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Backstage Pass

“I have yet to hear someone complain that a speech was too short”

T

he morning after the annual Camp HASC “A Time for Music” concert always makes me feel nostalgic, and as another one passes us by, I can’t help thinking about some of the memorable moments over the last 33 years of concerts. There was the thunderous applause Shlomo Carlebach got when he surprised the audience at HASC 2 in 1988 (and Abie Rotenberg’s moving tribute to him in 1995, a few months after his passing), Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s warm reception shortly after 9/11, MBD’s hilarious impression of Yigal Calek, Dedi dressed as Pavarotti in a tuxedo, Avraham Fried and Chazzan Helfgot in a duet of “Tanya,” Ohad’s debut of “Birkat Habanim” together with Yonatan Shainfeld… and the list goes on and on.

I asked Sheya Mendlowitz, who created the HASC concert model together with me, what he remembers most fondly of the early years. He said it was the afternoon of the first concert when the band began to rehearse the HASC theme song, written by Yisroel Lamm. The music started and his heart lifted and although it hadn’t yet begun, he just knew that this was going to be the beginning of something huge. For me, it was the moment, toward the end of the concert, when Avraham Fried was singing “Forever One” while MBD wheeled a HASC child onto the stage, to a full standing ovation.

After the second HASC concert, Shlomo Carlebach, Sheya, Nachum Segal, and I were backstage schmoozing, when somebody walked by and commented, “Shlomo, why do all your songs sound so alike?”

Shlomo didn’t bother answering him, but instead turned to us and said, “Holy chevreh, everyone steals my songs — can’t I steal them also?”

It’s true that Reb Shlomo’s songs became public property, and although people assumed he didn’t really care, he once gave us mussar backstage after a concert at the La Vista hotel.

“Holy brothers, I gotta give you a potch,” he told Suki and me. “You killed my song!” We had no idea what he was talking about, but he continued, “My ‘Eishes Chayil’ — the one you made famous with Avraham Fried in Around the Year. You did it fast and upbeat, and I wrote it as a slow song — for my own chuppah!”

Suki looked up and said, “Reb Shlomo, marriage is sometimes upbeat, and sometimes it’s slow and long….”

And then Reb Shlomo burst into uncontrollable laughter. “You have a point, Brother Suki, you have a point….”

While everything seems to move seamlessly during the concerts, backstage there are a lot of nervous producers and organizers making sure everything sticks to schedule. One year, former state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver was the guest of honor and the show looked like it was going into overtime. I asked Mr. Silver, perhaps with a bit of desperation in my voice, “Will your speech be long?” He told me not to worry. A few moments later he walked onto the stage and up to the podium.

“My fellow guests,” he began, “you didn’t come tonight to hear me speak. So enjoy the music and thank you for supporting HASC.” The entire hall responded with a standing ovation.

As he returned backstage, I told him, “That’s the best speech I’ve ever heard!”

He replied, “I have yet to hear someone complain that a speech was too short.”

Some singers insist on accommodations commensurate with their status: the biggest dressing room, the largest shower, a piano in the room. But Dedi always had only one request — lots of good food. So at one HASC concert, when I was delegating the dressing rooms, one door read “MBD,” one said “Abie Rotenberg,” and on the third I hung the sign, “Kosher Delight.”

But my favorite backstage story happened long before the HASC concerts. Suki and I were counselors at Camp Agudah of Toronto, and we arranged for MBD to come and do a surprise concert for the campers. This was back in the day when there had never been a concert at a camp before. On one hand, while we wanted it to be a surprise, we also wanted to hype it up. So we came up with a plan: Suki would go ahead and tell everyone that MBD was coming and I would go around telling everyone that he actually wasn’t. Suki told one of the counselors, Moshe Blausteien, that he knew for sure that MBD was coming, and I assured Tzvi Kamenetsky, another counselor, that it wasn’t true.

When the day finally arrived, counselors and campers were standing at the camp gate, trying to catch MBD’s arrival. And MBD, being the great sport that he is, said, “I don’t mind parking further out and walking through the forest into the camp.” So his escort from the airport, Chaim “Buff” Freeman, drove him to a clearing about half a mile away from the campgrounds, and he and MBD walked through the forest and snuck into the backstage of the “Casino,” where the concert was going to take place. When the concert began with the camp choir, everyone was convinced that the MBD rumor was just that — and the disappointment and frustration was palpable. Then, the music of “V’chol Maaminim” started playing. We had Suki on keyboard, Mike Sojcher on drums, and Yehudah Spinner on clarinet. MBD entered to a roaring applause from an entire shocked camp. When the clapping and screaming died down, the first thing MBD said was, “It’s a good thing I had my backstage pass with me.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 794)

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