Monday, April 27, 2015

Raising the Bar

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes continued to come to the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s.

With the contest about to embark on its fourth year as a Decatur, IL event (its fourth year as an indoor attraction after twelve of them taking place outdoors in Monticello, IL), the Monticello Railway Museum decided to pull out.

With that, a new group was needed to put the C&F on...and so, in March 1990, the Old-Time Music Preservation Association (OMPA) was put together. Its purpose, besides overseeing the contest, was to promote the very first form of popular music to ever come out of these United States. 

All you needed to become a member of OMPA (besides a love of old-time music) was, at first, an annual fee of $20. And, if you forked over that fee, you'd also get a newsletter called The Old Piano Roll News. 

Two months after the organization began, its first major order of business was to ultimately hand six cash prizes (and two championship trophies) to the six most deserving of twenty 1990 OTPP hopefuls- fifteen Regular Division performers and five Junior Division contestants. (In those days, all the JD pianists competed for just one cash prize.)  

The Junior Division field that year was almost a family affair (or Family Affair, if you will) thanks to the presence of Tom, Katie, and Carrie Drury...but they and Aaron George couldn't prevent the Dax Baumgartner Express from chugging to a third straight title (and a berth in the Regular Division the next year).

Speaking of Regular Division...two of the contestants came back to the festivities after a long stretch of time away: Bruce Petsche (he won it all in 1980) and Faye Ballard (she almost won it all in a twelve-going-on-thirteen-year-old). Plus, as was the case in 1988, the Two Kellers (Sue and her mother Betty) were in search of the Traveling Trophy. Lillian Nelson, Marcy Fruchter, Fran Stowe, and Fletcher St. Cyr were first-time contestants, and they were after the Big Dough.

What's more, Neil Moe was trying to become the first Junior Division titleholder to snag a Regular Division championship. 

"Perfessor" Bill Edwards, Marty Mincer, Therese Bradisse, Mark Lutton, and Lorraine Pantalena all came back.

Taslimah Bey didn't.

Paul Gronemeier didn't, either.

Neither did the reigning RD champion, Julie McClarey.

Her and husband Steve's family was growing...otherwise, Julie might've won the 1990 Reg crown.

That crown went to Marty, an apple farmer from Hamburg, IA...and he became the first Hawkeye Stater to bag OTPP's top prize, with Bill, Sue, Neil, and Betty also getting RD prize money. (And Marty won it all in his grandfather's band uniform.)

By the's a great time to tell you that, if you're going to compete in OTPP, you've got to put on a costume. You've got to compete in something people generally wore during the 1880-1929 period.

This means that men contestants have generally worn period suits, tuxedos, and- more often than not- that familiar white shirt-vest-bow tie-slacks-arm garter combination (the outfit I like to call "bartender's duds"). Sometimes, the OTPP men have added hats to the outfits. 

And another exception besides Marty's band uniform (that actually was his granddad's) was the overalls Dale Wells once competed in.

Women contestants usually have donned those long, long dresses from pioneer days or from the turn of the 20th Century...or they'd put on those flapper dresses (or gowns) from the 1920s. 

And some OTPP women have worn the bartender's duds themselves...and Jennifer Booker once competed in overalls, while Taslimah went at it in a tuxedo.  

In 1991, fifteen pianists total did their thing at Decatur's Holiday Inn Conference Hotel (the venue's then name)...and all but three were in the adult division. (Dax wasn't one of the RDs...and neither was Sue. And that made the '91 competition a one-Keller event, thanks to Betty's presence as a competitor.)

The JD field consisted of newcomers, two of whom we'd be hearing from for years to come. That year, Kris Becker finished third in the Junior Division, Marty Sammon (that's right, blues fans- THAT Marty Sammon) came out second best, and Adam Downey took Dax' place as the best JD ragtimer.

And Adam would go on to his own three-year run at the top of the younger division.

With Sue no longer competing (and, instead, getting ready to embark on a long run of serving OTPP in many other ways- especially as a contest judge), Dale slipped in as one of the 1991 RD finalists; in the process, he joined Betty, Mark, Marty M., and the ol' Perfessor as the Top Five. 

This time, the computer programer from the DC area swapped places with the apple farmer from Southwest Iowa...with Bill E. snatching the Big Trophy away from Marty M. 

The two of them became not just good friends, but GREAT ones (teaming up from time to time as The All-American Ragtime Boys), and Marty M. and Bill E. went into 1992- the second straight fifteen-player year- having old-time piano fans wondering which man would reign supreme in the Regular Division.

Then Paul G. ended his two-year hiatus from OTPP...and he was joined by Reg newcomers Ginny Kaiser and Brian Holland (sorry, Motown fans...not THAT Brian Holland). Meanwhile, Doris Barnes ended a seven-year stay away from the contest.  

In the Junior Division, Adam D. and Marty S. competed against three newcomers, one of whom we'd be hearing about for years to come: Ryan Casteel, a Missourian named Max Schiltz, and a Nebraskan named Julie Ann Smith.

Julie Ann came within three points of derailing Adam in 1992...but she'd go on to make a name for herself another way. Now known as Julie Smith Phillips, she's one of the world's best-known harpists (and a noted harp instructor as well).

If you'd like to know more about this harp giant (she got started on the instrument the year before she made her OTPP debut), go to 

As things turned out in the RDs for '92, Dale and Mark kept their places among the division's Top Five...and Marty Mincer came out ahead of Bill Edwards.

And Paul Gronemeier came out ahead of everybody and got the crown he'd been after. 

You could bet that Paul was going to come back for 1993...and he did. It was a year in which the field ballooned to nineteen contestants- five JDs and fourteen RDs. What's more, eight newcomers (all but one in the Reg Division) fueled the field's growth.

The lone new JD'er for 1993, Dalton Ridenhour, would come back to Decatur for more. And of the seven RD newcomers, only Bob Milne had any real name recognition in old-time piano coming into that year's OTPP. And like Dalton, Bob would come back to the contest...but in Bob's case, not to compete. (I loved his workshops.)

Richard Ramsey, Chuck Bregman, Patty Davis, David Galster, Erma Ryan, and I rounded out the rookie field. There we were, thirteen RDs trying to take Paul's long-sought crown away...and four JDs trying to prevent Adam's clean sweep (something Julie Ann almost did a year earlier).

While I stank out the Holiday Inn, Bob lived up to his reputation as a top-notch pianist...and Richard was a revelation.

Richard and Bob joined Bill, Marty M., and Mark in the RD finals...and in the process, pushed Paul out of the money line. Somebody else would win the contest's top cash prize- now $1,200- as well as the Traveling Trophy.

Marty M. was that someone else...and he became the first champion in either division to get the crown back after watching someone else take it away. And that made him the OTPP version of Muhammad Ali.

About 24 hours earlier, Adam D. punched his ticket into the Regular Division. But his closest competitor this time wasn't Julie Ann S. or Marty S.

After sitting out 1992, Kris came back to place second in the JDs.

I didn't do as well as I'd hoped (all the juniors beat me)...but I learned a lot from that first OTPP experience (including learning to play "Tickled to Death" after hearing the then thirteen-year-old Julie Ann Smith nail it). 

Even so, Dale, Brian, and other contestants- as well as other OTPP fans- encouraged me to come back for 1994.

I did.

Dalton did, too.

In fact, he and I were the only two 1993 newcomers who also weighed in as competitors the following year. 

Marty M., Bob M., Bill E., and Brian H. came to Decatur's Holiday Inn during 1994's Memorial Day weekend...but not to compete. (Matter of fact, Bob and Bill ran some workshops that weekend. And theirs were the very first workshops in contest history.)

Meanwhile, the field shrank ten, five in each division. On top of that, each division boasted just one newbie.

The lone first-time JD contestant this time was Cecilia Fleisher (whose version of "American Beauty" I really loved)...and the only new RD contestant blew everyone away.

Quebec native Mimi Blais came into the 1990s as a classical pianist. She got the ragtime bug soon after, and then...and then...ended a four-year absence from performing arts centers to launch a concert called "Around Scott Joplin."

That did it. 

Thanks to playing ragtime, Mimi received the acclaim that couldn't come from playing classical music...and by 1994, she was ready to see what she could do in the best-known ragtime competition in America.

Mimi skunked everybody. Matter of fact, the last competition piece she played, Scott Joplin's "The Crush Collision March," nailed it for me. 

You talk about unstoppable!

It was a year I'll never forget...not only because it was the year all five Regular Division hopefuls (Mimi, Mark, Dale, Adam D., and I) made it to the semifinals AND finals, but, most importantly, it was when Marty Sammon became the Junior Division kingpin...and Mimi Blais raised the bar exponentially in the Regular Division.