Eugene Jelesnik, skillfully riffing his violin wearing one of his thirty-seven sparkly dinner jackets, was a familiar sight on Utah television in the late 20th century. Not just a local celebrity, Jelesnik was a well-networked producer who helped Utah’s music scene flourish.
Born in 1914 in what is today Ukraine, Jelesnik and his family fled the Bolshevik Revolution to New York City. There, he honed his violin skills and gained a reputation for his skill in playing Russian folk tunes. In the early days of television, Jelesnik was scouted by the National Broadcasting Company to perform in one of their first televised orchestras. When touring through Salt Lake City in the late 1930s, Jelesnik met Virginia Washburn, who became his wife of fifty-four years. Soon after moving to Utah, he was hired as the music producer for the local NBC affiliate, KDYL, which was the only television station between St. Louis and Los Angeles. Television was so new at the time that only about 700 Utah homes owned TV sets.
During the 1950s and '60s, Jelesnik served on nineteen trips with the United Service Organizations -- known as the USO -- providing entertainment to American troops during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. When he was not traveling the world, he was working with businesses like Salt Lake's Cinegrill restaurant to introduce music to Utah’s dining culture, since locals at the time considered live entertainment in restaurants a bit risqué. Using his national connections, Jelesnik also put Utah on the map for touring musicians. His Celebrity Concert Series brought big names like Frank Sinatra to the Utah State Fairgrounds and high school auditoriums. Now that television was gaining popularity, Jelesnik hosted shows on several local stations, interviewing prominent figures like John F. Kennedy and Jerry Lewis. But his most beloved program was the Talent Showcase, which aired in Utah from 1955 to 1986. This popular show gave the stage to rising local stars from across the state, such as the Osmond Family.
A quintessential local celebrity, Eugene Jelesnik was a talented performer and showman whose work shined the spotlight and lifted up others in the name of making Utah more musical.
See Gerald M. McDonough, An Improbable Journey: The Life and Times of Eugene Jelesnik (Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1997); “The Eugene Jelesnik Artifact Collection,” Utah Division of State History, accessed January 2023; “Obituary: Eugene Jelesnik,” February 18, 1999, Deseret News, accessed January 2023.