Sam Szor never lived in Sylvania. Even so, countless community residents feel a personal connection to him and what he gave us. Free concerts on Sunday nights at the Toledo Zoo for 60 years. Choral music that included the holiday classic “Messiah” for half a century. Church choirs, stage productions, halftime shows. Sam was our area’s “Mr. Music” for three generations.
Now, a new book is available for fans and friends that highlights Mr. Szor’s legacy. Written by his wife, Judy Harris Szor, it’s part biography and part love letter. The slim volume gives a close-up look at Sam’s transformation from a son of Hungarian immigrants into a musician, conductor, showman, and local icon.
From her home not far from Sylvania Country Club, Judy told me she started the book to give Sam’s children and grandchildren a sense of his accomplishments. Friends encouraged her to consider a larger project to help the public, “really appreciate his contribution to our area and the music scene here.”
Sam was born in the heavily ethnic Birmingham neighborhood of East Toledo into an extended family that shared a love of music. He was a smart, funny and enthusiastic young man in elementary school, started taking music lessons in fourth grade, and was playing saxophone and clarinet in local Slovak and Czech bands by junior high.
At Waite High School he joined the marching band, chorus and every other music class he could find. He also created his own dance band that played local proms and parties. Even with this background, he never considered a career in music (his parents did not believe it was a “real Job”). But a teacher arranged an audition for the University of Michigan band…which he won, along with a scholarship to study music at UM.
After graduation, Sam had a number of good job offers from around the country, but he felt he owed it to the Toledo area to use his talents in his hometown. That started a string of jobs as a music teacher and band director at Woodward High School, the University of Toledo, and his alma mater, Waite.
At each school he revitalized under-achieving band programs that weren’t meeting their potential, starting with recruiting more musicians. He built a reputation for adding lavish costumes, Top 40 and Broadway hits, and outrageous choreography to halftime shows. He also produced the school musicals. The bands and those shows won him some notoriety.
But what put him on a first-name basis with local residents was “Music Under the Stars.” The free concerts were held on summer Sunday evenings at the Toledo Zoo amphitheater starting in 1951. They ran continuously (well past Sam’s retirement) until Covid forced a hiatus in 2020.
The public performances were poorly attended prior to Sam’s arrival, and the conductor role shifted among several musicians. He took over in 1953…just one year out of college. Sam not only led the band, but also planned the artistic programs, organized all the work, and eventually helped line up corporate sponsors. Early on, he introduced new wrinkles that became crowd favorites: a weekly sing-along, soloists that ranged from vocalists to magicians, and an annual performance of the “1812 Overture” that ended with fireworks.
Gordon Ward, a popular television news anchor, served as emcee for the concerts for 39 years starting in 1988. “Together, Sam and Gordon taught generations of local residents about music,” said Judy.
Ward recalled, “The amphitheater seated 4500, and the audience was always full and enthusiastic. As a musician, Sam was all business. But he was also very gregarious and loved to mingle with people. After each concert audience members poured onto the stage to talk with Sam, and he stayed around late to meet every single person … and he loved it.”
The maestro retired as MUTS conductor in 2013 after 60 years. By that time he had added achievements such as music director of the Toledo Choral Society…a role that included planning and conducting an annual performance of “The Messiah” during the Christmas season. In his “spare time”, he also conducted the choir at Toledo’s First Congregational Church and served as guest conductor.
Judy Szor has had her own notable career, too, as a nurse and nurse educator. She earned several advanced degrees and led a consulting business for ten years that specialized in wound care. She appreciates being recognized for her accomplishments, but didn’t mind that most of the time she was known as “Mrs. Sam Szor.”
I had the great fortune to first meet Sam when he was at UToledo in the late 1960s. Then (as always) he was the opposite of the stuffy conductor type. He was warm, outgoing, and always ready with a joke (occasionally slightly off-color). His generosity was limitless, and his greatest gift to the people of our region was always his music … and the way it made us feel.
Judy Szor will be signing copies of “Sam Szor: Toledo’s Mr. Music” at the Writer’s Block Author Fair on December 11 at Franklin Park Mall. The book is also available at Musical Resources on Holland-Sylvania Road, Rockets Bookstore on Bancroft, and Gathering Volumes bookstore in Perrysburg.