Ebony And Ivory

Posted: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 at 12:57 pm
By: Doug Lund
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I see that actor Michael Douglas, who is apparently back in good health after a battle with throat cancer, has been cast in a new movie about one of my childhood heroes, Liberace.

Black Tuxes were soon replaced by sequins, feathers and rhinestones but he always played great.

Black Tuxes were soon replaced by sequins, feathers and rhinestones but he always played great.

Yup, I admit it, back in the fifties, the flamboyant pianist was a regular visitor into the Lund home on Thursday evenings and I was glued to the set watching his every move and listening to every chord.  I liked all the music he played from classical to show tunes to the Beer Barrel Polka. Mom was a big fan too and together we’d guess on when Liberace would turn to the camera during a performance and give his trademark wink. We really didn’t think too much about it at the time but today, I suppose, most everyone would immediately conclude from his mannerisms, sparkly outfits and speaking style that Liberace was gay. It turns out he was, of course, but such things just never crossed my young mind.  All I could think about how much I wanted to play piano like him. I’m sure my mother would have loved that too because she didn’t object too strenuously when I mentioned the possibility of taking lessons. The only piano teacher in town was Mrs. John Miller..the school superintendent’s wife. (I have no idea what her first name was. Back in the dark ages, married women gave up a lot of personal identity; their first names known only to family and a few close friends.) Mrs. Miller charged one dollar per half hour..which may sound cheap but this was at a time when my old man was making two bucks an hour working construction ten hours a day. Plus there was another problem; a big one. We didn’t have a piano; pretty hard to be the next Liberace without one. Here the story gets a little fuzzy. All I remember is coming home from school one day and there it was; a big old upright “Howard”piano that had somehow been squeezed into the little bedroom I shared with my two brothers. I have no idea where mom got the thing or how she paid for it but there was no turning back now. If she found the cash for the instrument, she’d figure a way to come up with the money for lessons. But I was in for another big shock that day.  My mother sat down to this old relic, placed her diminutive fingers on the black keys and, to my amazement, started banging out the only tune she knew; an up tempo ditty that was like Chopsticks only more up tempo and a lot more complicated requiring the use of all her fingers and the entire keyboard. I begged her to teach it to me..which she eventually did but pointed out that it was just a novelty for fun, not really playing.   At age 12 or 13, I was one of Mrs. Miller’s older students so I’m sure she expected me to catch on to the basics in a hurry. To be honest, it was kind of embarrassing having her sit so close to me with the smell of face powder in my nostrils and that blasted metronome ticking away as I tried to plunk out simple little tunes from the red John Thompson book for modern piano. “Papa Haydn’s dead and gone..but his memory lingers on. When his heart was full of bliss, he wrote merry tunes like this.”

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that Mrs. Miller wasn’t about to provide any shortcuts even to a student of such advanced age. I can’t say that the lessons were boring..more like terrifying because, no matter how much my mother prodded and pleaded, I rarely practiced until a few hours before making the walk over to my teacher’s house because A) I was lazy. B)I hated those silly childish tunes and C) I’d discovered rock and roll. That first recital by all of Mrs. Miller’s piano students was one of the most humiliating evenings of my young life. I struggled through a glorified version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”  and then, to muffled applause, shuffled back to my seat vowing to never go through that again. But then, one of the advanced students (younger than me) concluded the program performing one of the most beautiful melodies I’d ever heard. I found out later it was “Theme From Liebenstrum” by Franz Liszt. The music for it was in the back of John Thompson’s red book Grade TWO..which I had at home.

For the next week, I practiced that piece over and over until I had it down pat with just the right inflections in all the proper places. I even raised my right hand after playing some of the notes, just like Liberace. My mom couldn’t believe how lovely it sounded or my renewed enthusiasm to play. I couldn’t wait for Mrs. Miller to hear it and immediately recognize that she had been holding this talented young man back. But after I was through, she only said , “It was very nice, Douglas, but you musn’t jump ahead. We need to crawl before we walk..walk before we run.”  Much to my mom’s disappointment but financial relief, I quit piano lessons shortly thereafter.

