Mrs. Oppenheim's Musical Attic
by Sandy Naishtat
I grew up at 40-10 44th Street, having moved there from Borough Park, Brooklyn in 1949 at the ripe age of 1, and lived there with my family until I made the mandatory migration to the Upper West Side in 1970 at the adventurous age of 22.
Now 72, (is that even possible?!), in the midst of the insanity that Covid-19 has created for each and every one of us, and with lots of spare time on my hands, I decided it was my turn to contribute to Sunnyside Stories. I was inspired by the realization that my life-long passion for music, which more than ever is helping all of us cope with the reality of the moment, probably had some of its origins in Sunnyside of long ago - the Saturday or Sunday mornings I spent with a bunch of other 3, 4 and maybe 5 year olds at Mrs. Oppenheim’s music and dance school. These lessons took place in the converted attic of Mrs. Oppenheim’s house just up the block towards Skillman Avenue. (I say up the block, even though that’s heading south, because all my life, and even to this day, I’ve considered heading to Queens Boulevard to be going up, and heading towards Northern Boulevard to be going down. I’ve also always been directionally challenged, so to me, it makes perfect sense.)
Mrs. Oppenheim, who could have been any age between 50 and 100, for all a 4 year old could figure out, and her daughter, Frances had a variety of hand-held percussion and tuned instruments on which we would make all kinds of noise, as well as a spacious enough attic in which we could easily dance in circles. I don’t remember any of the other participants, nor do I remember how long I participated in these classes – whether it was a few weeks, a few months, or even a year or two – but I certainly remember how much I enjoyed them, and I’m convinced beyond all doubt that my love of music, if not innately acquired, certainly was significantly encouraged and nurtured by Sunnyside Garden’s little music and dance school. I even took piano lessons from Mrs. O. for a little while when I was 6 or 7, also in her attic, continuing the musical education that had begun at such an early age.
The most significant musical influence on me occurred during my high school years – sorry LIC and Bryant alumni – I went to Stuyvesant. There was an amazing piano teacher, Ruth Leeds, on 46th St and 43rd Ave – not in the Gardens, but still very much in Sunnyside - with whom I studied and from whom I learned so much. I wonder if anyone else on this site was as fortunate as I was to have had such a rich and local childhood musical education.
Since so many writers on this site have eloquently described what life was like growing up in Sunnyside, I find that there’s very little else I could add that hasn’t already been written. But I don’t recall anyone talking about Frances and Mrs. Oppenheim’s little enterprise, so I thought I might add it into the mix. I hope that perhaps it might spur someone else’s recollections as well.
I am a semi-retired Arts Administrator and occasional composer and opera singer, living in Eugene Oregon with my wife, Nancy.