Eileen Laxer was a middle-class New Yorker convinced she was marrying into elite society when she wed Henry Wischusen, a nice guy from Boston. Wischusen was indeed a WASP, but not of the Vanderbilt, Du Pont or Rockefeller variety, though his father, also named Henry Wischusen (but with a III at the end), came with his own prestige. Wischusen III had discovered a brilliant new way to bond thin cardboard boxes and became the celebrated “King of Gluing Popcorn Boxes.”
One of the King’s factories was in Eutaw, which took up all of 12 square miles in Alabama. Henry and Eileen moved there so Henry could supervise the plant, staying until it was sold. The couple moved to Lilburn, just outside Atlanta and down the corner from Stone Mountain, the famous high-relief sculpture (the largest in the world) depicting Confederate heroes Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Here, their son, Henry F. Wischusen III (bearing the exact name as his grandfather, “number and all, and no, it doesn’t make sense,” says the second Henry III, who came to be called Fred) grew up.
Fred was “not the typical kid” in Lilburn, he says. He was chubby, his family had no history anywhere in the South and there was something else, something he couldn’t quite pinpoint and wouldn’t learn the truth of until he was 17: Fred was Jewish.
Today, Fred is Phreddy Wischusen — a storyteller (he won Detroit’s Grand Slam in 2013 and the city’s Moth Story Slam numerous times), comedian and musician. He’s also known as DJ Phreddy and will appear at the JCC’s Ethan & Gretchen Davidson Music Festival, to be held at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts March 23-26 (see below for a complete schedule).
“Phreddy is a wonderful addition, not only to the music festival but also our planning team,” says Elaine (Hendriks) Smith, director of the Berman. “He worked with us to make this event one with a real festival atmosphere, and I’m delighted that he’ll be performing twice, each time with a different sound that complements that evening’s performers. We are very happy that he is part of this new, exciting music festival.”
Being a little kid in the Deep South in the 1980s was a lot of what you probably imagine: schools were basically segregated, there were lots of small towns where “you were either on your street or in your house” because sidewalks didn’t exist, and people were friendly, Fred/Phreddy says.
In the 10th grade, Fred had an experience that stayed with him. A football team with a more diverse student population came to play his school. Fred’s white classmates responded by covering their bodies with drawings of Confederate flags and swastikas. Fred felt alienated and confused, he says, and it was soon after that he learned he was Jewish. His mother had never told him because she’d been afraid.
Fred wondered: “What does it even mean to be Jewish?”
Fred attended Florida State University, where he fell in love with music: Weird Al Yankovic, Pearl Jam, grunge rock and show tunes, “the schmaltzier the better.” He loved it all so much he “decided to learn to play an instrument so I could connect to music better.” He took guitar lessons, and at 30 he joined a band. Then he discovered David Bowie, and “everything opened up.” Bowie was “the bridge” between Led Zeppelin and Weird Al and “all the magic theatricality of show tunes,” Phreddy says. “He lived the world that was mystical, poetic and introspective at the same time.”
After college, Phreddy found work with a restaurant company, which moved him to Detroit in 2005. But he was driven by his passion for music and soon managed to get a gig in Pontiac. “I’ll book you to open for this guy,” a friend told him. Phreddy was thrilled, then realized, “I didn’t really have any songs.”
But he had a friend, Caitlin Drinkard, who had two sisters, Bonnie and Lindsey, each of whom had “an amazing voice,” he says. He decided that “even if what we come up with is stupid, they are so good.”
The ensuing performance was “one of the most magical things I’ve ever seen in my life,” he adds. “Their talent gave me the permission to explore my own creativity.”
So his career began.
Today, Phreddy is a bit of a mosaic reflecting his history, his love for music, his interest in Judaism and all things spiritual.
Phreddy was a student of Rabbi Yisrael Pinson of Chabad of Greater Downtown Detroit, and his wife, Blair Nosan, is a rabbinical student. He specializes in weddings where “people don’t know how they fit into a traditional path” (“What does it mean to have a connection if you have no tradition?” he asks). He played and sang “psychedelic niggunim” at last summer’s Jewish Food Festival.
He’s “delighted to perform” at the JCC’s Ethan & Gretchen Davidson Music Festival where, as always, he won’t just play songs. He will make the experience come alive.
Music, he says, was “always my refuge.” When he can bring people into that refuge, it’s even better. He loves karaoke because “that’s where people put their whole heart and soul into singing something that’s bigger than they are. And every time, it’s always different, and something totally different is revealed.”
As a DJ, he makes an effort to connect to every person, as if to a prayer. “You’re not just in the room,” he assures each person. “You’re essential to the room.”
The JCC’s inaugural Ethan & Gretchen Davidson Music Festival will offer four days of food, art — and music. Sponsored by Gretchen (formerly of Slumber Party) and Ethan (son of William Davidson) Davidson, the event aims to provide a fresh new twist on art and music (all with a Jewish connection) festivals. The festival’s schedule features jazz, family entertainment, an artist market and more. (248) 661-1900; theberman.org/musicfest.
Thursday, March 23
6-10 p.m.: Artist Market
7:30 p.m.: Jayme Stone’s Folklife Canadian banjoist Stone brings sea island spirituals, Creole calypsos and stomp-down Appalachian dance tunes.
Opening act: Sami Mei Described as “Bjork meets Carole King,” this petite Michigan teen with a powerhouse voice is anticipating her first record release on March 30 (look for a full profile in the March 23 issue of the JN).
9 p.m.: After party with DJ Phreddy
Friday, March 24
Noon-4 p.m.: Artist Market
1:30 p.m.: Michael Krieger Michigan-based singer/songwriter Krieger combines playfulness with messages of transformation and uplifting singalongs — he often works with older people with forms of dementia. Free for seniors.
Saturday, March 25
6-10 p.m.: Artist Market
8 p.m.: Ester Rada Israeli with Ethiopian roots, Rada mixes Ethio-jazz, funk, soul and R&B.
Opening act: Griffin Ford The Michigan native brings a soulfulness beyond his 16 years.
9:15 p.m.: After party with DJ Phreddy
Sunday, March 26
Noon-8 p.m.: Artist Market
1 p.m. Mama Doni Laugh, dance, have fun and singalong with this kids’ show.
3 p.m.: Golem The klezmer-rock band is pushing tradition into the 21st century. Says NPR: “Golem is not your grandparents’ klezmer.”
5 p.m.: Nefesh Mountain Jewish soul meets bluegrass.
7:30 p.m.: Live in Central Park [Revisited]: Simon & Garfunkel Award-winning recording artists Lee Lessack and Johnny Rodgers recreate Sept. 19, 1981 — when more than 500,000 music fans witnessed the reunion of Simon & Garfunkel.