PIED PIPER

by Elwood Byrne

From: Popular Songs Magazine September 1935

BORRAH MINEVITCH has made the harmonica what it is today and the harmonica has put Borrah where he is today.

Borrah has devoted practically his entire life to the instrument. First he mastered the art of playing tunes on it. As a boy he was so fascinated with his harmonica that he would take it apart as other children do a clock to see how it works.

As he grew older he experimented with and improved it until finally he had developed a mouth organ as capable as any other instrument of interpreting all musical compositions. He then set out to prove to the public that it was no longer a toy but rather a legitimate device of musical expression.

The harmonica in return has made hundreds of thousands of dollars for Borrah. It has taken him all over the world. It has ushered him into the courts of kings. Most important of all it has made him the Pied Piper and musical instructor of millions of children, and adults too.

Borrah Minevitch, slight, dark, intense, was speaking from behind a large desk in the luxurious offices of the Harmonica Institute of America in Rockefeller Center.

"Too many people satisfy their musical desires in a second hand manner. They sit at the radio, attend concerts, and go to musical productions or the movies to hear lovely melodies. With little more effort they could enjoy the greater pleasure of playing these things themselves.

"The harmonica," Borrah's dark eyes gleamed as he laid aside the papers he had been playing with, "because it is inexpensive, easy to master, and suitable for both solo and group playing, is the ideal instrument for those who would otherwise be deprived of this enjoyment."

Borrah was born on November 5, 1902. Soon after his birth the Minevitch family left their humble home in Kiev, Russia, and sailed for America. Soon after they had settled in Boston his father died.

His mother couldn't afford a violin but she did give him a harmonica. After that the instrument seldom left his possession.

He would play Mandy and the other popular tunes of the day while selling his papers after school hours. A crowd would gather to listen and many of them bought from his stand. The late Calvin Coolidge, then Lieutenant-Governor of Massachusetts, was one of his customers. Mayor Curley of Boston was another.

He graduated from the English High School of Boston in 1920. For some time he was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

One day he decided to go to New York and attend Columbia University where his brother, Joe, was a research chemist. He did get to Manhattan but it was at the City College of New York where he finally enrolled by doing odd jobs after school.

In his sophomore year he took part in his first amateur show which was presented by the college dramatic classes. He engaged in a stage brawl with Jimmy Cagney in which he licked the now popular screen star.

On one of his searches for work after school he landed a position as clerk in Wurlitzer's 42nd Street store. His solos on the harmonica greatly increased the sales at his notion counter.

Hugo Riesenfeld happened to hear him play one day. Through the influence of the manager at Wurlitzer's, Borrah was engaged to appear as soloist with Riesenfeld's orchestra at the Rivoli theater.

He got his B. S. degree from City College in 1924. While playing in the Elsie Janis "Puzzles of 1925" the superintendent of public schools asked him to organize a band of boy and girl harmonica players to appear in a May Day celebration. Borrah selected 100 students and drilled them to play My Country 'tis of Thee in unison. They played in the open air at Central Park and were sensational.

At the conclusion of his work in "Puzzles" Borrah sailed for Europe and an engagement in the Palladium theater in London. As a sendoff the kids who had appeared with him in Central Park played their harmonicas for him. Borrah made up his mind then and there that he was going to help the youngsters when he returned. During his engagement in "Sunny" he rehearsed them in the Wurlitzer Auditorium. The first number they practiced was the negro spiritual Deep River. It took five months for them to learn it.

Finally Borrah and his harmonica band made a public appearance at the Manhattan Opera House. The band was gradually reduced in number after that to allow for travelling.

Florenz Ziegfeld signed them for his show, "Betsy." At the last minute the Irving Berlin masterpiece, Blue Skies, was inserted into the show. It was too late to get orchestrations for the regular band so Borrah and his 33 Rascals accompanied Belle Baker in the number.

They next secured work in Hammerstein's "Good Boy." They played for a solid year in Europe visiting such cities as London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, San Sebastian, Milan, Monte Carol and Biarritz. At all professional appearances Borrah wears a checkered coat, a derby hat and trousers that were worn by Ziegfeld at a costume ball in Palm Beach. The tie he wears was also given to him by Ziegfeld and has been mended over 20 times and has had more than 200 cleanings.

Borrah is the only person to ever play the harmonica in the Metropolitan Opera House. He was soloist when Vincent Lopez' orchestra gave that citadel of musical art its baptism of jazz.

Borrah's ambition is to give a concert in Carnegie Hall with 125 boys under seventeen playing only the illegitimate instruments. They would use the harmonica, jews harp, ocarina, tuned ginger ale bottles and jugs, tuned elastic bands for string effects and tuned wooden boards from which tap dancers would get drum and tympanic effects.

By means of the half-tone feature, which he designed, Borrah and his band can play the most complicated tunes. Their versions of American in Paris, Liebesraum, Deep River and Peanut Vendor have satisfied all critics.

They get more requests for St. Louis Blues and Rhapsody in Blue than any other numbers. Solitude, Blue Moon, Continental, Soon, and Bolero are the current favorites of their listeners.

Just before Borrah played over the air for the first time there was a mysterious squeaking noise heard in his music. At the last minute someone discovered that it was coming from his shoes. He took them off before a studio audience of more than 100 people.

"As luck would have it," Borrah concludes, "my big toe stuck out through a hole in my sock. That was one of the funniest incidents in my career."

The virtuoso of the harmonica is happily married to a Minerva, Kentucky girl, Betty Bruce Henry. She made her last professional appearance in "Congo."

Borrah is a good photographer and has sold many photographs commercially. His collection of over 300 cameras and lenses has been valued at $25,000. He has invented a new developing paper which gives a charcoal finish. Some day he may operate a photographic supply store.

He can pilot a plane and has owned one. He likes out-board motoring and is a regular spectator at basketball games, hockey matches and track meets.

Borrah recently organized the Harmonica Institute of America with the idea of promoting public interest in the entertainment value of the harmonica. He plans to organize and instruct groups in schools, clubs and camps.

This fall he will make his first venture into the show business. He will produce a legitimate play by Harold Sherman called "Oh Professor."

Borrah says he would like to have this epitaph on his tombstone:

"Here lies a guy with a funny monicker,
He breathed his last into a harmonica."

 

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