George and Lillian Ruzich – Oral History

George and Lillian chose to be interviewed together, and indeed, after 50 years together, the story of each of them is very much the story of the other. In this edited transcript George’s words appear in plain script and Lillian’s words appear in italics.

George: Both my folks came from the little town of Hreljin, in the Primorski region, near Rijeka, Croatia. Pop came over here by himself first. He worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania, the copper mines in Minnesota, and he ended up in Detroit. Then he went back to Croatia and he got Mom and my older brother and sister to come back to Detroit with him.

This was very common. Rather than take the chance of getting stranded somewhere in a strange country with a family, the men came by themselves to see what it was all about. Most returned to get their families, but some didn’t. They either stayed here without their families or they went back to the old country after they retired, joining their families after many, many years, but they would send money home to the old country.

My brother and my older sister were born in Croatia. I was born here, so I was the only one who was able to become president of the United States! We spoke Croatian at home. In fact, I couldn’t go to school the first year because I couldn’t speak English.

As for music, my mom used to sing old Croatian songs, and my brother John used to find these old Croatian records. Pop had a little concertina, one octave. I used to watch him fool around with that and make up his own melodies — waltzes, polkas — and I started doing the same thing. I played the violin in grade school.

When I was in Italy in the Army, I picked up a hand made mandolin. I lugged that thing everywhere! My buddies used to hide it from me so I couldn’t drive them crazy playing it. They used to tie it up on top of the barracks’ rafters. One time they even hauled it up on the flag pole.

I got so tired of hauling it around, I pawned it in New Jersey when I got back to the U.S. I’ll never forgive myself for that. It was really a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. It had a belly back. And every strip was a different colored wood with beautiful scrolling on the top. I played American tunes — polkas, tangos, rumbas and fox trots, but none of our Croatian songs yet.

I got interested in our culture and music when I met Lillian. She came from a very musical family. Her father was a bass player and her mother loved to sing. Her brother organized his own combo as a teenager and actually made several records. Lillian and her sister were a well known singing duo in Detroit when they were young girls.

We met more than fifty years ago, while I was still in college in Detroit, got married, and lo and behold, our first born came along when I was still in school. Lilly put me through the last two years of college as well as being a mother.

Lillian: My father came from a town just outside of Zagreb, called Pisarovina, near Karlovac. He came here during the First World War, served his duty during the wartime crisis in France. After the War he went to Pennsylvania, then settled finally in Detroit.

My mother was born in West Virginia, but went back to Croatia as a baby and lived there till she was twelve. Her family came from the area called Slavonia, close to the Hungarian border.

Dad met Mom at the Croatian Hall in Detroit when she was fifteen and they got married when she was sixteen. My father was twenty-six. I have one sister and a brother.

At home Mom would speak English with us, but also Croatian. She spoke very good English, being born here. If she was mad at us, it was Croatian. (laughs). My dad too. They spoke to each other in both English and Croatian. Sometimes, like a lot of our Slavic people used to do, they would take an English word and turn it into a Croatian word, such as streetcara, forgetalo.

When we were small children, Mother and Dad taught us Croatian songs. Every Friday night Dad’s combo would have rehearsals in our basement. We had to be in bed at a certain hour, but Dad’s orchestra would play till 12 or 1 in the morning. So here we were upstairs listening to the music and enjoying it.

Our neighborhood in Detroit was mostly Croatian, Serbian, Polish, Bulgarian, Macedonian, and a few Italian. We lived in a two family flat. We had the downstairs and the people who owned the house had the upstairs. Next to our house was a group of five or six townhouses, with all Croatian, Serbian, and Slovenian people living in those houses.

Immediately next to our house was the Babich family. They were Croatian, nice family. The mother died early, so it was just the father and the ten kids — eight boys and two girls. They were young teenagers to young adults. The two sisters took care of the brothers and the house. Two of the brothers learned to play tamburitza (bugaria and brach). And one played the bass. They were an enterprising family because these were hard times. The older brothers went off to the War and the younger ones bought themselves a used truck and went to the Farmers’ Market and sold fruits and vegetables throughout our neighborhood. This was about 1941 or 1942.

When the War started my sister and I became very active singing professionally. We always sang together, in Croatian. One time during the War they had a big war bond rally in downtown Detroit at Grand Circus Park. It was a big beautiful square, like you would see in Italy, with two big hotels on either side, and the famous Fox Theater.

My sister Violet and I were asked to come and sing because all the Croatian, Serbian, and Slovenian people were gathering down there. It was a big rally for selling war bonds. We were already known as singers in the Croatian/Serbian community. The Kramarich girls. So we sang a few times at the rallies, and the Detroit news had the pictures with a story. I was about thirteen years old. It was 1942-43. Dad was real proud.

George: I have an excerpt of Lillian singing on a Croatian radio program in 1945. It was the sixth anniversary of the Croatian radio program.

