The symphony orchestra at my college was quite accomplished. For our next concert, we were to play “Tristan and Isolde” by Richard Wagner. Tristan and Isolde were illicit lovers, and the music is very heavy and passionate and takes a lot of practice to get it right. Many of the chord progressions were the introduction to 20th-century music.

Basil Rathbone portrays Sherlock Holmes in the 1930s, in a photo courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collection. Then-student musician Kay Wheeler met him in 1958. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

After a grueling practice session, our conductor smiled and said, “Next rehearsal we are going to have a special guest. He is an old friend of mine, and you have probably seen him on TV or in the movies. His name is Basil Rathbone, and he is most famous for his role as Sherlock Holmes. Don’t miss or be late to our next rehearsal – we will play for him and get to meet him.”

The next day, unfortunately, I’m running late and am late to orchestra practice. My thoughts were making me upset, but it was out of my hands. I was just plain late. I got to the door of the rehearsal hall and stopped because the orchestra had already begun to play – I knew enough to wait outside the door until they finished before going in.

An older, very distinguished-looking gentleman was standing there watching the rehearsal. He looked at me with a smile, and I smiled back.

“So,” he asked, “you are late today?”

I nervously replied, “Not only am I late, we are having a special guest today and we were all told not to be late.”


“A special guest?” he questioned.

“Yes, some actor guy and I have no idea who he is.” I continued, “My folks never had TV ’til I went to college, and I never went to many movies unless they were about dogs or Minnie Mouse.”

He smiled and asked the name of the guest. He said he might know him and could help me.

“Basil Rathbone. His name is Basil Rathbone. I have no idea who he is or anything about him. Are you familiar with him?”

“Yes, I am,” he replied. “I have seen him in ‘Sherlock Holmes.’ Very interesting. He appeared to enjoy that role.”

Just then the orchestra finished the piece and the conductor said for them to open the Wagner because our guest is coming in to hear it. I took this opportunity to walk in and take my seat in the orchestra. As I took my seat, I saw the stranger, still at the window watching the orchestra. Our conductor stepped on the podium and raised his baton. On the downbeat, we began to play “Tristan and Isolde.”


The story is of forbidden love and is emotional. Then you add Wagner and it becomes exhausting. When we finished playing it, I didn’t know if I wanted to fall off my chair or stand up and scream.

Our conductor nodded toward the door and said, “Meet Mr. Basil Rathbone.” In walked the charming man who I had been talking with. He was nodding his head to the orchestra as a “hello,” and the orchestra members were quietly tapping their stands as applause. I was delightfully surprised and smiling.

Then Mr. Rathbone gently pointed at me, nodded his head up and down and did a sideways wave of recognition. I returned his nod. After a short introduction, we were excused to go to our next class.

After meeting Mr. Rathbone, I looked him up. He was born in 1892. When I met him, he was 66, and he didn’t pass away until 1967 at the age of 75. I became a fan and watched all his movies. He remains one of my favorites of all time.

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