Whenever I listen to the golden and melodious
strains of piano music, my memory takes me back to a time of my
childhood on Belmont Avenue. It was a time when the musically thrilling
sounds of the piano artistry of the famous, such as Liberace, Ferrante
and Teicher, and Roger Williams, ("The Autumn Leaves"),
filled the television and air waves of the 1950's. Programs such
as Ted Mack's Amateur Hour, Arthur Godfrey's Lipton Talent Hour,
and the very favorite Sunday morning Kraft/ Horn & Hardardt
("less work for mother") sponsored television program,
Ed Herlihy's Childrens' Hour, especially highlighted the musical
talents of children.
Most popular were the showcasing of young pianists, who were quite
often presented as child prodigies, performing diverse, and often
complicated piano etudes and concertos, for audiences and viewers
of the programs to enjoy. "The Flight of the Bumblebee"
was almost always a favorite piano piece, demonstrating the childrens'
extensive talents and expertise at the piano. Dressed in grown-up
finery, such as elegant gowns and tiny tuxedos, the children would
come out, bow or curtsy to the audience, and begin to play. From
the "Moonlight Sonata", to "Fur Elise" to even
raucous rock and roll a la Jerry Lee Lewis, children, sometimes
not much taller than the piano bench they sat on, would amaze and
wow audiences, both live and at home, with their absolute skills
and musical ability.
I was one who was fascinated by those talented children, and the
beautifully melodious sounds of the piano. Whether it was Chopin,
Mozart, Bach or boogie-woogie being played, the piano held a special
fascination for me. I would sometimes sit, while watching an artist
on television demonstrating their talent, and in sheer mimicry,
would pretend to play "air piano", on our old bridge table,
which was placed close to the television. I especially enjoyed the
foot stomping and tinkling rhythms of Dixieland or "ragtime"
piano, sometimes featured on the old Lawrence Welk television program,
(a favorite of my grandmother and parents). Occasionally, on the
Ed Sullivan program, the amazing original and composed piano ragtime
melodies, would be featured by artists such as the late Eubie Blake,
Scott Joplin and others, (think the musical score of movies like
"The Sting."). It is plain enough to say that a very popular
song of that era expressed it all for me: "I Love a Piano!"
Well, the reader of this memory is probably wondering by now, "So
why didn't you learn to play one?" More probably, "Didn't
you eventually have one?" The answer to both of these questions
is a yes, but also a resounding no. Here's why........
Going downtown, usually on Saturday afternoons, I would always stop
and stare at the magnificent, usually ebony colored Steinway and
Sons baby grand piano, usually featured in the showcase window of
the Griffith Piano Company on Broad Street, near the Schrafft's
restaurant, and the grand Loew's Theatre, on the corner of New Street.
Every week showcased another type of piano, such as spinets and
consoles, but the baby grand was the most impressive of all. The
piano, standing alone in its grandeur and glory, would always have
a backdrop of a plush, sometimes maroon colored velvet curtain,
which beckoned the many passersby as if to say "look at me,
see how beautiful I am". The show window, appearing in imitation
of a concert stage, and always centrally featuring the spotlighted
piano, would be surrounded by beautifully polished wooden, double
French entrance doors to the store . There would always be a seemingly
alluring welcome, as if to say, "come inside and see me and
my magnificent brethren pianos." It appeared to be a subtle
but definite aura of elegance to the viewer's eye............at
least to my eyes and to my child's imagination of that time.
I would tarry or slow my walking pace when passing this elegant
store, much to mother's dismay and heartbreak. She would try to
hasten my small steps, to quickly get past this emporium of sheer
beauty, and thereby hastily quashing my unlikely dream of having
a like piano, her knowing that buying or affording any piano for
me was unrealistic. Knowing how much I loved looking at those pianos,
mother was at a loss at how to be ever able to provide such a costly
and luxurious item, on such a limited or paltry and impoverished
income as our family had. It would be an impossible dream, to say
the least. For the Christmas and Hanukkah holidays, mother would
scrimp and save her pennies and nickels in a jar, in order to buy
me just a few simple gifts. The ultimate gift, as I recall it until
today, was a small, wooden red toy piano, its tinny and tinkling
little sound, featuring just only one small octave. With the toy
piano, came a little cardboard book, which featured, using colored
notes and numbers, instructions how to play simple tunes, (usually
nursery tunes), like "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star", and
the like. In her thoughts and mind, mother believed that this little
toy piano would serve as perhaps even a temporary "fix"
for the real thing. But...for how long? Meanwhile, she would mull
over and over in her daily thoughts and mind, how to satisfy this
long and probably impossible yearning of mine. It would take a major
miracle of sorts .........................!
