A Life in Tune: His hands still touch the face of God
Tragedy has shadowed his path from prodigy to piano tuner. But in the journey, and in the music, he has found his peace.
Originally published on Nov. 14, 2004.
Usually in the afternoon, in the stale stillness of his mother's living room, Charles Birnbaum sits at the grand piano and plays Brahms.
A prodigy who soloed at 13 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and competed at 15 against André Watts for an appearance with the New York Philharmonic, Birnbaum was destined for greatness. And in his own way, he achieved it - not in a concert hall, but in this weary old house on Oriental Avenue where he performs, brilliantly, for the lengthening shadows.
The three-story building is a block from the ocean and three blocks from the Showboat, one of the casinos where Birnbaum, 57, works as a piano tuner. Trash and broken glass litter the yard. Vandals paint graffiti on the windows and doors.
His mother, Dora, survived the Holocaust and, helped by his tireless care, the torment of depression and frailties of old age. But she did not survive the neighborhood. A widow of 86, she was beaten to death in her parlor by a crack-crazed thug on Nov. 17, 1998, after her son left from his twice-daily visit. All the killer got was a broken VCR.
Birnbaum himself took up the bloody carpets, washed the spattered walls, and painted over the black smudges where police had dusted for prints. Remaking it into a truly living room eased his grief. He bought not one but two Yamaha grands discarded by casinos, rebuilt them, and moved them in.
His daughters will not set foot in the house, and his wife, with whom he lives in Hammonton, rarely does. But nowhere is Birnbaum more at peace. The virtuoso who has shied away from the stage for 30 years comes nearly every day to play, seeking to "touch the face of God" through the music that was his parents' gift to him.
After a passage of transcendent beauty, he looks at their photos on the pale pink walls. He knows they are pleased.
Tuning a piano isn't as challenging as playing one on the world stage. But in a casino, it comes close.
Charlie Birnbaum has worked at most of the casinos, making his rounds in khakis and an open-collar shirt, his tools in a pouch tied with string. He is a perpetually jovial man, with a soft face, glasses, and short fingers that look better suited to hanging drywall.
Mornings often start at the Showboat, where he tends a white Yamaha in the lobby. Slots ching. The air pulses with pop music. A worker on a ladder guns a power tool.
"It's almost impossible to try and do what I'm doing," Birnbaum says, laughing. "The one thing I cannot tune to is the vacuum cleaner. I'm dead."
Backstage hands listen for the moment when he finishes tuning. They know what's coming - a flash of the artist, test-driving the instrument through a Chopin étude.
"Oh, God, have you heard him play?" asks Jill Passarella, a stage technician at the Taj Mahal. "I'm getting teary-eyed."
Last November, a video crew chronicling Jon Bon Jovi's gig at the Borgata was mesmerized by the monotony of Birnbaum's tuning the band's piano, striking one key again and again, then blown away as he let loose with a torrent of Scarlatti.
That is how he wound up in the DVD This Left Feels Right: Live, though he didn't know until a friend glimpsed him in it. One of his son's buddies on the Hammonton High bowling team asked for his autograph.
Passarella has grander plans.
"I'd like to set up an event where Charlie will play for an hour," she says as he works. "We'll charge admission to people who want to come in, who appreciate good music."
He stops tuning.
"I'll have something to say about that," he protests.
She ignores him, thinking him too modest. "We need to get him an outlet."
He tries again. "No. No. I've done that. And I find performing, compared to tuning - I'd rather live the stress-free life."
For those who don't know his story - and hardly anyone does - Charlie Birnbaum's choices in life and art can be confounding. Understanding begins in the forests of Poland, where Abe Birnbaum and Dora Rotstein met, hiding from Nazis.
Dora lived in the village of Slonim, and when soldiers came one day to round up Jews, she grabbed her 4-year-old daughter and ran. The child was shot and died. Her husband was caught and hanged in the town square. No one in her family - not parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts - survived.
Abe Birnbaum also was newly widowed. His wife, a Krakow beauty who competed in pageants, had been arrested, shot and dumped in a pit.
He and Dora met in the woods. In 1944, a week after the Russians liberated Poland, their son Sam was born. Charlie followed in 1947, in a displaced-persons camp in Germany.
Though the Nazis temporarily silenced it, music was in both families' blood. Abe's father had been a cantor, Dora's father a music teacher and her brother a violinist. In the camp, Sam took up the accordion.
The Birnbaums moved to San Francisco in 1952, and Abe opened a jewelry store.
"Someone mentioned to my father, in this country accordion isn't that big a thing," Charlie recalls. "You should have Sam study something else. He did. Sam started studying piano."
Charlie watched him play, and wished he could, too. Soon both boys were taking lessons at the San Francisco Conservatory.
By 12, Sam was so proficient that he was accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where all students are on full scholarship. The family followed him, renting a rundown apartment at 11th and Pine with "granddaddy rats," Charlie says, and "an elevator that if it worked, great. If it didn't, you walked up six flights."
Abe earned just $60 a week in the smoke shop at Lit Bros. But each boy had a piano.
"My parents dedicated their lives to us," says Charlie, who practiced up to four hours a day even as a grade schooler at McCall Elementary. "We didn't go to synagogue. We didn't have associations with Jewish friends. Music, that's all we knew."
At 10, he began studying at Settlement Music School under the great pianist Marian Filar, a Warsaw Ghetto survivor.
"When Charlie came to me," Filar says, "I smelled right away a big talent."
Indeed, within a year, he auditioned for Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Eugene Ormandy, who gave him a $1,000 scholarship in honor of the Academy of Music's 101st anniversary.
By 13, he had performed at Robin Hood Dell and the Academy - at the latter, playing from Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos in E flat major with a girl named Rena Fruchter. She would one day become actor and musician Dudley Moore's concert partner.
Just blocks from the Birnbaums lived a colossus in the making. When Charlie passed the small house, he could hear André Watts practicing away.
One afternoon, lured by the sound of Saint-Saëns, he knocked on the door.
Watts, a year his senior, opened it and "knew who I was, because our pictures were in the paper," Charlie recounts. "He was a little flustered because he had broken a bass string on his piano."
Charlie recalls Watts' mother's coming home and "the look on her face. Some stranger being in the house. I remember making a quick exit."
He met up with Watts again on Dec. 5, 1962, when both auditioned for Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic's annual Young People's Concert. Charlie played the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor (Op. 37) and Filar was sure his student had bested Watts. But Watts was chosen instead.
"Some people win. Some don't," Charlie says. "That's just the way it is."
When his brother left Curtis to study at Juilliard in New York, and then the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore under Leon Fleischer, Charlie spent summers with him, "practicing our hearts out," he recalls.
"We'd sweat like crazy and work like crazy. This was our summers. Intensive study, and very, very lonely."
Charlie was coming to a discomforting realization. In performance, if you are not on top of the mountain, the mountain is on top of you.
"I was seeing the struggles of my brother, who was working at very difficult levels and with a tremendous amount of dedication. At the same time, you see, there are always pianists who are superior. The reality starts to set in, that what we're pursuing, it's not an easy thing."
In March 1968, in his senior year as a music major at Temple University, Charlie had an epiphany, "like someone turning a switch in my head."
The "truth," as he saw it in instantaneous clarity, was his utter unpreparedness for life.
" 'You don't have the skills to deal with people, to communicate, to just survive,' " he remembers telling himself. "I looked in the mirror, like an executioner. 'You're the biggest failure who ever existed. You have no right to live. ' "
At Filar's urging, Dora and Abe took their son to Temple University Hospital. In a bathroom in the psychiatric ward, he found a triple-track razor. When he was done, he says, "I went to the chair. I sat down. That was it."
Surgeons repaired damage so horrific that he required a feeding tube and six weeks of hospitalization. Every day, Sam was by his bed, commuting from Fort Dix, where he was posted with the 19th Army Band.
The psychotic self-loathing that had pulled Charlie into hell loosed its grip. But as it did, the magnitude of what he had done - more to his parents than to himself - began to sink in.
"I'd do anything not to put them through that again. All they experienced. And their shining light ... ," his voice trails to a whisper. From then on, "the prime directive in my life was, whatever time I had, I would try and make it up to them."
But Dora Birnbaum already was retreating into her own shadows. Even before Charlie tried suicide, she had become depressed - Holocaust survivor's guilt, her family thought. Afterward, being in the city where her son had done such a thing only deepened the pain. Abe transferred to the Lits Atlantic City store, and bought the house on Oriental Avenue.
Temple welcomed Charlie back, extending his scholarship so he could finish his degree. He moved into an apartment with other music students.
For his first 21 years, he says, "I had been like a horse with blinders on. " Now he was seeing things - grass, trees, flowers - that he had never noticed before.
And he met a girl.
Cindy Toomey grew up in a strong Christian household in Harleysville in rural Montgomery County, majored in piano at Kent State University in Ohio, and came to Temple for her master's.
Her life and Charlie's intersected in Chopin's Ballade in G minor (Op. 23).
Passing the practice rooms, she heard it through a closed door, being played as she had not imagined it could be.
"I asked my friend, 'Gosh, who's that? ' She looked in and said, 'Oh, that's Charlie Birnbaum,' " Cindy recalls. "She just opens up the door. He was deep in this piece, but he stopped and turned around and introduced himself. I said, 'Go ahead and play it again.' "
As he did, "I had tears coming down. I had never heard a pianist who moved me like that."
For their first date he showed up in a lime-green shirt and maroon jacket "and a tie that didn't match," she says. "That really didn't bother me. He was so filled with joie de vivre. I loved that about him."
She noticed, but did not mention, the strange hoarseness in his voice. Only after a few months did he explain.
"I remember telling my mother, crying and sobbing, telling her the story of what had happened to him," Cindy says. "She didn't know what to make of it. 'How safe do you think he is now? Do you think this will happen again? ' How do you guarantee that to your parents?
"It was a chance I took, too. But I felt, you take a chance with anybody."
Charlie and Cindy married in 1971 and moved to Hammonton. She taught music in a local school, he taught piano at Temple and what was then Atlantic Community College. And although performing stressed him more than ever, he kept an agent and a frenetic concert schedule that put him on the college circuit much of the time.
"A lot of decisions were made to make his parents proud," Cindy says. "He was their hope for success. And in his mind, success was concertizing."
On his way to the mountaintop was the Leventritt, a premier international piano competition. In 1973, he went to New York in the hope of joining an illustrious roster of winners that have included Van Cliburn and Gary Graffman. He had committed to memory the thousands of notes and nuances of Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata.
Somewhere in the complex movements, Charlie got lost, and couldn't find his way back.
He got up and left the stage.
"My memory failed me, and that was that," he says. "I made the judges' job easy that day."
If Charlie Birnbaum's performance career would soon close, the Leventritt was not the clincher. He gave recitals for two more years, until his first child, Rachel, was born. And that "more than anything was the catalyst for seeing more to my life than the constant practice needed to get ready for the next performance," he says.
"To be a world-class performer, you have to sacrifice everything for the love of music."
He adds, "I'm lucky in my life that I had options."
He discovered one of them while sitting in on a tuning class at Temple, taught by renowned piano rebuilder Victor Benvenuto. Charlie could hear something that no beginning student of Benvenuto's ever had.
"Tuning involves listening and adjusting 'beats' that are caused when two different notes are played at the same time," Charlie explains. "The rate of speed that these beats occur are what we listen for. They are very subtle; they practically don't exist for the general listener. That is why Victor was so surprised that I was able to pick out seven beats per second when he played F and A. Over a five-second duration, the total number of beats was 35."
In 1980, with casinos going up in Atlantic City, Charlie was offered a job tuning pianos at Bally's. He was at a crossroads.
He could pursue a Ph.D. and a professorship, which likely would require him to relocate.
Or he could be a tuner, able to stay put and support his family, which eventually grew to two daughters and a son. And every day he could go to Oriental Avenue to care for Dora and Abe.
"Was it the right decision or the wrong decision?" he asks. "It was the only decision."
Atlantic City was an emerging entertainment mecca with a vast fleet of pianos that went out of tune daily, and no dearth of artists to fuss about it. Resorts hired him in 1982 after Frank Sinatra groused during a concert, "Who tuned this piano? Johnnie Ray?" - a pop crooner who was partly deaf.
So Charlie got an emergency call and tuned the piano between shows. Sinatra did not complain again.
In Atlantic City, Benvenuto says, "everybody got to know Charles Birnbaum, the greatest tuner."
Charlie was visiting his parents the day in 1986 when word came.
Sam had committed suicide.