Lillian: It brings back memories. My sister’s name is Violet. The radio station was WJBK radio. The program was called the Croatian Radio Club. Their program was every Saturday at 5 p.m. We’d come and sing requests for special occasions — anniversaries, birthdays. Things like that.

It was a very strong bond for me and my sister. It was always a pleasure for us to sing together, even though she sang a lot as a soloist. Because of her operatic training.

She went to Duquesne University, then she came out to California to live with our aunt in Los Angeles. She got to know a lot of the Serbian/Croatian people in L.A. and did a lot of singing at the clubs and restaurants there.

I was still back in Detroit doing some solo singing. I chose numbers that were more adapted to my alto voice. It was a hard time for me [to have my sister far away], but about that time George came along. (laughs) We met in a little kolo group we were both active in. Everything was centered around our culture.

We loved to dance. Every Saturday and Sunday there was some affair going on. We’d go to the Croatian Hall for all the kolos and singing. We’d go to the Slovenian Hall to do all the polkas and the waltzes. We really liked that um-pah-pah stuff. And for the American stuff we’d go to the ballrooms, where I got to do the jitterbug. So we had such a diverse culture. We learned from each other.

And before we knew it, I got married, had three kids.

George: Our wedding in Detroit was at the VFW Hall. We had eight hundred people on two floors! Two orchestras, including a tamburitza orchestra, as well as a strolling violinist, Julius Peskan. People danced kolos, waltzes, polkas, fox trots, everything, all to tamburitza music.

We lived with Lillian’s folks for a short while. There was always music and singing in that house. Spontaneous like. We would go with Pop Kramarich, to various dances and picnics and Slavic weddings where his orchestra played. I can play all the instruments, some better than others.My favorite is bugaria. I play both by ear and by reading music.

Lillian: We played together, back in Detroit. We organized the Detroit Tamburitza Orchestr in 1957. They just had their 40th anniversary.

George: We played both folk songs and some classical arrangements. It was a large group. Thirty-five young adults. I remember one skit in particular when we were playing becar, or “bar music.” That’s when you sing and drink and people request musical numbers for money, and they stick money on your instruments.

So I was playing with some other fellows in this combo. Lil’s part was to imitate this Serbian-American tavern singer Vinka Elison, who was very popular in Slavic circles, both Croatian and Serbian. So we came out and played a couple of bachelor numbers, and here comes Tinka (Lillian, that is) all dressed up in a gown. She had a champagne glass in her hand, Vinka style. She sang her number and the audience went wild! She took a drink out of her champagne glass and threw it into the audience. That’s what Vinka used to do.

In 1970 I was transferred to California. Shortly after we arrived in San Francisco my two sons and I organized a combo, and we got a bass player to join us. We played at a lot of Slavic functions around the Bay Area.

I noticed a lot of our people in San Francisco had the impression tamburitza music is strictly for kolos and polkas. One of the first things I did was to introduce them to American tunes to show them that these instruments were adaptable to fox trots and waltzes and tangos. They never heard that before, they couldn’t understand it.

In fact, we used to go to dances and Caroline Bahr and her tamburitza orchestra would come in to play just for dining, and when people were ready to dance she would pack up, and the saxophones and the trumpets would come out, and people would say, “Here comes the real orchestra!”

Our family combo started playing at the Mandala, on Taraval and 16th Street in San Francisco, at first, filling in for Caroline Bahr and her group who couldn’t make it one time. The more we played the more they wanted us. And the more they wanted us the more kolos we learned by heart.

Lillian: Once in a while I’d sing with them at the big CFU picnic in San Jose. It used to draw 1000 people.

George: Those picnics were where our sons really cut their teeth in learning to play for people who enjoyed the music and danced to it. It was a great joy for Lillian and me to see how they had developed into this culture — picked it up and enjoyed it so much. Later they became active with Caroline Bahr’s show group in San Jose.

Lillian: We joined the SMBS in 1986.

George: We got to meet a lot of nice people. That’s why you join anything, to meet people. One of the big pluses is having the Croatian American Cultural Center. A lot of ethnic groups don’t have a hall. I was a director and musical arranger for the Dalmacijo Singing Club. Now I’m Financial Secretary of the SMBS.

And I like to talk ponase (our language) with my fellow SMBS members.

Lillian: Music has enriched and inspired our lives as a family. It’s brought us together in more ways than one because it’s something we can share. And the fact that we have handed it down to our sons. It inspired all of our boys to learn to love music and our culture. It gave them the enthusiasm to want to learn to play the Croatian instruments. Before our sons were having their own children, they would come over and play the music. They’re so busy now, but they enjoy it when we do get together as a family and play. You know, a couple of times a year.

George: When our boys would ask me what I wanted for my birthday, I’d say, “I want you guys over here with your tamburas.” So we could play.