Just before he died in 2016, longtime Philadelphia Orchestra musician Emilio “Lee” Gravagno donated his large Italian 19th-century double bass to the Curtis Institute of Music, where it is now being lent to students on a rotating basis.
Less known perhaps is a donation Gravagno made of another finely crafted hunk of wood, this one considerably more buoyant: a 12-foot, 4-inch sailboat, technically a catboat, which he gave to the Independence Seaport Museum on Penn’s Landing.
Gravagno began volunteering in the Seaport Museum’s boat-building shop a few years after retiring from the orchestra in 2009 and even worked there on restoring the all-wooden catboat, made by the venerable Beetle company in Wareham, Mass.
But the boat, named Scooter, was in bad shape, and Gravagno soon got sick and was unable to finish the project.
It hung from the ceiling of the boat shop until about a year ago, when Gravagno’s onetime co-volunteers lowered it for work. They replaced the deteriorated oak and cedar, they varnished and painted, and when they were done they lowered the boat some more — into the Delaware River boat basin behind the museum.
Last Saturday, with a couple of speeches and the pouring of a bottle of something sparkling over its bow, the boat was re-christened Emilio.
“He was an integral part of the group here and a tremendous amount of fun,” said Charles Bernstein, one of the seven or eight volunteers who worked on the restoration. “We had a lot of fun talking to Lee, not so much about the music but about the personalities and the conductors he played with. For that reason, it was a special project.”
“He unfortunately wasn’t with us for all that long,” — about four years — “but he had a pretty big impact down there, particularly with our volunteers,” said Independence Seaport Museum president and CEO John Brady. “He was a sweet guy.”
Handsome and typically seen wearing a smile of contentment, Gravagno was a long-standing presence among the double basses of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He graduated from Curtis in 1958, joined the orchestra in the Ormandy era, and, for more than four decades, was part of an ensemble prized for its strong personality: a sound at once powerful and refined, and totally homogenous.
It was during the musicians’ strike of 1996 that he approached an orchestra board member to sign a petition. After the strike was over, he asked her to lunch, and three years later Gravagno and philanthropist Carole Haas were married.
“He loved to sail,” said Haas Gravagno. “He used to sail in the Hudson when going to Saratoga [where the Philadelphia Orchestra spends three weeks each August] in the early days. He had a fiberglass boat when I first met him, but he really had a hankering for a wooden boat.”
The Gravagnos found one — a used Beetle, in Florida. They towed it back up north and put it in the water at Lake Naomi in the Poconos. And then they watched as it began to fill.
“It didn't actually sink, but it looked like it was going to,” said Gravagno Haas. “It continued to take on water, so we pulled it out. Later he laughed about it and marveled that he had gone all the way to Florida to get a boat that wouldn't float.”
It turned out to be in such poor condition that the Beetle company said it wasn’t worth restoring. “So he gave it to the museum with a grant,” said Bernstein, who was chief information officer for a law firm before retiring 12 years ago and is now a Seaport Museum volunteer. In the end, most of the wood, about 70%, ended up being replaced, from the oak ribs and cedar planks down to the parrel beads (essentially a kind of wooden ball bearing), which Bernstein turned himself.
What was still intact was a plate with its individualized hull number: #1564, which indicates it was built in 1973, according to the Beetle company — “a fairly old lady by wooden boat standards,” said Bernstein.
The Seaport Museum volunteers turned to Brady, a lifelong boat builder, for pointers, as well as the IYRS School of Technology & Trades in Newport, R.I., which advised on questions like the right way to set the canvas that covers the wide wooden deck of the cat.
“You get it wet, then stretch it and staple it,” said Bernstein. Before the water dries, the coat of paint goes on. “The capillarity which would normally draw the paint through the canvas to the wood below is broken by the water barrier, thus preventing adhesion of canvas to wood,” he said.
One final touch: the new name of the boat was painted on the transom, with the curvy “E” in “Emilio” fashioned to look like the body of a double bass.
“He would be delighted to know it’s getting in the water and is going to be used,” said Haas Gravagno. “Nothing would have pleased him more.”
Actually, what might have pleased him more is how the Seaport Museum hopes to use it. It won’t be sitting high and dry in an exhibition hall since, for one thing, the museum specializes in the maritime history of this region, and the Beetle cat is the quintessential New England sailboat. Rather, the museum aims to have the boat become part of a sailing program for underserved communities.
In a way, that echoes yet another donation Gravagno made of a second double bass, to the Play On, Philly! program at St. Francis de Sales in West Philadelphia that was created for children who might not otherwise have access to music education.
The Beetle cat is often an entry point into sailing for beginners and children — the 6-foot-wide beam makes it unusually stable — and “the biggest barrier to sailing is actually access to a decent boat,” said Brady.
“It’s all about money,” he said.
“That’s a good space for us, and sailing itself is starting to take a look at diversity and how to broaden its base. From a straight sport point of view, the bigger the pool is of people who do the sport, the higher the level.
“It’s like anything else,” said Brady, “whether it’s soccer or classical music.”