Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Out of the Rain

The 1980s were an era of big events and political stunts; an era of style over substance.

C. Everett Koop (Ronald Reagan's surgeon general) wanted to wear his old uniform from his days in the Navy to his new job...and because of that, all subsequent top doctors have had to don the fruit salad. 

There was Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No!" campaign to fight drug abuse. (And, by the way...alcohol is a drug, too. And that's a whole other post in itself.)

And what about the "effort" to prove the value of teachers in America...AKA the program to send one into space? 

About four months after Francis Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe- said teacher- lost their lives in the Challenger explosion, the "Hands Across America" event took place. 

It didn't help that the 1986 Memorial Day weekend was chilly and misty outside in Monticello, IL. (Monticello was one of the "Hands Across America" stops.)

And it ultimately helped drive the Monticello Railway Museum to look for a new place to hold its top fundraiser, the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest. For '86, the organization used Monticello High School's football field as the contest venue rather than the museum itself.

It was too much to take for everybody...so, the MRM made The Decision.

The organization took the whole show to the then Holiday Inn...in Decatur, IL.

And for the first time, OTPP wouldn't have to directly fight atmospheric conditions.

That first indoor iteration of Ted Lemen's claim to fame drew eighteen contestants, with all but two competing in the Regular Division. 

So while Neil Moe only had to get past Cathy Wamsley to become the first three-time Junior Division champion, all sixteen Regular Division hopefuls advanced to the division's 1987 semifinals. Three of the adult contestants were newcomers to OTPP who'd make names for themselves in later years: Dorothy Baldwin, Betty Keller, and...the "Perfessor" himself, Bill Edwards.

And, as things turned out, Bill and Dorothy joined Linda Harmon (a newcomer from the previous year) and longtime participant Paul Gronemeier in the contest finals...won by a man who, at that time, made the Washington, DC area his stomping grounds: Ron Trotta.

As the event's final outdoor Regular champ, Ron staged a near-Garrison finish (instead of standing in last place in the 1986 RD prelims, he was fifth; Ron moved up to third at the end of the RD semis). A year later, Ron started out in first place once the 1987 RD first round came to an end and stayed on top until he was officially declared the contest's first indoor Reg champion. 

OTPP '87 was a success.

With that in mind, the contestant field for 1988 jumped up to 23...twenty RDs and three JDs. 

In the Junior field, only Cathy had a 1986-87 connection...but she still wasn't able to connect with the division's top prize. Neither did Neil's sister, Mary Ann.

Mary Ann and Cathy could only watch as Dax Baumgartner inaugurated his own three-year stay at the head of the Junior Division. 

Mary Ann's brother was part of the activity that continued to reshape the Regular Division- a contingent that saw Ed and Janet Kaizer come back for some more prize money (and in Janet's case, a chance to snatch the Traveling Trophy out of Ron's grip and get the statue back for herself). Dale Wells came back, too.

To top it all off, five newcomers who'd go on to become huge names in old-time piano made the trip to Decatur: Dick Zimmerman, Todd Robbins, Jim Radloff, Marty Mincer,
and Betty's daughter Sue.

And after two rounds, it looked as if Sue (instead of Janet) would be the one to give Ron a taste of his own medicine.

But the ex-math teacher from the Nation's Capital became the third undefeated RD champion...after breaking a semifinal-round tie with Sue Keller. And Janet, Paul, Linda, and Marty joined Ron and Sue as Reg finalists.

1989 saw other OTPP changes besides a Regular Division field without Ron Trotta and his near-Garrison finishes. First of all, the contest would- for the first time- employ four judges (instead of the three of previous years). 

Second, two new JD contestants (Jason Planck and Christina Sparks) would try to stop Dax from successfully defending his newly-won crown. 

Plus, in the RD, seven newcomers would join in the hunt (nineteen performers strong) to hoist the Traveling Trophy. Three of the biggest names were a Michigander named Taslimah Bey,
a Bay Stater named Mark Lutton,
and...an Illinoisan named Julie McClarey.

Julie had the shortest trip of them all: She and her husband Steve lived on the other side of town from Decatur's Holiday Inn.

Five cash prizes (not the six of 1986-88) awaited the nineteen Regular Division hopefuls...and after missing out in '88, "Perfessor" Bill made sure he'd get a check from the contest in his third try. Marty, Sue, and- you probably guessed it- Paul were 1989 RD finalists, too.

In fact, 1989 represented Paul Gronemeier's best chance since 1980 to jump into the OTPP winner's circle. (He finished second to Bruce Petsche in '80.)

But Julie McClarey's near-perfect technique and enthusiastic performances prevented Paul from getting his hands on the Big Dough.

And, as things turned out, the McClareys could really use the championship money.

After all, Steve's and Julie's family was growing.

What kind of effect would a growing family have on Julie's chance to defend her newly-earned title?

I'll have the answer when I come back for Part Three. (Stay tuned!)

Oh, by the way...a Bay Stater is someone from Massachusetts.

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