The Family that Plays Together Stays Together

by Pat Launer August 24, 2017
 

 

wingard-familyL’dor v’dor: Judaism’s major tenet of passing traditions down from one generation to another. For the Wingard family, Jewish ritual is instilled and inbred. But so is a love – and talent – for music.

It all started in Poland, where great-grandpa played Russian and Hebrew songs on the accordion. According to his daughter, 87 year-old Eileen Wingard, “he sang, he wrote poetry. He was brilliant, one of the sources of my creativity.”

Eileen’s mother was a lively lady, who loved to sing and dance. She sang with the Jewish People’s Institute.

Eileen credits her maternal grandmother for giving her a first taste of theater: the Yiddish theater in Chicago. She still remembers a song sung by the legendary Molly Picon.

In 1939, when Eileen was 9, the family moved to Los Angeles. The music moved with them.

Eileen began playing violin at age 10 (she also plays viola). For her extended artistic development, she attended the Jewish People’s Institute for tap, ballet and elocution lessons. From age 11 on, she reports, she was very active in Habonim, the Zionist youth movement.

“The violin was a wonderful outlet for me,” says Eileen, who went on to spend 37 years as a tenured member of the San Diego Symphony.

“I played in elementary school, junior high and high school…because I had a crush on the oboist!”

In her youth, she was part of the Hollywood Baby Orchestra, and later won a scholarship to study with the assistant concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

She began teaching violin at age 16, becoming her youngest sister’s first teacher. That sister, Zina Schiff, is now a renowned concert violinist. Middle sister Louise sang and played piano, accompanying Eileen on violin.

At UCLA, Eileen earned a bachelor’s degree in music, and a master’s degree in music education. By the time she was 21, having also spent time at the Berkshire Music Festival, she had played under the baton of some of the world’s most celebrated conductors, including Serge Koussevitzky and Leonard Bernstein.

In 1952, she married Hal Wingard, and six years later, Myla, the first of her four children, was born. Thanks to Eileen’s Fulbright Scholarship to Stuttgart, they spent two years in Europe.

Of her childhood, Myla says, “We were all forced to play violin.”

Both her sisters still play violin, but her brother Dan was allowed to switch to cello.

“We had a family quartet,” boasts Eileen. “We still do.”

I can attest to that. I was invited to the Wingards’ most recent Passover seder, and before the ceremony began, a magnificent family ensemble – including Myla on violin; her husband, Lou, on cello; Eileen on viola; and Myla’s sister Harriet on violin – played beautiful string quartet arrangements of seder songs. It was breathtaking.

“I come by it honestly,” says Myla, with a chuckle. “I didn’t have a chance in hell not to be a musician! My father’s family, from Romania, were klezmer and improvisational players. I got it from both sides! “

When the Wingards moved to San Diego, Myla continued on her creative path.

“At home,” she says, “we played classical music, and some folk music for my father – he wrote 350 funny, quirky folk songs. I also listened to musical theater, and I’d dance around the living room.”

Myla played in youth orchestras from the age of 8 on, including the San Diego Youth Symphony and the Civic Youth Orchestra. She even soloed with the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra.

“Through it all,” she recalls, “my mother directed my musical life. Until college. Then I rebelled.”

At UC San Diego, Myla quickly changed majors from music to Judaic studies. She took her junior year at the Hebrew University in Israel.

During a summer at Haifa University, she auditioned for an Israeli folk dance group. Later, at Beth Tefilah in San Diego, she would teach folk dancing. But for that audition, she was asked to bring her violin. Instead of dancing, she joined the band.

“I wanted to dance,” says Myla. “But they made it clear, saying ‘Your fingers dance better than your feet!’”

With the company, Lahakat ha-Mahol Bat-Sheva, she traveled all over Israel, playing at musical festivals, military bases, even on tv.

Then she came home, graduated UCSD, and earned a scholarship to the Harvard Divinity School, where she studied world religions and the Bible, and received a master’s degree in theological studies. When she took an elective, chamber music 101, her coach was Yo-Yo Ma.

While she was in Boston, Myla saw an ad for a musician for an Israeli folk dance troupe. Ironically, it was Arlene Bernstein, now cantor at Congregation Beth Israel, who answered the phone. Instead of the folk dance company, Myla and Arlene became a duo called Bat Kol.

“We performed Borscht Belt music,” Myla explains. “I played guitar and violin and we both sang. We even had a manager.”

After a while, she returned to California, and spent four years at the Brandeis Camp Institute (BCI) in L.A.

“I was able to use my musical, administrative and organizational skills, as well as my Jewish knowledge,” Myla says.

Then she started working at Congregation Beth El as Rabbi Levin’s assistant, while also running the junior congregation and commuting to Hebrew Union College in L.A. She wanted to become a Rabbi.

At that time, she met her first husband. The marriage didn’t last long. Myla and her son, Eitan, moved into her parents’ house. Two years later, her mother set her up with Lou Rosen.

As their 18 year-old daughter, Adira, explains it, “My dad had put an ad in the Jewish Times of San Diego: ‘Musician/physician wants to settle down.’ My grandmother asked my mother, ‘How would you feel about answering a personal ad?’”

