Forest Hills’ Musical Genius Julie Mandel At 99

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Legendary Composer Shares A Lifetime of Memories

By Michael Perlman

If one had to compose a “who’s who” in the world of music, Forest Hills’ nonagenarian Julie Mandel Dachs (born 1923), a composer, lyricist, pianist and singer, would communicate measures and achieve a record.

At age 99, she and her multigenerational audiences take immense pride in her over 400 songs, including 18 scores for musicals and revues, as well as string quartets, solo piano works, chamber music and art songs that she created. Her versatile repertoire not only consists of musical theater and classical compositions, but pop music, children’s songs and opera, and has become a magnet for performances by diverse artists and ensembles.

Julie holding her composition, The Human Brain at her library, Photo by Michael Perlman

“Age is Just a Number” is one of her numerous compositions this year. “The more things you love, the happier you are. Pursue the things that give you pleasure, such as art and music,” said Mandel, as a message for younger generations, after emphasizing the importance of remaining active in an interview.

Underway is an Off-Broadway revue by Eric Krebs, with a working title “Happy Birthday Julie,” to commemorate her 100th birthday. It will feature her musical works and is scheduled for September 12 at Theater 555 at 555 West 42nd Street.

Flushing Town Hall bandleader and longtime musician and friend Carol Sudhalter performed Mandel’s compositions in numerous concerts, and in October 2022, a revue consisting of her music was also held there.

Julie Mandel at the piano, Photo by Michael Perlman

Some of Mandel’s composition highlights are “I Fell in Love Last Night” (circa 1937), “Second Honeymoon” in Material For A Revue (prior to 1945 in L.A.), “Five O’ Clock Feeling” in “Everybody’s Moving Uptown” (circa 1945 in NYC), “Once In A Lifetime” (1950), “Miss Seedless Raisin” (1953), “The Princess and the Shepherd’s Daughter” for “Pari and the Prince” (1967), “Love Is A Two-Part Invention” for “2” Score (1978) and “Miracles Do Happen!” for “Le Grand Café” (1980), based on the lives of Impressionist painters Monet, Renoir and Degas. An example of a children’s song with an intriguing ring is “Pizza” (1976).

Among Mandel’s closest supporters are her son Josh, as well as their friend, Mary Kunicki. “Julie’s dynamic personality and commitment to composing and cataloging her life’s work keep her going strong,” Kunicki said.

Julie Mandel as a baby in Borough Park
Julie at the piano, 1952

Mandel is also continuing to cultivate her talents by pursuing a book of her original lyrics.

“Just looking at the lyrics I think will be very interesting,” she said.

Kunicki added, “Each stands alone as a work of poetry or a short story, and there’s magic behind the language and how she weaves these rhymes and reasons.”

Mandel served as concert director of Long Island Composers’ Alliance. She said, “I’ve written a lot of classical music that’s been performed all over. I also wrote a show called ‘Subway Suite’ (2000) about a day on the subway.” Initially, it was a suite of songs for voice and a string quartet. “A quartet sang a group of my Subway Suite songs, and a Queens College professor asked why don’t I expand it into a whole show, so I did, and it was performed there with a big cast,” she continued. Not far away, “I Wish, I Wish, I Wish,” her one-act opera took place at New York’s Thalia Theatre, and her chamber works were performed at Queens College and Hofstra, and by the American Chamber Ensemble.

Mandel also considers being a member of New York Women Composers Inc. very valuable. “Nothing is more inspiring to a composer than the opportunity to have your work played, and those are the opportunities NYWC provides for countless women composers, with their many concerts,” she said. 

In the early 1950s, Mandel lived at Campus Hall Apartments on Jewel Avenue and 150th Street. Since 1957, she has resided in a Colonial home with Victorian influences, and with its wooden floors, stained glass and archways, it is one of the earliest outside Forest Hills Gardens.

The Sailorettes

If she is not entertaining family and friends on her Gilbert Cabinet Grand piano, which her cousin Evelyn gifted to her in the 1950s, or accessing her music library, she is likely sitting in her music studio, where much magic originates. She focuses on digital technologies, including Overture with MOTU’s Digital Performer and varied software instruments.

With warmth, charm and a sense of humor, Mandel proudly shared a lifetime of intriguing and inspiring recollections. She sat comfortably in her living room, among garden paintings that include a depiction of her house, which were all produced by friends. She glanced around and said, “Everything in here is so full of memories and love. When I make friends, for some reason, they all turn out to be artists.”

One of Mandel’s countless brilliant compositions is “The Things You Love,” where her poetic lyrics are a commonality: ‘The things you love, Belong to you. Have you a fav’rite star above? Well, that’s yours, too! The music that sings its way, into your heart, The painting that thrills you, May be a priceless work of art, But they belong to you, Music, priceless work of art, Even stars above. All yours, for love.”

