February 3, 2000
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Suburban grandmother keeps the beat as klezmer drummer



Elaine Watts had played the Ice Capades and fancy horse shows, bar mitzvahs and baby namings, but a Web-site launch party? That was a first for the klezmer grandma from Havertown.

It was also the first time the 67-year-old drummer had been asked to lay down a hip-hop beat behind a poet's rap, or improvise the sounds of the sun and moon.

"Oh, the spirit will move me," Watts said, taking a bite of a chocolate chip cookie she had set on her tom-tom. "The karma of the moment."

Even in SoHo, the freshly coiffed and hennaed five-footer isn't easily overmatched.

"Mother, move thy tochis," the trip to New York began, as daughter Susan Watts Sandler nudged Mom out of the house and into a sky-blue Buick LeSabre loaded with drums and horns.

"What's that?" Watts asked, watching her husband, Ernie, a retired hardware and plumbing-supply man, stuff one more piece into the trunk.

"Wedgwood," shot Sandler, a 33-year-old trumpeter.

Mother and daughter, descendants of a clan whose musical roots began in the army of Czar Nicholas II, belong to an all-female Philadelphia band called KlezMs. But on this day they were joining a group slapped together by Michael Drapkin, a classically trained clarinetist celebrating the new site of his year-old Internet consulting business.

The gig was in a video studio on the 10th floor of building with a big view up the Avenue of the Americas. Michael Alpert, a world-renowned accordionist, would be playing. Bob Holman, a poetry activist and PBS producer, would debut his latest work, "Harry Potter Pokemon."

Sandler had met the clarinetist online. They share an interest in klezmer, the resurgent Yiddish music from 19th-century Europe.

"I don't even know how to turn a computer on," Watts acknowledged in a screech that brought George Costanza's mother to mind. "All I know how to do is play drums."

This left an opening that her daughter filled until the first toll booth.

"What she can do with with a piece of frozen fish and a toaster oven. �"

"OK, I'm not Julia Child."

"Mom, let me talk."

And the words zinged. How Watts would put something on the stove, then teach drums for a few hours before her family was drawn to the smell of burned potatoes.

"In her defense," Sandler said, "she does order out well."

As the speedometer pushed 80 m.p.h., Watts was bouncing in the back seat, next to a large black cardboard box that her daughter said contained "my grandfather." That would be Jack Hoffman, the klezmer xylophonist who also played with the Philadelphia Orchestra. "We keep his bones around for good luck."

"What it is," Watts corrected, "is a relic. It keeps me alive."

What it actually was, was a Yahama copper snare drum, a gift from Jerry Brown, who has played with Stevie Wonder and Stanley Clarke and learned his instrument from this diminutive sparkplug.

"Mom always, always, always had students in the basement," Sandler says.

"I wasn't playing golf," Mom interjects.

"Just let me talk. I was so jealous of those other kids. I'd come home from school and she'd be in the basement. I'd sit on her lap."

The house was always filled with musicians and instruments, which is what Sandler credits for her ability to play. Watts learned in the same sort of environment, though in West Philadelphia, not the suburbs.

Watts' father had her start on the violin, but she wanted to play only the drums. In 1954, she became the first woman to graduate in percussion from the Curtis Institute. Still, the only times the young, classically trained percussionist would be called for klezmer work, she said, was when her father led the band. Her cousin, a Jewish society band leader, praised her, but wouldn't employ her: "He said I was good, but I was a girl.

"You should mention in your article that Michael Drapkin hired musicians. He doesn't care if they're male or female."

The Buick got lost after the Holland Tunnel, prompting more volleys between mother and daughter, the sort that Sandler says the KlezMs' audiences find hysterical.

The women arrived at 11:30 a.m., still plenty of time for them to set up for the pre-party rehearsal. Watts' place was against 10-foot-high windows next to the radiators. "I'm going to melt," she said.

The whole band was there, except Alpert, the famous one who lives nearest. When he finally showed about 1 p.m., 25 minutes late, no one made eye contact with him as he picked up his accordion.

"We've been here since 8 o'clock in the morning," Watts announced.

The crowd flowed in, more than 100 people, most of them dressed in black. Watts, on the other hand, went with her gold, black and white jacket adorned with pianos, drums, strings and horns. "Springfield Mall," she said. "My daughter saw it and said, `It's you.' "

They played for more than an hour, clarinet rhapsodies and festive hosidls. As Holman read "Harry Potter Pokemon," Watts freshened her lipstick. She gamely backed him as he chanted a poem about TV pioneer Ernie Kovacs, and when it was time for her to play her impressions of the elements, the crowd urged her on with a roar.

"Hot stuff," Holman said, hugging her.

They ended their set with a song Watts' father had written for her as a child, Sandler playing lead on trumpet. "The first time she played it for me, I cried," Watts said.

As the audience headed past a bowl of yarmulkes bearing his Web site's logo, and hit a table of platters from the Second Avenue Deli, the klezmer grandma approached the nice man who hired her.

"Michael," she asked, "can I put this on my resume?"

Daniel Rubin's e-mail address is [email protected]

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