New Era Rag: First post-pandemic OCRS in Lakewood (June 2022)
What turned out to be the most recent OCRS was held in Fullerton in February of 2020 before conditions changed for everyone worldwide.
Local ragtime fans have waited eagerly for events to resume. Audiences who have attended OCRS events and RagFest over the past two decades had something to celebrate on June 19, 2022, when OCRS convened for the first time in 28 months.
That was at the Me 'n Ed's Pizza Parlor in Lakewood (greater Long Beach area). Ragtimer Johnny Hodges had been performing there every Friday night since fall of 2021. He encouraged the venue's owner to invite OCRS to have a Saturday afternoon performance, an invitation OCRS's Eric Marchese accepted.
It wasn't the typical OCRS, where the music and performers are normally the focus. Food was the reason most were in attendance. A small handful of ragtime fans stopped by for the music. The room's noise levels precluded the customary m.o. wherein each performer addresses the audience and provides background information about each piece they're about to play. Given the chaotic surroundings, the only approach was to simply take a seat at the piano and start playing.
The afternoon's performance came in three waves, each fueled by two pianists at a time. First off it was Johnny and Eric, taking turns at the piano during the first hour. The second wave started when Pedro Bernardez and Michael Flores arrived. The final third of the day was sparked by the arrivals of Ryan Wishner and Vincent Johnson. Each new pair of pianists helped ramp up the enthusiasm level among those focused on the 1904 Regent upright, whose sustain pedal had been disabled the preceding night during the performances of Johnny Hodges and Eve Elliott, who had recently been crowned as the world old-time piano-playing champion (and who had another gig on Saturday afternoon).
Johnny broke the ice with that classic of all classics, "Maple Leaf Rag." Shouting out "next?," he then prowled the audience for a volunteer pianist, spotting a little tyke and bringing him up to play. Planting the kid between himself and the piano, Johnny played the left hand while holding the child's index finger with his right hand, guiding it onto the melody line notes of "Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, It's Off to Work We Go." The little guy then basked in the applause for his "playing" before returning to his seat.
Except for playing at the Muckenthaler holiday open house six months earlier, and doing three solo shows in spring 2021 as benefits for the Stage Door Repertory Theater in Anaheim, Eric hadn't played for the public since OCRS's Nixon Library show in early February of 2020. He got his performance rolling with Clarence Wiley's rollicking "Car-Barlick Acid."
Johnny rolled out his ornate instrumental version of "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby." Eric followed suit (an instrumental arrangement of a vocal number), playing a real rarity, "The Oklahoma Oilfield Blues," a ragtime song by Jack Randolph (lyricist) and John F. Carroll (composer) published in Pawhuska, OK, in 1920. Johnny rolled out yet another song-without-singing: "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?" He then segued into a wonderfully frenetic version of "The Charleston."
Eric countered with a great, hardly-ever-played classic rag: "The Pippin," a 1908 masterpiece by Arthur Marshall, and followed with a second rarity: Abe Oleman's wonderful "Cheerful Blues," a rag-blues number published in Chicago in 1917.
Johnny offered the great ragtime standard "Dill Pickles," and Eric rattled off four more pieces: "Swipesy" (Marshall and Joplin), "The Smiler" (Percy Wenrich), "Augustan Club Waltzes" (Joplin) and "The Entertainer" (more Joplin).
Pedro Bernardez arrived, providing a third pianist for audiences to enjoy and delivering yet more Joplin with "Elite Syncopations" and a super-fast-tempo version of "A Breeze from Alabama."
Having also just taken a seat, Michael Flores delivered a socko set with a great one-two-three punch of Joplin, Confrey and Morton: First, "Maple Leaf Rag," then "Kitten on the Keys" and finally "Tiger Rag."
Both Michael and Pedro had just returned to Southern California after competing in the old-time piano-playing competition in Oxford, Mississippi, and it showed. Their playing was crisp and polished, and it was obvious they'd been working on their performances in preparation to compete.
Johnny served up one of his delightful medleys of ragtime-era songs, starting with a heavily honky-tonk version of "Some Of These Days." He segued into "You Made Me Love You,"a good springboard for "Makin' Whoopee" and, to close off this wonderful creation, Johnny's patented bluesy-jazzy version of "Handy Man."
Eric played the third and fourth themes of "Solace – A Mexican Serenade" (well known from their use in "The Sting") as a lead-in to his performance of "Pine Apple Rag." Pedro then offered two more great Joplin selections: the abridged 1906 version of "The Ragtime Dance" and "The Easy Winners."
Ryan Wishner strolled in and was invited up to the piano, delivering a nicely varied set comprised of a ragtime-era standard, a Joplin rag, and a rare piece from the early ragtime era (1890s), and a second vocal standard from the era.
First off was "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey?" Ryan based his performance on his transcription of the Columbia Records 1920 recording. Ryan's version of "Search Light Rag" features incredible bass-octave work in both repeats of the A theme. Ryan offered his version of the 1898 recording of the mid-1890s piece "Whistling Girl," then invited vocalist Dalton Thomas to join him for the standard "Shine On Harvest Moon." For the first time around, Dalton provided wonderful period styling and phrasing in his vocals, then Ryan wrapped up the performance with his solo piano work.
Michael gave us Joplin's "Reflection Rag" and the Hayden-Joplin rag "Sunflower Slow Drag." Eric delivered Joplin's 1909 rag "Country Club." Ryan offered more early ragtime era (1890s/1900) material with "Navajo" (circa 1902/1903) and "Maggie Murphy's Home" 1890s).
Michael's all-Joplin third set gave us "The Cascades," "Elite Syncopations" and "Peacherine Rag." Eric, realizing that the room's noise levels had abated considerably from the first hour, reprised his performances of "Car-Barlick Acid" and "Oklahoma Oilfield Blues."
Vincent Johnson delivered a well-rounded set that included early ragtime, Harlem Stride and classic ragtime. He opened with a loose, jazzy "Harlem Rag," then gave us Waller's "Alligator Crawl" and Johnson's "Carolina Shout," and closed with "Sugar Cane."
Michael kept the Joplin tap open with "Swipesy" and "The Entertainer." Eric reprised his performance of "Cheerful Blues." Ryan served up two more very early ragtime-era pieces – "Hear Dem Bells" (1890s) and "The Preacher and the Bear" (1905) – and closed his set with May Aufderheide's "The Thriller."
Vincent took us home with an original, a pop rag and a great classic rag. First off was his own "Shih Tzu Blues," followed by Harry Belding's "Good Gravy Rag," then an up-tempo, jazzy rendering of the James Scott masterpiece "Grace and Beauty."
Between 2 and 5 p.m., a total of 48 selections were heard. By the last 90 minutes, most of the crowd had thinned out and only those who love hearing ragtime piano remained. Johnny invited Eric to say a few words. Thanks were offered to everyone, from pianists and audience members to the pizza parlor's owner for helping us continue to preserve ragtime music. The next two OCRSs were then announced: They're on Saturday, July 16, and Saturday, August 20. Both are at Spice Social, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave. in Fullerton.
If that address looks familiar, it's because it was Steamers up until 2015 and The Pint House until late 2019. The ownership is new and the menu features Indian cuisine, but the Petrof console piano is still there, left over from the Pint House days. We'll start at 1:30 p.m. and keep things rolling until 4:30. So come by and help us fill the place, and help spread the word that live ragtime is (finally) back and that north Orange County (and, we think, Lakewood) will play host to the music's post-pandemic rebirth.