Mandel explained her motivations. “I never was one to just sit and write a song. It was always part of a project for a show, and right now I need a project to get me going.” She finds music to be therapeutic in every way and often writes in the daytime. As for lyrics, she said, “Sometimes I solve lyric problems in the middle of the night. I keep a pencil and paper near my bed.”

Julie’s music studio, Photo by Michael Perlman

Mandel refers to music as a joy of her life.

She explained, “I am self-indulgent as a writer, since I write things that I like. Music has always given me pleasure. It was listening to ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ on the radio when I was about 12, that made me want to write. The announcer said it was ‘by George Gershwin, who died today.’” She loved music ever since and has also been a Gershwin fan. Some of her other inspirations include Stephen Sondheim, Maurice Ravel, and Bach. Her cousin Marty, who was in the Metropolitan Opera’s chorus, was another inspiration.

Mandel had a “harmonious” marriage to her late husband David Dachs from 1951 to 1980. He wrote books for musicals, as she wrote the score. “He would work upstairs in his room, and I would work at the piano. Then I would call him down and play for him,” she said. He would be very critical upon first hearing her compositions, but that was his means of lending his support.

Julie Mandel’s late husband, writer & publicist David Dachs in her same studio

In L.A., she attended Roosevelt High School and had composer Elthea Turner as her music teacher. This offered an advantage of studying harmony, counterpoint, and composition, which was not a commonality until college. With her classmates, she founded The Sailorettes, a four-part harmony singing sensation that arranged and performed popular songs. They fit the part with sailor hats, middy blouses and blue skirts. She graduated in 1941 and then pursued music at L.A. City College and studied privately with Eric Zeisl, a Viennese modernist composer who fled the Nazis.

Mandel always fulfills her dreams. She was born in Borough Park and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 12, and then returned to New York in 1950 due to the theater scene. She reminisced special memories, such as those shared with American songwriter Frank Loesser (1910 – 1969), who is regarded as the most versatile of all Broadway composers, with musicals including “Guys & Dolls.” “A highlight was playing a lot of my songs and singing for his wife, Lynn Garland. Frank was working on ‘The Most Happy Fella’ (1956 musical) at the time. She got on the phone and called him and said, ‘You have to hear this girl.’ We got in a cab and drove over to his hotel room. He had me sit down and play, and he was a wonderful audience. He would laugh at all the laugh lines. He signed me up to work for his music publishing company, Frank Music, on that very day.” Mandel’s heartwarming composition with intelligent lyrics that Loesser admired and helped shape her career is “My Blue Notes Have Never Been So Blue,” which her son Josh played on a smartphone, crackling and all, as his mother had a sentimental expression.

Another intriguing accomplishment surfaced after her pursuits with Frank Music, when she worked on musical theater scores, including “First You Take An Oatmeal Box” (1967), a show with a book by her late husband about the birth of radio and advertising.

Son Josh, mom Julie, & close friend Mary Kunicki, Photo by Michael Perlman

Mandel holds fond recollections of working in Manhattan’s landmarked Brill Building, which features offices and studios where the most popular American songs were written, and featured 165 music businesses by 1962. She said, “When I was making those rounds, I don’t think there were any women songwriters. Now, thank goodness there are.”

When asked how she felt while working at a male-dominated industry, she said, “I didn’t think about that. I just knew that I was doing what I loved, and I was going to keep doing it. I would always get responses from publishers who would say, ‘Come here and hear this girl.’”

In 1950, the best Broadway seating that could be obtained was for $6.60, according to Mandel, who also reminisced, “I made friends with a lot of other writers. In those days, on the street level was a Horn & Hardart Automat cafeteria. We used to sit around a table and talk and go upstairs and visit publishers.” In her new lyrics book, a section will be named after the Brill Building and include her repertoire from that period.

“I went to the Brill Building and a publisher said he heard that Music Publishers Holding Corporation is looking for someone, so I went to the RCA Building of Rockefeller Center and got the job. I worked for several years as a secretary for the company that published Gershwin,” recalled Mandel. She was also fortunate to be presented with an opportunity to pursue vocal arrangements for publication.

Reflecting upon her life, she said, “I think I’ve been a very fortunate woman, as all my major relationships have been wonderful – My parents, my husband and good friends. People have been supportive of who I am. If I could design the kind of son that I would like, he would be it. We share the same sense of humor, and I think it’s a blessing.” She explained that he is musical and loves the kind of music that she enjoys, which is only part of the equation.

She is also grateful for her earliest musical recollections, such as singing with her mother while doing the dishes. “My father told me that I sang before I could speak. While he and his friends were playing pinochle, I would entertain them,” she chuckled.

Mandel also takes pride in tradition. “I have a big Thanksgiving dinner for friends, and we’ve been doing it for many, many years. We end up at the piano singing Gershwin, of course, and Rodgers and everything else.”

Looking ahead, Mandel would warmly welcome performance opportunities consisting of her works, accompanied by a lecture at local venues including the West Side Tennis Club and the Community House. Part of her vision is a string quartet at the Tea Garden.

Julie Mandel in her living room & library, Photo by Michael Perlman

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