With the president of the Bank of China arriving for a meeting in Washington hosted by the Carlyle Group, leaders of the high-powered private-equity firm had a crucial job for Christopher Ullman, their director of global communications.
Ullman, who had been inducted recently into the International Whistlers Hall of Fame, was tasked with whistling Li Liu’s favorite song, “My Heart Will Go On,” the theme from the 1997 hit movie Titanic.
The night before the big event in September 2012, Ullman went to YouTube to learn the song and practiced late into the night at his Alexandria, Va., home. The next day he walked into “an august room” at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and an interpreter told Li what was about to happen.
Ullman didn’t understand the Chinese, but when he heard the word “Titanic” he watched a smile come across Li’s face. Then, as he started whistling the song, Ullman said he heard a sound that wasn’t supposed to be part of his act.
“The top banker in China was humming along note for note with his hand in the air. It is ecstasy,” Ullman said during a performance at a TEDx MidAtlantic event Saturday at the Sidney Harman Center in Washington. “I’m thinking, ‘Don’t screw this up; you’re going to ruin this guy’s life.’ … This was the key to this man’s heart.”
“It was incredible,” Ullman said in an interview last weekend. “I’ve been whistling for 45 years—in Washington for 26 years—and I’ve experienced nothing like it.”
Ullman, 50, is one of the many unique personalities in Washington who have worked their way to the top of their professions while nurturing and perfecting a passion in their private lives. Only in Ullman’s case, his personal avocation has become a very public showcase.
It all started when he was 5 years old, growing up in Massapequa Park on Long Island, N.Y., listening to his father whistling his favorite tunes from Gilbert and Sullivan. Whistling became his obsession to the point where, when he was 13, the customers on his paper route would tell him, “I heard you coming.”
During college at the State University of New York (Binghamton), Ullman expanded his repertoire to jazz and blues by whistling with a friend’s band. It was also at SUNY that Ullman plugged into Washington—he interned in the office of then-Rep. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., working alongside a young Anthony Weiner, who would go on to win seven terms in Congress.
About a year after his graduation in 1986, Ullman returned to Washington and began climbing the ladder in communications: He worked for a small public-relations firm; for a citizens’ advocacy group; for former Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio; for former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt; and for the White House under President George W. Bush, as spokesman for Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels.
Then about 12 years ago, Ullman moved to the Carlyle Group, cofounded in 1987 by David Rubenstein and two other financiers and which now manages $180 billion in assets, according to Forbes.
Meanwhile, Ullman was rising through the ranks of the world society of whistlers. While hiking and whistling (of course) in Shenandoah National Park in 1992, a friend told Ullman about the International Whistlers Convention held each year in tiny Louisburg, N.C. Ullman went “and, much to my shock, I actually won a prize,” he said. “I knew there was hope for me. I competed for nine years and won the championship four times. Last year I was inducted into the International Whistlers Hall of Fame.”
As his fame spread, Ullman was invited to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; he whistled with the National Symphony Orchestra playing in front of the Capitol; and these days he whistles “Happy Birthday” to people about 350 times a year. “I end every one with the refrain, ‘I’m glad you were born,’ ” he said.
The point is not to be a celebrity, Ullman said. “It’s something I do for fun…. It’s very simple—I’m not curing cancer—but it does make people happy.” (Hence the name of Ullman’s website, happywhistler.com.)
Bush will vouch for that. When he was working at OMB, Ullman was told by Daniels that the president wanted to hear him whistle in the Oval Office. When he walked in, “Bush was at his desk with his feet up and an unlit cigar in his hand,” Ullman said. “He asked, ‘Do you need some water? Do you need to stand or sit? How do you get started?’ I told him, ‘I’m moist and puckered, Mr. President, and ready to go.’ ”
Ullman asked Bush what kind of music he liked, and the president said “country.” Bush suggested the song from The Lone Ranger. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was from an Italian opera,” Ullman said.
After they were joined in the Oval Office by Vice President Dick Cheney, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a somewhat nervous Ullman performed four pieces: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; “Take the ‘A’ Train” by Duke Ellington; “Battle Hymn of the Republic”; and “Dueling Banjos” from the movie Deliverance.
Later, when Ullman put out a CD of whistled songs, he sent a copy to Bush. The president replied with a typed message thanking him, including a handwritten note at the bottom: “Best always to my friend the whistler. George Bush.”
This article appears in the October 29, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as Whistling While He Works.