A popular family entertainer with roots in the folk tradition, Eric Nagler has established a reputation as a versatile performer whose infectious sense of play has attracted a cult-like following. Nagler devotees come to his concerts expecting not only to be entertained, but to join in the entertainment. Armed with an arsenal of ready-made music makers—including spoons, cans, combs, and keys—parents and children alike provide able accompaniment as Nagler jams on everything from the bleach-bottle banjo to the sewerphone—a whimsical, homemade instrument made of plumbing pipes and a washing machine agitator. “The novelty of the instruments captures people’s imagination,” he said in an interview with Michael Schulman in Bravo, “but their real purpose onstage is to help people feel that music-making is accessible. If somebody like me can get up and have fun with some plumbing pipe or a pair of spoons, they feel they can go home and have fun doing it too.”
Nagler’s down-home approach to music making has translated well to other media. With five records, three books, and two videos to his credit, Nagler debuted his award-winning television show Eric’s World in 1991. The program became a frequent guest in family rooms throughout Canada.
Eric Nagler’s love for music making and affinity for improvisation have their roots in the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s. Born into an intellectual Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, Nagler rejected the cerebral music he was encouraged to play and gravitated toward bluegrass. “With bluegrass music,” he explained to Schulman, “I could escape from my head and express something I couldn’t express any other way.” Eventually becoming a master of more than a dozen instruments, he learned to play the banjo at the age of 14, practicing with his contemporaries in the back of a Greenwich Village sandal shop in New York City. Nagler further honed his technique in Washington Square, where musicians gathered from throughout the city on Sunday afternoons, watching, listening to, and playing with “anybody and everybody in folk music, including Bob Dylan before he made it big,” according to Schulman. In an effort to expand his repertoire, Nagler flirted with fiddle music for years, playing it first on the banjo and then on the guitar and mandolin. It wasn’t until he was 30 years old, though, that he gathered the courage to get a fiddle “and start playing those tunes the way they were meant to be played.”
In 1966 Nagler married Martha Beers, a member of the highly acclaimed folk group the Beers Family. Founded
For the Record…
Born June 1, 1942, in Brooklyn, NY; married Martha Beers (a folk singer), 1968 (divorced, 1977); married Shelley McCarthy, 1985 (separated); children: Christopher; (second marriage) Lauren. Education: Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, B.A., 1963; attended Queens College of the City University of New York, 1963-65; attended State University of New York at Albany, 1966; attended Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1968.
Family entertainer. Began career as a folk musician, recording with wife, Martha Beers, early 1970s. Established reputation as children’s performer in the late 1970s; has appeared at children’s festivals and concert halls and released albums; debuted television show Eric’s World, 1991; has appeared on television shows, including Sharon, Lois, and Bram’s Elephant Show, Sesame Street, Mr. Dress-Up, and The Eric Nagler Generic Holiday Family Music Special, 1989.
Awards: American Library Association Award for Excellence, 1982, for album Fiddle up a Tune; Juno Award nomination for best children’s album of the year, 1985, for Come on In, and 1989, for Improvise With Eric Nagler.
Addresses: Manager —Bruce Davidsen, Entertainment Management Corporation, 2 Sheppard Avenue East, Suite 900, Willowdale, Ontario, Canada M2N 5Y7.
by Martha’s father, Bob Beers, the Beers Family was known for its faithful renditions of Irish and Scottish ballads on traditional instruments. When Bob Beers died in an automobile accident in 1972, Martha and Eric Nagler vowed to continue the family tradition and recorded the albums The Gentleness in Living and A Right and Proper Dwelling—inspired by their log cabin in Canada’s Ottawa Valley.
The Naglers moved to Toronto, Ontario, in 1968 to protest the war in Vietnam. While in Canada Eric pursued a graduate degree in clinical psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and became involved in Toronto’s folk music scene. He abandoned his doctoral studies a year later to open the Toronto Folklore Center, a gathering place for musicians modeled after a similar one in New York City.
It was also in Canada that Nagler found his calling. In the mid-1970s, as folk music began to lose its popular appeal, he joined those musicians who had discovered a largely untapped audience—children. After working as a studio musician, specializing in traditional and homemade instruments, Nagler began to appear regularly with the popular Canadian children’s performers Sharon, Lois and Bram in their concerts and on their recordings. By the time he had become a standard feature on their television program, the Elephant Show, Nagler had carved out a unique niche in what had become a burgeoning industry.
