For all his run-ins with the press, Iturbi was still wildly popular—and becoming more so all the time. The New York Telegram’s annual radio poll, released February 1, 1937, listed Iturbi as one of the USA’s top five conductors and top three instrumental soloists.
In 1936 he had become principal conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra—the third in the orchestra’s 14-year history. He would remain conductor until 1944, and make several records with this orchestra, being the first regular conductor to record with the RPO.
Iturbi had been “encouraging” his younger sister Amparo for years to join him. With World War II looming on the horizon in 1937, Paris was no longer safe, and Spain was embroiled in a bitter civil war. Now was the time to make the move, and so Amparo, her five-year-old daughter, and her mother boarded the Ile de France and sailed to New York. Within a couple of months Amparo had debuted in Detroit and on radio, and in July of 1937 she made her local debut with her brother and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Lewisohn Stadium, where they performed Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in E-flat to wonderful reviews.
In 1938, Iturbi had been taking flying lessons for two years. He soloed in Atlanta, emerging with a jubilant “What has Lindbergh got that I haven’t?” He had the flying fever, badly. He spent the next few months hopping from country to country on an extended South American tour that enabled him to perform some 35 concerts all over the continent in less than two months.
The newspapers must have expected the flying “stunt” to be a mere fad, for in 1940 an interviewer expressed some surprise not only of Iturbi’s love of flying, but his extensive knowledge as well. “He just about eats it and sleeps it,” said the writer. With the help of his plane, Iturbi was making three transcontinental trips a week for some 100,000 miles a year.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Iturbi was as enraged as any born-and-bred American. He immediately wrote letters to President and Mrs. Roosevelt , asking to serve in any way he could. He had hoped to get into the U.S. Army Air Corps but at 46 was considered too old, so he joined the newly formed Civil Air Patrol (CAP) instead. He already had more than 800 hours as a pilot by that time, and was commissioned a major.
Whether it was bond drives, USO shows, or entertaining troops at their bases, he was there. He accompanied soldiers on their training exercises. He joined a group of Hollywood stars on a huge nationwide tour to sell war bonds. The tour’s goal was to sell $500 million dollars worth of bonds. Actual bond sales totaled over a billion dollars—in 1943 currency!
Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, a fellow named Joe Pasternak was punching out musicals for MGM. He paid a call on Iturbi, who reluctantly agreed to make a few movies when he learned it would be good for the soldiers' morale.
Pasternak then came up with the idea of having Iturbi play a boogie-woogie number. Iturbi agreed immediately, but there was some doubt as to whether Iturbi could actually play that kind of music. Until he played. “He had the hottest left hand you ever heard,” Pasternak said proudly.
Iturbi appeared in seven movies. They all contained heavy doses of classical music, ranging from a Grieg concerto in one to Rachmaninoff in another, but many of them boasted at least one modern piece as well, whether the “Joint is Jumpin’” number Iturbi played with Judy Garland in Thousands Cheer, or the honky-tonk “Route 66” he played in Three Daring Daughters. His parts varied from cameo appearances, as in Two Girls and a Sailor, to important support roles, as in That Midnight Kiss, to leading man, in Three Daring Daughters. But whatever kind of movie he was in, and whatever kind of part he played, the roles all had two things in common. He was never far from a piano or an orchestra, and he always played José Iturbi.
In a strange twist, however, Iturbi began to lose credibility as a musician. By the time he made his movie debut—Thousands Cheer premiered in 1943—Iturbi had been a successful concert pianist for 20 years and a world-class conductor for 10. But in spite of this résumé, there were people who now doubted his musical ability, simply because he was a movie star. Iturbi said on several occasions that other musicians resented him and that some refused to speak to him after he entered the movies. He also said the music critics yowled about him “disgracing his art.”
Movie star or not, Iturbi’s playing still fascinated people, even when they didn’t know to whom they were listening. One of his best-known movies was one in which he did not star or even appear. A Song to Remember—a 1944 heavily fictionalized biography of Chopin—was a lukewarm movie because the music was superb. The music was provided by Iturbi, unseen. But word leaked out; Iturbi’s recording of Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat quickly became a top seller and remained one for four years. In a six-month period Iturbi received royalties of more than $118,000, the largest single royalty check RCA had ever issued.
Two of Iturbi’s classical recordings went gold (the other being Debussy’s Clair de Lune)—an unheard-of feat for a classical record in the 1940’s. It had never happened before, and has seldom happened since.
Iturbi’s professional success, however, was heavily offset by personal problems. He had moved to California in 1939, and in 1944 his filming commitments were such that he had to give up the Rochester Philharmonic. He collapsed a week after filming Holiday in Mexico and had to be rushed to the hospital, where he was operated on for gallstones. He was supposed to have left the next day for a concert tour. The tour was canceled.
And in 1946, shortly before filming began on Three Daring Daughters, Maria Iturbi Hero died.
In 1948 Iturbi returned to Europe, going home to Valencia where his hometown turned out in force to greet him. There he whipped the Valencia Municipal Orchestra into shape and took them on a European tour—the first time a Spanish orchestra had toured Europe. In London they even cut two albums for RCA-Victor.
But his granddaughters, of whom he had custody after Maria’s death, went home to their father, and Iturbi was alone again.