Originally published in the East Hampton Star.
Ivan Wilzig: The Peaceman Cometh
From banker to singer, messenger of peace, and aspiring purveyor of action figures
Blue moonlight shimmers across a seashell-shaped swimming pool while laser lights slash the air. Midgets dressed as oompahloompahs dance, and female performance artists in silver one-piece bodysuits contort into human sculptures. At least one female partygoer makes a show of not wearing any panties.
Inside, multicolored spotlights swirl around the dance floor while the D.J. steps up the tempo, drives up the volume, and brings in the bass, the crowd bobbing, heaving, throbbing to the beat, their arms punching the air in unison with neon glowsticks. Peace signs are everywhere.
Enter stage right, Sir Ivan, a k a Ivan Wilzig, a k a Peaceman.
The setting: a 20-room, 13,000-square-foot medieval castle in Water Mill. A walking tour of the castle takes 30 minutes.
The occasion: a celebration on Saturday for the release of Sir Ivan’s newest single, “Peace on Earth.”
The crowd, several hundred strong, cheers in approval as Sir Ivan, adorned in a black satin cape with a peace sign on the back and blue and yellow flowers on the inside, swings his body to the beat while singing into a headset. The cape is just one of more than 20 that he owns and was at least the third, and certainly not the last, that he wore during the evening.
“All my dreams have always been show business dreams,” Sir Ivan said by his pool the previous weekend. “This place for me fulfills not only my dream of having my own nightclub, but also my own restaurant, my own sports facility, everything I’ve ever wanted.”
The eight-year-old estate, once gossip column fodder for city tabloids, is actually a place of quiet refuge for Sir Ivan, 48, as he makes one of the most unusual career changes a person can make: exit Ivan Wilzig, banker; enter Sir Ivan, singer, messenger of peace, and aspiring purveyor of Peaceman action figures.
To Sir Ivan - as well as the rest of his family - the switch is about much more than some ego-driven quest for fame. As a matter of fact, he has been plotting it for decades.
Inspired by the messages of peace and optimism preached by popular music of the 1960s, Sir Ivan has reached Billboard success in recent years by mixing techno rhythms into such songs as John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco.” The result is a musical genre that he calls “technippy,” a combination of “techno” and “hippie.”
Artemis Records, an independent label, recently signed Sir Ivan as its first techno artist. Although he has reached an audience in the United States, the label intends to market his music anywhere there is an active rave scene, which often means overseas - Europe and Australia in particular.
Through his recently created nonprofit Peaceman Foundation, Sir Ivan donates all proceeds from his music to a wide range of charitable causes. The philanthropy is a clear influence of his father, the late Siegbert (Siggi) B. Wilzig, Holocaust survivor, oil magnate, financier, and, among other roles, assistant to the Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel on President Carter’s Commission on the Holocaust. Not bad for a German Jew who showed up on America’s shores penniless.
“If he could accomplish what he did with no formal education, no money in his pocket, no training at anything,” Sir Ivan said, “then certainly I, with my Ivy League education, with my law degree, should try to achieve greatness and give something back.”
Mr. Wilzig died last year, but his family continues to give to a number of charities, including Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation and the Jersey City Medical Center, a free treatment center for immigrants that now bears the Wilzig name.
“If he was that lucky to survive the Holocaust, and I was that lucky to be born,” Sir Ivan continued, “then there is a purpose I have to fulfill.” That purpose, he said, is a mission to promote peaceful causes through music.
“The thing you have to realize about growing up in the shadow of a large figure,” explained Sir Ivan’s 39-year-old brother, Alan, “is that you feel compelled to consciously or subconsciously do two things. Number one is make your mark or message to society. The second, and this comes from having a father who is at the center of attention, is to do positive things to get your own attention.”
Philanthropic tendencies aside, the primary character trait Sir Ivan said he inherited from his father is restlessness (Alan contended it was perseverance).
Indeed, during a 75-minute interview in the backyard of the castle, Sir Ivan rose from his chair no fewer than a dozen times to illustrate physically what he was talking about - his mother’s 4,000-piece erotic art collection, in one case - and many of his responses to questions quickly splintered into an array of eventually related subtopics. Unsurprisingly, such personality characteristics served him poorly in his first chosen profession: law.
“I used to sit at my desk and write poetry about how much I hated my job,” he said of his first job after graduating from the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. “Being a lawyer was like being a glorified research assistant or librarian. Where’s the glamour in that?”
After a year of practicing law, he helped his father run the Trust Company Bank of New Jersey, which last year merged with North Fork Bank of Long Island. Sir Ivan - still Ivan Wilzig, then - spent more than two decades at the bank, primarily in public relations and marketing. While he didn’t love his job, it allowed him more creative freedom than law, and also enabled him to pursue his hobby of music at night.
Alan, who helped Ivan and their father run the bank after graduating from college, said that one of Ivan’s more impressive accomplishments during his time with the bank was brokering a deal with A&P supermarkets that landed 40 new bank branches. At the time that the deal was closed, their father called it “the most important event in the bank’s history.”
“From a very early age, I knew I wanted to follow my father into banking,” said Alan. “With Ivan, he was very good at it, but we always knew it wasn’t for him.”
Sir Ivan’s musical influences actually go back to his formative years in Clifton, N.J., a clash of two musical opposites: singing in the Hebrew choir at the local synagogue and being introduced to the Four Tops, the Temptations, and the Supremes by an older cousin in neighboring Passaic.
He began voice lessons as a young teen, but for years his father discouraged that interest, preferring that his children pursue more secure professions.
“My father was only impressed by success,” he said. “He didn’t want to have a singer for a son that nobody ever heard of. He didn’t want to know anything about it unless I was successful at it.”
In the past three years, the two singles Sir Ivan has recorded made Billboard’s top 40 - number eight in the case of “San Francisco.” His father, who as a recently arrived immigrant worked on the lowest rung of just about every ladder except for entertainment’s, was initially unmoved.
But when it was explained to the elder Wilzig that Billboard was “the Wall Street Journal of the music industry,” Mr. Wilzig signalled his acceptance by cutting Sir Ivan a check for twice the amount of his advance.
“I don’t think that it’s a gimmick that the money goes to charity but I can’t say that it’s totally about altruism either,” said Alan, when asked about his brother’s career change. “I’d say that it’s 50-50 - part of it is altruism, but the other part is definitely the love of being on stage and performing.”
How much longer will this new career last? Sir Ivan said that he can easily see himself doing it through 60, but that after that, he’ll just take it one step at a time. At the very least, he will continue charity work or philanthropy of some kind.
“What Bob Geldof does for the rock and roll community,” Sir Ivan said, “this is what I want to do for the rave community.”
This article originally appeared in East Hampton Star on August 5, 2004.