See updated article: Research sheds new light on Michael Khariton and Dimitri Tiomkin, June 2019
by Warren M. Sherk
Were it not for his friendship with the Russian pianist Michael Khariton, Dimitri Tiomkin’s career might have taken an entirely different path. Why, then, in his autobiography did Tiomkin conceal his former roommate’s identity, referring to him only as “Raskov”? Tiomkin devotes a dozen or more pages to Raskov and their parallel trajectories as pianists in St. Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, and finally the United States.
It was Raskov who, lured by the promise of golden opportunities, convinced Tiomkin they should leave Berlin for Paris. (Raskov financed the trip, which probably made Tiomkin’s decision easier.) In Berlin, the two had performed together at parties until they decamped to the City of Light. In Paris, their partnership as a Russian piano duo flourished, eventually drawing the attention of Broadway theater magnate Morris Gest. A fellow Russian immigrant, Gest offered the pair a contract for a fourteen-week tour accompanying a ballet troupe on a principal vaudeville circuit in the United States. The resulting American tour turned out to be a major turning point in Tiomkin’s life.
The earliest documented public performance by the piano duo took place in Paris in May 1924, and they were billed as Michel Khariton and Dimitri Tiomkine. After warming up with Zinding’s “Variations,” [Eds. note 2019: Christian Sinding, Norwegian composer. The work is probably his Variations for two pianos in E-flat major, Opus 2] they launched into Rachmaninoff’s Suite no. 2, a staple of the two-piano repertoire since its publication in 1901. Pianist Lea Lubochitz performed three solo numbers before the headliners returned to play a Chopin waltz arranged by Tiomkin for himself and Khariton. (Incidentally, years later in Los Angeles Tiomkin performed a Chopin duet with the famed pianist Max Rabinovitch during a radio broadcast.) A rendition of Debussy’s “Arabesque” concluded the program.
In addition to performing published works for two pianos, Tiomkin took on the task of arranging custom two-piano four-hand arrangements, either by adapting solo piano pieces such as the Chopin waltz, or by reducing orchestral works. As Tiomkin relates in his autobiography, “In these I took care to give Raskov the rhythmic fortissimi and reserve[d] the quiet lyrical passages for myself.” Although he characterized Raskov’s playing as crude, Tiomkin did admire his partner’s powerful style for the resonance it bestowed upon their duets.
By June 1924, Tiomkin and Khariton’s star was rising; they were now performing at the Maison Gaveau with seventy musicians under the baton of Vladimir Goldschmann. Each pianist soloed with the orchestra, Tiomkin for Liszt’s Concerto in A Major, and Khariton on Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no 1. The program concluded with an authentic Russian performance of Rachmaninoff’s Suite no. 2.
Once they were on American soil and under contract to Gest, Tiomkin and Khariton’s first U.S. appearance was at B. F. Keith’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., the last week of December 1925. The pianists accompanied dancers Albertina Rasch, a pre–Ziegfeld Follies Jacques Cartier, and eight Albertina Rasch Girls. The 1,800-seat theater was built specifically for vaudeville in 1912. In January Tiomkin and Khariton joined Rasch and her ballet troupe on the Keith-Albee theater circuit, the “Standard of the World,” with venues in Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Gest had told Tiomkin that Americans need a gimmick—after all, the pianists were competing for the audience’s attention with, among others, animals, skaters, and equilibrists—so, following his benefactor’s lead, Tiomkin had “two pianos built into one” and featured it in the act. When the 3,000-seat Stanley Theatre, a regional center for operas and movies located on Market Street in Philadelphia, celebrated its fifth anniversary in January 1926, Tiomkin and Khariton were there with Albertina Rasch. One reviewer wrote that the pianists “displayed superior technique and ability in their duets and individual solos.”
Lavish celebrations such as the one at the Stanley were common during the Roaring ’20s. The grand vaudeville era was coming to an end, as were the days of silent film. In New York City, they were determined to make the most of both worlds. Live stage shows, with variety acts featuring the best vaudeville had to offer, began preceding the screenings of the films. When Just Suppose premiered at the Mark Strand Theater in January 1926, New Yorkers were in for a treat. After a “Jazz Rhapsody” overture, the New Mark Strand Frolics wiggled, the “Cigarette Girls” amazed, and the divertissement “Pompadour Days” was performed. And if that wasn’t enough, ladies and gentlemen, a nice round of applause for…the Dimitri Tiomkin and Michel Khariton duet. Their repertoire that day included Chopin’s “Polonaise” in A Flat Minor and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor, both arranged for two pianos by Tiomkin. For the Chopin, Tiomkin once again assigned himself the poetic, singing melodies, and utilized Khariton’s “iron wrists for the principal theme and [his] fingers of steel for the repeated downward four-note scale passages.” When the film itself finally unspooled onto the screen, audiences witnessed actor Richard Barthelmess, at the height of his immense popularity, in a story suspiciously similar to that of Coming to America, the 1988 film directed by John Landis and starring Eddie Murphy. (In Just Suppose, Barthelmess plays the prince of an imaginary kingdom who comes to New York and falls in love with an American girl.)
