Friday, May 27, 2016

IN AND OUT OF THE SPOTLIGHT - PT 1

For my dad - Belden H. Clark

Teddy stood backstage in a little room studying himself in the full length mirror.  He was about to step out into the little theater in the casino to perform songs, most from over forty years ago, to an audience of about five hundred people.  Usually before going on stage he would be taking a little time to try to limber up his fingers to limit the mistakes that would surely be played.  He had not studied himself like he was now in his entire life and what he saw revealed to him the years that had passed by.  His face was lined with wrinkles that cut deep into his cheeks and across his forehead.  his eyes looked empty and dull with the eyelids sagging down almost a fourth of the way down from where they should be.  His hair consisted of several different shades of gray and was thin.  It hung just below his ears and was dry like straw and resistant to a comb.  The white stubble on his chin was an indication of the nap he had taken a few hours ago that lasted about two hours longer than he had planned.  Crooked dry bent thin fingers hung from hands that were spotted with brown spots and matched the wrinkles in his face.  He was wearing jeans that were cinched around his waist with an old leather belt that had once been slick brown leather but had turned into black cracked aged leather.  The shirt was an unbuttoned long sleeve plaid shirt with the tail hanging free and a plain white t-shirt underneath it.  He wore the two shirts for two reasons.  The first reason was to keep warm in the air conditioned theater where even the lights on the stage did not have a warming effect on him because of his poor blood circulation and the second reason was to try to hide the way his thin bony shoulders and arms were accented by the way the shirts draped over his torso.  The only thing that looked young were his teeth, which he took out and cleaned every night.

"Damn I look old". he said to himself with a sigh then added, "well I am old."  He shook his head as he turned his gaze away from the mirror to go and sit in a folding chair that was provided for him.  He landed hard in the metal chair and set his cane off to the side.  He and the cane would be separated for the next hour and a half and he needed a little more rest before the time came to perform again.  He had only been sitting for a few minutes when a knock came on the door.

"Five minutes Mr. Senner." came the voice of the young kid that worked for the casino.

Teddy sat for a moment before putting an old worn out hat on his head to cover the tangle of hair.  Placing his hand on the small table next to the chair, he steadied himself before slowly standing up.  Once standing he looked across the small room at the door and began taking small measured steps  towards it.  Passing through the door he made his way towards a curtain that hid the audience from him. With a methodical slow pace, he made his way to the curtain, took a deep breath and waited to hear his name announced.

"Put your hands together for TEDDY ........ SENNER!!!!"

Teddy strode through the curtain as if he felt no pain or fatigue.  The lights blinded him for just a moment and then he saw the crowd that filled only half of the small theater and heard their polite applause.
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Ted Senner was raised on a modest farm in the hills of southern Missouri.  The closest town to them was a small vacation spot called Branson.  The small town had a main strip with go kart rides and small arcades to entertain the people from southern Missouri and northern Arkansas who came there to get away for a cheap weekend.  The main event in the town was the weekend performance of the play "The Shepard of the Hills" which all of the visitors would feel was a must to go see.  There were a few motels hidden in the hills and there were a few "country opry" shows that would perform hillbilly music and comedy skits every night.  The Senner family would go to one of the oprys a couple of times a year with the visitors from out of town.  It was here that Ted Senner heard and fell in love with music.

The Senner home had within it an old out of tune upright piano.  Mrs. Senner would play the piano in the evenings at times for an occasional family sing along.  She had an old hymnal that she would accompany the family with.  Ted always enjoyed those evenings when his mother would suggest that it had been a while since they had sung.  Ted was the youngest of five children, a brother and three sisters, in the family.  He learned to harmonize from his older brother and the music sounded wonderful, even though no one but the members of the Senner family ever heard it.  Ted would spend these evenings not only singing but watching his mother's hands glide along the black and white keys soft and smoothly.  The piano triggered something deep inside and would mesmerize him.

Mrs. Senner was starting to prepare dinner one October Saturday afternoon when she stopped suddenly.  Someone was playing "The Old Rugged Cross" on the piano.  She listened for a while before walking into the living room and finding seven year old Ted sitting at the piano.  His brow was tight as he concentrated on trying to make the piano sound as it did when his mother played.  Ted would play for a bit and, after hitting a wrong note, would start trying to play the song from the beginning.  His mother stood there astounded by what she was seeing and hearing.  Ted's brother had heard the music and came walking in and as he opened his mouth to say something, the mother put a finger to her lips to keep the brother from breaking the focus of the seven year old.