One day, while perusing the afternoon edition ,(there only was an
afternoon edition at that time), of the "Newark Evening News",
mother came across a small ad in the classified section. To her
amazement and disbelief, there was an old upright player piano for
sale, dating right back to the early 1920's, ......and located not
too far in the distant neighborhood at that! Candidly and honestly,
the owners of the piano admitted in the ad, that the piano was long
past its prime and glory days, its player mechanism not having functioned
for many years longer than I was old at the time. Nevertheless,
it was a piano! And what a bargain! Its entire cost was $20., which
mother felt she could spare, by doing without something else, in
order to make me happy, and satisfy that long, ongoing yearning
Off she went, walking the several blocks away, to Hillside Avenue,
to the home of the elderly Mr. and Mrs. Toth. The couple were of
the Hungarian ethnicity, as was mother, and when explaining how
that piano was important to me, in their and mother's native language,
the kindly Toths even threw in the moving expenses as well.
Coming home from school one afternoon, walking into our parlor,
to my amazement, sat that wonderful old piano. Scratched, broken
down, several keys discolored and no longer working, that piano
manufactured by the long defunct Doll and Company, (quite an appropriate
name), was the most magnificent sight to greet my widely astonished
eyes and sheer disbelief! In scratched and dark, almost ebony wood,
the piano stood tall in its glory, despite all its assorted woes,
and seemed to smile at me, as if beckoning me to "come sit
down and play me." "See how wonderful I am!" How
inviting that piano, it especially fulfilling all my childish dreams!
Its stool, round and swiveling, featured glass ball bottomed clawfoot
and snakily carved legs. It was a delight for me to finally sit
down and circle and twirl on that stool, adjusting it to my small
height, in utter and sheer happiness and enjoyment!. Hitting that
first very out-of-tune note, became a veritable symphony for me!!
Conveniently, across the street at 322 Belmont avenue, lived the
Garber family, who at the time owned a kitchen linoleum and carpet
store,(remnants only, because that is what the Third Ward clientele
could mostly afford). Their store was located on Prince Street,
next to a defunct synagogue, and Charlie Schultz' Prince Range store.
Mother, having previously purchased kitchen linoleum there, (think
those awful repeated patterns of red and gray squares, which emitted
a dreadful odor when new), knew their teenage daughter Marlene played
the piano beautifully. At times, Marlene would walk me to school,
safeguarding my way, in payment for a few coins, when mother could
not accompany me on the days she was ill, which was quite often.
Mother proposed Marlene to become my first piano teacher, once a
week, or whenever Marlene could find the time, and mother would
pay her fifty cents up to a dollar an hour, for a lesson or two.
I'll never forget the first time Marlene came into our home, sat
down at the piano, and to demonstrate her skills and talent at the
piano, she played a beautiful piano rendition of the poem, "Trees"
by Joyce Kilmer. It was to me, a young child, so very impressive!
To this very day, and I am now 62 years old, I have never forgotten
the achingly beautiful and lilting sound of that melody. I stood
alongside Marlene, and in amazement and envy, watched her so deftly
produce those enticing sounds from that old broken down piano. How
I wished that soon would be me!
Unfortunately, later in life, I learned that Marlene, now a married
woman in the late 1960's, had died young in childbirth. I will always
have that singular memory of her so entertainingly and endearingly
playing the old upright, as that old piano was called.
I soon went on to playing that piano, producing simply little tunes,
as "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and so forth. However, unfortunately,
I played without much skill, after all. Marlene went on to attend
high school at South Side High, no longer finding the time or patience
to teach me, and so, my practicing the piano lagged. Besides, mother
could no longer afford to provide further lessons for me from a
real "professional teacher." Yet, I would occasionally
sit down at the keyboard, and play one handed tunes, despite the
several missing or non-functioning piano keys, and as silly as it
seems, having still a "musical ear" with which to play.
I was yet able to plunk out and enjoy some of the more popular tunes
and hits of the day. Many of the tunes were featured on "Your
Hit Parade", the Saturday night television program, which featured
Dorothy Collins, in her perky white ruffled blouse, with black ribbon
collared bow, and Snooky Lanson, also performing those hit songs
I so enjoyed. This was the era before Elvis Presley, but I will
save that one for a future memory!
The piano still held its place of honor in our living room. It standing
so tall and noble, mother would joyfully adorn that piano with school
pictures of me, placed next to our perpetually dancing and pirouetting
ballerina wooden clock. That shining and lighted clock, was one
of the "trophies" mother had earlier won at a game of
chance in Olympic Park, in a summer season past. She lovingly would
dust that old piano, polishing it from time to time, with a generous
amount of the lemon- scented "Old English Furniture Polish."
She would also meticulously cover every minor scratch which would
accidentally occur from to time time, using the very dark furniture
scratch cover, made especially for that purpose. Although, more
frequently unused, the piano continued to enjoy its place of glory
and honor in that large parlor "living room" at 321 Belmont
Avenue for yet a longer while.
To this very day, that old piano remains vivid in my memory. I do
not know what became of it, or where it went, after mother passed
away, but I would like to think it went on to be enjoyed by some
other child, maybe even by some aspiring child piano prodigy. Who
knows? As battered as it was, in my memory it will forever remain
far more luxuriously elegant, and worth much much more, given by
the cost of parental love and sacrifice, than that gloriously lengthy
and very expensive concert baby grand featured in the window of
the very esteemed Griffith Piano Company!