Summer music concert is on pause, but Music Man plays on

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FIT AND TUNED—Gary Mandell, owner of Boulevard Music and curator of theannual Boulevard Music Summer Music Concerts, says he is on “forced vacation” during the pandemic entertainment closures. However, his musicstore is open for business. (Courtesy of Gary Mandell)

It was 1967 and “The Graduate” was captivating movie audiences across America.

The Mike Nichols film featured a young Dustin Hoffman as the inexperienced college grad Benjamin Braddock, Anne Bancroft as the experienced Mrs. Robinson and stunning Katharine Ross as her daughter Elaine Robinson.

Ross, a Hollywood ingénue at the time, caught the fancy of a local movie fan, Rick Rosner.

Rosner was so taken by the film and actress Ross that he saved his nickels bagging groceries and eventually bought an Alfa Romeo Duetto, a 5-speed convertible — just like the roadster Hoffman drove in the iconic coming-of-age film.

The car, the fantasy girl and two young men from Culver City with a need for speed, adventure and a love of music set off on a road trip in 1968, as recalled more than a half-century later by Gary Mandell.

“I knew how to play all the Simon and Garfunkle songs (music score from the “Graduate,” including the No. 1 charting, “Mrs. Robinson”) and we took a trip up to San Francisco,” Mandell, owner of Boulevard Music in Culver City, recently told the News. “We drove across the Bay Bridge in Rick’s Duetto, with me playing guitar and singing ‘Mrs. Robinson.’” 

Mandell drifts from story recall to his piano: ‘And to you, Mrs. Robinson…’ his fingers dancing on ivory keys.

He pauses. 

“…you can have so much fun playing music,” he says with a nostalgic lilt. “Good times.”

Mandell settles back these days at his Boulevard Music store at 4316 Sepulveda Blvd., where he continues to do business under the novel coronavirus guidelines of Culver City and Los Angeles County.

His 2020 Boulevard Music Summer Concert series at CC City Hall should be in full swing this time of the season. But the pandemic has shut down all public entertainment, including the music festival, indefinitely.

“I’m on forced vacation,” Mandell muses. “This is the first year I haven’t done a music festival since 1975. Every summer; 209 concert festivals.”

This year would have marked 20-years of producing the summer concerts in Culver City, he notes. The COVID-19 virus and (the 2019 Concert 19 shows and missed 2020 concerts) will all be remembered synonymously.

Virus mandates have also forced Boulevard Music to nix its year-long, in-house music programs: Friday and Saturday night concerts with professional musicians, and the popular open-mic night, Mandell says.

But the store, which Mandell launched in 1998, remains open for any number of services, including instrument rental and sales. He has outfitted his store with safety glass and his music teachers have resumed their classes online.

Born in Culver City in 1949, Mandell’s young world included learning the guitar and piano. His mother did all of her shopping at the old Culver Center, he says. A life-changing moment for him came in 1960 when he bought the record, “Mr. Lucky,” by composer Henry Mancini. The vinyl LP was purchased at the drug store adjacent to the center’s Market Basket grocers.

“I liked ‘Mr. Lucky’ so much because of the cool jazz organ played by Pete Jolly,” Mandell says. “Years later, I got to meet Mancini at the Hollywood Bowl. I told him, ‘the very first record I bought was by you.’ He says, ‘Peter Gunn’? I say, ‘No, Mr. Lucky.’ Mancini says, “… late bloomer.’”

The tune, “Peter Gunn,” had been released in 1958 and was the theme to the TV series of the same title, its private eye lead played by Craig Stevens.

Mandell further explains the allure of “Mr. Lucky.”

“I didn’t know how to play those kind of chords; get those minor 9 chords, those mysterious sounds,” he explains. “Just thought it was the organ. Years later, as I studied that kind of thing, I understood. Actually it was heavily influenced by the movie ‘Laura,’ a mystery (from 1944, with Genie Tierney and Dana Andrews). That’s how the movie starts, somebody narrating. Haunting.”

Mandell graduated from Palms High and earned a psychology degree at San Fernando Valley State (now California State University at Northridge) in the late ‘60s.

He grew up dreaming of a career in music, especially doing film scores. Or maybe as a concert pianist. His parents, however, were skeptical of any profession that was unstructured and needed an audience.

His dad, Albert Mandell, was an elementary school teacher. Rather brilliant at his job, Mandell says of his father. The elder Mandell was also a gifted storyteller.

If character traits pass from generation to generation, then for the Mandell men, it included “spinning a good yarn.” Like father, like son, as pundits say.

While music and academics don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, they do make for good stories.

At his Palms Junior High commencement in West Los Angeles, Mandell was charged with playing “the graduation song” for his fellow grads.

“You can’t have a graduation without ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’” Mandell says with a chuckle. “They said, ‘play as long as you can, then run to the end of the line (to receive your diploma).’ If I didn’t do it, maybe nobody graduates.”

