Joe Ornstein doesn’t perform. He plays.
The 79th Street resident who’s often found strumming his mandolin in Theodore Roosevelt Park surrounding the American Museum of Natural History doesn’t perform for money, though he does draw an audience.
“If the weather’s good, I’m here,” said Ornstein, 67. He can even be found on a bench in February, or during a light rain, when he finds some shelter under the park’s trees.
“I’ve got mandolins for that,” he said.
Ornstein, or “Mandola Joe” to some, has lived in his Upper West Side apartment for about 30 years, much of that time with his wife Nancy, who passed away 13 years ago, and has become a familiar fixture in the neighborhood and in the park, where he finds eager audiences. Young children often gravitate to the music and the player
“I needed to recharge, so I’d come out here,” said Ornstein from a shaded bench near the park’s Nobel Monument, one of his favorite spots. “Invariably some little kid would lift my spirits so high that if I fell halfway down I was five times higher than I would’ve been.”
Ornstein used to walk in the park with his Polish Lowland Sheepdog named Woody (after Woody Guthrie) and got to know some of his neighbors during these strolls, including a guitarist named Rob, who inspired him to play in the park.
“He wasn’t playing for anybody,” said Ornstein. “He lived in the neighborhood and he needed a nice place to sit.”
Ornstein busked in Central Park with a banjo player and a guitarist, Peter Kalmus. The group called themselves the Summit Hill Ramblers, a nod to Summit Rock, the park’s highest peak. They’d earn a little change, or what Kalmus called “soul money,” contributions that boosted the players’ morale, if not their bank accounts.
The group disbanded and Kalmus now lives in California, but Ornstein, solo with his mandolin, still finds audiences in Theodore Roosevelt Park.
“He’s a genuine musician in the sense that he really just loves music and he loves making little kids dance,” Kalmus said. “He really does it for the joy of it, that’s why he does it. You can’t get any more pure than that.”
With a long gray beard, mesh pith helmet and bright orange shoes, Ornstein thinks he cuts a curious figure for the children, his appearance attracting as much attention as his instrument.
“I suspect I look different from what they’re used to,” said Ornstein, whose low speaking voice is raw and raspy, but warm. “But they love music, and that’s a fact. This is one of my joys; watching kids walking by in some sort of mood, you know, all of a sudden get picked up.”
Even when he’s not strumming and singing in his deep baritone, Ornstein attracts attention from young park-goers. On a recent hot afternoon, a toddler soaking wet from the nearby fountain slowed and stared as she passed the musician.
A Brooklyn native, Ornstein learned the mandolin at age 13, and now has a collection of about 23 string instruments. He’s loyal to Mandolin Brothers in Staten Island and Rudy’s Music on 48th Street, where he purchased most of his instruments, save a miniature mandolin his wife gave him 17 years ago. He plays an amalgam of different world and folk styles from Celtic to English and American folk, Yiddish and Middle Eastern, in what Kalmus calls a “noodley, happy improvisational style.” Over the years, Ornstein wove children’s songs into his repertoire and takes suggestions from his young fans. “Baa, Baa Black Sheep,” “This Land is Your Land” and “The Wheels on the Bus” are common requests.
“This little pocket of Manhattan, the kids know what a mandolin is,” said Ornstein, who doesn’t have children of his own. “Everybody knows guitars all over the world, but in this little corner a lot of kids know mandolin.”
Ornstein is curious and observant. He can identify plant and tree varieties in the park, some of which he learned from horticulturalists who maintain the park’s gardens. He points out a squirrel’s nest in a tall tree, or architectural details in the glass exterior of the museum’s planetarium, and remembers when a horse chestnut tree was lost to disease and an elm came down in Hurricane Sandy. He stops to smell the flowers.
In 1989, Ornstein competed on Jeopardy and won $12,000. With some of his winnings, he bought a membership to the American Museum of Natural History so he could study the history of string figures in the museum’s library. He carries a long loop of string on a carabineer and he’s skilled at Cat’s Cradle.
“[He] is just this positive presence,” said Susannah Conn-Thomas, who ran an open mic night at a neighborhood bar where Ornstein played. “It really helped to set a tone for the open mic being a community experience.”
Ornstein stuck around after he performed during the open mic sessions, she said, talking to performers about their acts.
“He saw the value in his own presence, he saw the value in being there…I like his presence so much that I invited him to my wedding,” Conn-Thomas said. The otherwise-casual Ornstein showed up to her nuptials in a three-piece suit, she added.
In recent years, he’s memorized lengthy poems by Robert Service and Edward Lear, partially a symptom of his desire to be an actor but also as a way to enhance his memory, which he admits was never his strength. He hangs verses in his kitchen so he can work on the poems while preparing his nightly salads. Right now, he’s brushing up on “The Night Before Christmas” in preparation for the holidays.
“It’s a great way for me to face my years ahead where memory is a real issue,” he said. “The better I work out the brain, the better it works.”
A former member of the American Museum of Natural History, Ornstein looks ahead warily as the museum plans an expansion into the park that’s become his daily sanctuary and makeshift stage. He’s reserving judgment as the museum has yet to reveal their design plans, yet he thinks the community, which has already voiced opposition to the prospective loss of public parkland, needs to send a message to the powerful institution.
“You don’t need to go into the museum to learn something about natural history around here,” said Ornstein. “There’s ways we can all get along.”
With his busking days behind him, Ornstein no longer performs for money. Even the notion of selling the walking sticks he crafts from salvaged branches doesn’t appeal to him.
Still, he may take requests.
“I still love doing “‘Old MacDonald,’” he said of the favorite nursery rhyme. “I think it’s a very hip song.”