As a baby, Donald Pippin could probably be found with a baton in hand instead of the traditional rattle. Before he was even born, his mother determined he would be a musician and bought him a piano to start the process. Gratefully for Pippin, he shared his mother’s dream and then some.
For the last five decades, Pippin has had one of the most famous “back of the heads” as a conductor in the orchestra pit playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, at Carnegie Hall, at London’s Prince Edward Theatre, Radio City Music Hall, throughout the U.S. and Europe. On Friday, June 8, he regaled the members of the Goodspeed Musicals family with stories and video clips he entitled “A Maestro’s Memoirs.”
Born in Macon, Georgia, he was taking piano lessons by age five and by seven he was winning piano competitions with his picture prominently displayed in the newspaper. His grandmother warned him he was becoming conceited, telling him “when success turns your head, you’re looking at failure.”
During WWII, he played for the U.S.O., making a good friend of Anthony Benedetto who would later become famous as Tony Bennett. He began his career on Broadway conducting “Kiss Me Kate” and recalls how he couldn’t afford the $5 or $6 for tickets to shows so at intermission he would sneak in and see the second acts.
Among his good friends he numbers Robert Goulet, composer Vincent Youmans, David Merrick, Jerry Herman, Doris Day, Joan Crawford, Lauren Bacall, Angela Landsbury and Michael Bennett and Pippin told stories about each. Over his career, he has earned Tonys, Emmys, Golden Records and Drama Desk Awards, from working on two dozen Broadway shows including A Chorus Line, Oliver!, Applause, Woman of the Year, Mame, Dear World, Seesaw, Jerry’s Girls, Mack and Mabel and La Cage aux Folles.
His favorite moment in the theater occurred at Mame, when his father, sitting in the second row, saw him conduct an orchestra for the first time. From the podium, Pippin said “Hi, dad.” His father nudged the man next to him, telling him proudly, “That’s my son conducting” to which the gentleman replied, “He’s conducting my son’s music.” It was Jerry Herman’s father.
Apparently Donald Pippin’s mother deserves a lot of credit, thanks and appreciation for setting her son on a musical path, one even she could not have imagined or be more proud of launching.