And, Myla chimes in, “I said NO!”

But, Eileen went ahead and answered the ad herself, and invited Lou to a concert where Myla was playing her father’s songs, and a few of her own. It wasn’t until their fourth date that Lou told Myla her mother had contacted him.

“By then,” Myla says, laughing, “it was too late.” They were married in 1996.

Completing the Small (Jewish) World circle, at the time of their meeting, Lou was taking cello lessons from a friend of Myla’s from college, who was a colleague of Eileen’s from the San Diego Symphony.

The couple plays together in the Chai band at Congregation Beth Israel, and Adira reports that they “jam together sometimes in the living room. My father plays every string instrument you can strum: mandolin, ukulele, banjo, guitar, bass guitar, and of course, cello. He also sings – but not in public!”

The Third Generation

“I have a bit of my mother’s spark,” says Adira. “At 3, I was handed a violin, and I promptly handed it back. I was told, ‘You are a Wingard; you have to play an instrument!’ I wanted to play drums. They were not on board with that! I tried flute, piano and guitar. But I never practiced. That was a source of argument throughout my childhood.

“I got all that musical exposure from the womb,” Adira continues. “And all through my childhood, I was carted around to theaters, as my mother played at the J*Company, the Jewish Arts Festival at the San Diego Rep, and BCI. Arts and Judaism were always linked for me.

But, she adds, “this is the first time I heard that my musical theater penchant goes back to my great grandmother!”

At age 5, Adira began attending theater camp at the JCC. She still didn’t play an instrument, but she started asking for voice lessons.

“But my parents and their professional musician friends didn’t think it was healthy for such a young child. I was 7,” she says.

By age 9, she had her first voice lesson.

“I wasn’t super into practicing that either,” she confesses, but she continued through age 13, working on the classical musical canon and Italian art songs. She also took dance classes.

“I was a painfully shy, very clingy kid,” Adira admits, recalling her first performance in “The Three Bears,” when she got onstage and burst into tears. Her mother picked her up and whispered the lines in her ear and told her where to stand and move. That got her through the performance.

“I thought I had stage fright,” says Adira. “We now look at that as my mother showing me the ropes of theater and directing.”

When she was in fifth grade at Kate Sessions Elementary School, Adira tried out for the annual musical.

“I auditioned thinking I’d be Pirate Number Five in this kids’ pirate musical,” she says. “I got the lead. And I told my mother, ‘Now that I’m in a production, I need to be reviewed – and not by Grandma; she’s related!’ So I invited you [that’d be me, Pat Launer]. It was a really big deal that [you] actually came and wrote about me, ‘The kid’s going far, because she’s got chutzpah.’ That was pivotal for me.

“I was a creative kid – dancing, singing, arts projects. But theater became my whole world.”

Adira attended the Creative Media Arts Middle School, studying theater, broadcasting and dance (tap, jazz, modern, ballet and hip hop).

“At one point,” she says, “I thought I’d be a dance professional.”

In 8th grade, she auditioned for SCPA, the San Diego School for Creative and Performing Arts.

“It wasn’t the right fit,” says Adira, “but I learned so much in my 15 months there, including that musical theater performance is not for me.”

During all this time, she says, “the J*Company was my rock, my positive place. Between performing and crewing and assistant stage managing, I worked on 26 shows there in eight years.”

Then she found Mt. Everest Academy, which she describes as “an independent study school, like a college setup with high school content. I knew I didn’t want to perform, but I thought, ‘What can I do theatrically to use my organization skills and my love for theater?’”

When she was a junior, she served as assistant to the director, Sam Woodhouse, at the San Diego Repertory Theatre for the musical, “Violet.”

Then she returned to her old middle school to co-direct the musical “Seussical.”

“I loved the co-directing experience,” Adira says. “And I also realized that I was attending a school with no theater program. So I told the principal that I’d like to start a theater company.”

The school was willing and, in her second year there, she founded the Mt. Everest Academy Theatre Company (MEATCO).

“I fundraised, I organized auditions, I spoke to classes. And by December, I directed my first production, on my own. I had no idea what I was doing, but there was a blazing wildfire in me. We did ‘The Snow Queen,’ based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. And I realized, ‘This is it! I love this so much!’ I’d never experienced that before, either onstage or backstage.”

During her senior year, she directed two shows, and organized and directed a talent show.

Now, her professional dreams are coming true. She’s beginning her freshman year at the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University, pursuing a BFA in Directing, one of few such programs in the country. From 40-60 applicants, the CMU directing program, part of the School of Drama, only accepts four students a year.

“Judaism has always been a huge part of my identity,” Adira concludes. “Jewish values and connections I learned, literally, at my mother’s feet. What I love about theater is that it’s another community, another kind of religion. It’s the chutzpah I learned from my grandmother and my mother that propelled me. The neshama, the light you bring to the world, and the art I want to create.

“The arts just flow through our family.”

Her half-brother, Eitan, it should be noted, just graduated Loyola Law School. He wants to be an entertainment lawyer.

“My grandmother forged the way classically,” says Adira, “and my mother Jewishly. Now I’m embarking on the path theatrically.”

L’dor v’dor.

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