Ted's tenacity eventually paid off as he played the old hymn from start to finish without a bad note.  When he had finished he sighed, stared at the keys on the piano and put his hands on the bench.  Suddenly he heard light applause from behind him along with exclamations of how well he had done.  He looked over his should and saw his father sitting in his chair with a pipe gripped in a mouth that was smiling.  His mother was standing next to his father's chair, her eyes were sparkling.  His brother and sisters were on the floor asking where he had learned to play.  Ted felt his cheeks warm as he blushed at the embarrassment of being spied on while he made his first attempt at the instrument.

Ted's mother offered to help him learn how to play and he had agreed.  The piano lessons from his mother had begun to confuse the young boy as he tried to learn to read music and play things the way they were written down on paper.  Ted had shown a tremendous ability to pick up songs by listening to them and then duplicating what he heard.  As his mother began to see the vast talent inside her son she backed off trying to give him lessons and set aside a certain amount of time each week for him to play the hymns that he had been hearing and singing his entire life.

Over the next few years the Senner family continued to attend an opry show a couple of times a year.  Ted began to listen to the music being played a lot closer than he had done earlier in his life.  He would listen and try to hear each instrument being played and how they interacted with each other.  The opry acts basically sang old country songs from the era of Hank Williams.  A lot of acoustic instruments playing those old classics along with some songs that were traditional back hills songs that had been played for ages.  Ted had grown in his musical talents to the point that when he was entering his teenage years, he would play the songs that he had heard at the opry shows.  His family loved it for it gave their sing alongs a whole new dynamic and it wasn't long before Ted had replaced his mother at the piano on those nights.

When he turned fourteen his parents gave him an old second had guitar that they had found at the old pawn shop in Branson for five dollars.  They thought it would give Ted a new challenge to learn how to play it and it did.  Ted began studying the guitar players at the opry shows intensely and soon had learned to play the new instrument fairly well. He wasn't a master of it as all he could really do was to strum out chords on it but eventually he learned how to pick out a melody on it.  He preferred just to play chords though and never quite developed into being a guitar player that could pick instead of strum.
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The one thing Ted had noticed at most of the opry acts was that the group seldom had a piano playing.  As a matter of fact most of the oprys did not even have a piano on the stage.  Ted began listening to the opry bands and imagining in his head what it might sound like if a piano were added.  By the time he was sixteen he had decided that perhaps he could bring a new sound to the oprys if they would give him a chance.

When he was eighteen he discussed the idea with his father who agreed it sounded like a real possibility.  Together they decided that one day, finding the right opry that a piano would enhance their sound, Ted would try to pitch the idea to the band.  It didn't take long to decide which opry Ted wanted to try to talk his way in to.  The band that played at the Hogey Opry was about the only one that had turned to electric instruments instead of putting microphones in front of their acoustic instruments.  The sound was richer and fuller and Ted could hear in his head a piano being a part of that sound.  Ted and his father decided to visit the Hogey Opry early on Saturday and talk to them about Ted's idea.

Father and son arrived at the Hogey Opry House at around ten o'clock that Saturday.  They entered the theater and sat down about two thirds of the way back from the stage.  The band was playing a new song for that weeks show and didn't sound as if they were struggling much with it.  It sounded tight and Ted listened carefully, concentrating on the particular sound that the band had developed over the years.  Ted felt very confident sitting listening and hearing in his head where piano parts would improve the sound.

The band finished the song and began to discuss things that needed improvement.  The leader of the group, who Ted knew as Al from attending the Hogey for so many years was asking questions of the members and telling them what he wanted their particular part to sound like.  After all the instructions Al turned and look back into the auditorium and looked at the two men sitting there.

"Show doesn't start until seven my friends.  What can I do for you?"

Ted stood up and began walking down the aisle towards the stage and began to address Al.

"Well, sir, I have been coming here since I was a kid and I like your sound.  I think I can help you improve on it a little though."

Al chuckled lightly and after turning his gaze back to the performers looked back at Ted.

"Oh you do, do you?  And how would you be able to do that?  I think we sound pretty good myself."

