Don Nardo

I was fortunate enough to have been born into a musical family.  My parents were popular night-club entertainers who toured the United States, performing in clubs like the “Copa” and other first-tier venues that today exist mainly in Las Vegas, New York, and a few other cities. Sometimes they were the feature act, but quite often they “opened” for headliners like Tony Bennett, Pearl Bailey,and other musical greats. My brother, Philip, and I traveled with them everywhere. Until I was six, we lived in hotel suites, usually staying in  each place for a few weeks or however long my parents were booked in a particular club. At night, when they were working, Phil and I always had registered nurses as babysitters, as my mother left nothing to chance, no matter how great the expense. In the daytime, my parents gave us their full attention, taking us to museums, zoos, and movies, as well as teaching  us to read well before we were old enough to go to school.

img002Pretty much the only times Phil and I were on our own were when our parents were putting together a new act and needed to rehearse for a couple of hours a day. My father was a gifted musician who taught himself to play the guitar with tremendous skill. He was also a marvelous singer with an operatic-quality voice. My mother sang and danced in the style of members of Broadway chorus lines and knew how to “sell” a song. In my mind’s eye, I can still see and hear them harmonizing, both at home and on stage with professional musicians backing them up.

The photo at right is the only one of their early head-shots I have left and is a bit worse-for-wear. But it effectively shows their physical appeal and professional demeanor. They called themselves “Mr. and Mrs. of Song,” which can just be made out below their names in the photo.

Growing up in such a family, I was quite naturally drawn to music at an early age. But although I certainly enjoyed the popular songs my parents performed, it was symphonic, or orchestral, music that interested me the most. My father gave me several records when I was very young, including music by Dvorak, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Delibes, Ravel, and Rachmaninoff. Among my early favorites were Tchaikovsky’s ballets and tone poem Romeo and Juliet, Beethoven’s sixth symphony, Dvorak’s cello concerto, Ravel’s Pavanne for a Dead Princess, Delibes’ Coppelia and Sylvia ballets, and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and second symphony. Not long after I began listening to these pieces, when I was around 9, I was surprised to find that more music, consisting of an orchestra playing various melodies and passages I had never heard before, was periodically appearing in my head. It soon became clear to me that I was composing these pieces myself.

Me at age 9, about the time that I began hearing original orchestral music in my head.

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The problem was that I had no formal musical training and did not yet play any instruments. So I had no idea how to write down the music I was hearing in my head and orchestrate it on paper. For a long time, therefore, all I could do was to memorize the pieces I liked and hope I would eventually be able to record them on paper. At first, they were short and structurally fairly simple. But over time they got longer and more complex. When I was  14, I composed a traditional four-movement symphony. But I still knew very little about music theory and notation. By this time, fortunately, I did play the trumpet a little, so I could read and play single lines of notes on a treble clef.  I wrote down portions of the symphony in the form of separate lines for each instrument, although they were all in the same key and clef, amounting to what I could play on my trumpet. Wanting to hear what the piece sounded like outside of my head, but having no access to real musicians, I decided to try doing it myself. I got hold of two old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorders and on one of them taped myself playing the flute part on my trumpet. Then I used the second recorder to tape myself playing the violin part on my trumpet along with the flute part playing back on the first recorder. I kept going  back and forth like that until I had a recording of eight or nine instrument parts–all trumpets–playing at once. But because each new recording produced generation problems, which multiplied, the final product was a weird cacophony of whining, wavering trumpet sounds. My mind was able to sort through it all and substitute the right instruments. But the people I played it for, including my mother and father, heard nothing but the cacophony.

The bottom line was that no one believed that I was actually a budding young composer. I became very sensitive about it, in retrospect probably overly so. And for several years afterward, including my high school and  college years, I kept my ability to compose, along with the new pieces I continued to create in my head, to myself. Not until I made a concerted effort in my early twenties to teach myself proper notation by studying books on music theory and orchestration did I dare to tell anyone that I was a composer, and even then I revealed it only to a select few. Finally able to write down what I heard in my head, over the ensuing decades I turned out more than seventy works for various orchestral and chamber ensembles, including another symphony, numerous concertos, four string quartets, incidental music for plays, and a film score. In time, I was able to hear some of these pieces played by real musicians. For example, I hired four string players who were members of a local orchestra to play my first string quartet in a recording studio. And during the short period that I taught high school classes between my acting and writing careers, the school’s kindly music director took an interest in my work and had the school orchestra play passages from some of my pieces. Later, as the home computer age dawned, I got wind of the existence of music notation software, and using a brand called Sibelius, I began to record electronic versions of some of my earlier works. I created CDs from some of these recordings, and the covers of some of them appear below. (For more about my music, including more CD covers, see the Music page.)

