Carmel Valley couple takes visitors to 19th century through Old Town music program


By Karen Billing

For more than 20 years, Carmel Valley residents Harry and June Goldenberg have been taking visitors on a trip back through time, singing in the parlor of the Casa de Estudillo in Old Town State Historic Park. Every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to noon, the couple offers up a slice of what life was like in the parlor in 19th century America.

“What we do is educate and entertain,” said Harry, who plays the harmonica to accompany June on piano. “I’m a ham, I love to perform.”

In Old Town, Estudillo is one of a handful of historic sites in the park. Estudillo is an adobe house built in 1827, one of the first buildings built in the city. The original adobe was restored in 1910. Harry and June set up shop in the parlor, known as the “sala.”

“It’s a step back in time,” June said.

June is a classically trained pianist with a master’s degree in ethnomusicology. While living in New York, she took on a project at the Old Bethpage Village Restoration on Long Island, researching the songs that were sung in the 19th century parlors. Once the project was complete, she ran the music program for the guests.

When the couple moved to San Diego in 1990, June immediately contacted Old Town San Diego to find out about its music program. Finding there was none, June offered her services and was very well received.

A year later Harry, a retired advertising sales representative, joined her in the singing and to accompany her on harmonica.

The pair dress in traditional costumes; June in full-skirted dresses and Harry in a coat and top hat. Both take on the roles of early San Diego settlers: June plays Sarah Robinson and Harry transforms into Louis Rose.

Robinson came on a wagon train from Texas with Rose, who was the first Jewish man to come to San Diego. It took eight months to reach California by wagon and at one point Robinson was captured by Indians.

They talk about how in 1855 there was no electricity and how the parlor is where people would have to entertain themselves with activities such as knitting, playing games and, especially, singing. June said music that came into the parlor in the 1850s represented a wide variety, from military songs to French songs to the popular Stephen Foster songs, such as “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races” and “Beautiful Dreamer.”

Harry said in those days, playing an instrument was a very important talent to have.

“Girls played the piano to show they were accomplished and to get a husband,” Harry said. “Boys played the violin and most of the mouth instruments because it wasn’t ladylike for women to play them.”

The most fun the Goldenbergs have had over the years was when the Old Town School was working. During that time, the sala would be filled with students who were very interested in the history and keen to sing along to songs like “Yankee Doodle” and “Skip to my Lou.”

While the Old Town School has ceased operations, they still get school visitors, typically fourth graders who are studying California history. Entertaining children is something the Goldenbergs’ particularly enjoy.

“Have you ever sat in front of a room full of first graders, all with their teeth missing?” June said. “When they enter the parlor I’d say ‘You have left the year 2012 and you’re now in the year 1855.’ There’s a difference in the silence when I say that and I always love that moment when suddenly we’re in a different place.”

Visitors from all over the world have come to Old Town and the couple has been surprised by how the songs of the 19th century are still known today.

“One of the songs the whole world knows is the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’,” Harry said. “Even people who don’t speak English.”

June said Japanese visitors love to hear “Auld Lang Syne”—they have different lyrics for the tune and it is commonly heard at graduations and at the end of the day. When June starts playing, Japanese tourists all begin to sing.

Music, the couple has found, is an international language that brings people together.

Casa de Estudillo is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is free. Learn more about visiting Old Town San Diego at