In 1978 Nagler was given the opportunity to incorporate a playful sideline into his work when his friend Rick Avery asked him to take over the Home Made Music program. Featuring do-it-yourself instruments that Nagler had taught Avery to make, the Home Made Music show toured Ontario schools and libraries under the direction of Avery and his partner, Judy Greenhill. When Nagler embraced the program, he found that it allowed him both the opportunity to explore his fascination with homemade instruments and to develop his public performance technique.
Nagler’s interest in simple instruments made from everyday objects was inspired by Bob Beers, who delighted in folk toys assembled from natural materials. When Nagler discovered that a plumbing pipe made as good a whistle as a willow branch, a host of whimsical instruments was born. Some were reincarnations of traditional music makers, such as the spoons; some were sheer invention, like the gazernowich, made from a broomstick, a door spring, bells, and a paint can; and some were adaptations of existing fare. The sewerphone, for example, was derived from the eclectic group Reverend Ken and the Lost Followers’s sinker phone, a contraption, played tongue-in-cheek, that literally incorporated the kitchen sink.
The original purpose of these instruments, Nagler explained in an interview with Contemporary Musicians (CM), was to “hook” the audience. People were captivated by their outrageousness. Eventually, that purpose became secondary. An instrument that anybody could play was ideal as a vehicle through which an audience could make music together.
Fostering togetherness by making music with his audience is one of Eric Nagler’s main goals. Working with families while touring with the Home Made Music program gave Nagler an enormous respect for children. Children, he told CM, have a lot to offer adults. The product of a rhythmic, churning environment, they are “born to bop.” And, as youngsters, they “listen with their whole bodies,” and their sense of rhythm is complete. Nagler’s appreciation for his young audiences caused him to redefine his role as that of a family, rather than children’s, entertainer. Acting as a catalyst, he encourages children to use music to express themselves freely and parents to find “the child within.”
Nagler discovered in the early 1990s, however, that a career in children’s entertainment is not without its pitfalls. Charged with sexually assaulting a juvenile girl, he was exonerated at an early stage in the case after the results of a polygraph test and psychological exams prompted the prosecution to withdraw its accusations. Nagler commented on the ill effects of the charges in the Toronto Star: “My whole world turned upside-down. And my career just stopped—stopped dead in the water.” Though some of his concerts were canceled or postponed during the ordeal, Nagler received the support of numerous loyal fans, and his television show continued to be a favorite on Canada’s Family Channel and the United States’s Nickelodeon.
As a family entertainer, Nagler has toured extensively, performing at children’s festivals and in concert halls throughout North America. He has released a number of recordings, which have been well received by critics and audiences, on the Elephant Records, Oak Street Music, and Rounder Records labels. His first album, 1982’s Fiddle up a Tune, won the American Library Association Award for Excellence and both Come on In of 1985 and Improvise With Eric Nagler of 1989 received prestigious Canadian Juno Award nominations for best children’s album of the year. An established television personality and author of instructional books, Nagler appears frequently on Sesame Street and Mr. Dress-Up as well as on the Elephant Show and his own series, Eric’s World, which was described by Hurst as “a hugely popular and critically acclaimed children’s sitcom.” Nagler summed up his impetus for pursuing a career in family entertainment for Hurst: “[Children are] so integrated, they interact, they’re… whole people and, as an audience, far more exciting than adults who just sit there.”
Eric Nagler Makes Music, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1989.
Eric Nagler’s Groaners, Golden Books, 1990.
Eric Nagler’s Joke Book, Golden Books, 1990.
The Gentleness in Living, Swallowtail Records, 1973.
A Right and Proper Dwelling, Philo Records, 1977.
Fiddle up a Tune, Elephant Records, 1982.
Come on In, Elephant Records, 1985.
Improvise With Eric Nagler, Oak Street Music (Canada), Rounder Records (U.S.), 1989.
Also released video Making Music With Eric, Golden Books, 1988.
Baggelaar, Kristin, and Donald Milton, Folk Music: More Than a Song, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976.
Ann Arbor News, December 13, 1991.
Bravo, July/August 1989.
Detroit Free Press, January 19, 1990; July 19, 1991.
National Geographic World, November 1989.
Toronto Star, January 26, 1992.
Variety, June 21, 1989; January 7, 1991.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a December 14, 1991, interview with Eric Nagler.
"Nagler, Eric." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/nagler-eric
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