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Marvin Hamlisch Remembered by National Symphony Orchestra Colleague

NSO artistic administrator Erin Ozment talks about the late musical legend’s love of Diet Dr. Pepper and the Yankees, his sense of humor, and his favorite Georgetown restaurant.

The late Marvin Hamlisch. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Composer and conductor Marvin Hamlisch, who died Monday after a brief illness, was officially a New Yorker but also practically a Washingtonian. His bond with the city was his role as principal pops conductor with the National Symphony Orchestra, which began in 2000. It brought him to the Kennedy Center as many as five times a year, and to Wolf Trap at least once during the summer. His last appearance in the area was July 13 at Wolf Trap, where he conducted the NSO in an evening of Gershwin.

One of his close relationships in Washington over the past decade was with Erin Ozment, the artistic administrator of the National Symphony Orchestra. They worked together on every detail of the programs and performances but also shared precious down time.

“My favorite memories of Marvin are simply sitting in his dressing room and hearing what his musical dreams were,” she says in a phone interview. “He loved music of all genres. He had a deep love of Broadway but was also a fan of contemporary music, gospel and blues. To hear him talk about all kinds of music was inspiring.” He could also make her laugh. “He had a great sense of humor,” says Ozment. “When he met the Dalai Lama he actually said, ‘Hello Dalai’ to him!”

Hamlisch had so many accolades. He was one of a very few people to have the distinction of earning, in 30 Rock parlance, an EGOT—he won an Emmy (Barbra Streisand: The Concert), a Grammy (actually, four), three Oscars (for The Way We Were and The Sting), and a Tony Award (A Chorus Line)—as well as a Pulitzer Prize (A Chorus Line) and two Golden Globes. He was 68 when he died and is survived by his wife, Terre Blair.

While based in New York*, Hamlisch loved coming to Washington. “He loved it here because there was such a great variety of creative, intelligent, and passionate people,” says Ozment. “He had friends from both sides of the aisle. He had friends in the classical world and the pop world, [he befriended] the chairman of the board and the lowliest member of the staff, and that’s what made him such a special person.”

In his down time, she says, Hamlisch preferred long walks around Georgetown. He stayed at the Ritz-Carlton there. He liked to take meals at Cafe Milano. His favorite place to eat, now closed, was TenPenh on Pennsylvania Avenue. “The coconut soup!” says Ozment. “You had to eat the coconut soup.”

He also liked to shop, especially for others. “Several years ago he did one of the holiday performances with a local vocal group called Cartoon Johnny,” Ozment recalls. “He thought they needed to look a certain way on stage. He told the five of them to meet him at Brooks Brothers and he bought them all outfits, because that’s what he wanted to do.”

He was generous in other, quiet ways, too. Whenever he could, says Ozment, he visited the Safra Lodge at the National Institutes of Health, a facility for the families of NIH patients. “At the holidays he would take some of the guest artists and go to the lodge, with no fanfare, usually on a Saturday, and perform. He would just get a car and head up there,” she says.

Entertainers are quirky people, and we wondered whether Hamlisch had any rituals before going onstage. “Well, he would always like a little help with his bow tie,” Ozment says. “But he was relaxed backstage. He liked to hang out with the guests and crack jokes. He was not one to sit alone in his dressing room and ponder. He wanted to have a good time, and that’s what he did, on the stage and off.” The only habit she could recall was that he liked to drink Diet Dr. Pepper. “He was a big fan. There was always Diet Dr. Pepper.”

He was also a fan of the New York Yankees. “Heaven forbid there was a game going on during a concert,” she says. “Many nights it was my job to sit right offstage and be ready with the score—only for him, but occasionally he would announce it to the audience, too.”

There were so many NSO concerts to remember, but Ozment says one stood out as Hamlisch’s favorite. In was in 2004 with the cabaret singer Bobby Short, not too long before Short died. “It was the last time they worked together,” she says. “[Short], the orchestra, and Mr. Hamlisch worked so well together. It was a natural fit. Everyone came onstage at the Kennedy Center and made a great performance.”

The last time Ozment saw and talked with Hamlisch was at his July 13 performance at Wolf Trap. He did not talk of an illness. “He was in excellent spirits,” she says. “He’d had some longtime issues, but they were not necessarily related to his passing. His family has chosen not to release the details.”

That day in July they had much better things to do than talk about health, anyway. Ozment had been on maternity leave and brought her new son, her second child, to Wolf Trap to meet Hamlisch. She says he didn’t have children of his own but loved kids. “I really wanted him to meet my son,” she says. He bought the crib for my first child, and my second child is using the same crib, and every night when I put him to bed I think of Marvin.”

*This post has been updated from a previous version.

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