Saturday, June 30, 2012

Whole Lot of Newness Going On

This itch I was happy to scratch.

It was Saturday, 5-26-2012, and I was about to join a few hundred other people in taking in the actual competition at this year's World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival.

A lot of newness going on: This was the first year the contest would be held at Peoria's Sheraton Four Points Hotel (the previous venue, the city's Hotel Pere Marquette, is scheduled for remodeling or the headache ball). It was going to be the first year with a new coordinator (in 2011, the only two contest coordinators in OTPP history shared the passing the torch to the other). This year's event ended up using three judges (two men and a woman, like on American Idol; the contest was meant to have four arbiters).

And on a personal note, 2012 was going to be the first year I didn't enter the OTPP Contest's main competition or even the event's New Rag Contest.

And something else was new:

Contest creator and emcee Ted Lemen got himself a cohost.

You couldn't ask for a better cohost than three-time Junior Division, three-time Regular Division champ Adam Swanson...the young man who raised the bar (and I mean RAISED the bar) to where it is today.

Well, the preliminary competition started off with a bang when the year's first contestant, Monty Suffern (Australian-born; he moved to the United States a dozen years ago and now makes his home in the nation's second-largest state, Texas), took "Moby Dink," that 1883 Weber upright, through "Bohemia" and "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee." He was one of seven OTPP newcomers for 2012.

Monty sure sounded to me as if he was heading for the next day's second round. He did that great a job.

Bill McNally's done some moving, too. It took place in the three years since he and I last met (the three years since I was able to make the trip to Central Illinois). A lifelong Pennsylvanian, Bill now makes his home in New York...where his teaching career continues.

At the contest, Bill showed the audience a new way to dig "Turkey in the Straw" as well as contest favorite "Dizzy Fingers."

Then Four Arrows came up to bat...coming back after missing out on the 2011 Old-Time Piano Contest.

The Man from Mexico (he's also an author and online professor) showed he's still got that great showmanship as he pumped up "The Darktown Strutters' Ball" and "Jealous."

Next up was newcomer Alex Poyner, who turned in a couple of Scott Joplin rags: "Weeping Willow" and "Swipesy."

Just one week from OTPP Weekend, just three Junior Division pianists (if you're new to learning about the contest or new to "Boston's Blog," JD contestants are 17 years of age or younger) had signed up to take the Peoria Challenge. Then two more juniors (and their parents) plunked down the entry fee.

One of them was another first-year contestant, Bradley Mylius. The young Ohioan not only weighed in with a fine "Maple Leaf Rag," he also came up with "Creole Love Call."

And then came the second junior in a row to play that Saturday, Daniel Souvigny. 

Last year, at ten, he almost won the thing in the Junior Division...and Daniel showed that he wasn't about to back down here in 2012, what with a "Mack the Knife" that came from Faye Ballard's playbook (and she took it from Liberace's playbook). Daniel wowed the house with that one...then topped it all off with "A Handful of Keys," a Fats Waller favorite.

Another Dan followed to step up to the stage to play that 1883 Weber upright. But you can't really call Dan Mouyard "another Dan." [After all, he was the first Junior Division champion to grab a Regular Division title (after topping the other juniors in 1996, he came away with the RD crown in 2001 and came back to snatch the RD championship in 2003)!]

Dan the Elder had the first of two versions of "Steeplechase Rag" heard over the weekend, then followed that up with "Twilight Rag."

Have you had a chance to slip on over to, the contest's new site? Dan Mouyard cooked up the Website's fine, fine look. (By the way, to top all the other Regular Division contestants in 2003, Dan had to wrestle the Ted Lemen Traveling Trophy away from the second JD champ to ascend to the top of the RD heap...Adam Downey, whose junior crowns in 1991, 1992, and 1993 preceded his 2002 RD triumph.)

Speaking of Ted...he and Adam Swanson (the latest of two- thus far in OTPP history- to pocket three junior titles and three regular titles apiece) made a fine team when it came to emceeing the contest. And that really became clear when, after the Two Daniels (or Two Dans) played, Adam S. strode over to Moby Dink for the first of several demonstrations of how the Fort Lewis College student from Shenandoah, IA got all those championships.

