It’s that time of year…head over to the Pere Marquette, gather around the hundred-year-old upright piano, and listen to some serious musicians! The World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest is returning to Peoria from May 22nd through 24th.
The contest began on Memorial Day in 1975 at the Monticello Railway Museum in Monticello, Illinois. It was originally created to attract customers to kick off the operating season by riding the museum’s stream train. Four contestants participated in the original competition, playing for about 40 spectators.
In 1986, Coordinator Judy Leschewski and her husband, Ron, moved into an old house with a beat-up 1883 Rosewood Weber Upright, which they nicknamed Moby Dick. In a few years, the piano was restored and has been used in the competition ever since.
Staffed by volunteers, the Old-Time Music Preservation Association was founded in 1990 and is responsible for overseeing the contest, which has attracted more than 500 ragtime and honky-tonk piano players from around the country for 35 years. The contest moved to the Hotel Pere Marquette in 2002.
Some of these players have participated for years. Sue Keller is artistic director for the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, which is held in Missouri each year. She plays many kinds of music at gigs all over the world. Keller competed in the contest from 1988 to 1990, and is now a judge. She is good friends with many of the contestants and claims that “it is getting tougher and tougher to compete in each year, and the contestants get younger and faster.”
The weekend kicks off with a riverboat cruise on the Spirit of Peoria on Friday, with the competition beginning on Saturday morning. Participants will compete for more than $3,800 in prize money in two divisions. The Junior Champion will be crowned at the end of Saturday’s competition, while the winner of the Regular Division will be chosen on Sunday from a field of 10 semi-finalists. Adam Swanson, a high school student, will defend his title as Regular Division Champion, after winning the Junior Division three times.
The Saturday Night Sing-Along is back this year, with Emcee Todd Robbins and special guest, three-time-champion Brian Holland. The weekend will also include musical workshops, music and collectibles, and nightly parties for musicians. A respected figure in the ragtime/old-time music field, Robbins will conduct the workshops.
For more information, visit oldtimepiano.com. a&s
A feature documentary is in the works, which follows four of the world’s best ragtime piano players as they prepare for the World Championship of Old-Time Piano. The film is called The Entertainers, and you can find out more at theentertainersmovie.com. A short trailer provides a quick look at this amusing and interesting documentary.