Today, when a guitar student completes his basic lessons, Mandell says he plays “Pomp and Circumstance” on the guitar.

Despite his parents’ objections, Mandell has carved a pretty nice career in the music field. His resume boasts such assignments as musician, arranger, writer of commercial jingles, record producer, recording company operator, music teacher, music tutor and music curator.

He formerly taught music at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica from the ‘70s to the ‘90s, and produced the popular music series, Variety Night Summer Festival at various Santa Monica parks, including Marine, Lincoln (now Reed Park) and Clover.

“I loved the idea of music outside and music being free,” Mandell says.

A couple of years after setting up business in Culver City, he says that he was approached by Mark Winogrond, the city’s community development director, to take over the city’s summer music shows.

Winogrond had been a music student of Mandell at McCabe’s and knew of his background in staging large music productions. This was in 2001, just five weeks before the city’s summer festival.

Before deciding, Mandell did his homework and said he would accept the responsibility under two conditions: a) the concerts, which were divided between city hall and the Ivy substation’s Media Park, be moved fulltime to city hall, and b) to upgrade the sound system.

“Media Park was not a good place,” Mandell says. “The traffic noise was awful. I’m a musician and I know other musicians aren’t going to sound good (against that background). I treat musicians like gold, that’s why they want to play for me.

“The sound system back then was what you might find at a backyard barbecue. I said to Mark, ‘you gotta think big. I wouldn’t want to perform with this equipment.”

Winogrond agreed and made the changes without hesitation.

But Mandell recalls getting some resistance from elected officials.

“Former Councilwoman Carol Gross said, ‘I keep hearing Mr. Mandell’s a great musician, but what does that have to do with being a concert producer?’ 

Few officials knew of Mandell’s extensive concert production background.

Mandell’s first season was predominantly blue grass and country; bands he was able to wrangle from his store music concerts, and on short notice, he says.

Two additional requests of Mandell in his second year, was to change the summer concert hours from 6 to 7 p.m., to give audience members time to end their work day and get to city hall; and that the yearly contract give him final say: “producer to select act.”

“I would be willing to listen to anybody’s suggestion of entertainers,” he said. But he would signoff on the hired artists.

In those early years, Mandell recalls having a small tiff with the late Steve Rose, who was the executive director of the Culver City Chamber of Commerce.

Rose wanted Mandell to book the Mills Brothers for a summer show. Mandell says he instead hired the “Persuations,” an a cappella doo-wop group with great vocals. Rose insisted on the Mills Brothers.

“Steve knew John Mills and liked their music,” Mandell recalls. “I said, ‘Steve, how many of the Mills Brothers are still around?’ Steve says, ‘well, they’re all dead.’ I said, ‘exactly. That’s why I got the Persuasions.’”

Mandell acknowledged that the Mills Brothers were still performing with second-generation musicians, but their booking fee was beyond the concert’s budget, he says.

The twist to the story is that Mandell eventually did hire the Mills Brothers. He says the group leaders had found a sponsor to cover half of their booking price for the Culver City show. Rose was delighted.

John Mills Jr., one of the sons, and Elmer Hopper, formerly of the Platters, comprised the new Mills Brothers. They performed songs of the original Mills Brothers and included a medley of Platter’s tunes, Mandell says. The band also had an 18-piece big band.

“So, I ask John Mills for his instrumentation, so we know how to set up the stage,” Mandell says. “He gives me the arrangement and I say, ‘no guitar?’ If you know the Mills Brothers, the dad always played the guitar. John Jr. knew I played the guitar, and jazz, and he said, ‘do you want to play guitar with us?’”

Mandell hesitated because he had to run the show. But he also knew a guitar would improve the performance. Mills Jr. showed him the song charts and Mandell saw that it was “pretty straight forward.”

He was in.

“Here’s the kicker,” Mandell says. “Steve is excited because he got his wish. I introduce the Mills Brothers band, while keeping an eye on Steve. Then I turn around and pick up my guitar, sit down and start playing with them. Steve’s face dropped. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.”

Mandell says he has stepped in and played with guest bands on a few other occasions. He also says he and Rose patched things up after that surprise performance.

Today, Mandell takes pride in knowing the concert audience’s tastes. Classic rock, jazz, bluegrass, Latin, Surf, Beatles and Motown are preferred. Not so alternative rock.

“I listen to songs now and ask, ‘where’s the melody?’ But I can’t criticize young people and their tastes,” he says. “If they dig it, so be it.”

With the pandemic leaving the concert future in a cloud and with fewer venues for musicians to perform, Mandell won’t speculate on what’s to come.

“I didn’t think about it going on this long,” he says. “When I took over the concert series, my goal was to present shows so good the audience wouldn’t believe it. I think I did pretty good.”