There was a guitar at home with my name on it. My cousin and I had visions of stardom and beautiful young ladies cowering at our feet like Elvis or The Everly Brothers so, in the same room where the old Howard piano now sat silent, we practiced and practiced for hours on end learning guitar chords until our fingers bled and singing along with 45 rpm records till our young voices grew hoarse.

That's cousin Grouse (on the right) and an exhausted looking me practicing in me and my brother's bedroom. The old piano would be off to my right.

That's cousin Grouse (on the right) and an exhausted looking me practicing in the bedroom I shared with my brothers. I'm actually playing Grouse's guitar ( A Fender) and he's on mine..a much cheaper Sears Silvertone. I suppose I bullied him into it but he didn't want to play lead and I did so he let me use the easier to play Fender. The old piano would be off to my right.

If only I’d applied that kind of  enthusiasm toward the piano. But, true dedication, it seems, is often motivated by lust and fame.

Considering Michael Douglas’ age, I would imagine that he’ll be playing Liberace only in his later life…the Las Vegas years..when he was a caricature of himself; when audiences would show up to see his outrageous outfits and stage show as much as to hear his always amazing performance on the piano.  Matt Damon has been cast as Lee’s lover so there’s little doubt about the film’s focal point. When it comes out, I Think I’ll just save my money and watch an old Liberace television show on youtube instead.

14 Comments

  1. hardass says:

    wow…amazing photo…i have none old….or of any age….grouse you look so dang cool…and doug, your hair looks like something out of the “little rascals”…great smile here kids….thanks

  2. Doug – Enjoyed your column. It reminded me of my first piano. My mother somehow came up with $50 and purchased a piano over in the Alexandria area. She sent my bother and a friend of his to pick it up. Needless to say they put it in the back of a pickup, then decided they would pull into the local tavern for a beer. (You could drink beer at age 18 in those days) Anyway when they pulled across the street into a parking place, the piano went for a tumble onto the ground. Other then a crack in the front, the piano gave me many years of pleasure. Sure wish I had it now. Thanks for the memory.

  3. Tom says:

    Another walk down that memory lane called Marvin Ave. I had a similiar piano experience. My downfall was Krissy Lee. Unfortunately for me, Krissy and I played the same piece for one of Mrs. Miller’s recitals. I believe I was in the 8th grade at the time and Krissy was in the 5th. I was no match for her rendition of the piece, and shortly after that recital, I too gave up the piano. One correction on your blog Doug. We didn’t have a Howard piano, it was an old Kimball upright. You resurected your music career pretty well though. Starting with The “Rockin” Couriers all the way to Mogen’s Heroes I’d say you did good. Thanks Mrs. Miller. Tom

  4. Suzan says:

    I remember how you loved to listen/watch those Liberace flourishes. He was certainly a showman as well as a great pianist. Your blog renewed my desire to take piano lessons – no doubt I would be the oldest in the class! I want Zoey to learn too. Time to start searching for a piano.

    Love the picture. You two look so intent.

  5. Ralph says:

    Mrs. Millers name was Mildred. Not that I was a close friend or anything, but I just remember her name. When ever I sang a solo, she played for me. Wow—a day or two ago.

  6. grouse says:

    The photo must have been taken before my mom died, because I’m wearing white socks. After she passed away, dad assumed the laundry tasks and somehow never grasped the concept that you don’t mix red colors with whites. All my socks and underwear turned pink. We bought new socks and underwear, but with the same result. I finally got ahead of the curve and started wearing black socks. The underwear we couldn’t fix, so I just quit sports and concentrated on rock n’ roll. Finally, Jenny came to live with us and keep house and the whites turned white again. But, it was too late. The world had started wearing black socks and my dream of playing for the Dodgers had died.

  7. grouse says:

    Hello Hardass. If you’d like to see more old rock and roll photos of Doug and myself, just go to youtube.com. and type in Larry Gruseth, or Larry Grussett, and you’ll hear both sides of my very first 45 rpm single coupled with the photos. It’s best played just before cocktail hour.

