I Lived in “Bedford Falls”

A few days ago, Chris Robinson sent me a YouTube website address to watch the 2021 Christmas Parade in Sedalia, Missouri, featuring the Scott Joplin Ragtime Foundation float and pianist Ethan Leinwand.

As I watched the parade slowly moving through the downtown streets, with Ethan playing with all his talented energy, I recognized the old landmarks and even spotted some old friends in the crowds along the way. However, it has been over 50 years since my family lived in Sedalia, so my memories are vague.

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However, I recall coordinating the annual parades with Vivian Warren at the Chamber of Commerce back in the 1970s. As secretary, Vivian had been organizing the parades for many years. In fact, I recall that the first event was in the 1930s in the depth of the Depression. It was a tradition requiring a lot of very hard work and time at an already busy season of the year.

I managed the Chamber at a pivotal time; the old downtown commercial district was facing growing competition from commercial districts emerging along South 65 Highway leading to the Lake of the Ozarks and along West 50 Highway leading to Kansas City. A Chamber sponsored Christmas Parade then had to be somehow matched by a comparable Chamber sponsored event for the other two districts. The other evening though, as I watched the Parade for 2021, I was struck by two realizations.

First, I thought it so appropriate that after 122 years, Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” was echoing down the streets where he wrote his most famous composition and where it was first published in 1899. Thanks to the Joplin Foundation and the 41 annual festivals dating back to 1974, they have produced many, many other ragtime related programs. Sedalia has appropriately honored its famous resident all these years. (There were no festivals from 1976 to 1982.)

Evidence of the city’s musical tradition and the modern efforts of the Foundation are detailed in the Sedalia, Missouri, TST ads in January and in this issue sponsored by the Joplin Foundation and the Sedalia Convention and Visitors’ Bureau.

Second, the video brought back memories of Bedford Falls from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. The street scenes in the Parade video remind me of the movie and all the families grouped together along the streets evoked images from the Frank Capra motion picture. Bedford Falls might have been about the same size as Sedalia and I remembered that, as a young man recently married and just out of college, all the financial institutions in town turned us down for a mortgage in 1966, except the local Savings and Loan that I always equated to George Bailey’s Building and Loan.

There were a few Mr. Potters too but none so dislikable as Barrymore’s character. And as for a George Bailey, there have been many comparable Sedalians. My personal nominee would be Deborah Biermann, who has held numerous leadership roles in her many years of service to Sedalia, including in her present position as Executive Director of the Sedalia Heritage Foundation where she also serves on the Joplin Festival Board as producer. Her office is in the 1896 KATY Depot that she was instrumental in guiding to restoration in 2001 under the ownership of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. It is now a part of the state’s 237 mile long KATY Trail State Park.

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If you watch the Parade video, you see middle America huddled under blankets and heavy coats listening to America’s music where it originated and Ethan’s masterful playing stirring up the joy of Christmas in a place where green maple leaf boughs stand in for decorated garlands and wreaths.

Ethan Leinwand, by the way, is a talented barrelhouse blues and ragtime pianist, based in St. Louis since 2014. Along with others, he is actively promoting the musical heritage of Missouri including the rich ragtime traditions in Sedalia and St. Louis.

Since the plans for a Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival are still tentative for June 2-4, 2022, if it has to be postponed, watch for an announcement of Festival Foundation events like the seven Syncopated Saturday Night programs it sponsored in 2020 and 2021. Sedalia is still one of the vital places where America’s music began.

Larry Melton was a founder of the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in 1974 and the Sedalia Ragtime Archive in 1976. He was a Sedalia Chamber of Commerce manager before moving on to Union, Missouri where he is currently helping to conserve the Ragtime collection of the Sedalia Heritage Foundation. Write him at [email protected]

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