Nephew keeps Gershwin music and memory alive in S.F.

Somewhere between “S’wonderful” and “Embraceable You,” Michael Feinstein will take a moment during his Oct. 11 performance in San Francisco to honor Mike and Jean Strunsky.

It’s very clear why.

Mike Strunsky, 80, is the nephew of Ira Gershwin who, with his brother George, made up arguably the greatest songwriting team in American history. For more than 20 years, Strunsky has managed the Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Trusts, which safeguard his uncle’s catalog and incalculable cultural legacy.

Mike Strunsky manages the Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Trusts in San Francisco. photos/dan pine

He does so from a cozy downtown S.F. office, its walls decorated with posters and sheet music from the Tin Pan Alley days, when the Gershwin brothers were the kings of Broadway. Nice work if you can get it when you’re the sons of Jewish immigrants from Russia.

With the Gershwin reputation seemingly secure for all time, it might not seem to need shoring up. Strunsky feels otherwise.

“I can walk down the street,” he says, “and if I stop one of the millennials and ask if they know who George and Ira Gershwin were, they’d say, who? I have encountered that.”

Fortunately, artists such as Feinstein keep the Gershwin songbook alive. Feinstein will headline his S.F. club, Feinstein’s at the Nikko, with a new show, “Ira Gershwin & Me,” during which he pays tribute to the lyricist for whom he once worked and continues to idolize. The five performances run from Oct. 7 to 11. Feinstein’s tribute to the Strunskys will take place during his matinee performance at 3 p.m. Oct. 11.

For Mike Strunsky, the Gershwin legacy is personal. Though he grew up in New York City, he remembers many family visits to his uncle Ira, who lived most of his adult life in Beverly Hills. Once Strunsky moved to San Francisco in 1967 to further his career in the construction industry, he and his wife, Jean, saw the Gershwins more often.

Strunsky says Ira Gershwin was a shy man who avoided the spotlight, especially in his retirement.

“He hated celebrity,” he says of the man who wrote the lyrics to such immortal songs as “”I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Adds Strunsky, “He was funny, cute and clever.”

Ira Gershwin oversaw administration of his catalog throughout his life, and was careful about allowing changes to his songs. A few months after his death in 1983 at the age of 86, his widow, Leonore, called her nephew with a request.

“She said, ‘Dear’ — she called everyone ‘dear’ — ‘I’m not sure what the lawyers are saying,’ ” Strunsky recalls. “ ‘Could you come down and meet with me and the lawyers?’ ”

Gradually, Strunsky oversaw management of the catalog. After Leonore Gershwin died in 1991, Strunsky became the sole trustee. By 1992, Strunsky decided to sell his construction business and devote himself to the Gershwin trust.

Promotional posters at the Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Trusts

In addition to licensing Ira Gershwin’s songs for commercials (George Gershwin’s catalog is managed by other entities), Strunsky teamed up with several producers in bringing to the Broadway stage the 2015 Tony Award-winning musical “An American in Paris,” which is loosely based on the 1951 Gene Kelly film that featured Gershwin songs throughout.

“It’s the best done, best written and most wonderful [Broadway production] the Gershwins have ever had,” Strunsky says. “We’re very proud of it. We play to full houses and we hope we’ll be there forever.”

Though Ira Gershwin continued to work after his brother’s tragic early death in 1937, he never really got over the loss, Feinstein writes in his 2012 memoir of his friendship with Ira, “The Gershwins and Me.” Ira’s professional career wound down by the 1960s.

That didn’t mean he stopped writing. “Do we have a trunk?” Strunsky asks rhetorically. “We do.”

In the archives are fragments of lyrics, poems and other ideas that never quite got off the ground. Strunsky once asked pop superstar Billy Joel to try his hand at setting some unpublished Gershwin lyrics to music, but the project never took off. Apparently, the fragments will stay in the trunk forever.

But it doesn’t matter. Ira Gershwin’s reputation as a premier 20th-century American lyricist is secure.

“There was always a sense that I had to do this,” Strunsky says. “The smartest thing I ever did was to sell the construction company.”

Michael Feinstein performs “Ira Gershwin & Me” Oct. 7-11 at Feinstein’s at the Nikko, 222 Mason St., S.F. $80-$95. www.feinsteinssf.com

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.