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Remembering A Classic: Farewell To Mary Fain

Mary Fain was a classical producer and host on KHKE/KUNI.
Photo Courtesy of Madeline Ellis
Mary Fain was a classical producer and host on KHKE/KUNI.

While most knew that Mary Fain loved and had incredible knowledge and passion for music, few knew about her amazing past. She died due to COVID-19 in Mansfield, OH on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. She was 88.

You can learn about a person by finding out what they love, and that leads you to who they are.

Mary Fain was a classical producer and host for KHKE/KUNI for eight years in the 1990s. She was born in New York City in 1932 and passed away of COVID-19 in Mansfield, OH on Friday, Dec. 18.

Fain treasured her niece Madeline Fain Ellis and spouse Jim, along with Mary’s nephew Jon Fain and his wife Erin. She also doted on her grandnephews: Rob, Ben, Danny, Max, Levi and Bram, and her grandniece Susan. And she cherished her many cousins and valued friends.

While everyone knew that Fain loved and had incredible knowledge and passion for music, few knew about her amazing past.

Mary Fain was an accomplished pianist, among her many talents.
Courtesy of Madeline Ellis
Mary Fain was an accomplished pianist, among her many talents.

“Mary was a child music prodigy in classical piano, learning first at the Henry Settlement House and then under Gertrude Kramer. She attended Queen’s College, NYC and UC-Berkeley where she obtained her Master’s in Music. She then studied music composition and choral conducting in Vienna, Austria in the 1950s.

“Mary was engaged in music her entire life and although classical music was her passion, she was very encouraging of all of us to play and listen to any kind of music. Just as long as we loved music! I learned to play the banjo in the last few years and she was so overjoyed that I did even though it wasn't her style of music," said Fain’s niece, Madeline Fain Ellis.

One of Fain’s music and performance comrades was UNI’s Associate Professor of French Horn, Dr. Thomas Tritle. Tritle, now a UNI professor emeritus.

“I'm sure that she must have studied conducting, as she told me that as a female conductor, she was ahead of her time. She said that she developed quite a facility as a choral conductor, perhaps more so than as a pianist," he said. "I don't know if she ever put these skills to work professionally or in a church situation (she was Jewish). What did surface was her skill at public broadcasting, coupled with her vast knowledge of music history and musicology. She became a classical music announcer, I believe, first in Seattle and then in Los Angeles. She came to Iowa in 1990 from L.A., taking over the KUNI/KHKE position from Peter Hamlin."

She started at KING FM in Seattle and then at KFAC in Los Angeles until it was converted to a rock music station.

According to Fain Ellis, "A September 20, 1989 New York Times article by Seth Mydans quoted Mary as saying on her last show at KFAC, ‘That was Tchaikovsky's 'Pathétique' Symphony, composed just a few months before his death, and played just a few hours before ours here at KFAC.’”

Iowa becomes Fain's home

During her eight year tenure at KUNI, Fain produced and hosted a weekly 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. classical radio show Monday through Friday. She also produced and hosted KUNI’s productions of The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony concerts, KUNI’s University Concert series, and multitudes of incredible radio interviews.

KUNI/KHKE Assistant Program Director Emeritus, Carl Jenkins, says that Fain was known for her savvy on-air chats.

“The interviews she integrated into her classical music show were wide-ranging and not always limited to musicians and music faculty,” Jenkins fondly remembered. “ I especially recall a lively and engaging conversation she had with UNI's Robert Waller during the "Bridges of Madison County" hoopla.”

Throughout her career, Mary interviewed and befriended many renowned classical conductors and musicians. Listeners to classical music radio in the cities where she worked will remember her distinctive voice and interviewing skills.

Mary Fain, collaborative pianist to world-renowned Pablo Casals in 1960, at Casals’ Chamber Music Course, Zermatt, Switzerland.
Photo Courtesy of Madeline Ellis
Mary Fain, collaborative pianist to world-renowned Pablo Casals in 1960, at Casals’ Chamber Music Course, Zermatt, Switzerland.

“She knew so many famous people in classical music, including Alfred Brendel. I have a photo of her with Pablo Casals," said her niece, Fain Ellis.

Fain was a perfectionist

In addition to her creativity when it comes to interviewing and producing, Tritle said he always respected Fain’s attention to detail.

“Mary was very professional and thorough about her position at KUNI and went to great trouble to be both informative and entertaining in her introduction to the music she programmed. Having performed for five years in Rio de Janeiro, I was by default the local expert on Brazilian classical music, and I remember Mary calling me often to check on Portuguese pronunciation for something she was programming.”

While Fain was at KUNI producing and hosting Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony concerts, at that time the Des Moines Symphony’s Maestro Joseph Giunta served as the conductor of the WCFS.

Maestro Giunta was thrilled and honored to work with Fain on her special symphony broadcasts.

"Mary was the consummate professional. She was always prepared for the wide variety of people she interviewed. And she loved the fertile and rolling hills of Iowa, the uniqueness of its people and how public radio was a reflection of the place and people she loved, respected, and valued so much," Guinta said. "I remember Mary from my days conducting the Waterloo Cedar Falls Symphony. She helped organize, mix, and record many of our broadcasts, bringing her expertise and high standards to this project as well as everything that she touched. Her belief in public radio, her love of classical music and her consistent high level of standards were always apparent to us that had the pleasure to work with her."

More than a music producer and host

Fain Ellis knew that those close to Mary delighted in her piano playing and cooking. In addition to many reasons, this is part of why Tritle and his wife enjoyed visiting Mary in her home.

Photo Courtesy of Madeline Ellis Fain

“She did have a baby grand piano in her living room. Mary kept her formidable piano skills well-hidden here in Cedar Falls. I don't believe I know of any public performance at all during her life here. Why this was, I don't know. From time to time, we would play four-hand piano duets. She had a lot of this literature. This was somewhat of an honor for me, as I'm no Vladimir Horowitz. I remember one time we worked our way through a four-hand transcription of the 5th Symphony of Gustav Mahler. I told her, ‘Hey, we do a pretty good job on this. I know the piece, and you can play the piano!’"

“Her forte was classical, though she surprised me from time to time with her knowledge of jazz. She came to a number of my performances in Cedar Falls as pianist in a jazz trio, and was astute in her commentary.”

In addition to her passion for music, Mary loved animals, great food, casinos, and just causes. She also enjoyed participating as a Democrat in the Iowa caucuses, according to Fain Ellis, her niece.

Mary Fain left us too quickly and too soon. While she was here she gifted us with her incredible sense of humor, her quick wit, her pithy comments, and her insatiable love of music along with her innate knack for enticing us to listen and appreciate music and life like never before.

Thanks, Mary, we’ll miss you.

Jacqueline Halbloom is a Sr. Music Producer and Classical Music Host