Ethan Bortnick was just 6 when he first appeared on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” playing snippets of piano works by Bach, Mozart and Scott Joplin. He even performed his own composition, “The Tiger Ran Away at the Zoo.” By that age, he had already raised $12 million for Miami Children’s Hospital. Since then, he has performed for the Chabad Telethon and the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, among other charities.
Now 10 and having just embarked on his longest tour to date, the accomplished entertainer is, naturally, excited. The 20-city tour of “Ethan Bortnick and His Musical Time Machine” began Jan. 20 in Nashville, Tenn., and stops at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Feb. 5, before continuing on until March, when Ethan returns home to Hollywood, Fla.
Speaking by phone from Florida, Ethan recalled his debut on “Leno.”
“That was very long ago, like four years ago,” Ethan said, noting that he’s been on the show three times since, most recently in 2009. He’s also appeared on “Oprah.”
He said his interests are wide. “I love all kinds of music — classical, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, the Beatles. I love Jewish folk songs. I’m not working on one kind of music. I do everything at the same time.”
Even over the phone, Ethan’s irrepressible energy and impressive focus come through. He displayed a disarming candor about a potentially painful subject.
“My brother, Nathan, is 5 years old, but when he was born, we were told he was missing two out of the four chambers from his heart,” Ethan said. “He had half a heart. But at Miami Children’s Hospital, they saved his life. I really wanted to help the hospital, which I did. At the last event, we got Beyoncé, Smokey Robinson and Gloria Gaynor to come. It was amazing.”
Ethan explained how he and his management team arranged a Children’s Miracle Network fundraising event in Orlando, Fla., so they would be at Disney World for his brother’s birthday. “They’re an amazing team that raises money for children’s hospitals. I wrote [the song] ‘It’s a Miracle’ for them.”
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Ethan’s father, Gene, still shakes his head over how his kid handles the audience Q-and-A, which is usually part of his concerts. One show in New York was especially memorable.
“Halfway into it,” Gene recalled, “someone asks: ‘Ethan, What do you do with all the money you make?’ Ethan, who was 8 or 9, looks him straight in the eye and says, ‘What’s your name again?’ Everyone’s fidgeting, wondering why someone would ask a child money questions. But Ethan answers: ‘John, I don’t think you get it. This is not about making money. It’s about having fun and just having a great couple hours together.’ Everyone cheered and told the guy to sit down. As he’s sitting down, Ethan adds, ‘And if I’m having fun and making money, that’s good, too!’ ”
Gene, who gave up his computer business to help manage his son’s schoolwork and burgeoning career, said he “tries to stay his dad as much as possible.” Part of his son’s management team handles Ethan and Celine Dion exclusively. And for his PBS television special, Ethan’s musical producer was Greg Phillinganes, music director for Michael Jackson’s “Bad” and “Dangerous” concert tours.
Ethan has performed with everyone from the Jonas Brothers and Katy Perry to Orthodox singer Yaakov Shwekey. “He has a great Jewish base,” Gene said. “You’ll have a Jewish audience, but you’ll also have an audience who has seen him on PBS with no idea he’s Jewish.”
Tim Page, an instructor at USC and a Pulitzer Prize winner for his work as a Washington Post music writer, is the author of the recent memoir “Parallel Play,” in which he recalls his years as a child prodigy. Page has never heard of Ethan Bortnick but said that, given such an extraordinary child, it sounds like Ethan’s father is doing all the right things.
“I’m not a psychologist,” Page said, “but I sometimes wonder whether kids even know what they like and what they don’t like at that age. It’s one of those mysterious things, what happens with prodigies. So much of it has to do with what kind of treatment and support they receive. The Midoris and Yo-Yo Mas are still somewhat rare.”
Page said it sounds like Ethan is “having a blast” but warns: “You just want to make sure you don’t have situations where the kid becomes afraid to grow up, because basically what the world wants from you is your youth. Will the Jay Leno of 2021 be inviting a 20-year-old kid on the show when they can get a cute 10-year-old? The answer is, probably not.”
But Gene knows the day is coming when his son the prodigy will be an ex-prodigy. “If Ethan decides next year, ‘Hey, that was a great little run, but now I want to go back to school,’ that’s no problem with us. I’ll go back to my computer business, and he’ll go back to school.”
For now, however, youth will be served. “It’s not work,” Ethan said. “I have so much fun. Basically, the stage is like my playground. I love it. I’m just a normal kid, but I just play a little piano, you know?”
“Ethan Bortnick and his Musical Time Machine,” Feb. 5 at 8 p.m., Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, (562) 467-8822.