Alfred Nathan, a 97-year-old resident of Lieberman Center, presents his own version of a monthly talk show–Al’s Variety Show–to fellow residents and guests. This endeavor is a shining example of how staff at Lieberman Center encourages and supports residents to spread their wings, pursue their passions and utilize their many talents. It also serves as a testament to Al Nathan’s steadfast determination to keep active, despite having Parkinson’s disease.
Guests on his show, which is held on the 7th floor in the reception area, have included many members of Lieberman Center’s administrative staff and participants in Art Therapy and other activities. His July show featured Lieberman Center’s Certified Art Therapist, Melissa Miller. However, it was the dramatic story of a musician from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) that really piqued Nathan’s interest and set him on the path of obtaining him as a guest.
The article, written in May 2017 by John von Rhein, the Chicago Tribune’s recently-retired classical music critic, details the meteoric rise and the tragic fall–and the improbable second rise and fall–of Alex Klein, principal oboist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (shown above right with Nathan). Klein was a musical prodigy who started playing the oboe at age 9 and became principal oboist of the CSO 10 years later in 1995. Von Rhein wrote about what he called “a sad and surprising end to what looked like a triumph of will over physical adversity”:
“In May 2001, Klein, then serving as principal oboe of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, found himself losing control of his fingers when he played. He was eventually diagnosed with a neurological disorder known as focal hand dystonia. The affliction sent garbled signals from his brain to the third and fourth fingers of his left hand, forcing them to curl under…
The condition grew so bad that he was unable to perform more than sporadically in the position to which music director Daniel Barenboim had appointed him in 1995. He tried various means of controlling the incurable affliction. He endured many hours of acupuncture and physical therapy, some of it extremely painful. He played with softer reeds. He had his instrument altered to allow his fingers to reach the keys more easily.”
But none of these approaches seemed to work, and Klein was forced to step down as the tenured first oboe of the CSO in 2004. He spent the next 12 years making adjustments and working to suppress the dystonia. When the first oboe position opened up in 2016, Klein was invited to audition, and he was rehired by Riccardo Muti. However, after eight months of probationary status and some problematic concerts, Klein was denied tenure, and his final performance as principal oboe was April 28, 2017.
Alex Klein’s story had a huge and immediate impact on Al Nathan: “So I read the article and I thought ‘wow’ what a heartbreaking story that is! He lost his career with the CSO twice. Not once, but twice! That’s what interested me about his story, and made me think that he would be an ideal subject. I figured he’d be somebody to whom the people here at Lieberman would relate. That’s because they have their own heartbreaking stories–some lost their homes, almost everything. Just like Alex.”
He went on to describe his own emotional reaction: “I thought ‘that’s the ideal story for the people here.’ It’s a story of how he survived adversity and handled difficult situations. I think it meant a lot to me, because I have dystonia too, and it affects your outlook. Klein went into a deep depression for a while, and then he lost his first wife to divorce. It was the personal story of his life and the effect these terrible experiences had on him, which is what I knew the audience would be really interested in.”
More about Dystonia
There’s no cure for dystonia. But medications can improve symptoms. Surgery is sometimes used to disable or regulate nerves or certain brain regions in people with severe dystonia.
The exact cause of dystonia isn’t known. But it might involve altered nerve-cell communication in several regions of the brain. Some forms of dystonia are inherited. Dystonia also can be a symptom of another disease or condition, including:
• Parkinson’s disease
• Huntington’s disease
• Wilson’s disease
• Traumatic brain injury
• Birth injury
• Brain tumor or certain disorders that develop in some people with cancer
• Oxygen deprivation or carbon monoxide poisoning
• Infections, such as tuberculosis or encephalitis
• Reactions to certain medications or heavy metal poisoning
So Nathan started the process of getting Klein to appear on his show. Such a feat would be hard for a person without Parkinson’s and not confined to a wheelchair. For Nathan, it all took quite a bit of time to complete. “We started about a year ago, and because of several things, we just recently got it done,” he says.
Deena Karno, CJE’s Manager of Regulatory Training and Staff Development, witnessed the show and says this about the process: “Al coordinated everything from contacting Mr. Klein to writing interview questions. Al believed Alex Klein was an inspiration and thought that the residents would feel a sense of hope after hearing his story.” When asked how the residents reacted to this episode of Al’s Variety Show, Nathan responded “They thought it was one of the best shows that I’d ever done. And it was! The entire show was spent with Alex, and it was very successful.”
Originally from a small town in Indiana, Alfred Nathan graduated from Northwestern University. He moved to Chicago in 1951 to work in the insurance field. In 1980 he moved to Skokie. By the 1990s he realized he wanted to do more for the community and started a 15-year relationship with Public Access TV, where he produced 251 episodes of Skokie People Speak, an hour-long interview program. Nathan is also proud of his years of service on the Human Relations Commission of the Skokie Village Board. All of this led to Nathan receiving the very first Lifetime Achievement Award from the Village of Skokie in April of 2010.
Nathan came to Lieberman Center about seven years ago because he was having trouble walking and he needed short-term physical rehabilitation. He ended up moving into Lieberman Center because his Parkinson’s disease was progressing and he required long-term skilled nursing care. In spite of the physical manifestations of his Parkinson’s, he remains highly astute, inquisitive and communicative–all qualities that served him well in his career, in his past community involvement and in his production of Al’s Variety Show.
Dystonia is a movement disorder in which your muscles contract involuntarily, causing repetitive or twisting movements. The condition can affect one part of your body (focal dystonia), two or more adjacent parts (segmental dystonia) or all parts of your body (general dystonia). The muscle spasms can be mild or severe, and might interfere with your performance of day-to-day tasks.