition of "The JFK March," which was performed earlier that year by the Tooele High School marching band when Kennedy visited Salt Lake City). Jelesnik was inspired to write the march after Kennedy - then a senator - was a guest host on a "Talent Showcase" production in 1960.
The march is still a popular piece on Jelesnik's pops concerts, where the audience is always invited to "join in on the whistling part."
And another president - Richard Nixon - would likely be present to honor Jelesnik for another composition, "Bring Us Together Once Again," inspired by a sign in the crowd during one of Nixon's campaign stops in 1970 - and later published by one of Lawrence Welk's music publishing companies.
We could also invite one of Jelesnik's former collaborators, Otto Harbach (who co-wrote "The Perfect Symphony" in the late 1950s), or Mrs. Roy Rogers - Dale Evans - who first introduced Jelesnik's "Nadocky Polka" in Chicago in 1946. (The song was later recorded by Columbia, RCA and Decca, among others.)
-AND MUSICIAN/CONDUCTOR JELESNIK could be honored for his long and illustrious career - including reviving Salt Lake City's entertaining Salt Lake Philharmonic Pops Concerts in Liberty Park (in 1946). His Philharmonic musicians have since performed in a variety of venues - the Salt Lake Tabernacle, the Assembly Hall on Temple Square, the Capitol Theater, the Salt Palace arena, the Marriott Hotel and the ZCMI Mall Grand Court. The orchestra's annual Days of '47 concerts have been a tradition since 1950.
We could also invite Kenneth Feld and public relations director Bill Powell of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, as well as performers and officials from Feld's other enterprises, such as the Disney on Ice shows. For many of these companies' performances in Salt Lake City, musicians from Jelesnik's Philharmonic comprise the backup orchestra.
(And, if you don't think Eugene's efforts are appreciated by the circus folks, then you should've seen what they sent Jelesnik for his birthday party at KSL - two huge bouquets comprised of 75 colorful, helium-filled balloons.)
-UNOFFICIAL UTAH "AMBASSADOR" JELESNIK would be honored on our "This Is Your Life" program by a number of Utah dignitaries, including Gov. Norm Bangerter, who officially proclaimed March 17, 1989, as "Eugene Jelesnik Day" in Utah; or by the Salt Lake Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, which honored Jelesnik in 1983 with a special service award, and by spokesmen from the Exchange Club of Salt Lake City, which presented him with a "Book of Golden Deeds" award that same year.
-OTHER DIGNITARIES who would probably want to pay tribute to Jelesnik would certainly include a number of church and civic leaders, who could relate stories of his many, behind-the-scenes, charitable efforts.
During the recent reception at KSL-TV, President Thomas S. Monson, of the First Presidency of the LDS Church, spoke briefly - but highly - of Jelesnik's quiet impact on the community.
"He is the only person I know," President Monson quipped, "who has complete access to the Church Administration Building."
"But I admire Eugene for other reasons, too," Monson continued, "He notices the unnoticed and befriends those who are in need of a friend.
"I think he never does so well with his violin as when he's honoring someone who has passed away . . . when he conveys his condolences to the family through the medium of music. I heard him play for the funeral sevices for Howard Pearson, his long-time friend, and he had tears in his eyes when he said, `Howard loved "The Sound of Music." ' I think Jelesnik's medley of songs from the musicalT brought as much comfort to that family as any spoken words. God in his heaven seemed particularly close that day."
-WE WOULDN'T BOTHER to invite any representatives of the American Association of Retired Persons. Eugene has no intention of retiring or even slowing down - and even hinted last week that, if the right combination of talent could be put together ("No go-go dancers!"), he'd still like to go out on at least one more USO tour.
And he also has another of his pops concerts scheduled for this week (Thursday at 7 p.m. in the ZCMI Grand Court). Admission is free.
But no "This Is Your Life" tribute to Eugene Jelesnik would be complete without a visit from Howard Pearson, who chronicled nearly all of Jelesnik's experiences for Deseret News readers. As President Monson said - the two were close, long-time friends.
Eugene Jelesnik may be short of stature physically, but when you measure the extent of his service to the community - musical and otherwise - he is a giant, indeed.