Friday, May 23, 2014

Hello There from East Peoria!

I had to fight to get this opportunity.

And I'm glad for this chance.

Things have worked out so that I could attend the 40th annual World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival...which is now on its sixth venue: The Embassy Suites Hotel in East Peoria, IL.

If my boss at the plastics factory I work at hadn't encouraged me to fill out a vacation request form earlier this month (and if the plant manager hadn't okayed the form), and if my car had broken down someplace along the way, well...I'd be typing this out in Omaha, NE (and talking about another subject).

This time, I went from the Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue area directly to the Peoria area...and I commenced the trip yesterday morning. And I fought the rain (okay, much-needed rain) until I reached Exit 110 on Interstate 80 (eleven miles west of West Des Moines, IA).

In addition, I fought through six different lane closings on the Iowa stretch of I-80...and through the demolition of the Bettendorf, IA convenience store where I filled up my car's gas tank before reaching Illinois.

But here I hours away from reaching the Green Room at the hotel's Conference Center to join eighteen other contestants in drawing out numbers to determine playing order as the meat of this year's OTPP Contest approaches.

Before that...

Made it to the hotel at 4:22 PM (Central time) yesterday, then an hour later, I caught a shuttle to the Sky Harbor Steakhouse (located in another Peoria suburb, West Peoria) to be a part of the contest-opening tuneups. 

At the tuneups, anybody who wants to has an opportunity to play the restaurant's rinky-tink piano, a Grinnell Bros. upright from early in the 20th Century. 

Lots of people- not just OTPP contestants- did.

On top of that, those who signed up to pound away at that upright were treated to a free buffet...featuring ribs, chicken, macaroni and cheese, a roll, your choice of vegetables, and your choice of beverage.

Personally, things went better at the Sky Harbor than they did a year ago. What's more, the steakhouse party didn't stop until around 9:15 PM.

Then earlier today, I tackled an experience I wasn't able to engage in since 2007: I boarded, for just the second time in my life, the local riverboat known as Spirit of Peoria. 

I want to go back on that boat next year, too!

Just as is the case at the Sky Harbor Steakhouse, the food on the riverboat is great. On the Spirit, you get a lunch buffet that includes several different salads, your choice of chips, a few dessert items, three beverage choices, and a wonderful line of sandwich fixin's. 

And...the boat has a spinet piano on each of the first two decks plus a calliope on the third (top) deck. (Okay...the actual calliope doesn't work anymore. They hooked up an electronic keyboard to the calliope's framework. And it still sounds great!)

Had a chance to work out on both the electronic keyboard-cum-calliope and the second deck's spinet. (Things turned out better for me here in 2014 than was the case seven years ago.)

At 4:38 PM this afternoon, it was off to the Embassy Suites Conference Center, where Paul Asaro did an impressive workshop on 1920s-1930s stride piano.

One great thing about this Embassy Suites is all the eateries within close the Steak 'n' Shake next door. [About 50 minutes prior to the start of this year's New Rag Contest, I joined contestants Samuel Schallau and William Bennett (nope...not THAT William Bennett) and William's mom Sue for dinner at Steak 'n' Shake.]

And I tasted just why Steak 'n' Shake is legendary.

I want to go back there, too!  

At 7:00 PM, it was time for New Rag...and out of seven contestants (it would've been eight had I entered), William McNally walked away with his fourth rag-writing title. 

He gets to split it with a Californian named Vincent Johnson, who wrote the entry William M. played: "And So Fourth."

Then came the first of several get-togethers called "afterglows." In these afterglows, they've got open piano (two studio models) in one room- the one where the New Rag competition took place- while the other afterglow room is meant for people who play other instruments (you'll find a studio piano there, too).

I stayed in the New Rag room and was the last of seven to sign up to play.

And it felt more comfortable this time around than in 2013.

When I come back, I'll let you know how the first round of non-New Rag OTPP competition went. 

I'm Jim Boston...thanks for reading this blog!


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