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Friday, November 3, 2000

International House of Ragtime

Pasadena-based club meets monthly over pancakes and coffee to celebrate the joys of a unique American music

By RYAN CARTER

PASADENA—Racks of syrup pitchers sit next to two worn upright pianos in the banquet room at the International House of Pancakes on Foothill Boulevard. The battered and dingy pianos languish most of the time, but once a month the room is transformed by the soulful, emotive tones of ragtime music, with the pianos at center stage.

As diners open their menus, the nearby pitchers jiggle from the vibrations of "Maple Leaf Rag," a seminal, turn-of-the-century ragtime song that influenced generations. The clatter of the IHOP kitchen is drowned out with the sounds of upright pianos, banjo, washboard, accordion and conversation.

The Rose Leaf Ragtime Club meets from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. on the last Sunday of each month for pancakes and coffee and to celebrate the music its members love. As the music, blending march tempos and melody with syncopated rhythms, fills the room, a mix of people of all ages sit in booths and chairs. Some listen and some play. They tap their feet and fingers. They grin with approval, remembering an old favorite or discovering a new one as somebody they perhaps never met or a regular works up the courage to try a "rag" on the ivories.

The players—mostly amateurs—simply sign up and hit the keys. Sometimes their performance even earns them an encore. It's a fairly casual venue. The old olive-drab piano isn't in the greatest condition and there's an off-note here or there. No matter, though.

Each month, the club attracts about 60 people from as far south as San Diego and as far north as Bakersfield to play and listen. Many have loved the music for years, but some have only recently discovered the music that Scott Joplin—the son of a former slave—helped make famous in the late 19th and early 20th century.

"I got mad at my piano teacher for never introducing me to this music," said Ron Ross, 67, a stockbroker who has composed music since he was 13.

Now, Ross dons a red vest and red-and-white-striped long-sleeve shirt and a beret and comes to play rags. "There's no money in it, but it's just a treasure," he said.

Club member Lee Roan, 71, a Temple City amateur player and retired electronic engineer, relishes his Sunday performances for the pancake crowd. Roan said he prefers duets, however, so his partner can play over his mistakes.

"Anything goes," he said. "Mistakes are accepted and expected and nobody pays any attention to them."

Roan's zeal for ragtime has become a hobby in which he not only plays rags but collects piano rolls, the sheets that make a player piano "play," and has started an archive of sequenced works on his home computer.

As the music began one recent Sunday, Martin Choate of Hollywood sat listening intently, penciling notes. He dropped in on the club not long ago and was hooked. Choate worked out a tune and a title: "I Done Left My Hip Boots in the Other Car."

For others, like 85-year-old musician and teacher Tom Handforth from San Gabriel, the club is a way to stay connected to the music of an earlier time, a music that is virtually absent in the Britney Spears-dominated airwaves of the cyber age. But the club is hardly a group of old-timers gathering to play old-time music.

Ruby Fradkin: Keeping the ragtime spirit alive

Ragtime has a local youth ambassador, and she pays a visit most Sundays.

"'I'm ready," 10-year-old Ruby Fradkin of Sherman Oaks told emcee Gary Rametta after running from her father's booth across the room.

Moments later, although her hands can barely span an octave, she was pounding out rags. The little girl at the piano had toes tapping and curious IHOP customers peeping in. She's been doing it for a year now. Head tucked level with her shoulders, Ruby's fingers bounced off the keys as she played songs like the 1904 rag "The Cascades" and "Swipesy Cake Walk" from 1900.

"If she's this good at 10, I'd hate to think what she'll be when she's 20," said an approving listener in a nearby booth.

Ruby's interest in older music was sparked during a visit to her grandfather's retirement home. She perked up the crowd with an impromptu "Take Me out to the Ballgame," and said she enjoys playing rags.

"I wanted to hear the ragtime music and hear and see other players," she said.

After her musician father, Chris, discovered what he calls Ruby's "devastating left hand," the two have sought out ragtime music.

"She's a natural," said player Eric Marchese, himself a student of the music and a journalist from Orange County.

Ruby's youthful exuberance has injected even more energy into the lively group, which counts some members from the 1960s, years before the 1973 release of the movie "The Sting." The Paul Newman-Robert Redford con artist classic, as well as "Ragtime," the 1998 Broadway musical inspired by author E.L. Doctorow's novel of the same name, sparked a ragtime music revival.

The ragtime club has a colorful history itself. The club was organized in 1967, with members at various times meeting at a bar, a coffeehouse, a Shakey's Pizza Parlor and even a retirement home.

A member, Phil "P.J." Schmidt, wanted to organize meetings closer to Pasadena, so he formed the Rose Leaf club. All the while, the club survived the departures of key members and Schmidt's untimely death.

"Let me tell you something, ragtime fans are fanatics," said Bill Mitchell, 76, a retired English teacher from Placentia. "No matter how many there are, it's going to keep going."

Mitchell said young players like Ruby are cultivating a new audience of ragtime aficionados.

"But this is for preserving ragtime because it's part of our musical heritage," Mitchell said, adding that ragtime was really the rock 'n' roll of its time. It was revolutionary, as well as reviled because it was new and different, he said.

Taking care of a little business before the music started, club members pondered how to best support the Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo, another local performing hub and about replacing the old green piano at IHOP. But when all was said and done, just the music itself mattered with this group.

Rametta, a writer and club member who attends with his wife, Yuko, said there are ragtime sites on the Internet, but the Rose Leaf club was one of only a few places in the area to hear it.

"We create great friendships and we keep learning new rags and share them with others," he said.

FYI

  • What: Rose Leaf Ragtime Club
  • When: 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. on the last Sunday of each month
  • Where: International House of Pancakes, 3521 E Foothill Blvd, Pasadena
    (626) 351-5115.
  • Information: (626) 359-8648, (818) 766-2384 or http://www.roseleafragtimeclub.com/

Copyright 2000, Los Angeles Times

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