Saturday, July 30, 2011

One Fine Day...and Night

That's all the Great Plains Ragtime Society needed (as things turned out) to stage the 2011 version of the Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue area's Ragtime to Riches Festival.

It took place on 7-10-2011, and would've also taken in the previous day if it hadn't been for a double whammy: First of all, the festival's 2007-10 venue, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, raised its rental fee for the use of the Strauss Performing Arts Center's Room 105 (the center's choral rehearsal room). Second, the Nebraska Board of Regents stepped in with a new rule for 2010-11...and it involves insurance policies.

The regents now want any outside organizations seeking to stage events at any spot at any of the schools in the U of Nebraska system to take out two insurance policies- a $1 million policy per occurrence and a $3 million one against UNK, UNL, UNMC, or UNO...depending on what campus is used.

Going back to a church (the first two R to R Festivals were held in a church) seemed more economical, so that's what happened.

Ragtime to Riches is patterned after a January event called the Eau Claire Ragtime Festival, which is held at that Wisconsin city's First Congregational United Church of Christ. During a mid-January weekend, proceeds from that event (the first one took place in 2000) go to help a different nonprofit effort in the western part of the Badger State.

Holding such an event here in the Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue area seemed like a great idea. (When I initially looked into trying to get a festival started around here, we were going to use a playhouse that was then located in a strip mall- the Grande Olde Players Theater. But the GOPT board of directors shot that down...and the first two R to R Fests- 2005 and 2006- happened at a Council Bluffs church, Broadway United Methodist. When the staff at Broadway said "yes," I decided to say "yes" to handling the proceeds the Eau Claire way, too.)

Now that R to R had dropped out of college, it sounded like a great idea to pitch the idea of hosting the event to a local United Church of Christ, First Central Congregational.

The 2011 version still could've been a two-day event if (1) Broadway UMC hadn't installed a new senior pastor in time for the very weekend of this year's festivities and (2) First Central UCC hadn't scheduled a wedding for 7-9-2011. (So that makes it a triple whammy!)

But this new, slimmed-down R to R worked out fine.

Okay, we didn't get the sizable crowd we were able to have in 2010, and half as many performers played this time around...but the ten people who listened to this year's two performers still had plenty of fun.

It all got started at 1:00 PM (Central time) with an open-piano session; at 2:00 PM, I had a chance to give a workshop about one of the three men who came up with "Sweet Georgia Brown," Maceo Pinkard.

Maceo lived from 1897 to 1962; he was born in, raised in, and educated in Bluefield, WV. (He graduated in 1913 from what's now called Bluefield State College; it went under a different name during its early years...okay, it was called the Bluefield Colored Institute.) Within a year of graduation, Pinkard wrote his first song, "I'm Goin' Back Home." He formed his own orchestra and was able to tour the United States.

That's how he got here to Omaha and started a theatrical agency.

By 1915 or so, he'd outgrown the Big O and headed for the Big Apple, where he launched Pinkard Publications. Two years later, MP founded Maceo Pinkard Music, where he sold compositions to bigger publishing companies (like New York City's Leo Feist, Inc. and Chicago's Frank K. Root firm).

But Maceo's best contributions were in the field of songwriting, and that's how he got hired by Shapiro, Bernstein, and Co. in 1918; his first big efforts were that year's "Don't Cry, Little Girl, Don't Cry" and the next year's "Mammy O'Mine."

During the 1921-31 period, Pinkard hit his stride, penning hits like "Sugar," "Don't Be Like That," "There Must Be Somebody Else," "At Twilight," "Congratulations," "That Wonderful Boyfriend of Mine," "Them There Eyes," and, of course, "Sweet Georgia Brown..." as well as "Is That Religion?" and "Gimme a Little Kiss, Will Ya Huh?"

Maceo also came up with his own Broadway musical, "Liza," a production (Irvin C. Miller did the book) that officially ran from 11-27-1922 to 4-21-1923...after a trial run during the summer of 1922.

"Liza" was one of five 1922 shows trying to cash in on the success of Eubie Blake's and Noble Sissle's landmark "Shuffle Along," the musical that gave us "I'm So Wild about Harry."  "Liza's" still got a place at the table was the first place where the Charleston (that's right, THAT Charleston) was done on any stage in the New York City area. (The honor went to Maude Russell and the Dancing Honey Girls.)

Another thing you can chalk up to Maceo Pinkard was his having introduced Duke Ellington (that's right, THAT Duke Ellington) to the business end of the music business.

It all started when Pinkard met Ellington at a New York City nitery, Barron's. After that, MP took DE downtown and introduced him to Fun City's music publishing district (also known, of course, as Tin Pan Alley, the area between 40th and 55th on Broadway).

Duke met Irving Mills at Mills Music...and that resulted in the "Mood Indigo" man gaining a manager.

On top of that, Edward Kennedy Ellington got a chance to record some Maceo Pinkard numbers, such as "Is That Religion?" as well as "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Them There Eyes."

When I come back, I'm going to talk about the festival's two concerts. Stay tuned!

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