Published Friday, Jan. 11, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Updated Friday, Jan. 11, 2013 | 12:19 p.m.
Longtime Las Vegas violinist Sasha Semenoff most times played for his livelihood. But there was one bleak period when, at the brutal hands of the Nazis, he played for his very life.
In a 2009 interview, Semenoff told the Sun that while he was being transported to a concentration camp a German soldier saw him holding a mandolin and told him to play “La Paloma.”
Semenoff figured that if he hadn’t immediately struck up that tune he would never have played another note. He said in the interview that playing music on instruments ranging from the violin to the piano soothed the fiery tempers of Nazi commanders and prevented them from killing him.
Sasha Semenoff, who in the late 1950s immigrated to Las Vegas where he carved out a 50-plus-year career as a musician playing for Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and other major stars, died Saturday in Las Vegas. He was 88.
Services were private at Semenoff’s request. The family will host a musical celebration of Semenoff’s life at 1 p.m. on Jan. 27 at Maggiano’s at the Fashion Show mall.
Semenoff, who performed in major showrooms at Caesars Palace, the old Dunes and elsewehere, as well as at intimate Italian restaurants, often was called “Frank Sinatra’s favorite violinist.”
“Frank used to bring my father to the blackjack and craps tables to serenade him with his violin while Frank gambled,” Paul Semenoff, also a professional musician, said.
“One night, Dad kept playing Sinatra’s hit ‘Strangers in the Night’ over and over again. Finally, Frank took Dad aside and said, ‘Sasha, I hate that song. You play it one more time and I’ll shove that bow up your ass!’ ”
Semenoff never again played the do-be-do-be-do ditty in front of Sinatra.
Sasha also appeared in four movies — his trademark snow white hair was died black for his performance as the orchestra leader in “Casino” — and backed up the Rat Pack at the Desert Inn during their famous 1960 performances.
Semenoff also was a favorite of legendary Strip illusionists Siegfried and Roy.
When not performing in the big orchestras, Semenoff was a popular solo performer who serenaded guests at Caesars Palace's Bacchanal Room, the MGM Grand's Parisian Bar, the Dunes' Sultan's Table, Gigi and Barrymore, Maggiano's, Zefferino and most recently Lombardi's at Planet Hollywood.
For many years, Semenoff remained silent about the horrors he saw in Nazi-controlled Europe. But in his 60s he started touring schools to teach young people about that troubled period in world history.
“There were people denying that the Holocaust had happened and my father felt he had a duty to tell his story to set the record straight,” Paul Semenoff said. “He related well to young people who listened intently to what he had to say.”
Semenoff was born Abram Shapiro on Sept. 20, 1924, in Riga, Latvia. His father was a clerk in a textile factory, his mother a housewife. His uncle, Simon Semenoff, was a ballet dancer and choreographer who immigrated to the United States during the war and became a Hollywood choreographer. The youngster later took his stage name from his uncle.
Semenoff began playing the piano at age 6 and got his first violin at age 9.
His country was overrun first by the Soviet Union and then by the Nazis. Semenoff’s sister escaped with the fleeing Russians. The rest of Semenoff’s family eventually were killed by the Nazis.
Sasha was forced to live in a Latvian Jewish ghetto but later was taken to the Lenta concentration camp in Latvia, and finally was sent by boat to Stutthof, a camp near Gdansk, Poland.
“We saw what was in store for us,” Semenoff told the Sun in 2009, recounting how upon arrival he saw gaunt male prisoners in striped fatigues.
“Death was everywhere by hanging, in gas chambers, from starvation. The prisoners were given a piece of bread and a cup of black coffee in the mornings and soup at night. When someone died, inmates would take the dead person’s rations until the smell of death alerted guards to take out the body.”
Semenoff caught typhus and scarlet fever and weighed just 80 pounds when the Russians liberated his camp on March 10, 1945.
After months in hospitals, Semenoff found his way to Munich, Germany, where he obtained a violin from the Red Cross and played in nightclubs for a few years.
In 1949, his Uncle Simon brought him to Hollywood. A year later, Semenoff was performing as a union musician at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Semenoff then went on the Borscht Belt circuit in the Catskills, where he met his future wife, Sylvia. They married in 1954.
In 1959, a friend called from Las Vegas and told Semenoff that the Desert Inn was looking to hire 10 violinists for a lounge act. He was rarely unemployed after that.
In addition to fronting the orchestras at the Dunes and Caesars Palace as "Sasha Semenoff and His Romantic Strings," Semenoff opened the MGM Grand (now Bally’s) and the Excalibur and worked most of Sinatra’s private parties, including his wedding to Mia Farrow.
Semenoff helped open the International (later the Las Vegas Hilton, now the Las Vegas Hotel) and was in the orchestra when Barbra Streisand was the first headliner there. He stayed on for Presley’s longtime engagement.
Semenoff opened the Venetian in 1999 and performed there for several years.
Late in life, Semenoff enjoyed traveling to Israel to visit his sister and Northern California to visit his grandsons. His wife died in 2000 after 49 years of marriage.
Semenoff never retired. He last performed in mid-December as a soloist at Lombardi’s and with his trio, Vegas Old Time, at the Las Vegas old-timers reunion dinner last fall at the Orleans.
He was admitted to a local hospital with an infection in mid-December.
On his deathbed, Semenoff told his son he had only one regret in life — that he never got a chance to serve in the U.S. armed forces.
“Dad said that if he could not play anymore, he didn’t want to live,” Paul Semenoff said. “In the end, heart failure took him. He went on his own terms. Music was his life.”
In addition to his son Paul and his wife, Lara, of Las Vegas, Sasha Semenoff is survived by his stepson Alan Blum and his wife, Sue, of Las Vegas; sister Selma Krugliak of Bat-Yam, Israel, two grandsons, Aaron Semenoff and Joel Semenoff; and a great-grandson, Brody Semenoff.
Ed Koch is a retired Sun writer.