The Piano

by Barbara L. Rothschild


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 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 of mine.

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!


Email this memory to a friend.
Enter recipient's e-mail: