From The 13th Central Pennsylvania Ragtime and American Music Festival

The 13th Central Pennsylvania Ragtime and American Music Festival followed a slightly different format this year from past practice. It was extended by one day, starting Thursday evening, September 22 with a concert at a new venue, the Huntington Arts Center, located in a former church in that town. This marked the first visit to Huntington, the county seat and largest town (population 6,700) within a 30-mile radius. Huntington is 20 miles northwest of Orbisonia and Rockhill where all the other events are and have been held since the festival’s inception. The festival is linked to the East Broad Top Railroad, a scenic tourist line, and the Trolley Museum, both located in Rockhill, and several events are held on the grounds of these attractions.

Another significant change this year is that Andrew Greene, founder and director of the Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra, has moved to the area and is now employed by the EBT. He runs the gift shop and also acts as a “utility infielder” as needed for train operations. He has fully taken over the role of festival director and has strengthened the link between the festival and the railroad and museum.

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Thursday’s concert filled the Arts Center, a very positive sign. Most attendees were local, and this concert hopefully whet their interest in attending more festival events. They could increase the crowd size without taxing the limited lodging accommodations in the county. However, the locals’ presence seemed lacking at the concerts in Orby and Rockhill.

Friday’s schedule began with free piano concerts on the EBT station platform by most of the festival musicians, each playing 30-minute sets. An upright piano was provided by the Rockhill Trolley Museum, and electronic keyboard was provided by The Music Emporium, a music store in Altoona. This entertained festival-goers as well as people who came to ride the train. These mini-concerts were repeated Saturday and Sunday mornings.

The afternoon concerts at the Orbisonia Presbyterian Church followed past practice, with each musician playing two or three songs, some with accompaniment by drummer Danny Coots, and some as duets with another pianist, with or without Danny. A second one-hour concert was added Friday afternoon to replace a social at the trolley museum that was cancelled due to low ticket sales. Saturday afternoon’s concert lasted about 90 minutes; the others were a little shorter.

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On Friday evening three silent movies were shown outdoors at the station, with piano accompaniment by Frederick Hodges and Adam Swanson. With the temperature in the low 50s, the food concession in the station enjoyed brisk sales of hot drinks.

Despite low evening temperatures, outdoor silent movies with live piano accompaniment were a hit of this year’s festival. (photo by Bill Hoffman)

A regular festival feature is a Saturday morning symposium. This year’s was “The Golden Reunion in Ragtime,” the title of an LP produced in 1962 by “Ragtime Bob” Darch that brought together for the first time in 50 years three stalwarts of the ragtime era: Eubie Blake, Joe Jordan, and Charlie Thompson. The album was the basis for Adam’s master’s thesis, and he was the presenter. I have found these symposia very enlightening and entertaining and am always disappointed at the low turnout.

Following Saturday afternoon’s concert, those who bought tickets or had an all-events pass boarded the train for a one-hour ride and catered outdoor dinner upon returning to the station. Festival pianists provided music during dinner. The EBT had just taken delivery of several new coaches that were used. The railroad is in the process of restoring steam engine service to replace the switcher that had been used. Also in the works is an extension of the line to the north and south. The tracks are in place; it’s a matter of repairing the narrow gauge track. The EBT was established in 1872 and is the only surviving 3-foot gauge railroad east of the Rockies. It is a national historic landmark.

Saturday dinner

Though not an official part of the festival, the Rockhill Trolley Museum offered rides on its approximately one-mile electrified line. It has several streetcars and trolleys salvaged from lines around Pennsylvania. I did not take a ride this year but I have in the past. One car is from my hometown of York and might have transported my parents and grandparents.

As usual, there was a ragtime-themed service Sunday morning at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Mt. Union. This year the music was provided by Brian Holland and Danny Coots. I usually use this time to obtain spiritual renewal on my bicycle, but rain showers nixed that.

The festival finale is the Sunday afternoon concert at Orby Presbyterian. This year Andrew’s Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra provided the music, with most of the festival pianists and Danny Coots sitting in. The orchestra comprises twelve pieces, but the usual vocalist Bill Edwards (not “Perfesser” Bill Edwards) was unavailable. Andrew subbed for him on three numbers and two others were skipped. Not all the numbers played dated from the ragtime era. One was “Ticklish Tom,” written in 2005 by Bryan Wright. Bryan was on piano for this number. This was Peacherine’s third appearance at the festival; the first, about twelve years ago in 2010, was only their second performance ever.

The roster of musicians at this festival changes little year to year but is of world class caliber: Richard Dowling, Frederick Hodges, Brian Holland, Martin Spitznagel, Adam Swanson, Bryan Wright, with Andrew Greene getting in a few licks when he isn’t busy with director and train duties. And the incomparable drummer Danny Coots is universally admired. It’s a tribute to Andrew and his predecessors for drawing such high-quality performers to this small town in rural Pennsylvania. I think this festival could, and should, grow appreciably larger without losing its intimacy between musicians and attendees. One thing holding it back is the dearth of nearby lodging accommodations. However, the local population has scarcely been tapped, and these people don’t need hotel rooms. So that is the obvious market to target.

Next year’s dates have been announced: September 21-24. Book your lodging now! I did mine the day I got home. One of this year’s attendees made his reservation late and had to stay in Chambersburg, a one-hour drive over three mountains. One factor in your favor: Penn State does not have a home football game that weekend.

Bill Hoffman is a travel writer, an avid jazz fan and a supporter of musicians keeping traditional jazz alive in performance. He is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of Going Dutch: A Visitors Guide to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Unique and Unusual Places in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and The New York Bicycle Touring Guide. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.

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