Editor's note: This Bud Kennedy column originally appeared on June 30,1991.FORT WORTH - Before there was glasnost, there was Van Cliburn.The Texas classical pianist who melted Moscow's Cold War heart charmed a second generation of Soviets on Friday, giving a booster thrust to the liftoff of Fort Worth's Soviet Space.This $6 million, free-floating adventure for the city science museum declares a new spirit of global understanding. But as long ago as 1958, Americans and Soviets shared love for Cliburn, when he captivated Moscow just months after the first Sputnik rocketed into space.In an unexpected gesture, Cliburn invited Soviet visitors and Soviet Space workers to his Westover Hills home Friday night. In less than a day, he assembled a party with Russian caviar from five states, a catered buffet of seafood and pastas -- and Cliburn at one of his Steinway pianos. He rarely plays for guests. But on this night, he played both national anthems and the song that made Mikhail Gorbachev cry, Moscow Nights.After a heart-pounding Star-Spangled Banner, Cliburn bade the guests good night. Sergei Mironov, a promoter for the Soviet space agency, stepped forward."I was only a little boy when you were in Moscow," said Mironov, 37. "But as a boy in the Soviet Union, I knew of only two Americans."President Kennedy."And Van Cliburn." . . .Mironov would have been a 4-year-old boy then. Cliburn was a 23-year-old Texan, winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition Gold Medal. Americans needed a hero. The Soviet space program was beating the stars out of us.The score was Soviets 2, U.S. 0. Their Sputnik 1 went up Oct. 4, 1957, followed by the space dog Laika.Our try blew up.On April 13, 1958, with Americans drilling for nuclear attacks, a handsome, friendly Texas pianist played music in Moscow that you could hear through the Iron Curtain.The Tchaikovsky judges' vote was unanimous. The Moscow audience cheered for 8 1/2 minutes. Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave Cliburn a big Soviet bearhug.Moscow Radio proclaimed him "the American Sputnik."And the dean of his New York music school, Julliard, called home to the school president. "We are in orbit," he said. . . .Yesterday morning, Soviet Space got off the launching pad at the Amon G. Carter Jr. Exhibits Hall.Soviet Space director Bob Townsend, 42, of Dallas had the best term for the party: "an out-of-body experience.""The Russian caviar showed up just - like that," he said. "The big silver trays full of stuff - it was like going to the Waldorf Astoria."Some of the Space crew wore rocket-burn dark circles under their eyes. At a mocked-up Soviet space station, even Mironov smiled at the question."Why do you ask how I'm doing?" he replied. "I must not look very good. How are you?"The Soviets never dreamed they would meet Cliburn, he explained - much less visit his house, a 1924 mansion that was the former home of art collectors Kay and Velma Kimbell."All the people in the Soviet Union love him," Mironov said. ". . . It was fully unexpected for such a famous musician to have us in his home. And very, very symbolic."We are in orbit.
Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544 Twitter: @tsmadigan