Saturday, February 28, 2015

Yes, Virginia...Was a Contestant

So was Tony (in 1982)...a couple of years before Virginia entered.

I'm talking about the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and event that, at long last, has a database. 

And the credit goes to three people: Dan Mouyard (the first Junior Division champion to become a Regular Division champ at the Illinois event), Judy Leschewski (a 1977 contestant who found out she could make more of an impact by becoming the celebration's first contest coordinator- a job she held for decades), and Dale Wells (a 1994 Regular Division finalist whose own stint as an OTPP contestant ran from 1986 to 2010). 

Dan emailed me a couple of weeks ago; in his post, he added a link to the C&F database...and once I got on there, my eyes were some kind of full.

Lots of great, great memories!

I'd first heard of the contest in 1979. I was in college at the time, and one Saturday afternoon that May, I hurried back to my dorm room, turned on my TV set, and...watched the tail end of NBC Nightly News (Saturday edition, of course), where the last report showed Dorothy M. Herrold banging away on an antique upright piano placed on a caboose in front of the Monticello Railway Museum. (That's right...the contest was held outdoors back then.)

The reporter called Dorothy (who'd just become OTPP's first three-time undefeated champion after besting the previous titleholder, 1975-76 standardbearer Joybelle Squibb) "The Chopin of Ragtime." 

Two years and seven months earlier, I'd walked inside a church and decided to give the ol' 88s another chance (after a reluctant start in 1965).

After watching that TV report in which the old teacher from La Porte, IN showed the crowd how old-time piano really works, I'd never given attending the C&F (let alone actually entering it) any sort of thought.

Until 1993...thirteen years after the database starts. 

According to the database, three contestants went after the crown DMH had just vacated: John McElhaney, Paul Gronemeier (as things turned out, a longtime OTPP hopeful), and- as things also turned out- the first man to get the Big Trophy, a Californian named Bruce Petsche. 

At first, OTPP was a one-day competition in which each pianist had to prepare three selections. And the audience joined a panel of judges in selecting the champ. 

In those days, Ted Lemen's claim to fame had no Regular Division-Junior Division setup; everybody, regardless of age, competed for the top prize. (Bruce pocketed $250 for winning it all.)

So, in 1981, the field shot up to twelve hopefuls...including little Jennifer Booker, Paul G., and defending titleholder Bruce.

Even Dorothy came back to Monticello, IL to fight to get her crown back. (Can't do that today if you've topped the RDs three straight years.) 

Instead, Mark Haldorson (a man from Illinois' Peoria area) inaugurated his own three-year stint ruling old-time piano.

And Tony Caramia (now one of the big names in ragtime piano) was one of ten 1982 performers trying to end Mark's reign.

Two years later, 31 other pianists (Jennifer and Paul were two of them) fought to claim the title Mark had just vacated. 

One of those musicians was...Virginia Tichenor, who's now one of ragtime's big names as well. 

Nope...pianist-drummer Virginia didn't take the crown.

That championship went to a professor from Peoria's Bradley University, Janet Kaizer. (By the way...another of the contestants Janet had to get past to make it to the top was her own husband, Ed, himself a Bradley prof.)

Well, after that mini-marathon, the Monticello Railway Museum made some changes to its Number One fundraiser. 

First of all, OTPP was turned into a two-day event, with prelims on the first day and finals on the second day. Then the field was busted into two pieces- a Junior Division (for pianists eighteen or younger) and a Regular Division. With this new format, the JD champion was determined on the first day, and the top five RD performers would come back to play the next day for that division's title.

So, with a new format for 1985, Janet got to keep her Reg crown, while Neil Moe became the first Junior titleholder. 

Funny thing: Neil WAS the Junior Division for 1985. 

The next year was the final outdoor C&F (due to the weather turning bad and due to an event called "Hands Across America")...the only year the event was staged at the football field at Monticello High School...and the first year all RDs had to go through qualifications for a spot in the division's semifinals before five finalists could be winnowed out.   

In the RD field (fourteen performers strong), Janet and Ed were still in there, and Paul was still knocking on the door. They were joined by two newcomers who'd each go on to embark on a long association with the contest: Michigan's Dale Wells and Wisconsin's Linda Harmon. 

And a third RD newcomer would really shake things up: Ron Trotta.

Meanwhile, eight teens/preteens would make sure Neil wouldn't get to enjoy a second straight year of being the sole JD contestant. They included sisters Heather and Kori well as Ed's and Janet's son, Joe. 

And Jeremy Lehmen, who joined Jennifer in sitting out 1985, joined her in coming back to Monticello in '86 to challenge Long Tall Neil.

Neil pushed all his challengers aside to keep the Junior Division crown.  

Then, with circumstances producing a six-member Regular Division finals contingent, Janet was on her way to becoming the third performer to wrap up three adult titles in as many years...while Ed (holding down second place coming into the RD finals) was trying to make sure the two biggest cash prizes would go to the Kaizer family. 

But Ron snatched all of that away, charging from fifth (RD prelims) to third (RD semis)...all the way to the very top.  

With twelve World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contests in the books, the Monticello Railway Museum had some new questions to answer about its pet project as the museum prepared for 1987. 

The questions included: "Can Ron Trotta keep his hands on the championship trophy?" "What's Paul Gronemeier got to do to get that title?" "Has Neil Moe got one more title left in him?" "Are the Kaizers coming back?" "Will Linda Harmon come back? She's great...especially when she's playing upside down!" 

The biggest question was: "Where's the contest gonna be held NOW?" 

I'll tell you what happened in Part Two of this post.

I'm Jim Boston, and thanks for finding this blog! 

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