An old record allowed the families to connect.
You never forget your first love. Even if it doesn't last, it leaves an indelible mark on you. Sama'an Ashrawi, a writer, artist and host of the podcast The Nostalgia Mixtape, discovered just how true that statement is. In a Twitter thread, Ashrawi details a discovery he made about his grandpa's past romantic life. It goes to show that while we may know a lot about our elders, there's always something new to learn.
"My Grandpa Dave told me he was sure he was gay when he was moving into his dorm room freshman year of college and there was a boy 'with the prettiest eyes;' after Grandpa passed, I learned from my mother who that boy was," the first tweet of the thread reads.
Ashrawi reveals that the boy was named John Kander. If the name isn't familiar to you, I assure you, you know who he is. Kander, along with his creative partner Fred Ebb, wrote the music to some well-known musicals, including "Cabaret," and "Chicago." They also wrote the song "New York, New York," which became a staple song for Frank Sinatra after originally being sung by Liza Minnelli.
In a special episode of The Nostalgia Mixtape, Ashrawi explains that his grandpa Dave and Kander were boyfriends during their time studying at Oberlin Conservatory of Music. And when he was little, he remembered his grandpa sitting down at the piano to play songs from "Cabaret." While at the time he didn't know the emotional significance and deep connection his grandpa had to the music, he says that knowing what he knows now adds a certain "romantic" element to the piano playing.
"It's kind of like when you're in love, and you're far away from the one you love and you look up at the moon and you imagine that maybe they're looking at it at the same time as me," he said.
He then fast-forwards to the pandemic and how it led him to make an interesting revelation about his grandpa Dave's relationship with Kander.
"I had been stuck in the house for about a year," he begins. "There was this one bookcase that I walked by almost every single day, and this particular time I was walking by, I noticed something that for some reason, I had never seen before."
He found a 7" vinyl record, and "everything on the label was written in pencil." The title "Our Boy" was on the label, as well as the year the record was pressed—1951. The composer? None other than John Kander, his grandpa's old boyfriend.
It was a bookcase I walked by a dozen times a day, maybe more. Why had I never noticed this 7” vinyl poking out of one of the shelves? I pulled it out. It was a custom pressing and written in pencil was: “Our Boy,” the year, “1951,” and the composer’s name: “John Kander.” pic.twitter.com/LYRsFAb49M— Sama’an Ashrawi (@SamaanAshrawi) June 5, 2022
"My mom told me it was a song John had written for Grandpa. I put the record on and listened … some very moody piano solos, it sounded theatrical. I needed to know more. I went online, was John even still alive? To my amazement, the answer was yes! 94 years old," he tweeted in the thread.
Ashrawi felt that Kander's email address wouldn't just be floating around the internet, but after some good ol' internet sleuthing, he discovered that Kander's great-nephew, Jason Kander, is a politician in Missouri. So he slid into the younger Kander's DMs, telling him about his discovery of "Our Boy" and hoping for some more insight and stories about John Kander's relationship with his grandpa Dave.
"Two days later, I had an email from John Kander," he said on the podcast.
He revealed that "Our Boy" wasn't just a song; it was a full one-act musical that Kander had written with the intention of it being a star vehicle for Grandpa Dave. "It was a play about a boxer grappling with the existential feelings of defeat," he tweeted, including a photo of a newspaper clipping featuring the show. Kander also shared some photos from the show that Ashrawi and his family had never seen. He described seeing the images as "beautiful."
Then John sent me some photos of my grandfather that we’d never seen before. There was my grandpa, Dave Fisher, in his shiny boxing shorts, looking young and curious and serious all at once. How incredible 😭😭😭 pic.twitter.com/mmicQ7sOGB— Sama’an Ashrawi (@SamaanAshrawi) June 5, 2022
On the podcast, he explains that Kander extended an invitation for a meeting if he ever found himself in New York City. "So I went to New York," he says, the theme Kander had written playing in the background. Ashrawi, his mom and one of his sisters had lunch with Kander. His mom hadn't seen Kander since she was a little girl!
After talking to Kander, Ashrawi gained a newfound understanding of his grandpa and the time they had been living in. It was an era when being openly gay could literally ruin your life, and it was clear that being an actor must have gaven him a sense of freedom he couldn't have in real life. Playing another character allowed him to put his own troubles aside for a little while and be free. Kander revealed that the theater was the most special place for he and Dave.
Over lunch (and an Arnold Palmer) John opened up about their relationship. “We were honest with each other,” John told us. “Not in terms of not lying, but honest about who we were and who we were becoming. [Your grandfather] was a great gift to me.”— Sama’an Ashrawi (@SamaanAshrawi) June 5, 2022
The End! (for now 🔮) pic.twitter.com/coD8F0WMVS
Even though they went in very different life directions (Ashrawi revealed his grandpa became a doctor), it's clear that their time together left a deeply beautiful mark on both of their lives.