  8. carol s. says:

    This brought back lots of memories, Doug! I was “forced” to take lessons for six long years and only when I became an adult realized what a privilege that was. I’d love to be able to take lessons again, but now I don’t have a piano. Ah yes, the Pappy Hayden ditty–how many times did I play that! Back in Watertown, my hometown, a dentist’s wife would come over to the grade school once a week to give lessons to a handful of kids at 25 cents apiece. While awaiting our turn at the piano with her, the rest would “practice” on black and white wooden, flat keyboards, sitting at a long table. I think I’d have enjoyed piano more if we could have played real songs that we recognized rather than such boring ones (to us) and all those hateful scales.

  9. johnny mogen says:

    This column really “struck a chord,” Doug. So well-written, and conjured up many memories. Our Grandmother Helen Mogen met our Grandfather Gilbert while she was a traveling piano teacher. She lived in Big Stone City, and took the train to many towns to teach (including Summit, where Grandpa was a banker). She became the Waubay town piano teacher (along with Deloris Berger), charging fifty cents per half-hour lesson. The five Mogen grandchildren each had a morning lesson across the alley to her house, followed by breakfast. I remember many treks back home crying because Grandma wasn’t happy with my practice habits. When her cancer returned in the mid-sixties, she mentored me to become a teacher (for $1 per lesson). She helped set the course for my lifelong love of music, and both sister Helen and I have had the privilege of having fun making music and teaching thousands of students.

  10. Steve says:

    Having spent my life playing my horn and as a music teacher I would like to put in my two cents worth here. I also umpired baseball and softball for 31 years and from those experiences I have this to say; talking to players and managers at tournaments and other venues and having met those people for the first time they all had something in common. When they learned that I was a musician by profession there was always someone in the crowd that would comment, “I wish”, and finish with the thought that they wish they had either stuck with band or piano like their parents wanted them to. But as some of you have mentioned in this blog it now seems too late. It isn’t! If you’re retired and looking for something to do, take some lessons, what have you got to lose?

    Even more importantly here is something you can do. Help find a way to keep young people involved in the fine arts. They are so important. I won’t bore you with pages of quotes from Einstein and others, I’ll simply say that the arts are extremely important in society and unfortunately they end up on the chopping block first when there are budget crises in our schools. Encourage your children and if you’re Doug’s age, your grandchildren, to be involved in music and other fine arts. They simply make you a better person. Don’t let them quit!!!

    Carol, I can tell you why those scales are so important if you would like. So can every musician in the world.

  11. Country Farm says:

    Grouse–Just pulled up that youtube site and as if on que daughter Sheri called so she got to hear it too. We still have the record you gave us after she was born. Too bad there weren’t pictures of you at Teen Town in fatigues and combat boots to include. How is that pretty blond gal doing these days? Sometime when you’re in the area give a call. We haven’t shared a refreshment in a long time.

  12. Barny W says:

    johnny mogen, you mentioned the towns I grew up with. though you pre-date me roughly 10 yrs. I still live in Milbank. Give me rock from the 50′s-mid 70′s& old country on up to 80′s maybe 90′s I get into my “zone”. My lovely wive with a cold refrishment can’t get me out of. My self, I can’t carry a tune in a shovel. Give me a insrument, I’ll use it as a bat. But I’ll listen to it all night long.

  13. Nancy says:

    I remember those white socks with stripes when my brothers used to wear them ahaa

  14. Denny G says:

    Ah, Liberace. On stage with his piano and ‘trademark’ Candelabra flaming away. Didn’t he have a brother that was quite accomplished on the violin? George, maybe? There used to be a great Liberace Museum in Vegas, but I believe it closed last year. Just read the Obits everyday and see how many fans they lose. Grouse, those are really cool white socks. Remember when we wore white socks with everything—-even suits. 46 years ago my wife told me she would leave me if I wore black socks. Now, she says she’ll leave if I wear white, black, or no socks! YIKES!

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