This year's OTPP was also the first one in which Samuel Schallau (a student from Germany) competed. I liked his versions of "Weeping Willow" and "Midnight Whirl;" they were nice and steady, nice and relaxing. (I've got the feeling Samuel- who's going to start college later this year- will be a Peoria fixture for years to come. I hope so.)

The next three contestants have also been New Rag Contest fixtures...and the first of those next three was Jacob Adams, the Minnesota native who mastered a couple of the many rags I admire and have yet to feel more comfortable playing: James Scott's "Hilarity Rag" and Scott Joplin's "The Cascades."

Jacob, the 2010 New Rag champion, gave way to native Pennsylvanian Martin Spitznagel, who not only removed the NRC crown from Jacob's grasp in 2011 but also took home the Old-Time Piano Contest's biggest prize that year. (Martin had 2007's best new rag, too.) Martin made a real bid to hang on to the TLTT when he came out with contest favorite "Dizzy Fingers" and a rockin' version of "Oh, You Beautiful Doll."

And then "Perfessor" Bill Edwards, the 1991 Reg Division titleholder who aced the New Rag Contest in 2001 and 2002, capped off the first half of the 2012 OTPP preliminary competition by gliding through "Egyptian Glide" and "Hungarian Dance #5." (By the'd you like him and Adam S. in "The Entertainers?" How'd you like Faye in that documentary?)

Toward the end of that movie, Faye said she was going to scare the stuff (my word) out of people with her love of- and enthusiasm for- the OTPP.

And thus far, with the office systems specialist from Champaign, IL in there as contest coordinator, the OTPP ride was still wonderful...still groovy.

Well, an hour after the computer programer/ragtime historian from Ashburn, VA hit the final notes of "Hungarian Dance #5," Spencer Andrews (this year's third JD'er) came up to put Moby Dink through its paces. His selections were "Tiger Rag" and "The Midnight Fire Alarm."

Then Ethan Uslan strode onto the stage...and really took ol' Weber for a ride. (How'd you like him in the first documentary to zero in on an event that was initially held outdoors and was initially attended by forty people?)

This time, the New Jerseyite-turned-North Carolinian's fuel consisted of "With a Song in My Heart" and "Nina from Palestina."

Another thing about the contest's history is that the first five championships went to women. (Joybelle Squibb won it all in 1975 and 1976...only to see Dorothy Herrold knock it out of the park in 1977, 1978, and 1979. Dorothy- that teacher from La Porte, IN- decided to retire from competition after her '79 win to give other pianists a chance to get the title.)

By 1984, six of the first ten OTPP titles were won by women; that year, Illinoisan Janet Kaizer ended the three-year reign of another performer from the Land of Lincoln, Mark Haldorson...and inaugurated her own two-year stay at the top of old-time piano. (Janet had company in 1985...the first year contest organizers offered a junior championship. Before Neil Moe started his own three-year stint as the best JD performer, pianists in all age groups went after one title.)

Now we get to 2012, and on the eve of OTPP Weekend, no woman had won the RD crown since 2000 (when Mimi Blais followed up her spectacular 1994 reg triumph with another trophy). But...three of the last four junior championships had been won by girls (and that after boys had locked up the first 23 titles in that division; remember, though...four of those boys grew up to become not only RD champs, but also some of the most famous performers OTPP's ever had...with two others going on to excel in other areas of music).

That's what Tennessean Diana Stein walked into when she walked into the Sheraton Four Points Hotel's Main Hall.

And I thought Diana did a fine job, firing up Luckey Roberts' "Pork and Beans" and Scott Joplin's "Solace."

And about firing up...Bobby Van Duesen (he's a Floridian, and like Diana, a newcomer to the C&F) came out on fire, cracking jokes and engaging in lively banter with Ted L. and Adam S. Once Bobby sat down (or, at times, stood up) to play "Nickel in the Slot" and "Mandy, Make Up Your Mind," he showed why he's nicknamed "Piano Man."