Double Concerto Cover 2_1Cello Concerto Cover 5_1

Symphony No. 1 Cover 2_1

I also had the good fortune to receive music commissions from time to time, including some from local musical groups and orchestras in the 1980s and 1990s. One of these, a suite for orchestra and narrator based on H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, came from the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Royston Nash. Later, in 2008, after hearing a recording of my violin concerto, the distinguished violinist
Peter Ferreira asked me to become the resident composer and arranger for his new Connecticut-based Amadis Orchestra. I served in that capacity for two years. My main task was to provide musical arrangements of old standards–including opera, European folk, American pop, famous movie themes, and Christmas classics–that featured Peter’s solo violin accompanied by ensembles ranging from twelve players to twenty-five players to full orchestra. (Peter is pictured in concert below.)


In July 2011 ,my second commission came from the  Cape Symphony, now conducted by Jung-Ho Pak.  He asked me to compose two of the four movements of Cape Cod Impressions, a new suite for orchestra. The performances of the piece in September of that year, commemorating the orchestra’s fiftieth anniversary, were enthusiastically received and well-reviewed.

To my left (your right) in this photo are the conductor, Jung-Ho Pak, and my co-composer, David M. Cohen.

Cape Cod Symphony 50th Anniversary Concert




Although music occupied a good deal of my time as a young man, it was not my only interest. Also from an early age (beginning when I was 8 or 9) I acquired a passionate preoccupation with stage and film make-up. This came, in large part, from my fondness for horror and science-fiction movies, of which as a child I watched all the old classics, both good and bad, from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.  My idol was the great TV and film make-up artist Dick Smith (who I later met at his home and carried on a correspondence with). Partially through reading books and pamphlets and partly through trial and error, I taught myself the art of stage make-up and was doing professional-quality work by the age of fourteen. In addition to old men, clowns, and other character types, I did quite a few make-up jobs of monsters, not only because I liked horror films, but also because these highly elaborate make-ups demanded proficiency in a wide range of techniques, including making rubber appliances from a life-mask of my face, learning to blend the edges of those appliances with my facial contours, applying extra facial hair as well as hiding my own facial hair, and fashioning and applying various mouthpieces and wigs. The two sample photos below show such elaborate make-ups. The werewolf on the right was done when I was 13, and the Mr. Hyde (from the classic horror novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) on the left was done when I was 15.   (See the Theater and Make-up page for more of my make-up photos.)

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Watching old movies also instilled in me a fascination for the acting craft. After doing several plays in high school (Natick High, in Natick, Massachusetts), including large-scale productions of the musicals South Pacific and My Fair Lady, I set my sights on becoming an actor, and toward that end  I majored in drama at Syracuse University. There, I took on a wide range of roles, including the mad king in Escurial, Geppetto in Pinocchio, Thomas Becket in Becket, and the Royal Priest in Indian playwright Rabindranath Tagore’s classic Sacrifice (directed by Ken Sherber). Some of these roles allowed me to exploit my make-up skills to great effect. (See the examples directly below.)

As the Royal Priest in Tagore’s Sacrifice (left) and the mad king in the Belgian play Escurial (right). (See the Theater and Make-up page for photos from other shows.)


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Also, both students and professors in the drama department took notice. Three or four months into my freshman year, one of those professors asked me to teach a series of make-up seminars for workshops attended by some local community theater actors he was advising. The money I made for teaching these classes was minimal. But the experience was worthwhile, and the exposure it gave me helped to establish my reputation in the university drama department. Thereafter, both students and professors frequently called on me to design make-ups for various department productions. Perhaps the most challenging example was a major presentation of Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon, for which I taught the actors how to create convincing Asian make-ups. (At the time, there were no students of Asian background in the department.)

After leaving Syracuse, I went to New York City to pursue an acting career and at my first audition was hired by a prominent children’s theater touring company. Later, I worked in summer stock in upstate New York, where I played the leads in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (which I had also done in high school) and the classic musical Good News. I also did dinner-theater tours in the American South, where the New York-based acting company played for a month in each city. In one of those tours I played Inspector Levine in Catch Me If You Can, which also starred the later noted American character actor Richert Easley.

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As Inspector Levine in  Catch Me If You Can



I also understudied Snoopy in the Broadway production of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. In addition, I toured with the National Shakespeare Company, then under the direction of the late Philip Meister. Among other productions, the group did Othello, Macbeth, and As You like It, in which I understudied and later ended up playing the court jester Touchstone.

