Today I have the honor of connecting you with a talented woman who I have gotten to know over the past several months. Susan Sukman McCray is the former Casting Director for my all-time favorite television show, Little House on the Prairie. Susan wrote a charming children’s book titled, Harry’s Piano, about the young life of her father, Academy award-winning composer Harry Sukman. Susan joins us today to talk more about Harry’s Piano and why she decided to write this tribute to her father.
Welcome to The Book Connection, Susan. I’m happy you could join us.
It is a pleasure Cheryl. Thank you for inviting me.
So that we can get to know you a little better, can you share some of your past professional experiences with us?
I began my career as a casting director working on such shows as: Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Mannix and The Odd Couple. I then formed Susan McCray Casting – an independent company, and cast “Little House on the Prairie”, “Father Murphy” “Hawaii 5-0” and several movies of the week including; “The Diary Of Anne Frank", “The Five of Me” and “Rodeo Girl” When dear friend Michael Landon started his own production company – Michael Landon Productions, I became Vice-President of Talent for his company and cast the television series, “Highway To Heaven", TV movies “Where Pigeons Go To Die” starring Art Carney, and the Michael Landon Pilot “US” for CBS.
Two years ago, I was asked to create and host an internet radio show on KSAV.org. "Getting To Know You” is a wonderful way for listeners to get to know the history of well known/successful people from all walks of life and to learn how they became successful in a business they chose to pursue.
And, of course, I became a first time author, writing a children’s book that was a labor of love for me; the story of the young life of my father titled “Harry’s Piano.”
Did your years in the entertainment industry help you with getting Harry’s Piano published?
No it did not…I thought the entertainment business was incredibly difficult, complicated and competitive, to coin the phrase “Dog Eat Dog” business. I was wrong… publishing is just as, if not more of all of those.
You decided to self-publish this book. Was self-publishing a good experience for you? Were there any stumbling blocks along the way to publication?
As I mentioned – this is a complicated business and there is, as in most businesses, so much to learn and understand. In some cases I learned as I went along. Actually, I think I probably had a good experience because I self-published the book. There really weren’t stumbling blocks.
Tell us about Harry’s Piano. What years of your father’s life does this book cover?
"Harry’s Piano" is about the very early years of my father’s life. When he began piano lessons at 5 yrs old - his concerts at the age of 9 – to becoming a successful accompanist for well known violinists and opera singers at 12 yrs old Then becoming a conductor/ musical director for radio to his developing career after arriving in Hollywood, California when he appeared as a guest soloist at the famous Hollywood Bowl. At the conclusion of the book I write about how he achieved his dream –becoming one of the most successful composers for television and motion pictures and how he received the ultimate tribute… the Academy Award.
Where did you find the illustrator for Harry’s Piano? Having seen these illustrations, I can say that they alone could make the book worth buying.
I actually found Karen C. Rhine by searching online. I was incredibly lucky. I went to her website and looked at some of her previous illustrations for other books she had done. As I recall she mentioned she never did a children’s book such as mine. When I sent the manuscript to her and spoke with her on the phone about the story, she was very taken by it. Though she had never seen a photograph of my father or the family, it was truly uncanny how she was able to capture the likeness of all of them. Even my father’s piano teachers. Most especially, the great illustration of how Harry’s piano was lifted outside his apartment building into the apartment window … it is a glorious picture that all children who read the book truly love.
There is an exhibit of Harry Sukman’s life and career on permanent display in the Harry Sukman Foyer at the University of Hartford in Hartford, Connecticut. Can you tell us what it was like to go through your father’s papers and belongings to decide what would be included in this display? How did this lead to the writing of Harry’s Piano?
I wanted to have my father’s career memorabilia as well as his beloved Steinway grand piano in a place that would be appreciated and loved by those who want to achieve their dream to become successful musicians. Through my husband Kent, who is an alumn of the Hartt School of Music, which became one of the schools that comprises the University of Hartford, I thought that would be an outstanding place. We are, by the way, both on the board of Regents at the University of Hartford.
I began by writing my father’s “Life In Music” which is combined with memorabilia on nine panels on display in a space I completely renovated. The once dark and dingy lobby was dubbed (by me) as a Foyer - The Harry Sukman Foyer. When gathering numerous pieces of memorabilia for display, it took me back to my early childhood. The days I would hear my father practice and get the calls for work at Paramount Studios when he was a staff pianist there. When listening to the old “glass” records from early concerts in Chicago – his music sketches – his scores and his personal papers. I think you can imagine how emotional all of that was for me. The memories these things brought back – the great musicians who came to our home and would perform their music with my father, the funny stories. You see I am an only child and my best friends were my mother – who was also a professional pianist, organist and painter - and my father. So going through all the memorabilia was actually like feeling the loss of my best friends all over again. When the Foyer was dedicated, there was a beautiful concert to honor my father and his work which I put together. The Hartford Symphony as well as my father’s friend – Sinatra’s musical director, Vincent Falcone who played his arrangements of some of my father’s music and conducted the orchestra. Before the concert there was a lovely reception for everyone to tour the space and read the panels. Cheryl Kloczko, then Principal of the University of Hartford Magnet Elementary School, was reading the history of my father. She turned to me and said; “Susan, this material would make an incredible children’s book.” When we left Hartford, CT and returned home to California, I took all my notes and writings for the panels and added personal remembrances told to me by my father and my Aunt Rose (dad’s sister now 97) and started to write “Harry’s Piano”. I feel, in my heart, it is a story for all who love music. I thought including a CD of my father playing a couple of his compositions would also add to the beauty of the book.
I just remembered one particular quote of my father’s I found in his papers. It seems to be quite poignant these days:
“Music is sound, but not all sound is music.”
Where can readers purchase a copy of Harry’s Piano?
What is up next for you? Are there future projects you would like to share with us today? Will there be a sequel to Harry’s Piano?
I have just produced a new CD. It has ten selections composed by my father. They are arranged in the jazz genre by Vincent Falcone and played in trio by Vincent Falcone Trio. It will be released next month and can be purchased on http://cdbaby.com/ or can be ordered at your music store. The CD is truly something for all to enjoy.
I am seriously thinking about producing a possible short film based on “Harry’s Piano”. I would love to do that but we’ll see – it is a big undertaking.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
My internet radio show “Getting To Know You” will be celebrating its second anniversary on KSAV.org - http://ksav.org/ I am planning a special show. I hope to make a portion of it a Live show for people to call in. I love speaking to listeners and answering their questions.
Thank you so much for spending some time with us today, Susan. We’ve enjoyed getting to know more about your father’s life.
I think "Harry’s Piano" is an inspiring children’s book for those who have a dream in music. I always quote my friend Michael Landon when talking about dreams: “Never give up on your dreams, for if you work hard and keep dreaming, they can come true -they did for me.”
It is always my pleasure to share thoughts and remembrances of my father. He was a fine musician and an even finer man.