Kenneth G Bonjukian/Ken Emery
KENNETH GREGORY BONJUKIAN(nee KEN EMERY)born March 16, 1917 died May 19, 2006 was an American-Armenian singer & actor born in the upstate rural town of Waterviet, Troy, NY. His mother, Catherine and his father, Joseph came to America to escape the Armenian Genocide at the turn of the 20th Century. His career started in his hometown at the age of 3 years when he sang on the street corners to the delight of townspeople who gave him money, which he earned for his poor family allowing them to afford food and to pay for necessities, especially after his father abandoned the family after his mother had a series of unfortunate strokes, to live with his eldest daughter and her family in Boston. During his pre-teen years he accompanied his mother to church singing in the choir and then as a soloist for many years where he cut his chops for his future musical career in the arts.
Ken was also an active member of several minor league baseball teams (notably the G. E. REFRIGERATORS) where he became a local legend as a young starting pitcher wining several championships. He is also known for the games in which the batters couldn’t get a pitch off him (shut outs) and his reputation grew to include scouts from several major league franchises interested in hiring him however he was only 5’8” at the time and did not make the height requirements of the league at that time. Although unable to actively participate in the sport he loved so well, Ken was an avid baseball fan of the New York Yankees and attended many of their home games in the Bronx in his later years.
In his young adult years he traveled to NYC and stayed at the YMCA for several months until he found a suitable apartment where he lived with fellow singers and attended the prestigious Julliard School of Music for two years where he studied opera, classical music and voice. He dropped out after that time due to not being able to pay his tuition and began his musical career singing as a powerful tenor in several repertory theatres especially Amato’s Opera Company in the East Village where he sang lead operatic roles to packed houses.
He met his wife, the former Helen Soukis, in 1949 in uptown NYC's Washington Heights through another Armenian friend and he fell in love at first sight claiming that on that day they met he stole a kiss from her as they sat in their friend’s car as it turned a corner and she fell into his arms. They were later married in 1951 and chose to live on 86 Street and West End Avenue in a 2nd story walk-up townhouse studio where they each worked until his first theatrical break came in 1957 when Ken auditioned for and was hired for several Broadway Shows including MOST HAPPY FELLA, GUYS & DOLLS, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (with Orson Welles directing) under the name of KEN EMERY; Emery a stage name taken from his mother’s maiden name of Emerian. Around this time Ken also performed with singer/actor Harry Belfonte whom he toured the United States with as a tenor and dancer with the folk choir.
In the late 1960’s Ken auditioned for the prestigious Metropolitan Opera Chorus and became a life long member there working as both a singer and union delegate for 35 years until his retirement in the late 1980’s. Ken also worked many Sunday singing jobs in Catholic Churches throughout the tri-state NY area and was a member of the Church Singers Association. His other union credits included AFTRA (American Federation of Television & Radio Artists), AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists), where he served on its board for many years, and SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild) where he played bit roles on NY television series KOJAK and performed as a day actor for such films as THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (Woody Allen), and all three GODFATHER movies where he found friendship with the late great actor, JOHN CAZALE whom Ken described as an actor's actor.
Throughout his entertainment career, Ken always found time to be with his family; wife Helen and his only child, daughter Catherine Haig Bonjukian, a musician/songwriter/filmmaker and supported most if not all of Cathy’s musical endeavors in the field of entertainment. In the late 80s his backstage accident at the MET forced him to prematurely retire from the opera company but he remained in many musical associations until ten years before his death in 2006 notably AGMA and The Church Singers Association as well as working for a Cantor in Brooklyn for all the Jewish high holidays. A funny story ensued from his association with the Cantor when he was to retire from work after 30 years of presiding over the high holidays, Ken was asked to take on the Cantor’s duties. When Ken had taken the position 30 years before he told the Jewish elder that his name was Stern so that he could audition for the lucrative gig, which he won and worked for those many years as a singer in the temple choir. Ken, riddled with guilt desperately sought a way to break the news to the Cantor that he wasn’t a Jew opted for the truth and when the Cantor realized that his favorite singer could never become Cantor he said, “so you’re not a Jew? No problem. You just won’t be Cantor” and Ken was allowed to stay on as a singer in the choir. This same feeling did not come from the Armenian Archbishop of the St. Vartan’s Church of NYC diocese when Ken sang in a special event there marking the Armenian Genocide. He had been hired with several non-Armenian singers who were all being paid an equal wage when Archbishop Torkom Manoogian approached Ken acknowledging him as an Armenian and asked him not to take a salary and to give up his wage to the church because he is “a good Armenian”. To which, Ken replied, “I am a good Armenian, Father however I have a family that I need to feed and I must take my pay.” Archbishop Manoogian refused to accept his answer and Ken was forced to leave the event and his pay behind and he never again sang for Armenian churches.
Ken’s wife, Helen passed away on April 6, 2001 of Breast Cancer that had spread to her bones and he was left alone for five years battling the remains of a stroke that felled him a year before her passing that landed him in a remote controlled wheel chair he used to get around his apartment in Washington Heights. On May 19, 2006 he passed away quietly from Prostate Cancer that had spread to his bones and his ashes were spread over the Hudson River as per his wishes by his daughter Catherine and her domestic partner, musician/songwriter, Myqui Patten. At the time of his passing, Myqui had been humming a tune that she couldn’t get out of her head. Cathy was insane with fulfilling her father’s last wishes and grieving at the same time asking her late father to give her a sign that he was alright in death. She later asked her partner what the tune was that she was singing and driving her crazy with for the past 3 days since Ken’s passing and Myqui sang the song – SINGING IN THE RAIN. Ken had passed away during a thunderstorm on the 19th and in his past musical career had worked with Gene Kelly and his musical chorographer brother. Fred Kelly on several Broadway & Off-Broadway show vehicles. Ken had also sung that same song on several occasions marking wedding anniversaries with his wife. The sign was obvious and the family was relieved to know that Ken had finally found peace and happiness on the other side of life.