The City That Was: The Genius of Skid Row
In The City That Was, Bohemian Archivist P Segal tells a weekly story of what you all missed: the days when artists, writers, musicians, and unemployed visionaries were playing hard in the city’s streets and paying the rent working part time.
For most of my life, while growing up in San Francisco, 6th Street was known as Skid Row. Lined with SROs, pawn shops, and cheap bars, it was a place where people went to disappear. Its denizens slunk past you on the street, eyes down, in clothing that had seen much better days. You never imagined that among the faceless crowd of the Skid Row poor, there was a world-class, bona fide musical prodigy.
I might have never known it, either, except for the fact that among my circle of friends were lots of classical music fanatics, who were always scouring the music scene for the best of the best performers, records, and experiences. They usually took me with them when there was something they thought was sensational, and one day they took me to see this person I’d never heard of, Ervin Nyireghazi.
Nyireghazi was a pianist who was born in Hungary in 1903. He had perfect pitch by the time he was 2, and he was playing concertos with the Berlin Symphony by the time he was 15. He came to the US to play Carnegie Hall, right before the collapse of Wall Street and the rise of Hitler in Europe, so he never went back. He settled in Los Angeles, where he became close friends with a fellow Hungarian, Bela Lugosi.
Early in his career, Nyireghazi made a terrible mistake: he sued someone for not treating his artistry with sufficient respect and making him do things like accompanying singers. He lost the case, and after that, no one wanted to deal with him. Soon after that, he started to work for the movie studios. If you’ve ever seen an old movie where there are close-ups of someone’s hands playing the piano, it was probably him.
I’m not sure why he worked his way up the coast to San Francisco, but he took up residence in a 6th Street SRO, where he was married (successively) 10 times. His first wife apparently tried to kill him with a knife—geniuses can be so annoying— but that didn’t stop him for doing it nine more times.
For half a century, this musician, who had played for the crowned heads of Europe and adoring crowds of music lovers as a child, didn’t have a piano, and didn’t even touch one. He might never have again, except for one thing: wife #9 got really ill, and her medical care required a lot of money. So Ervin was talked into giving some fundraising concerts at the Old First Church on Van Ness.
By then he was already a little old man, who shuffled onto the stage looking pretty much like he’d collapse. Then he sat down at the piano and suddenly the thing thundered with raw musical power. The audience was awed, including me. But the critics were divided. Some said he took liberties with the music, but others said it was just like Franz Liszt had come back to life.
Soon after the concerts, he got a recording contract. My friends dragged me to a record release event at the old Tower Records at Columbus and Bay. Nyireghazi, paler than some of the undead in Lugosi movies, was propped up against a blue backdrop that made him look even more deceased. We lined up for autographs and to shake his surprisingly limp hand, which felt uncomfortably like being introduced to a corpse.
In spite of his apparent frailty, he managed to find another wife after the ninth one succumbed, and he continued to live in an SRO on Skid Row. His last wife survived him. Two books were written about him when he was a child, and another written after his brief return to the limelight.
Skid Row is disappearing, because the real estate is worth too much now. But we still have a population of people battered down and living on the margins. If there’s a take-away from this story, it’s that you never know why people fall into the margins—and that seemingly inconsequential person you totally ignore might just be a genius and the former darling of royalty.