Saturday, April 30, 2016

32 Contestants!

It's getting to be that time again...when ragtime musicians and their supporters gear up for the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival. And this year, the plot thickens.

The reason: After four decades of the event taking place in (as things turned out) four cities in Illinois (Monticello, Decatur, Peoria, and East Peoria), old-time piano's biggest competition (well, at least on American soil) begins a new chapter...on and around the campus of the University of Mississippi. This year's dates: 5-26/30-2016.

I won't get to go to Oxford, MS this time around. And the culprit is the cataract in my left eye. (It's going to have to be removed later this year or early in 2017, depending on when or if I'm able to receive a bonus from the plastics factory that currently employs me. And the eye-care clinic performing the surgery wants $1,500 up front- and the retina surgery I underwent on 12-14-2015 completely paid up- before an ophthalmologist can touch my left eyeball again.)

You bet I've got health insurance through my place of work.

It's just that, with its $1,500 deductible, the insurance is worthless when the staff at the eye clinic you trade with tells you: "We're going to have to shoot a laser into your eye."

Result: I've decided to retire from OTPP competition and focus on performing here in the Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue area.

I came back to this area on 3-29-1997, and as a result, I couldn't make the trip to Decatur that Memorial Day weekend (hadn't racked enough vacation time at my then-new gig as a data storage technician for an infotech firm).

So...I made gearing up for OTPP '98 one of my goals.

The 1997 Decatur experience featured an eighteen-player field (fourteen in the Regular Division and four in the Junior Division) in which Brian Holland grabbed the Traveling Trophy for the first time...and Noah Harmon beat out Mindy Dunkle on technical points for the JD title. 

The next year, Noah, Mindy, and their fellow 1997 JD competitors John Clark and Neil Blaze had to fight off seven new younger contestants: Kara Huber, Peter Segrist, Joe King, Katrina Kappes, Noah's younger brother Zack, and two names we'd hear from during the decade to come: An Illinoisan named Harrison Wade and a 12-year-old Marylander named Adam Yarian. 

Meanwhile, the adult field saw a 50% increase in size over its 1997 counterpart. First of all, Patrick Kelly, Theresa Milhoan, Bruce Walker, a Tennessean named Michael Stalcup, and a Kentuckian by the name of Allen Dale (maybe you've seen Allen's YouTube offerings) entered the OTPP wars for the first time. And then Mimi Blais, Will Hahn, and I came back after a year's absence. (Gale Foehner, Arlene Stoller, and defending RD finalists Adam Downey and Steve Kummer were no-shows this time around.)

To top it all off, Floridian Dorothy Baldwin came back to C&F competition after a nine-year gulf...while Noah's and Zack's dad (and Linda's hubby) John ended an eleven-year sabbatical from going after the Big Loot. 

Not since the Kaizers in the middle 1980s had a whole family tried to grab the top OTPP prizes. As it all shook out in '98 for the Harmons of Winneconne, WI, it was Mother and Oldest Son Know Best. (Noah lost his Junior Division crown...but he still outplayed Zack. What's more, Linda snared a place in the Reg Top Ten...leaving John behind.)

With Mimi back to perform her brand of sorcery on the contest piano ("Moby Dink," a Weber upright built in 1883), she and Brian made it a two-person RD race. And Theresa (a teacher from Illinois) initially looked like a Top Five pianist. 

As Theresa flamed out in the Reg Division semifinals, Mimi broke a preliminary-round tie between herself and Brian to take a one-point semifinal lead...that evaporated when Brian aced his RD finals test, thanks to killer versions of "I've Found a New Baby" and "Handful of Keys." The Man from Indiana stood tallest again, while Mimi, Marty Mincer, John Skaggs, and Bill Edwards rounded out the division's money winners. 

The biggest news in Decatur that May came in the JDs. Neil was hoping 1998 would be his year...but it actually was the year old-time piano fans found out about Adam Yarian's greatness. 

A new force had emerged. 

Instead of 32 pianists (the record-setting 1998 total; the old mark was 31 in 1984) duking it out, 25 showed up in the Holiday Inn Select's green room on 5-29-1999. Of the previous year's newcomers in the RDs, only Michael and Bruce came back for 1999 in their quest to prevent Brian from becoming the fourth pianist to get three straight Reg championships. In addition, only one newcomer enlisted in that division: Tom Cortese. And Marty Sammon (the JD champ in 1994 and 1995) made it into the ranks of the RDs this time around- his first contact with OTPP pressure in four years.

By contrast, the Danville Connection made its debut in the Junior Division bracket.

"The Danville What?" Well, a Danville, IL pianist and teacher named Bev Wolf started getting some of her students into OTPP; the first ones were 1999 combatants Ashley Leverenz, Erin Long, and Marcie Hunt. 

Fellow Illinoisans Jerry Ailshie and Amanda Benoit joined Marcie, Ashley, and Erin as contest newcomers in the JDs for the last (or next-to-last, depending on your point of view) year of the 20th Century. 

Jerry outpointed all the other newcomers (Tom included!), but it just wasn't enough to keep Adam Y. out of the driver's seat in the younger division.

Meanwhile, the 1999 Regular Division race was looking like the one from the year before...except that Mimi was clearly ahead of Brian during the first two rounds. (There'd be no stopping her this time, and she'd bring the $1,200 top prize back to Montreal, QC.)

"Oh, yeah?" said Brian.

With another nearly flawless final round (it included "Dallas Blues" and Scott Joplin's "New Era Rag"), Brian put his name next to those of Dorothy Herrold, Mark Haldorson, and Ron Trotta.

He closed out an era and became, at 27, the youngest three-time undefeated RD champ ever.  

And so, the next question became: "With Brian Holland retiring unbeaten, who's gonna rule the Regular Division now?"

Stay with us and we'll find out.

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