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Symphony's food drive is tribute to 'The Soloist,' a homeless prodigy nourished by music

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 11, 2009 - For years, Nathaniel Ayers, a one-time Juilliard musician, played his instruments on the streets of Los Angeles, lost in his own world of schizophrenia.

Then a Los Angeles Times columnist found him and brought his story to a wider audience.

Now, that story will be coming soon to movie theaters, and fans of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra will be able to help feed local HIV/AIDS or cancer patients as part of the package.

Ayers, as played by Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, and Times columnist Steve Lopez, portrayed by Oscar nominee Robert Downey Jr., will be featured in "The Soloist," scheduled to be released on April 24. A minor character in the film is Adam Crane, the former PR man with the Los Angeles Philharmonic who now holds a similar position with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

In an interview with the Beacon, Crane recalled how Lopez discovered Ayers playing a two-string violin on the streets near the L.A. Times building in 2005. After talking with Ayers and learning his story -- a promising music career cut short by schizophrenia, going from a student at Juilliard to living on the streets of Los Angeles -- "Steve realized there was something special there," Crane said.

Lopez wrote about Ayers, spent time with him and was able to bring more order to his life. Crane recalled how Lopez asked if he could bring Ayers to a rehearsal by the L.A. Philharmonic of the Third Symphony by Beethoven -- Ayers' favorite.

"It was Nathaniel's first time in a concert hall in over 30 years," Crane said, "and he was blown away by the experience."

His newfound fame has been a mixed blessing for Ayers, Crane said. He still plays his seven instruments on the L.A. streets, but he has been able to find indoor living quarters on that city's Skid Row. Money from his story, managed by his sister, has helped to improve his life to a certain extent.

But, Crane added, "Money doesn't really mean anything to him. He just wants to play his music.

"In a way, he's proud of the fact that he's kind of made it. He couldn't make it as a musician at Juilliard; now he's getting the recognition he never had. But he's living in his own world, and he doesn't want to be bothered."

In recognition of Ayers' life and the upcoming movie, orchestras across the nation are joining in a food drive called Orchestras Feeding America. Patrons are asked to bring canned food to the St. Louis Symphony's concerts on March 27 and 29 at Powell Hall; the donations will go to Food Outreach, which provides nutritional support to men, women and children living with HIV/AIDS or cancer.

Crane said Ayers has seen the movie based on his life -- kind of. "He watched it with his eyes closed," Crane said.

The two men still talk regularly. Ayers calls Crane's cell phone, which has a Los Angeles number. Ayers' life isn't idyllic, but Crane says it's a vast improvement.

"It's a horrific place, but at least he's indoors," Crane said, "and he has a music studio there that Steve helped set up. He loves just doing his thing. It's all about music for him.

"Music is his drug. He's at peace when he's playing his music. He's happy in his own world."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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