Sarky Mouradian interviewing Charles Aznavour on Armenian Teletime

In Memoriam: Sarky Mouradian, father of Armenian-American Television, Pop Music

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LOS ANGELES — Like many who devote their talents to the Armenian community rather than gain fame in the wider world, Sarky Mouradian was the community’s asset.

To Armenians in Los Angeles, he was something of a living legend. Others were disappointed that his work did not have the production values or seeming relevance of Hollywood. These Armenians were waiting for a major motion picture telling their story, something that was belatedly and partially realized with the release of “The Promise.”

Mouradian’s legacy was quite different. He was not a Saroyan or a Mamoulian who told the Armenian story to the world community. Instead, he served a vital role as community servant, telling the Armenian story from the perspective of the Armenians, through film and television, without regard to the editorial oversight of Hollywood executives or the preferences of the American public. And perhaps even more importantly, by creating content almost exclusively in Armenian, he aided in the preservation of the Western Armenian language in the United States.

Mouradian died in Los Angeles at age 90 on February 10.

Sarky Mouradian

Musical Prodigy

Sarkis Mouradian was born in 1931 in Beirut, and was already involved in music in his teens, writing songs and even making a couple of recordings for the French record label Pathe-Marconi (and according to one article, five recordings for Columbia Records). Early music teachers in Lebanon included such luminaries as Parsegh Ganatchian, the dean of Lebanon’s Armenian music community, who was a famed choral composer and disciple of Gomidas, and Onnig Surmelian, a noted violinist who was the brother of Armenian-American writer Leon Surmelian. Mouradian’s early interest in singing and composing European-influenced Armenian popular songs eventually presaged the Armenian pop music wave of the late 1960s and 1970s — a wave which he himself helped to bring about, by mentoring the singer Manuel (Menengichian).

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It also helped him to get to America. In 1952 he entered a songwriting contest at his alma mater, the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music, and the “mambo” he wrote won him a trip to the US as an exchange student. By 1955 he was studying at the Boston Conservatory. But his first love was cinema, and so in 1960, he headed for the coast, at a time when LA’s Armenian community was burgeoning in the postwar era, to pursue his dream of making films.

Manuel’s 1973 album “Tears of Happiness,” produced and composed by Sarky Mouradian

Getting Started in Hollywood

Mouradian attended the Theatre of Arts Hollywood Acting School and began working in various facets of the film industry. But he was not to make his mark in mainstream Hollywood, though he worked on various projects and no doubt earned a living from the industry. Instead, Mouradian was to become the leading figure in film and television production for the Armenian ethnic market, and specifically, the Armenian-speaking market for whom he produced TV shows, movies, and music predominantly in Western Armenian.

In 1964, Mouradian appeared in his first major Armenian film project, George (Gevorg) Marzpetouni’s “A Debt of Blood” (Ariunabardge), based on a short story by Avetis Aharonian. While not the first Armenian-language film made in the US, it was the first of a new era.

Setrag Vartian, an early immigrant from Dikranagerd, had produced three Armenian-language films in the US decades earlier; the relatively popular “Arshin Mal Alan” (1937) was shot in New York and New Jersey, while “Anoush” (1945) and “The Life and Songs of Gomidas Vartabed” (1946), both apparently lost, were made in California. After those projects ran out of steam, it took a new wave of immigration and a new director, Marzpetouni, a newcomer from Iran at the time, to once again attempt a full-length Armenian language motion picture.

“A Debt of Blood” cast Mouradian in the lead role as a freedom fighter from the Shabin-Karahisar region named Baghdo. The black-and-white film holds up surprisingly well for an ethnic minority feature of that era. The goal of making the film was to raise money to fund a more ambitious project telling the story of the defense of Shabin-Karahisar, but this was left unrealized with the premature death of Marzpetouni. Instead, Mouradian would rise to the challenge, taking the place of his mentor as the leading propagator of Armenian-language film in the US.

Manuel with Lana Wood in Mouradian’s Film “Sons of Sassoun”

Filmmaker, Music Impresario

Mouradian’s first film was “Baghdasar Aghpar” (1965), based on Hagop Baronian’s 1886 comedy. A favorite of the Armenian stage, the story is a satire on marriage and divorce in the Armenian community. The film, in black and white, features the music of Mouradian’s own “Hye Tones” orchestra including the title song Baghdasar Aghpar and a sequence where a female Armenian nightclub singer performs the well-known kef song “Gneeguh” backed by oud and dumbeg musicians.

The music of the Hye Tones represented a unique place in Armenian-American popular music. Coming before the pop music explosion of the 70s and 80s, but composed of then-recent immigrants, their music shows influences from the style played by East Coast bands as well as the more Continental European tastes of the newcomers, the Eastern Armenian flavor of LA’s large “Russahye” community, and Mouradian’s own songwriting.

Mouradian was a champion of Armenian music and at the same time the music scene influenced his films, as seen in his relationship with the singer Manuel.

Born Manuel Menengichian in 1941 in Beirut, Manuel had a career in the 1960s singing French chansons in the style of Charles Aznavour, with whom he even studied for a time. Manuel’s recordings made in Lebanon in French, including the song Tammy, (written by Lebanese composer Elias Rahbani) were extremely popular throughout the Middle East and he even toured the Soviet Union and Soviet Armenia around 1967-68. By 1970, he was in the US, where he encountered Mouradian. But in the meantime, back in Beirut, Adiss Harmandian had started a trend of Armenian crooners who got their start in French music switching to Armenian lyrics, which gave birth to modern Armenian pop music. Mouradian convinced Manuel that he needed to do the same. But where was Manuel going to get Continental ballads written in the Armenian language? Sarky Mouradian was going to write them.

