After a year’s hiatus due to the pandemic, the 12th annual Central Pennsylvania Ragtime and American Music Festival returned to Orbisonia and Rockhill, PA on the weekend of September 24-26. Pianist and founder/leader of the Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra Andrew Greene has taken over from David Brightbill as festival director. Andrew, in his article on page 18 of the September issue, outlined the weekend schedule, so I’ll only briefly refer to it.
A few changes were implemented immediately. A closer tie with the East Broad Top Railroad has been established. This is due to the railroad’s revival with the help of local people and a generous benefactor. David is on the railroad’s board and works there. Andrew has been coming up many weekends from his home near Annapolis, MD to lend a hand with the rebuilding effort. One of the festival’s events is now a dinner train and concert on Saturday. More accurately, it’s a 40-minute train ride followed by a dinner in a pavilion adjacent to the railroad. The railroad’s rolling stock does not allow for food to be served on board. Train rides during the day are also offered, but several of these overlap with the music schedule, forcing attendees to decide which they’d prefer. In the future, as upgrading of the railroad continues, it is planned to incorporate the dinner with a longer train ride. In a small town like this, it makes good sense to partner with other attractions to the benefit of all.
One thing I missed this year was a printed program, available in previous years, that listed the times and locations of the events. That information was available online, but anyone who can’t download it into their phone has to print it out in advance, or rely on their memory. The dinner train replaced the Saturday evening concert. Most of the musicians played during dinner but that’s not the same as a concert. So Saturday’s events ended around 7 pm. Next year may be different as the railroad offers longer excursions.
There were fewer performers this year than normal, but that may not have been by design. Regulars Brian Holland on piano and Danny Coots on drums weren’t available. Brian, the festival’s music director, had to bow out due to a potential exposure to COVID-19, which fortunately he did not contract. Peacherine’s drummer Joey Antico filled in for Danny. He did a credible job, but his style is very different from Danny’s. Making a welcome return this year after several years’ absence due to his work schedule was pianist/singer Domingo Mancuello. In addition to his own sets, he accompanied Adam Swanson (the two of them have just released a CD on Rivermont) and Frederick Hodges. Also performing were Richard Dowling of New York, and Bryan Wright, the founder of Rivermont Records.
The festival opened Friday at 4 pm with a reception for donors at the Iron Rail Bed & Breakfast, owned by David and Cindy Brightbill and located next door to the EBT station. At 7 pm, outdoors at the station, was a showing of two silent movies with “live” piano accompaniment by Adam and Frederick. Frederick accompanied Buster Keaton’s famous silent The General from 1926, which runs almost an hour and twenty minutes. He did a masterful job. Fortunately, the weather cooperated, but the Orby Presbyterian Church had been reserved in case of rain.
A reception for all attendees, also at the Iron Rail, capped the evening.
The traditional Saturday morning symposium has been maintained. This year Adam Swanson presented on the topic “Ragtime in Hollywood.” He showed clips from one Mickey Mouse cartoon and several well-known musicals and movies in which ragtime-era tunes figured prominently. Adam is well qualified to present such a program.
Between this program, which ended about 10 am, and the afternoon concert at 2:30, several musicians played an electronic piano (generously loaned to Andrew from the music store he managed until just recently when he received a promotion to the firm’s main office) placed on the EBT station platform. The keyboard was also used for the silent movies Friday night. The piano also entertained people who came to ride the train and did not attend the festival (and perhaps didn’t even know about it). For the lucky few who were able to find seats on the platform, listening and watching was a comfortable experience. Less so for those who had to, or chose to, stand. During the time I was there (seated), there was a constantly changing audience. Since I was not there for the full 4-1/2 hours, I don’t know how many pianists played.
This format was repeated on Sunday from 10 to 1. I’m sure not all the musicians played, as some were at the traditional ragtime service at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Mount Union, 10 miles north of Orby. David Brightbill is the organist at this church. I have never made it a practice to attend religious services that are part of a festival. The only time I did so was my first year at the Bix festival in Davenport. The most memorable take-away for me was obtaining Bix’s mother’s oatmeal cookie recipe at the post-service reception. If I feel a need for spiritual renewal I get on my bicycle, as I did on this Sunday.
The final concert was at 1:30 at the Orbisonia Presbyterian Church, the usual venue for indoor concerts. In the first half, each pianist played two numbers, many of which were accompanied by Joey Antico on drums. After a 15-minute intermission, the second half followed mostly the same format, but with more duo piano pieces. In previous years, there was usually a musical comedic skit involving all the musicians, but that did not happen this year.
About 60 people attended this concert, a somewhat larger crowd than Saturday’s concert drew. Several performers remarked that they had never seen such a large attendance, but it didn’t seem large to me. I’m guessing that out-of-towners comprised at least half the audience at both. In a follow-up email exchange with Andrew, he confirmed that internet publicity and other advertising, including in this paper, resulted in a marked increase in attendance this year, including more people from farther away than usual. Financially, the festival ended in the black, always a good omen.
The dates for 2022 have been announced: September 23-25. According to Andrew, “the festival is again partnering with the East Broad Top Railroad to have some fun events, including train rides, shop tours, trolley rides, speeder rides, and of course, our concerts. Favorites like “Piano On The Platform” will return, and we’re working with both the railroad and our partners in the community to do even more concerts and events.” The festival’s website is rockhillragtime.com and has a Facebook presence @centralparagtime.
It would be nice to see a larger crowd, especially given the high caliber of performers. The venues have the capacity to host much higher numbers, but the dearth of lodging accommodations in the general area means a minimum of 15-20 miles of travel each way per day for people staying overnight. Be forewarned: Penn State’s football team plays at home next September 24, so don’t wait until it’s too late to make lodging reservations, and prepare to pay inflated prices. State College is 30 miles from Huntingdon and 50 from Orby, but the demand for rooms is much greater than State College can absorb, resulting in a geographically widespread ripple effect.
Read reviews from prior years: From The Central Pennsylvania Ragtime & American Music Festival (2019) and Central Pennsylvania Ragtime and American Music Festival (2018)
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.