It's gone from an event held outdoors and subject to at least the worst atmospheric conditions Central Illinois tends to face in late May to an event held in hotels that keep getting better. (Every time this event has to find a new venue, the next venue tends to work out better than the old one.)
At first, it was a contest hurting for participants. Then it got to the point where so many contestants entered that a limit was eventually put on the field (26 is now the max).
When the event began, pianists of all ages competed for one prize. Then in 1985, a Junior Division was created so that players 17 or younger could go for the glory. (Now, performers in that division and the Regular Division fight for ten cash prizes...and the winner in each sector gets a trophy.)
And it's gone from a competition whose first five championships went to two women (1975-76 champ Joybelle Squibb and 1977-79 titleholder Dorothy Herrold) to an event whose biggest prize hasn't gone to a woman since Mimi Blais added the 2000 title to the championship she won in 1994 to a contest where its Regular Division hasn't had a female participant since 2012...the first (and- thus far- only) year Tennessee's Diana Stein went for the Big Trophy.
This year, people who spent Memorial Day weekend at Illinois' Embassy Suites East Peoria missed out on the chance to hear a Texan named Melissa Roen Williams show off her old-time piano skills.
And that's how eleven RD contestants (to go with seven Junior Division participants) ended up competing in the 40th annual World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival.
After 13-year-old Daniel Souvigny got his Junior Division crown back on 5-24-2014, it was up to contest judges Brian Holland, Patrick Holland, and Terry Parrish to eliminate one Regular Division contestant and send the remaining ten into the next day's semifinals.
This year's unlucky so-and-so was...was...was...
Well, actually, all eleven RD players moved on to the OTPP semifinals!
As was the case in the previous day's prelims, Damit Senanayake went first. I didn't get to find out what his first semifinal piece was (maybe one of you reading this blog can disclose the answer)...but I do know his second selection was "Blue Room."
Another thing about OTPP: You get fifteen minutes of rehearsal time before it's your turn to play the contest piano, that 1883 Weber upright better known as "Moby Dink." (As contest coordinator Faye Ballard- who spent the 1976-2010 period as a contestant before becoming just the second coordinator in C&F history- likes to say: "If you snooze, you lose.")
I put in the rehearsal time...after hearing Michael J. Winstanley pump out his two semifinal tunes during his own rehearsal time: "If You Knew Susie" and "Smiles and Shuffles."
And so, while Michael J. went to River E and F (the combined space where the actual competition took place) to perform his two semifinal selections, I took over at the rehearsal piano (a 1960s Hamilton studio piano placed just outside the Green Room).
To tell you the truth...I felt more comfortable during the semifinal round (my first semis since 1994!) than I did during the 2014 prelims. This round, I picked out "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree" and an obscurity from 1902, "Robardina Rag," a number written by a St. Louis composer named E. Warren Furry.
Plus: I was so pumped up about making the semifinals that I did the same thing that Sunday as the day before: I ran to the stage.
And, just like the day before, Ted Lemen had to tell me: "No running!"
Domingo Mancuello was next up to bat...and he DID hit it out the park, with "I Get the Blues When It Rains" and "She Was Just a Sailor's Sweetheart."
William McNally followed, playing Joseph Lamb's "Topliner Rag" and the weekend's second edition of "Limehouse Blues."
Then came the man with the only other "Limehouse" rendition: Ethan Uslan.
Whereas William M. came out in a different tuxedo than the one he put on for the prelims, Ethan hit the stage wearing a...straw hat, striped T-shirt, swim trunks, and a life preserver.
And when Kate's husband (and Ben's and Henry's dad) got to the Embassy Suites stage in that getup, I figured: "That did it. Give Ethan the trophy!"
Ethan made it stick by stroking out "By the Beautiful Sea" and one called "Yack-a-Hula-Wicki-Doola."
All of that gave William Bennett a tough, tough act to follow.
And the Ann Arbor native did it, too! His semifinal entries were "How'd You Like to Spoon with Me?" and "Hothouse Rag."
David Cavalari brings some interesting, off-the-beaten-path numbers to the contest, and this round was no exception. In it, David rocked out "Impecunious Davis" and "Running Water."
"Perfessor" Bill Edwards followed up with "Swampy River" and "Old Folks at Home." (That's right...THAT "Old Folks at Home!")
John Remmers carries Ann Arbor's banner, too (he used to teach at the University of Michigan). With that great style of his, you know you can count on John reaching the semis year after year. And this time, he staked his claim with James Scott's "Prosperity Rag" and one titled "The Whistler and His Dog."
Now it was Samuel Schalla's turn to round out the 2014 OTPP second round...and I like what this physics student did with Joe Jordan's "That Teasin' Rag" and Luckey Roberts' "Nothin'."
When the semifinals were finished, Brian, Patrick, and Terry went off to do some more ciphering; Ted and fellow emcee Adam Swanson kicked back for a while; and the audience did some kicking back all its own...either inside River E and F or just outside the two combined rooms.
After all the judges' ciphering came to an end...Bill Edwards came back onstage to tackle ol' Moby Dink.
And tackle that 1883 Weber upright he did, hammering out "Red Raven Rag" and "The Blues (My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me)," a 1920 number made famous by Ted Lewis, the bandleader famous for "Is Everybody Happy Now?"
This year's wildcard theme was (drum roll)...color!
As things turned out, the other Bill ended up getting in line to get paid. As a result, we got a chance to hear the now four-time New Rag kingpin do "Green River Blues" and Maceo Pinkard's "Liza."
Bill McNally was followed by one of old-time piano's most passionate performers. (You guessed it...Domingo!)
After Domingo got the crowd a date with "Me and My Shadow," he invited the fans to say "Hello, Bluebird."
Adam and Ted regaled the OTPP audience with tunes (as well as old-time piano pointers) after Domingo's and the Two Bills' final sets. And after one last clinic, the two hosts turned it over to David...who turned in Duke Ellington's and Bub Miley's "Black and Tan Fantasy" as well as the romping "Shreveport Stomp."
This left Ethan as the last finalist...and he came out dressed like Abraham Lincoln (right down to the black suit, stovepipe hat, and fake beard).
Ethan picked up the Stephen Foster baton that "Perfessor" Bill ran with in the semifinals, and the 2007 and 2012 RD titleholder nailed "Old Black Joe" and "Oh, Susanna."
Well, in a nutshell, Bill E. finished fifth and won $250, David got fourth prize and earned $400 for it, Domingo outdid his 2013 showing by grabbing off third (that meant $550), and Bill M. won second place...and walked away with $800.
And Ethan racked up his third Regular Division title, good for $1,350 and that Ted Lemen Traveling Trophy.
And so it's time to practice up for next year...and to see what 2015 will bring. .