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 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 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.

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