And so it was that Tears of Happiness (Yerchangoutyan Artsounknere) was born. The album, featuring Manuel was released in 1973, the same year the film was made, and advertised as “music from the motion picture.” Six of the 10 songs on the album were written by Mouradian, one being an Armenian version of Tammy. Manuel was marketed as a star and the liner notes were composed solely of clippings from American newspapers praising his crooning abilities. The film, a melodramatic love story about a singing sensation (played by Manuel, of course), was released in 1974 and was even screened in Beirut, where Mouradian and Manuel were invited to attend the premiere and greeted by adoring crowds.

Manuel’s good looks, onscreen charm and singing voice were again utilized in “Sons of Sassoun” (1975) which was released in English and Armenian versions. Manuel played a fedayee fighting the power of the Ottoman Empire in 1908 in the Shenik village of Sassoun, while his love interest was portrayed by American actress Lana Wood, and the Turkish governor was played by Peter Lorre, Jr. Mouradian’s final film of the era was another melodramatic love story starring Manuel, “Promise of Love” (1978), which also depicted the immigration of Beirut Armenians to the United States.

In 1982, Mouradian directed the only English-language film version of Franz Werfel’s “The 40 Days of Musa Dagh.” The movie rights had been bought by MGM in the 1930s, but production (which was reportedly to star Clark Gable), was shut down by the diplomatic intervention of the Turkish government. John Kurkjian eventually bought the rights and produced Mouradian’s film. The film did not find much success outside of the Armenian community and was widely panned by critics. In 2002, Mouradian directed his final Armenian-language film, “Alicia,” featuring, for the first time in one of his productions, actors from the more recent wave of immigration out of post-Soviet Armenia.

Sarky Mouradian on the set of “Sons of Sassoun”

Armenian Teletime

Mouradian’s most lasting legacy was arguably Armenian Teletime. Serving the burgeoning Armenian-speaking community of the Los Angeles area, which swelled to unheard of numbers after the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975 and the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Armenian Teletime was groundbreaking in ethnic media for the Armenian community.

Previous generations of Armenian immigrants had established newspapers, radio shows, record labels, book publishing houses and so on. But Armenian language content had decreased since the 1950s, and television was seemingly not on anyone’s radar, other than rare specials such as “Mannix” having an episode with Armenian language spoken, or the Armenian community in Detroit producing a program to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Genocide in 1965.

Mouradian changed all that when he started the first “Armenian Time” television program in LA in 1967 on Channel 40, at the time an English-Spanish bilingual station; the following year he switched over to Channel 22 KWHY, which broadcast stock market coverage during the week and foreign-language content on the weekends. In the 60s, the Armenian news announcer was Larry Zarian, who later became mayor of Glendale. Finally in 1978, Mouradian started the long-lived program “Armenian Teletime,” which broadcast local Armenian community news and advertisements, along with music videos and Mouradian’s interviews with famous Armenians. It started as a one-hour program on Channel 18 (international programming) in Los Angeles and Channel 38 in San Francisco/Fresno. It became a two-hour program, and eventually aired every Saturday and Sunday morning until Channel 18 started cutting back their international programming in 2017.

Mouradian funded 90 percent of the costs of running the program himself. In 2021, he made the move to YouTube where he began posting classic clips from over the years, as well as producing 30-minute segments called “Armenian Teletime LIVE,” where he continued interviewing Armenian celebrities and community members. His last live segment had aired on YouTube in November.

Leaving Behind a Legacy

A generation born and raised in LA to the Armenian immigrant parents of the 1970s, grew up with Sarky Mouradian as a constant presence on their parents’ TV screens, a reminder of their roots and maybe more importantly, a means to keep alive the spoken Armenian language in the Diaspora (the now-endangered Western variant in particular).

He was also an inspiration to young Armenians pursuing a career in the film industry. Armen Karaoghlanian, who with his wife Mary founded the Armenian Film Society in 2015 in Los Angeles, offered the following statement:

“Sarky Mouradian shaped my childhood, and the childhood of countless others. We grew up on weekends hearing his soothing voice, the theme song of his television program on. This welcomed us into our living rooms where we sat down with our families and watched him over breakfast. This was our weekends.

“I thought this experience was unique to my sister and I, until I grew older and heard similar stories— from my wife and from other Armenians. If you weren’t a child of those times, you followed his broadcast and it’s where you stayed connected to the Armenian community.

“Sarky Mouradian was a trailblazer — beyond his defining work in television, he directed a number of feature films that broke ground. ‘The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,’ for instance, is still the only film adaptation of Franz Werfel’s novel.

“Inspirational. Multitalented. Revolutionary. These are just a handful of words to describe a giant in our culture.

The “Hye Tones” Band: Nubar (piano), Edik Bulujian (clarinet), Krikor “Koko” Dermendjian (drums), Amas Arakelian (violin), Sarky Mouradian (guitar, vocals)

“This is a monumental loss, but we’re so glad we had the pleasure of hosting him twice at Armenian Film Society. We organized the first public screening of Sons of Sassoun in over 40 years at our beloved Abril Books in Glendale. We know this meant a lot to him, but it meant more to us. As an organization dedicated to acknowledging the achievements of Armenians in film, and recognizing great Armenian filmmakers, he stands at the very top of that list.”

Karaoghlanian’s tribute, from someone who grew up with Mouradian and knew him personally, is perhaps the best way to understand his impact. It was to inspire people like Karaoghlanian and to pass on the Armenian culture that undoubtedly motivated Mouradian in his career.

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