In all, counting college plays; professional shows in New York, on tour, and in summer stock; and a few community theater appearances in between (including presentations of The Lion in Winter and Edward Albee’s  Zoo Story, the latter directed by Joe Rassulo, who would later become a successful film maker), I performed in more than sixty stage productions in the course of seven-to-eight years. Part of me wanted to continue this course. But another part was torn. On the one hand, I intensely disliked having to put up with the grind and grime of city life. And on the other, knowing that I had considerable writing ability, I increasingly became interested in approaching the business as a screenwriter. Thus, I decided to put my acting career more or less on hold and to try my hand at writing screenplays and teleplays. While writing the first few, at first I paid the bills by teaching some high school English and social studies classes (in Barnstable Massachusetts). One of the screenplays I did during this period, The Bet, won a $5,000 award from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation (now the Massachusetts Cultural Council) in 1982. Later, I  wrote an episode of the popular ABC series Spenser: For Hire (“Skeletons in the Closet,” starring Robert Urich as Spenser and E.G. Marshall as a corrupt judge).

Veteran film and TV actor E.G. Marshall played Judge Jason Kingsley in my Spenser episode “Skeletons in the Closet.”

E.G. #2

1982 was also the year I quit teaching and began to write full-time. In addition to screenplays and teleplays, it was not long before I was turning out books as well, mostly non-fiction volumes about history for schools and libraries. Shortly before the teaching gig, I had briefly gone back to school and picked up a degree in history. Ever since childhood, I had been fascinated by that subject, especially ancient history, and most of all the ancient Greeks, with whom I have always strongly identified. (I wrote a ten-page prose version of Homer’s Iliad, illustrated with little drawings, at the age of seven. The quality wasn’t particularly remarkable, but my parents and other adult relatives were amazed by the initiative and effort.) Over the decades, in my spare time, I absorbed most of the works of the ancient Greek and Roman authors, along with a majority of the key books by leading modern archaeologists and historians. So when a number of “young adult” publishers began offering me book titles in the 1980s, I accepted all of the ones I could on the Greeks, Romans, and other ancient peoples. Of the 200+ history books I published in the years that followed, more than a hundred were about the ancient world. I accepted assignments to do many volumes about medieval and modern history as well, including numerous titles on another historical specialty of mine–America’s founding fathers and their chief accomplishments and writings. My books have generated hundreds of favorable reviews in leading literary journals, including School Library Journal and Booklist, and I have frequently been called the country’s leading writer of historical works for young adults.

While I was writing these books, my editors often asked me to do volumes on other subjects, including various aspects of science. This gave me the opportunity to expound on scientific topics  that I had long enjoyed and kept up with over the years, among them astronomy (I was an amateur astronomer as a teenager), astrobiology, dinosaurs, and cloning. Offers also came for me to write literary companions, for which I produced studies of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and other plays by Shakespeare, along with Sophocles’ Antigone, Euripides’ Medea, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Shelley’s Frankenstein, and others. In all, I have published more than 400 non-fiction books.      

These are the covers of three of the literary companions. (For a larger sampling of my books, accompanied by assorted reviews, see  the Publications page.)                                                                                                                                                                                                                   



Understanding Hamlet

In 2009, I finally found time to devote to fiction and that year completed my first adult novel, Cloak of Destiny. Based on one of my screenplays, Millennium, it is best described as a “cosmic” mystery. I also wrote a middle-grade children’s mystery-adventure novel, Beneath the Black Pit, the first of a series of children’s books built around a brilliant thirteen-year-old girl who becomes a sleuth. My agent for my fiction books is Marisa Corvisiero, at the Corvisiero Literary Agency, in New York City.

Regarding my family life, I live, quite happily, with my second wife, Christine, whom I married in 1982. My son, Dana, whom I had with my first wife, is married and lives in the same town that I do. A gifted artist, he has dabbled in graphic arts, commercial animation (for Comcast and other companies), and book illustration. (Most recently, he designed the cover for Cloak of Destiny (see above). My father passed away in 1990, but my mother is still alive and also lives in the same town that I do. Meanwhile, my brother Phil is married and lives in southern California.

Christine and me in California in 1982, shortly before getting married . . .


. . . and in 2001 on our way to an anniversary dinner.


Christine and I are avid book lovers and collectors, and our modest-size house is packed with more than 5,000 volumes. (My collection of history books makes up about a third of that total. There are also many volumes on philosophy and related topics, as Christine majored in philosophy in college.) We also love animals,  especially dogs, and presently share our lives with a yellow lab named Daisy.

        Daisy at about six months old.      
Daisy looking cute
Daisy at about a year and a half.


Our other interests include watching movies, going to music concerts, and travel. Greece and Hawaii are our favorite destinations. Personally, I have visited Greece on numerous occasions over the years, sometimes as a tourist, but more often as a scholar. While there, I spend many hours at archaeological sites and museums, thereby absorbing as much as possible about the ancient civilization that in many ways laid the foundation for the modern Western world.