Betty Schwartzberg, husband Harvey and their children had only been living in Baton Rouge a short while when she received a call that began her 32-year love affair with the Baton Rouge Symphony.
The call was from the late Edith Kirkpartick, who said she’d heard of Schwartzberg’s love of music and cooking.
“Edith explained that the Houston Youth Orchestra was coming to perform with the Louisiana Youth Orchestra, that they needed to be fed and could I possibly help out,” recalls Schwartzberg.
“I went to Piccadilly and got meatballs and spaghetti, and I cooked the desserts.”
She continued to prepare food for the LYO’s annual reception after its spring concert until recently, when the LYO parents’ group took over.
“But that led me to get involved with the symphony and Symphony League,” says Schwartzberg, who served as league president from 2001-2002.
“I’ve done everything, including scrubbing floors,” she adds with a chuckle.
For her many years of work, the League is honoring Schwartzberg at this year’s Mad Hatter’s Luncheon on Monday at the Crowne Plaza.
Among her many achievements, Schwartzberg started Culture Camp 20 years ago, a weeklong experience that exposed at-risk youth to the orchestra and more.
“Norman Landry (the former Cortana Mall manager) was wonderful,” Schwartzberg recalls. “He always gave me whatever storefront was empty and sent us cookies and drinks. I would teach dance and exercise and musicians would come from the symphony. We had an artist come teach art. We had somebody come from the zoo. One year, Steve Labens, who owned the Cut Flower, gave us flowers to create floral arrangements for the children to take home.”
As a former educator, she knows the positive impact music has on young people.
“It enhances their ability to listen, to focus on what they are hearing,” Schwartzberg explains. “It teaches them order. The different instruments of the orchestra and their sounds.”
Three years ago while visiting the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired, she ran into former Mayor Bobby Simpson, who is the school’s director. That meeting resulted in students from the school attending dress rehearsals for the symphony and, afterward, getting to talk with the musicians.
“It’s been very, very gratifying,” says Schwartzberg, who returned to school in 1975 to get her master’s degree in teaching those with learning disabilities. “I would like to do something similar with the hearing impaired, but I haven’t gotten there yet.”
Schwartzberg, who was raised in New Orleans, comes by her love of music love from her parents. Her father, Henry Jacobs, played the violin.
“He came from Romania, first generation, and was very involved with music there,” she says. “I actually have a letter from the head of the school he attended saying he was going to miss him and his brother.
“My mother’s (Ethyl Landau) family was always musical and involved in music in New Orleans,” she continues, recalling at 6 years old wearing a white rabbit coat to the philharmonic.
Schwartzberg started dancing after being diagnosed with rickets as a child; the doctor suggested ballet would be good for her. During World War II, she was part of a dance troupe that entertained soldiers throughout the Gulf Coast. All of her costumes are now housed at the World War II Museum in New Orleans.
Her dancing career didn’t end with the war. In 1948, Schwartzberg transferred from the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to LSU, where she met her husband of almost 65 years.
“I was the first one to dance with the Tiger Band,” she says. “I did the bolero and used some of my costumes. I also danced at the 1950 Sugar Bowl.”
She and husband Harvey remain involved with the symphony, although neither are currently on the board. They have been known to open their home to visiting musicians and for years co-hosted the Opening Night Gala. She and Lois Saye are also responsible for feeding the guest artists appearing with the symphony as part of its Pennington Great Performers in Concert series.
“They all want something special,” says Schwartzberg, laughing. “Dame Kiri Te Kanawa wanted starfruit and some special tea. Chris Botti, who’s been here twice, loved a dip I’d made and wanted to know if I’d make him some more.”
Schwartzberg currently serves as the Symphony League’s historian and has spent the past year going through papers and books, putting everything in chronological order. “My unofficial title is, ‘if you want to know anything, ask Betty,’” she adds with a chuckle.