He was 42, married with two children, and teaching piano in Australia, where he had moved in the early 1970s at the urging of an uncle there.
"He was facing a job loss - that was the trigger," says Charlie, who once hoped Sam would join him in Atlantic City, tuning.
"He pulled me out of that abyss, that black hole. I owed him everything," he says. "I only wish he could have learned something from my debacle."
Hearing the news, Charlie went to the cellar and began sweeping the concrete floor.
Abe would die the next year at age 73, having outlived by more than a decade an aneurysm that destroyed his esophagus. Save for short stays in a nursing home, Charlie kept him where he wanted most to be, the house on Oriental Avenue. It was half of what Charlie calls "my greatest accomplishment."
Gaming's good fortune wasn't smiling on South Inlet. Once a thriving Jewish neighborhood, it had become a haunt of drug dealers and derelicts; two arsons a night wasn't unusual.
Abe, his mind and body failing, would go prospecting each morning among the shells of buildings.
"I'm looking out the porch," Charlie says, "and two blocks down is this guy with a Russian hat, a dolly and a long rope, like out of Fiddler on the Roof. He's carrying furniture! I realized, that represented life to him."
When Abe died, Dora was frail, depressed and unable to live alone. But in a nursing home, Charlie figured, "she'd be gone in three months."
A social worker recommended Beatrice Cabarrus - BeeBee - an African American woman from southern Virginia just two years younger than his mother but in good health. She moved in as Dora's caretaker, and Charlie feverishly renovated the first floor so that the two would not have to climb stairs.
"Everything I needed was from the next abandoned or burned-down building," he says. "It was like Beirut."
In 1996, after surgery, Dora nearly died of an infection. After six weeks in the hospital, she went to a nursing home to convalesce, and there she stopped eating.
"The doctor said, 'She wants to die. What do you want to do?' " Charlie recalls. "I talked to my wife. We both said, 'Look, if she's going to die of something, it's not going to be starvation. She survived living in holes in the ground in the forest of Poland, and she's going to die because she didn't have food and it was my decision? No.' "
Doctors inserted a feeding tube, but warned Charlie that she might not live long. He vowed to bring her home in six weeks.
BeeBee would be of little help, as she was showing signs of dementia. So he rented the second floor of the house to a nurse who cared for both women in the evening. By day, between casino jobs, he was there.
Within eight months, Dora not only started eating but "she was able to get around a little bit," he says. "In my opinion, we were doing the impossible."
Every few weeks, she snapped out of her depression and, for a day, was lucid and smiling and clear-eyed.
"It was worth waiting for," he says. "Because that one day, life was worth living again."
On Nov. 17, 1998, Charlie stretched his lunch visit to an extra hour. Soon after he left, Louis Crumpton, 36, broke in and killed Dora and BeeBee.
Four months later, Crumpton was arrested and pleaded guilty. That day in court, Charlie clutched his mother's picture and lambasted the killer for "an evil beyond words."
"I wish you hell on earth," declared Charlie, who had been there once himself.
Two years ago, Crumpton died of AIDS in prison.
Odds are, Charlie's interludes on Oriental Avenue are numbered.
The empty oceanfront lot across the street was purchased for $14 million by a developer who wants to put up two condo towers and a boutique casino. City planners envision a renaissance for all of South Inlet within five years.
One day, Abe and Dora's property could be worth something. Any money, Charlie says, would be their legacy to their grandchildren, and the loss his alone.
"Just by being here, in a funny way, is keeping my side of the family intact," he says.
The house is, as well, a reminder of life's lessons, many learned the hard way.
"You have to find a way to find joy in life," Charlie says. "I don't care if it means sweeping the sidewalk. What I've learned through my process is that I won't trade my little successes that I have every day for one grand success."
He plays now purely "for the love of it," surrounded by the accumulated music of a lifetime, sheets of it, books of it, stacked on shelves in the living room. But Charlie reaches reflexively for the same small volume of Brahms opuses, what he calls "my little bible."
The pieces, he says, are "all about reflection. You're reflecting on all your life experiences, and sitting in on Mr. Brahms' reflecting on his experiences."
Charlie has been playing from the book 30 years - a measure, perhaps, of how much he has to reflect on, in the quiet of an afternoon on Oriental Avenue.
Contact staff writer Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or firstname.lastname@example.org.