Tuesday, July 31, 2012

And Now, Back to OTPP

Now to turn the calendar back six more weeks and pick things up where we left off when it comes to the 2012 World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival.

It was Sunday, 5-27-2012...and the spotlight was on ten Regular Division contestants.

That's right...the only ten Regular Division contestants left for 2012.

And this was a year where just three judges watched all the pianists at Peoria's Sheraton Four Points Hotel. Circumstances forced Helen Black Tapp to sit out this year's OTPP...leaving Brenda Clark, Patrick Holland, and one of the arbiters you saw in "The Entertainers," Raymond Schwarzkopf, to fend for themselves. (Well, actually, the threesome got real help from Linda Earlywine, Harriet Wall's replacement as contest judging assistant.)

Helen's OTPP judging debut came in 2000, when the contest was still held at the old Holiday Inn Select in Decatur, IL. After all the competition that year came to an end, she treated me to...what sounded to me like a kangaroo court. (Okay, it was billed as constructive criticism.)

And so, coming into 2012, I'd been reluctant to ever again play for Helen.

Okay, enough of that. Let's get to the ten who played for Raymond, Patrick, Brenda, and...a highly enthusiastic audience. 

First of all, John Remmers went up to bat. His ability to play exactly what the composers intended came through in John's versions of "The Strenuous Life" and "Alabama Slide."

Martin Spitznagel was still cookin', what with the job he did with George Gershwin's "Someone to Watch over Me" and a number from Jelly Roll Morton, "The Perfect Rag." (You couldn't accuse Jelly Roll of being bashful.)

It was "Perfessor" Bill Edwards' turn; he went with "Jim Jams" and "Row, Row, Row." (No...not "Row, Row, Row Your Boat!")

The tag-team setup Ted Lemen and Adam Swanson put together the day before continued strong, with Adam putting on a clinic. And this time, the newest undefeated RD champ- now a student at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO- cruised through a Tom Brier rag, "Razor Blades."

After that, it was Will Perkins' turn to cruise...and he did, with "The Entertainer" and "After You've Gone."

Ethan Uslan was next...and he showed why he's referred to as "The Innovator" in that documentary about OTPP. Our father of two brought out "Charleston" and "Poor Butterfly." (And he turned them on their heads!)

Well, five down...and five to go. (I'll be back to finish this one!)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

It's No Longer a Secret Anymore!

The 2012 Ragtime to Riches Festival turned out to be the most successful one yet.

And it couldn't have happened if Nora and Mark Hulse (the husband-and-wife duo also known as Ragtime Razzmatazz- she plays piano, he plays banjo) hadn't brought their considerable talents to Omaha's First Central Congregational United Church of Christ.

The success of 7-8-2012 also wouldn't have come if Nick Holle hadn't brought the movie he and Michael Zimmer codirected, "The Entertainers," to R to R 8.0.

On top of all that, this year's event wouldn't have succeeded without the 38 people who came to savor the workshop, the documentary about Illinois' World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival, and the two R to R concerts. Because of the fans' enthusiasm for ragtime and old-time piano, the Great Plains Ragtime Society raised $380.

But the whole thing started out slowly...and I was really nervous about that, even with more publicity about the festival than before and the added attraction of a documentary, part of which was filmed here in the Big O.

Last year, we sold just ten tickets to the R to R get-together (the first one-day Ragtime to Riches Festival ever; this started out as a three-day event before we had to shed Fridays in 2009).

And by the time Nora and Mark got well into their workshop at this year's festival, only six people had paid to take in the festivities. (A camera operator from one of the local TV stations came by and taped footage...only to leave a few minutes later.)

But by 2:45 PM (Central time), more and more old-time piano fans (and people who were curious about the existence of a ragtime event in Huskerland) started to trickle into First Central's Memorial Hall.

Fifteen minutes later, the Hulses shifted from talking about the banjo's place in America's early pop music scene (and sprinkling the workshop with a spotlight on some of the 500 women who'd written at least one rag apiece) to giving the first of two R to R concerts for 2012.

And Mark and Nora put on a real humdinger! 

The Lawrence, KS couple started it all out with "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," then turned to a composition written by one of those 500 women, "The Missouri Girl March." They then strung together "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," "The Band Played On," and "The Sidewalks of New York" before mastering "Dill Pickles," "A Spanish Serenade," and Ed Claypoole's "Ragging the Scale."