Next up to bat: This year's last two Junior Division performers...Illinoisans Morgan Siever and Leo Jennetten. (Morgan topped all the JDs during 2010 and 2011, while Leo- he lives and goes to school right there in Peoria- was the last to enter the 2012 contest. His entry was the act that enabled all the junior performers this time to earn prize money.)

Morgan came out on fire, too (check out her video on, showing why she won the previous two J championships with killer versions of "Steeplechase Rag" and "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey." Leo- the last 2012 newcomer to what still seems like one of Peoria's best-kept secrets- followed that softball-playing, basketball-playing pianist with nice versions of "Ain't She Sweet" and "The Glow Worm."

Damit Senanayake (a Singaporean who moved to the United States himself and now lives in the state of Washington) turned in a couple of nice ones himself: "Clog Dance" and "Pastime Rag #2."

Now the prelims were heading toward the home stretch, with Michigander John Remmers (he's done "Pastime Rag #2" before) coming up with "Sensation" and "Elite Syncopations."

Then the retired college professor gave way to a high school teacher named Joe Mankowski (he calls his home town, Buffalo, NY, "the Miami of the North")...who made a real bid as well with Fats Waller's and Andy Razaf's "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Love Me or Leave Me," a Walter Donaldson song made famous by Ruth Etting.

Joe would've been the last of the preliminary contestants...except Californian Will Perkins made it to Illinois after all. (Will made it into Richard Pryor's and Jim Thome's birth city early that Saturday...and the other contestants vowed to save the Golden Stater a place in this year's competition if his flight made it to the Land of Lincoln.)

Will proved the wait was darned well worth it, as his renditions of "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "My Gal Sal" demonstrated. (By the way, check his stuff out on!)

Well, the first leg of competition for this pivotal year was finished, and while sixteen R contestants were waiting to find out who was going to play the next day, the remaining five competitors were wondering which of them would get which prize.

And as things turned out, Spencer finished fifth (and received $40 as a result), Leo got $60 for placing fourth, and Bradley earned third place- and $100.

Daniel S. prevented Morgan from pulling off the hat trick (or maybe delayed the hat trick). 

And because of that, Dan the Younger pocketed $250...twice the size of the prize Morgan walked away with.

Stick around, because I'm going to wrap up my look at the 2012 World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival before this month is out.  

 But first...I'm going to talk about something closer to home. (Stay tuned!)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!

If it weren't for "The Entertainers," I wouldn't have been able to make it to Peoria, IL for the 2012 World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival. (That's right; this event- which dates back to 1975- has a new title, adding the "and Festival" this year.)

It all started when Nick Holle (one of the documentary's codirectors) gave me a call early in May and said: "Jim, how'd you like to come to Peoria?"

Result: The opportunity I didn't expect to get for this year.

It'd been three years since I last made the trip to Central Illinois. Since then, I'd gotten a bankruptcy discharge, gone exclusively to my debit card (no more credit cards!!), and fought to get all my bills paid up...especially my car note. I figured, in fact, that I'd have to wait until 2014 to do the kind of traveling I used to.

But then...the first documentary about Ted Lemen's claim to fame broke. (And so did increased overtime opportunities at the plastics factory I work at when I'm not writing a blog or getting involved in old-time piano.)

And so...after not being able to hit a metropolitan area other than Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue during 2011, I've been on the road three times this year. (And all three excursions were in rental cars!)

The trip to baseball great Jim Thome's birth city this past Memorial Day weekend was the best as far as renting a car was concerned: Enterprise let me use a 2011 Hyundai Accent that had (ta da!) a satellite radio.

No AM or FM for me, what with Sirius XM's 40s on 4, 50s on 5, 60s on 6, 70s on 7, 80s on 8, 90s on 9, and Motown on 49 channels to make it a really groovin' trip. (After all, Sirius gives you a lot of the tunes FM-AM chiefs refuse to put back on the air. For instance, I got to hear Larry Williams' 1957 hit "Bony Moronie" as I was coming out of Iowa City, IA. And when I pulled into the parking garage attached to Peoria's Sheraton Four Points Hotel, XM played Ral Donner's 1961 biggie "You Don't Know What You've Got." We're talking about two jams Omaha's AM and FM stations have forgotten about!)

