Hamilton Benz, 93, Island Character

Hamilton Benz of Tisbury died Oct. 10 at his daughter's home in Chilmark.

Benzie, as he was known, was a brutally honest and good man of eccentric character known in Tisbury to break out in song (or with a surprising comment of sorts) while enjoying his walks through town. A man of high intelligence, he struggled through life vacillating between decisions that he should be either in the music or literary field. He was a master of dialect and was most familiar with the more roguish nuances of French, German and Italian.

Born in Haledon, N.J. in 1910, Mr. Benz was the son of George and Daisy Benz: George an organist of fame and Daisy a choir soloist and music teacher. In 1919 he attended the Choir School of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York city. He became renowned as one of the finest boy soloists in the nation with a voice of remarkable quality and range. He was graduated with honors in 1925 and received a scholarship to Trinity School.

In 1932 his French teacher at Trinity brought him to the Island for a summer vacation where he met Goodie Prior, a well-known portrait artist and musician of Tisbury. They married in 1938 and lived in New York until they moved to Tisbury in 1941.

The following is the foreward in Mr. Benz's biography:

"Two years short of my 80th birthday, I find it difficult to explain why I pursued so many varied careers in search of fame and fortune. Both eluded me, I suspect because of an overblown ego - that and impatience, the inability to stay on one course and see it to full development. Blessed with talents in music, writing and the stage, I shifted from one to the other while waiting for recognition from critics that would lift me to the rank of stardom. Stardom never came.

"I began as a boy soprano. ‘A voice of exceptional beauty' was a phrase I heard many times. My future was decided; I would become a professional singer. Unfortunately, when my voice changed it lost many of the boyhood qualities . . . . A few appearances on the concert stage convinced me that my future didn't lie in that medium.

"I turned to theater, trying my hand at Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and musical comedies. Success was hardly my reward in these ventures. My schooling had made me fairly proficient in foreign languages, so I turned to opera. Over a period of four years I performed secondary roles with the City Center in New York and the Philadelphia Opera. Press reviews never gave mention of my voice but on many occasions I received plaudits for my acting, particularly in comic roles.

" ‘A born actor' was a phrase I heard often, which tempted me to try the legitimate theater. I played a few roles in summer stock. Learning from my colleagues how difficult it was to earn a living in that field, I returned to opera as a stage director with companies across the country. This provided a fairly steady income, enough at least to support my wife and two children. Many of these standard operas were performed in English. The texts, inordinately poor ‘translations' (as one critic defined them), prompted me to write translations of my own. Three were accepted for publication by G. Schirmer Inc., which led to a contract with Columbia Films and a year's work in Rome as co-producer of new versions of La Traviata and La Boheme.

"In the former, I played the small role of Verdi, which was so successful I thought seriously of becoming a film actor, but my producer, Gregor Rabinoqith, wouldn't hear of it. ‘You are born to write,' he said, ‘Stay with writing.' Accepting his dictum as infallible, in my spare time I wrote my first short story, mailed it to Esquire Magazine, and it was accepted. Subsequently, four more stories were published, along with some articles. At this point in time - the late 1940s - television plays were in vogue and when I returned from Italy, I set to work as a playwright. Over three years, 13 of my plays were performed, which convinced me that I had at last found my true calling. But shortly, with production costs rising excessively, sponsors pulled out and turned to soap operas, which ended my connections with television."

"Over the next few years, I tried my hand at full-length plays. None was accepted, and with my savings wiped out, I turned to job hunting. Music being my first love, I became a salesman selling time for a radio station in Boston broadcasting classical music programs. In time I became an independent producer and soon had three contracts with regional corporations which netted me a fine income. Ironically, at the end of ‘65, all three sponsors canceled and I was again out of work."

"An old friend, headmaster of a private school in Colorado, had been after me for years to head his music department. Now I had no recourse but to accept. Toward the end of that eight-year stint, I happened to meet with a radio producer, one of whose clients was a bank. He insisted on my recording a demo tape; the client accepted me as their narrator, and I found a new vocation. Fed up with teaching and now approaching my 65th birthday, I returned east to my home base, tied in with an agent in Boston and soon acquired contracts for recording in television and radio, supplying me with a decent living.

"So fame and fortune eluded me, but at this age I have no regrets. My life as a widower is a lonely one, but I have a son and daughter, both married, and three grandchildren. I still have my health and a home of my own. Should I ask for more? Yes."

Mr. Benz toured Germany in a musical when he was with the U.S.O. In the summer of 1946 he worked as actor and assistant producer with the Martha's Vineyard Summer Theater. Here on the Vineyard many remember him as director of the Martha's Vineyard Chorus, Vineyard Sinfonietta in the early 1960s and organist and choir director at Grace Episcopal Church, two doors down from his house.

He was very proud to have been a member of the Union Chapel quartet in Oak Bluffs as bass, first in 1938 and again in 1969 and every summer until 1996.

He and his wife spent many hours entertaining at their home with music gaily blaring from the house on William street from Sinfonietta's rehearsals or the two of them playing dueling duets on their back-to-back grand pianos. Their house was filled with laughter, music and unforgettable family get-togethers.

Benzie loved playing pool, cards, golf, chess and was a master with the trivia of baseball. He knew his Bible well and recited his favorite poems often to his family and friends. He read Ulysses every June. Every morning he sang his German arias for exactly one half hour, did 25 sit-ups to the age of 86 and then he was off to town. He had a way of leaving his family members awestruck, and he has so again, as they recollect his long and fascinating life.

Mr. Benz leaves two children, Larry Benz and his wife Ellen Shade of Bronxville, New York; Merrily Fenner and her husband Frank of Chilmark; three grandchildren: Blair Benz of New York, Alicia Knight and her husband Peter of Chilmark and Keith Fenner and his wife Amanda of Tisbury; and two great grand-children, Olivia and Adam Knight. Special thanks from the family to the community individuals who were so kind to him in so many ways during his last, more difficult years in the town.

His funeral service will be held on Saturday, Oct. 18 at 2 p.m. at the Grace Episcopal Church on Williams street in Tisbury with the Reverends Donnel O'Flynn and Alden Besse officiating. Burial will immediately follow in the Oak Grove Cemetery inTisbury.

Memorial donations may be made to Vineyard Nurse Services of Community Services, P.O. Box 369, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568; or to Hospice of Martha's Vineyard, P.O. Box 2549, Oak Bluffs, MA 02557.