My Musical Autobiography

(This is another in a continuing series of articles in which our members share their musical past and whatever events of their lives they feel would interest readers. We thank Bill Coleman, our trusty intermission pianist, for this interesting contribution.)

By Bill Coleman

Before I was born in 1926, my parents lived next door to Helen (1890-1972), who played piano in a silent movie theater, and her family. When my dad (1883-1952) worked nights on the Pacific Electric Railway, my mother (1902-1976) visited Helen at home and listened to her play the piano. Helen later moved to San Francisco and worked in a department store. She often visited us by train, which we met. After dinner she played on our piano such pieces as "Maple Leaf Rag," "Under the Double Eagle," "Chariot Race" and others of E.T. Paull's numbers, etc. Helen became our lifetime friend. Her son (1912-1973) later married my half-sister (1912-1973).

About 1934 we bought a 1909 piano and I started taking lessons. In September 1936, we rode the Pacific Electric Railway to Mount Lowe. At the tavern there we found an empty second-floor room with an upright piano only. My mother had me play "Edelweiss Glide" on it. Then we rode the Pacific Electric home. The next day, we heard on the radio that the tavern had burned to the ground (1915-1936).

In 1938, 6th graders (including myself playing piano) from all over the Los Angeles School System (about two per school) played in the Junior Philharmonic Orchestra (1937- ) at the Shrine Auditorium before an audience of 6,500. In South Pasadena Middle School I played piano in the school orchestra for three years (Grades 7-9) and at various outside locations, including the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona. The orchestra leader helped me get a new piano teacher, Dr. Adams, who taught music in high school and who was head of the music department. My family and I took lessons at his home. He later gave me lessons on the 3-manual pipe organ in the high school auditorium when I was in the 11th grade. That organ was not too long ago replaced by the Los Angeles Theater Organ Society. At L.A.T.O.S. meetings, I have played the new organ a few times.

At this point I put my music aside to study pre-engineering courses. After high school graduation in 1944 when I was 17, I enlisted in the army for specialized training in engineering at Washington State University in Pullman. Then came basic training at Camp Roberts, then Stanford University near Palo Alto. World War II ended in 1945 while I was there, and then I was put in the Army Corps of Engineers until 1946, when I was discharged. I continued my engineering education at Pasadena City College and at UCLA, where I completed my B.S. Degree in engineering in 1956.

Afterward, I tried to pick up my music again, playing (at home) the piano. I still have that 1909 piano. I studied ballroom dancing from 1950 to about 1976. I learned just about all the dances. I was even on KTLA-Channel 5 in 1959 in a broadcast from the Palladium.

After graduation from UCLA, I worked at Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank from 1951-52. I then worked for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power from 1952-1995. While there, I obtained my registration in California as a professional electrical engineer.

I bought a small organ in 1979 from Organ Exchange; included were lessons there on the organ. This was followed by more advanced, paid lessons. The experience with dancing was helpful in learning rhythms and timing. After a while, I soon learned to play by ear. I joined a small organ club in 1985 that met in members' homes. I was surprised to find Volney and his wife were already members. Volney was my army buddy at Washington State University when we were both 17 back in 1944. He had attended Beverly Hills High School, class of 1944. When Volney was living there, his next door neighbor was Ralph Blain, the composer who wrote the score for "Meet Me in St. Louis." Volney's wife, Peggy, went to high school in South Pasadena, class of 1946. Peggy and I both remember when Spike Jones played in our auditorium during my senior year (her sophomore year). Spike Jones and His City Slickers presented their "Music Depreciation Review."

The small organ club closed in 2003, but I joined, or already belonged to, several other organ clubs: LATOS, SCOG (Southern California Organ Grinders) and VOS (Valley Organ Society). Volney became a federal judge in Los Angeles. He retired in 1994, just before I did. Before he retired he held an organ concert in his closed (not in session) courtroom, featuring a former teacher of Volney, Peggy and mine. Volney and Peggy had a beautiful, four-level home in a gated area in Dana Point, where the three of us hosted our 2000 Army Reunion and at which our teacher, Vilma, played the piano and organ.

At our 2004 Army Reunion in Seattle, I stayed at the reunion hosts' home, where I played the piano. The piano was near the picture window of the view of many trees and a lush green lawn. It was in Bellevue (not far from Bill Gates' home on the east side of Lake Washington). When our army reunion group got together for lunch, I played most of the score to "South Pacific." That was my last reunion; there was one more in 2006 which I was unable to attend. Volney passed away on Feb. 22, 2000 at age 81.

When I traveled to Douglas, WY to help my mother's sister celebrate her 100th birthday in July 2007, I was asked by her daughter (my cousin), to play "Happy Birthday" on the piano at the banquet. I did so, then performed many songs that my Aunt knew and liked. My cousin later told me the whole group at the banquet liked the music. I was glad I was able to please the crowd -- as well as my Aunt, who eventually passed away in September 2008 at 101 years of age.

At one of our small organ club meetings, another player, Tom Handforth, told us about the Rose Leaf Ragtime Club. I joined the club in 1999 when it met at the IHOP in Pasadena.

When Disneyland first opened in 1955, and one could buy a general admission (no rides) ticket, and ride tickets came in A, B, C, D or E levels, we visited the Golden Horseshoe "Saloon" in Frontierland. There, I watched dancers do the cakewalk to the music of the 1897 classic, "At a Georgia Camp Meeting." I never actually saw the written score, but when I first joined the Rose Leaf Ragtime Club I was able to remember it by ear and I played it on the piano. Later, it became my signature song. As our club's first president suggested, I try to play something different each time I play at intermission.

John T. Carney's Original Rags for Download

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