Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"You Mean There's Still a Contest?"

Glad to be back!

Now that it's official that the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival will take place in a new location (Oxford, MS) and will continue to happen on Memorial Day weekend, it sounded like a great, great time to pick the contest's history back up. 

Where we left off, it was 1994...and Mimi Blais came to the Holiday Inn Conference Hotel in Decatur, IL (the OTPP site since 1987) and tore the place up as she snared the Regular Division's Traveling Trophy and took it back home to Montreal, QC.

And it was a year where only five Regular Division contestants and just five Junior Division ones went after prize money. 

When Mimi won it all in the RDs, that did it.

Put the brakes on the shrinking of the contestant field, that is.

When we met at Decatur's Holiday Inn in 1995, six Junior Division hopefuls and eighteen Reg Division contestants took to the stage...including four RDs who decided not to go after the Big Dough the year before (after competing in 1993) and six newcomers to the division.

In addition, three of the JDs had never competed in OTPP before. In that group, there were John Schultz and two names we'd hear from for a long time to come: Noah Harmon (a son of Linda and John) and Dan Mouyard.

Newcomers to the Regular Division were Teresa Arth, Clarence Maley, Mitchell Johnson, Rod Ludwig, Howie Wyeth (a descendant of Andrew), and John Yates. (John Y., from Bowmanville, ON, teamed up with Mimi to give the contest two Canadians that year.) What's more, Brian Holland, Marty Mincer, Faye Ballard, and "Perfessor" Bill Edwards got back into the mix after a two-year absence, Todd Robbins took up the call after staying away for seven years...and John H. ended an eight-year siesta from competition, while Linda moved out from behind the judges' table to climb back on stage, end a six-year hiatus from competing, and take on the contest piano, that 1883 Weber upright nicknamed "Moby Dink."

And the biggest news of all was...Julie McClarey, six years after winning it all in the RDs, jumped back in. 

It was all because of the giant competitive shadow Mimi cast. 

For the first two rounds of Reg competition, it looked as if Mimi was going to keep that trophy, in spite of Julie and Linda (and those two inseparables, Marty M. and "Perfessor" Bill) tagging after her.

Still, Julie's sets got stronger with each round...until her textbook technique (standing out in "Grandpa's Spell" and "Alabamy Bound") enabled the Mom from Decatur to snatch the Traveling Trophy away from the classically-trained Montrealer.

By three points. 

Meanwhile, Marty Sammon (that's right, blues fans; that Marty Sammon) showed that he wasn't going to let go of the Junior Division crown...which, this time around, he won by eight points over Max Schiltz.  

Just as Mimi heard Julie's footsteps in 1995, Julie heard footsteps herself the next year...a year in which seven pianists (all but one duking it out in the RDs) tried OTPP competition for the first time. 

That meant new RD'ers Gale Foehner, Will Hahn, T.J. Thompson, Brad Pregeant, John Skaggs, and an Irishman named Desmond Crawford.

The lone new JD'er, Illinoisan Hillary Fedirka, joined Max from Missouri in trying to get the title Marty S. wasn't able to fight to keep in 1996 (circumstances kept him from making the trip from the Chicago suburbs to Decatur that Memorial Day weekend).

It was almost Max' year.

Instead, 1996 was Pennsylvania Dan's year.

By three points. 

Over in the Regs, Brian went from knocking on the door to the division's Top Five to kicking it down. He and John Skaggs ended up replacing Bill E. and Marty M. as the two men in the Regular Division's money line...and Faye wound up taking Linda's place in the RD Top Five. (Linda, Marty M., and Bill E. didn't taste it up in 1996.) 

Julie Mac heard footsteps, all right...but she still outplayed Brian and kept her place at the top of the Regular Division. Brian, meanwhile, passed up Mimi and relegated her to third place (with Faye and John Skaggs rounding out the quintet). 

But the Man from Indiana served notice...and the next three OTPP Contests would belong to him. (Well, at least the adult competition would belong to him.)

I didn't get to see Brian Holland snag his first RD crown. I'd moved from Sioux City, IA back here to Omaha, NE on 3-29-1997...and I hadn't yet earned enough vacation time at my new job (with an information technology company) to make the trip back to Central Illinois. 

By contrast, Noah did get to come back to Central Illinois...and he had to fight off three new JD contestants: Mindy Dunkle, Neil Blaze, and John Clark.

The only new adult contestants in 1997 were Steve Kummer and Arlene Stoller. Meanwhile, Aaron George came back...after sitting out the previous six contests. In all, fourteen older pianists joined the four younger ones.

Mindy caught Noah at the top of the Junior Division...but he prevented her from becoming the first girl to rule the JDs because of his better technical score. 

Steve acquitted himself quite well, too.

All he did was finish second in the RDs to Brian...meaning he'd also passed up Bill E., Marty M., and Adam Downey.

Yep...the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival was beginning to hit its stride, not only in terms of competition, but also in terms of fan support.

In fact, things got to the point where the performer field would grow...wildly.

When we pick up the topic again, we'll see just how wildly.