Uke Tales: Ukulele Number One

By Sandor Nagyszalanczy

Since this is my first installment for this new online feature, I thought it appropriate to tell the story of my very first ukulele.

In 1956, when I was just two-and-a-half years old, my mother, father and I left our Communist-controlled homeland of Hungary during the infamous November Revolution. We escaped by crawling under barbed wire and fleeing to Austria. About a month later, we boarded a “freedom flight” to America where we were taken to Camp Kilmer, a decommissioned Army base in northern New Jersey that had been converted into a refugee camp. Thanks to the efforts of various humanitarian aid organizations, our family quickly settled into an apartment building in Newark, NJ, along with a dozen other Hungarian families. My father soon found work as a mechanical engineer and my mother set about creating a comfortable household, while I pursued the simple pleasures of childhood: Running and playing outdoors, building with blocks, and singing along with songs I heard on TV.


Some years later, perhaps to further my musical enjoyments, I received a very special gift: A child-sized Carnival “Aloha” ukulele. Sporting red nylon strings, the uke had a marbled brown Styron plastic back and sides and an ivory-colored top adorned with island-themed stencils: hula girls, palm trees, and more. I don’t remember exactly where this colorful little uke came from (hey, I was only like 4–5 years old). Perhaps it was a souvenir from our family’s first visit to New York City, or maybe a gift from one of our new American friends. At any rate, I must have been delighted with this little gem, as you can see from my enthusiastic singing and strumming in the photo my dad took of me (a friend who recently saw this photo pointed out that it shows me playing the uke left handed; strange, since I’ve been a right-handed player for as long as I can remember).

But the story doesn’t end there: By the early 1990s, I had become an avid ukulele player and collector with more than 300 instruments at that time. It was coming up on the first Christmas I was to spend with the woman who eventually became my first wife. She knew about my passion for ukuleles, so she purchased a ukulele from John Bernunzio, a well-known instrument dealer in upstate New York, and presented it to me on Christmas morning. Upon unwrapping her gift, I was dumbstruck: It was the exact same Carnival “Aloha” model that I’d had as a child! (I have no idea what became of the original.) I was even more amazed to learn that she had no idea that it was the same model as my first-ever ukulele–her selection was purely coincidental. My ukulele collection has grown considerably since then and includes many instruments that are far rarer and more valuable. But few ukes are as meaningful to me as that little plastic Aloha.