"You and your band do sound pretty good but I think it could be improved a little.  A little better sound could draw in a lots more people." Ted spoke confidently.

"Okay son, tell me what your idea is.  Always open to suggestions here."

Ted stopped he was a few feet from the stage now and stared Al straight in the eyes and spoke but one word.

"Piano."

Al looked intently at the young mans face.  He rubbed his beard a bit and squinted his eyes.

"Piano, huh?  You think that would improve our sound do you?"

"Yes sir.  It could give it a new dimension instead of sounding like all the other opry bands around here."

"Let me guess, you play piano, right?"

"As a matter of fact yes I do.  Let me at please play a little with y'all and you see if it doesn't sound a little different, a little better."

Al stood up straight and without taking his eyes off of Ted yelled over his shoulder.

"Tom... Jim .... Slide backstage and roll that old piano out here for a bit."

"Yes sir," said one of the men as the two of them disappeared behind the curtain and came back rolling an upright piano like the one Ted played at home.  The positioned it in the back, next to the drums.

"Okay Al, here she is."

Al turned and pointed towards the piano and ordered,  "Well, put a couple of mics on the back of it so as we can here the thing.  Going to experiment a little ... come on up here son.  What you say your name was?"

"Ted.  Ted Senner sir."

"Well Teddy Senner, Let's see what you can do.  Got any song you prefer to play?"

"Not in particular.  I pretty much know all the songs that your band plays."

Al raised his voice and called the band back together.  "Okay people, back in your places.  We gonna try to play with a piano to see what it sounds like.  Let's do Hank's 'Honky Tonkin' " Al turned to Ted, "That okay with you son?"

"Sure," Ted said as he climbed up on the stage and headed to the piano.

Al counted to four and the band began to play.  Ted didn't play at first, listening to what notes were being played but as soon as he was able to figure that out, he began to play his heart out.  The volume was set very high on the piano microphones so he played a little louder so Al would be sure to hear it.  In the middle of the second verse Al suddenly stopped playing.

"Hold it, hold it hold it people... hold on a second."  Then he turned to Ted and said sternly  "Son, we got singers to carry the melody.  Don't need a piano for that.  You need to accompany the singers and the rest of the band.  We got the melody.  Understand?"

"Yes sir." Ted responded as his head began to work over how he could play the song without the melody.  He had done it a few times just messing around but this was for real.  Soon the sound came into his head as to what he wanted the piano to sound like.

"Ready?" Al asked Ted. "Remember, no melody ... accompany."

Ted nodded his head and Al started to count to four again.  When the band began this time, Ted started playing right from the beginning.  He played as well as he could without touching on the melody and the sound came out as a piano in the background melting in with the guitars.  As the song went on Ted became more confident and began to try new runs on the piano.  Ted thought it sounded pretty good.  Eventually the band came to the end of the country classic.

Al turned and looked at Ted.  "Not bad kid.  Not bad at all.  You may be onto something here.  Now, you got to understand you're still a little green, not quite ready for the stage but I tell you what.  You come out here every Saturday morning and work out with the group.  We'll see what kind of sound we can develop with you and that piano.  Sound like a deal?"

Ted grinned and nodded his head.  "Sounds like a great deal sir".

"Well stick around for the rest of the morning, then we'll see you next Saturday."  Al said knowing in his head that this kid was going to work out just fine.  The Hogey would take it up a notch over the other oprys scattered around the hills.

The practice ended and Ted had played every song being careful not to play the melody.  When it was over and Al dismissed everyone he walked over and shook Ted's hand.

"Good job kid.  Very good job.  See you next Saturday Teddy"

"It's 'Ted', sir"

"Not around here it isn't.  When you walk through those doors, you are 'Teddy', okay?"

"What ever you say, sir"

And with that Ted went back into the theater and met his dad who was smiling a smile bigger than he had ever done before.  They didn't talk on their way home, both of them thinking to themselves about what had happened.  When they arrived home they told Ted's mother all about it and she was thrilled.  Her Ted was going to be playing in front of people and for money at that.  Proud is not a strong enough word to describe how the three of them felt.

That evening, the Senner family went to the Hogey Opry and watched the show.  One day, they all knew, Ted would be on that stage a part of the show.  Nobody thought it would take long.
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