Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Goodbye, Decatur

Things were starting to look up for the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival- at least from a competition standpoint- as a new century arose. The contest was now firmly established as a Decatur, IL attraction, what with the perfect location (the newly-renamed Holiday Inn Select)...a venue where ragtime fans no longer had to worry about it raining on the parade.

What could go wrong?

We'll tell you later.

But first...let's talk about the 2000 version.

That year, 23 contestants weighed in (14 in the Regular Division, nine in the Junior Division); while eight JDs were trying to wrestle the division's crown away from the new kingpin, Adam Yarian, everybody in the RD group fought to get the newly-vacated title...left open because the then rules said that Brian Holland couldn't go after a fourth straight championship.

Two Reg Division contestants had never tasted the OTPP experience before: Barbara Curry and Michael Urban-Piette. 

Meanwhile, John McElhaney ended a sixteen-year wait between berths in the contest (an event that underwent all sorts of changes since he last tried it in 1984...the biggest being the competition's move indoors in 1987).

One thing hadn't changed for Johnny Mac: He proved he was still RD semifinals material. 

In the JD competition, Jerry Ailshie, Erin Long, and Ashley Leverenz were back to tussle with Adam Y. and Harrison Wade. But for 2000, they were joined by first-timers Will Best, Charles and Chris Korban, and the newest Danville (IL) discovery, Lauren Clayton. 

When all was said and done, Harrison passed up Jerry (and Charles turned out to be the better Korban)...but Adam from Maryland was able to notch a third straight Junior Division championship. 

Fourteen-year-old Adam did it...he punched his ticket into the contest's adult division.

Back in the adult-division wars, Mimi Blais was determined to leave no doubt that 2000 was her year...no questions asked. 

The question was: "Who's gonna place second?"

At first, Michael Stalcup was running second...but he flamed out in the semifinals, and fell so far behind that Dan Mouyard, Marty Mincer, and Faye Ballard passed him up (with Faye taking second for herself at the end of the RD second round).

Well...if 2000 wasn't going to Mimi's year, would it be Faye's? (After all, when OTPP was still a one-division competition, Faye nearly ripped the crown away from Joybelle Squibb in 1976, the contest's second year.) 

As it all turned out, Dan and the Two Martys (Mincer and Sammon) passed Faye up...but all four of 'em couldn't come out ahead of Mimi. (Marty S. placed second in the Regs.)

It all came down to dueling versions of "Kitten on the Keys:" Mimi's version was better than the rendition Marty M. brought home.

And no woman contestant has since snared the Regular Division's top prize. 

Circumstances prevented Mimi from coming back to Decatur for the 2001 C&F...so that meant both division titles were there for the taking. 

2001 was the year the Memorial Day weekend extravaganza boasted 24 contestants (sixteen RDs and eight JDs); seven pianists were new to the contest this time...and all but two were Regular Division performers.

David Feurzeig and Janet Bullock were two of 2001's first-timers; so were Al Roma (an American living in Germany at the time) and Andrew Barker (a Briton living in America back then).

Lauren's piano teacher, Bev Wolf, filled out an entry blank, too.
Bev was the instructor who also showed Ashley and Erin- as well as 1999 JD performer Marcie Hunt- the ropes.

Speaking of JD...it was a one-Korban year (Charles carried the family banner this time) and the first year Illinoisan Karah Gettleman and Iowan Sarah Davison (who grew up to become a Tennessean and help start a great band called High Road III) got in there. 

I first met Sarah two years earlier, when I competed at the National Old-Time Country, Bluegrass, and Folk Music Festival and Contest (still held at that time in Avoca, IA). In 1999, the then sixteen-year-old grabbed that festival's ragtime piano championship...a title I'm told I almost won on my own first try. 

Getting back to 2001...it looked as if Al was going to triumph on his first try. He boasted a four-point preliminary lead over David and the youngest of the RD performers, ol' Adam Y. But Adam Y. and Al R. lost ground in the division semifinals, and Dan went from a fourth-place tie with Faye to a second-place tie with Al...while David F. scooted to the top coming into the Reg finals.

OTPP Weekend 2001 turned out to have quite a few firsts:

*Harrison emerged victorious (his initial title) in the younger competition...in a year where the second-place and third-place JD finishers finally got awarded prize money, too.

*Sarah became the first female Junior Division contestant to receive prize money (she finished third while Will got second place). 

*David couldn't hang on to the top Regular Division spot...and, instead,
Dan M. became the first OTPP contestant to follow up a JD title with a championship in the RDs. (Adam, Al, and Faye rounded out the RD Top Five.)

2001 was also the year Decatur's Holiday Inn Select went under new management. 

This new management group decided to remodel the hotel...lobby, rooms, and all. And the danger was that the makeover wouldn't be done in time for 2002's Memorial Day weekend. 

Plus, the group's members felt the Holiday Inn Select had room for just one big musical event per year. As a result, the new team decided to prop up the Central Illinois Jazz Festival and turn its back on the OTPP Contest.

The clincher came from the Decatur Convention and Visitors Bureau, a group that had been giving the Old-Time Music Preservation Association $2,000 per year to help with advertising the contest.

On the eve of the 2001 get-together, bureau officials told OMPA: "We're cutting you off!" 

And so, for the first time in fifteen years, Ted Lemen and Co. needed a place for contestants to show their stuff on the 1883 Weber upright piano nicknamed "Moby Dink." 

When we come back to take another look at the history of the OTPP soiree, we'll learn about the contest's next site.

I'm Jim Boston...thanks for reading this blog!