Today is the anniversary of the passing of Artie Shaw. He was best known as a composer, big band leader and clarinetist who worked with greats like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Leonard Bernstein. At one time he was reportedly the most listened to and highest paid performer in the world, in the late 30’s earning $3 million per year (about 50 million by today’s standards).
My knowledge of him was mostly limited to his rumored communist leanings which led to his forced testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the long list of beautiful women he dated and married over the years (among them Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Judy Garland) and as a man with a well-earned reputation of being impossibly cantankerous.
As we arrived at his home in Thousand Oaks I really didn’t know what to expect. It was his 90th birthday and I didn’t know his condition at that point. As we approached his front door we were greeted by a deafening chorus of viscous dogs barking, growling and squealing. I glanced at my crew and realized we were all a little intimidated by the thought of being disemboweled upon entry. “They sound hungry” I muttered as I rang the doorbell. The dogs went dead silent mid-growl and I imagined them laying in wait, ready to pounce as the door was opened. After a moment the door was flung open by an elderly Artie Shaw who had already turned and was walking away without acknowledging our arrival. We carefully entered his home and followed him into the living room expecting at any moment to be confronted by snarling attack dogs.
I apologized that we were inconveniencing him on his birthday and he responded that “when one turns 90 it’s hardly time to start putting things off”…can’t argue with that. I naturally thought we would photograph Artie with his clarinet. Little did I know that long before I was born he had given up the instrument that made him famous. “I don’t like the clarinet, I did everything you can do with it, I’m done” was his response when I broached the subject. I could relate as I too had given up the clarinet in the 4th grade after having done everything with it that I could which, unlike Artie, didn’t amount to anything.
As we brought in the gear and set-up we were constantly on guard for the phantom pack of angry dogs. The only clarinet I saw in his home was being used as a wedge to prop open a door to his sunroom, “I composed Stardust on that clarinet” he quipped. My first thought was that it should be in a museum but then I realized that, in a way, it already was.
His home was cluttered with mounds of valuable art, manuscripts, photos from Hollywood’s Golden Age and treasures from around the world accumulated over the years. The walls were lined by original paintings by the masters 3 or 4 deep, sculptures that I’m sure were once well displayed had been shoved into corners to make room for more treasures. It appeared that this process had at some point become policy. His home was clean and well cared for (with the exception of the tortured clarinet). It was what one would expect an aging international art thief’s tract home should look.
Artie was much more amiable than I had expected him to be, I think his birthday was making him reflective. He shared great stories of a Hollywood long gone as we prepped the shot. I was made aware that this would be a quick shoot as he explained to me that he had just one agenda: Lunch. For a man turning 90 he was incredibly sharp, had a dry wit and was physically in apparently good shape. We were limited to a single set-up due to his time constraints and the mounds of art we didn’t dare disturb.
After we wrapped the shoot and had the gear loaded, we thanked him for his time and wished him a happy birthday. As I climbed into the truck I realized we couldn’t leave without confronting the “elephant in the room” by solving the “hounds of hell” mystery. Surely the dogs we heard would have disturbed all of the precariously placed memorabilia and art. I needed an answer.
I went back one last time on the guise of doing an “idiot check”. Just as I was starting to question my own sanity as there were no signs of a dog anywhere, a man arrived to take Arnie to lunch. He explained to me that he too was victim of the same mystery until he realized it was an antiquated yet effective security system…now I know why they call it an “idiot check.”