Didn't get into Peoria until about 7:30 PM on hour before "The Entertainers" (the complete film, that is) got its first real Peoria screening.

This time, I was coming to Richard Pryor's birth city as a contest spectator, not a contestant. And Nick's and fellow codirector Michael Zimmer's offer enabled, for the first time, all six of the documentary's main subjects- Adam Swanson, "Perfessor" Bill Edwards, Ethan Uslan, Faye Ballard, Four Arrows, and me- to join with movie fans and old-time piano fans to check out a screening of "The Entertainers." In the same venue at the same time.

Felt nervous about how the movie would go over with people who'd spent one Memorial Day weekend after another checking out OTPP and lending the contest/festival legendary support.

Film festival fans had twice rated "The Entertainers" tops in the documentary field...but how would people who've traveled to Peoria (and/or previous OTPP sites Decatur, IL and Monticello, IL) dig a film celebrating the music that ultimately served as the springboard to "Goody Goody" as well as to "Bony Moronie" and "You Don't Know What You've Got," et al? 


About two hours after the screening wrapped up, another personal point of apprehension completely exploded. That's because Raymond Schwarzkopf (a first-time OTPP judge in 2009 who'd been invited back for 2010 as well as for 2012) was one of the spectators who not only enjoyed the movie...but also liked me in it.

The showing was three years to the day after I first talked to Raymond at OTPP Weekend's final event (the Red, White, and Blue Brunch) to introduce myself...only to get brushed off with a warning to "keep practicing."

I spent the next three years wanting to get even with the point of not wanting to play for him ever again

Well, this time, Raymond and I had a really good conversation. Even told him about the humiliation I felt due to his two-word message of 5-25-2009. 

And this time, he encouraged me not to give up on old-time piano.

Speaking of old-time time I post, I'm going to get to the business end of OTPP. (I'm talking about the actual competition.)

Stay tuned!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

I've Got to Do It

On 5-15-2012, I went for a medical checkup for the first time in seven years. (Yes, I was long overdue.)

Turned out that my scorecard was one for three.

I found out that my blood pressure's normal (118/88)...but my cholesterol figures are at issue.

When my cholesterol numbers ought to be 200 and 100, the lab tests showed 220 and 151, respectively.

And yes, I was floored. I was stunned.

I asked the receptionist who'd called me with the information about my lab tests: "What can I do to bring my cholesterol down?"

She told me that a daily 30-minute walk would do that. So would cutting out red meats, cakes, beloved Little Debbie snacks.

If you've ever had a chance to see the recently-released documentary "The Entertainers," you heard me talking about putting into my lunch box foods that can be eaten quickly...and Little Debbie snack cakes are some of those foods that can be eaten quickly.

Well now, I'm replacing regular beef, corned beef, and pastrami with chicken, fish, and turkey...and, in the meantime, I'm trading those LD Oatmeal Creme Pies and other LD delights for granola bars and cereal bars.

And I'm thankful that McKee Foods markets cereal bars (in addition to all those Little Debbie products)...because I hate the thought of throwing the Collegedale, TN firm under the bus.

At first, I thought I was going to force myself to starve, I felt that devastated at first. (Besides, I'm a big, big fan of burgers!! But being able to emphasize chicken, fish, and turkey will take the sting out of getting off beef.)

Taking the everyday walks will be the hardest part. 

Nevertheless, I've gone on two such walks since getting the call from Dr. Steven Weyhrich's office. (One was here in Omaha to make a car-repair payment...and the other was in Peoria last weekend, when one of this year's OTPP contestants, a first-timer named Diana Stein, walked with me to the riverfront.)

You can bet I'm going to fight to bring these numbers down...even if I have to walk around my kitchen for a half hour each day. (The 220-151 figure didn't happen overnight...and it's going to take a while- and determination- to reduce the figure to 200-100.)

Speaking of numbers...when I come back, I'm going to talk about something I've been able to take in for the first time since 2009: The Peoria experience.