It was reminiscent of when our piano-and-banjo duo did their thing at the old Shakey's Pizza Parlor in Columbia, MO during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

And it was FUN!

Nora and Mark pulled out one of their Shakey's showstoppers, "Hava Nagila," following that up with "The Piano Roll Blues" and Dick Hyman's "Ragtime Razzmatazz-" the piece that gave the duo their nickname.

And then a photographer from another local TV station (Fox affiliate KPTM) came in to get footage...and stayed long enough to seek an interview: "Who's the organizer?"

I raised my left hand and the photographer- Eric- motioned me into the hallway to take part in that interview...while more people kept coming into the church to dig the festival.

That did it.

By the time the workshop presenters ended their concert with BOTH "Maple Leaf Rag" and "The Stars and Stripes Forever," every seat in Memorial Hall was filled...in anticipation of "The Entertainers."

I wasn't sure how the film would go over when put in front of Omahans' eyes. It'd already passed five tests since its unveiling on 4-20-2012 (in Madison, WI)...but how would Nick Holle's and Michael Zimmer's presentation do in a city where one of the movie's six main subjects lives?

The documentary went over fine! 

The film actually rolled at 4:30 PM so that technical glitches could be ironed out. Once the movie came to an end 93 minutes later, a Q-and-A session ensued...and it lasted longer and was livelier than the Peoria counterpart. (Nick fielded most of the questions.)

After dinner, it was time for one more concert...and that one got started at 7:08 PM.

I wanted to take a page out of Burns Davis' book and build my own show around a theme...and it stemmed from a missed opportunity to use such a theme on 4-15-2012, when the Great Plains Ragtime Society held a meeting at Omaha's Hollywood Candy/Fairmont Antiques store (at 1209 Jackson St.).

That April weekend marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic (you know, the ship that was supposedly too big to sink). And I had a chance to do some of the songs that were popular in 1912.

Well, almost three months later, I went ahead and played ten of 1912's most popular cuts...starting with 1911's final Number One song, "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." ("Sweetheart," recorded by the Peerless Quartet, was the top song in the land for seven weeks...as was the recording that knocked it off the top of the charts, Harry MacDonough's "Down by the Old Mill Stream.")

After doing those two songs, I went ahead with "Oh, You Beautiful Doll" and 1912's most successful song, "Moonlight Bay." (When the American Quartet- probably the New Kids on the Block of their day- cut "Moonlight Bay," they took it to Number One and kept it there for eight weeks.)

I stuck in "Alexander's Ragtime Band" because Charles Prince's Orchestra tried the tune on for size in 1912...but had nowhere near the success Arthur Collins and Byron Harlan did with the song the previous year. (That duo's recording of Irving Berlin's first real songwriting triumph enjoyed a ten-week run at the top of the charts!)

It was then time for a couple of actual rags: Imogene Giles' "Red Peppers" and the Brandon Walsh-Charles Straight number, "Mockingbird Rag."

All this time, I'd sneaked in information about some of 1912's biggest news events. For instance, I told the audience- the biggest one I'd ever played for at an R to R Festival- that New Mexico became a state of the US during "Sweetheart's" chart run...and that "Beautiful Doll" peaked at Number One eleven days before Arizona got in...and that the Girl Scouts of America were founded while "Moonlight Bay" was on the charts...and that Charles Prince's ork's version of "Alexander's" was on the charts at the time the Titanic fell into the Atlantic Ocean.

More of that to come, with three more tunes: "Ragtime Cowboy Joe," Bob Roberts' smash (tops for six weeks) that came out as William Howard Taft sent US troops to Nicaragua over a debt that country owe America and some European lands; "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee," another number that spent six weeks on top (by the Heidelberg Quintet, which was actually the American Quartet Plus One) while the Boston Red Sox were stopping the then New York Giants in the World Series; and "The Ragtime Soldier Man," one of Irving's lesser-known tunes and one that I wanted to send out to today's members of this country's military.

What a time everybody had at this year's Ragtime to Riches!

Finally, the club has a bank account (and now, I can tell people who want to contribute financially to GPRS that they can make their checks out to the club...and I can really mean it).

More important than that, the sky's the limit for Great Plains and for its signature event.

Thanks, Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue, for removing R to R from the area's list of secrets.