From the beginning, Khariton was less than thrilled about playing second fiddle to Rasch, and Tiomkin relates there was artistic and personal friction between the two. As Tiomkin’s professional relationship with Rasch grew more intimate, this in turn strained his friendship with Khariton. The last straw for Khariton may have come in March 1926, when the two pianists were billed as “The Tiomkin Duo” in the program for Rasch’s Music Roll ballet. Regardless, the contract with Gest was set to expire at the end of March and was not extended. The money was good, but the vaudeville schedule—three performances a day, four on Saturday—was grueling. Tiomkin, wishing to return to the concert hall as a piano soloist, decided to strike out on his own, and he and Khariton parted ways sometime between March and May 1926. Tiomkin and Rasch wed in May. That same month, pianist Georg Davidoss joined Tiomkin at the second piano for the Rasch-choreographed ballet performance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at the Hippodrome.
In March 1926 Khariton performed solo as an intermission guest in a Morris Gest-sponsored radio broadcast featuring the Moscow Art Theatre Musical Studio in New York. After he split with Tiomkin, Khariton was often heard on radio playing works by Chopin, Albeniz, Debussy, and Mendelssohn. By April 1929 Khariton had apparently formed a new relationship with pianist Vladimir Brenner, and the new “Khariton Duo” provided accompaniment at Ted Shawn’s Carnegie Hall recital. The only surviving musical performances by Khariton can be found on a couple of piano rolls he cut for Duo-Art. By the early 1930s the pianist was relegated to performing at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York. He then headed West, where unfortunately he ended up in the Los Angeles County Jail in October 1936, charged with being in the United States illegally. He allegedly had overstayed his leave on his first visit to the States and, after first fleeing to Canada, was arrested upon returning to Los Angeles.
Tiomkin entertained his old friend in true Hollywood style when, sometime in early 1937, the former dueling pianists spent an evening at the notorious Clover Club on the Sunset Strip. Khariton, interested in working for Tiomkin at the film studios, followed up the meeting with phone calls that apparently went unreturned, as Tiomkin was out of town. Khariton’s personal life was in flux. He had just received divorce papers from his first wife and learned that the Immigration Department had granted him, through his friend Israel, permission to stay in the country. Tiomkin received this news in a May 1937 letter from Khariton written in Russian on stationery from the Hotel El Tejon. It is possible that the hotel, the largest in Bakersfield, California, may have offered Khariton room and board in exchange for playing piano. In the letter, he expresses concern that he has not made a single dollar in seventeen months (a far cry from the “good old days” in Berlin, when he grew rich from speculative endeavors unrelated to music, not to mention the $2,000 per week he and Tiomkin earned during their vaudeville tour). All he has left, he writes, is an estranged wife, his friend Israel, and his music, which he practices on the piano four to five hours a day. The once successful pianist, who recognized Tiomkin’s talent early on and was steadfastly enthusiastic about his friend’s future prospects, was now reduced to pleading for work. Tiomkin had just finished Lost Horizon, and Khariton, having read in the trade paper Variety that Tiomkin was being tapped for a new film, asks his “friend” and “brother” for a helping hand.
After 1937, the trail grows cold. Khariton was killed in a “street accident” in Philadelphia some time prior to 1959 (2016 update: Khariton died on August 24, 1938, according to the Musical Courier, volume 118); his death is mentioned in Tiomkin’s memoir, published that year. [Eds. note 2019: It is not known why Tiomkin wrote erroneously that Khariton was killed in street accident in Philadelphia. Khariton died in Los Angeles in 1938, around six months after undergoing major surgery.] Did Khariton’s much publicized arrest in 1937—the Los Angeles Times headline read “Russian Pianist Held on Charge of Illegal Entry”—influence Tiomkin’s decision to seek citizenship the following year? And was Khariton working under the assumed name of Armand Faure in California during the time of his immigration troubles, as the letter to Tiomkin may indicate? Could “Raskov” have been a nickname? Why Tiomkin refers to his dear friend by another name remains unclear. In any event, were it not for Khariton’s tenacity, Tiomkin may not have traveled to Paris as he did, which in turn set in motion his move to the United States and his career path from concert pianist to film composer.
© 2006 Volta Music
Editor’s note: updated in June 2019, with corrections, as noted.
- The Dimitri Tiomkin Collection at the University of Southern California (thanks to Ned Comstock)
- The Los Angeles Times and New York Times, accessed through ProQuest
- Please Don’t Hate Me by Dimitri Tiomkin and Prosper Buranelli (Doubleday, 1959)