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Ruffino J. Iula, 93, violinist, last in city music dynasty


Ruffino J. Iula, the last of a Baltimore music dynasty, died Thursday of complications from a stroke at his Highlandtown residence. He was 93.

Known as Feen, Mr. Iula (pronounced yoo-la), a violinist, was able to play a rousing rendition of "Rosemarie" or a song from a Sigmund Romberg operetta despite his age.

He and two brothers were familiar figures for nearly a half-century in the pit orchestras of Baltimore area theaters and were known for their lively repertoire of popular and classical numbers, which put them in demand for society dances.

Until his late 80s, Mr. Iula was booking musicians for events and for the Merriweather Post Pavilion concerts and Broadway musicals that played at Baltimore's old Ford's Theater and at the Mechanic Theatre.

"If Merriweather called up Feen and said they needed 22 violins for the stage, Feen got them," said Mel Sherr, who at 82 still plays the violin and first worked for Mr. Iula during the early 1950s.

"He had a tremendously long career, and not too many musicians make money out of music, but Feen did. His career stretched all the way back to the early 1920s," Mr. Sherr said.

"He got his fair share of work and did well. In this business you either make friends or enemies, and he made lots of friends," Mr. Sherr said.

In addition to playing in local theaters, Mr. Iula appeared with his orchestra or brothers at weddings, debutante parties, Paint and Powder shows and society dances. The Iulas often manned the bandstands at the Belvedere, the Rennert and the Emerson hotels, and the Baltimore Country Club.

Although he had an interest in music from the turn of the century, Mr. Iula made a reputation with his renditions of the light classics. However, it was said that he could just as easily play a foot-pounding Charleston, a seductive tango or the latest Cole Porter or George Gershwin number.

Julius Bialek, who first played the saxophone for one of Mr. Iula's band's in 1925, said, "He was a worry wart, but it was good money. He was always worried that the guys would start drinking, and you couldn't have that. He demanded that our tuxedos be pressed and cleaned and shoes shined. He made the rules right on down to the music, which he planned. He left nothing to chance: Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, 'Show Boat' or whatever was beautifully played, and, believe me, he played good '20s jazz."

Mr. Bialek frequently rode with Mr. Iula to the band's engagements and was amazed that such a reticent and gracious man would drive through the streets at high speeds with such abandon.

"I was scared to death. Every time I got in his Chevrolet I had to make a novena," said Mr. Bialek with a laugh. "My God, was he fast."

Said Victor Fuentealba, a lawyer and former president of Musicians Association Local 40-543 who first played with Mr. Iula in a pit band at Ford's Theater in the 1940s, "He was a tradition in Baltimore music. He was a remarkable man who remained active and didn't retire until a year ago. The name Iula was once the best-known name in the area."

Born on Fulton Avenue and raised in Little Italy, Mr. Iula was the son of a musical father who came to Baltimore from Italy in the 1880s. His brother Robert P. Iula, who died in 1952, was a founder of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and a former head of municipal music, and directed his own renowned Band DeLuxe.

His other brother, Felice Iula, conducted theater orchestras during the golden age of movies at such Baltimore movie houses as the Rivoli, Stanley and Hippodrome theaters. He later was musical director of WBAL radio and taught at Calvert Hall. He died in 1966.

"He used to tell me, if you didn't have a Iula playing then you didn't have a dance," said Peggy Morrissey, a friend who lives in Bel Air.

He was married for many years to the former Marie Hiltz, who died in 1984.

A Mass of Christian burial was offered yesterday at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Highlandtown.

He is survived by a nephew, Frank Iula Jr. of Essex; and a niece, Carmela Jackson of Baltimore.

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