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June 28, 2002

San Francisco Chronicle


Robert Heilbuth of San Francisco -- a German-born composer, piano tuner and organ builder -- has died.He died May 25 of congestive heart failure while in hospice care at the UCSF Medical Center. He was 89.


Mr. Heilbuth was an extraordinary musician also known as an ingenious piano technician and tuner. A self-taught carpenter and metalworker, he built organs from scratch to rival the world's top instruments.


Over the years, he built five organs in his home in the Richmond District, including a baroque tracker action organ, three extensive player organs and a large carousel band organ. He composed more than 100 pieces for these incomparable instruments but never copyrighted or recorded his music. He adamantly told friends he didn't care about being known to the general public, or the "genital pubic," as he was fond of saying.


"He was a significant composer who never sought any limelight," said friend Darryl Smith. "It was a very personal, in-my-house, kind of experience with him."


Mr. Heilbuth was also one of San Francisco's great eccentrics. An intellectual who spoke French and German fluently, he would not bathe for weeks at a time. He easily impressed major jazz musicians by sitting down to improvise at the piano, but he so hated to spend money that he asked grocery stores to give him their old vegetables for free.


He also liked to shock people.


"He compulsively used the foulest language possible," said friend Stephen Goldstine. "He tried to be as radically unprecious as you can be."


Born in Hamburg, Germany on Oct. 14, 1912, Mr. Heilbuth was an only child whose parents owned one of Hamburg's largest department stores. As a youth, he studied music at the Hamburg Conservatory, and he began composing and building his first organ when he was in his early teens.


Mr. Heilbuth, who was Jewish and gay, fled by boat to the United States in 1938. In 1939, he settled in San Francisco and never left. He was proud, friends say, that in his whole life he never flew on a plane.


A passionate cook and baker, Mr. Heilbuth delighted in befriending strangers and inviting them to his home, where he would cook an exotic dinner and play his music.


While Mr. Heilbuth leaves behind no survivors, he regarded friends Darryl Smith, Laurie Lazer and their son Ian Yarrow Lazer-Smith, and all of San Francisco, as his most immediate family.


A memorial service is being planned for October. Memorial contributions may be made to the Strybring Arboretum Society, Ninth Avenue and Lincoln Way, San Francisco CA 94122 in care of the Heilbuth Memorial.


From SF

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