Richard Zimmerman and the First Joplin Fest

This month I conclude my reflections on the first Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia in July of 1974. Hopefully someone will write about the 50th anniversary festival to be held May 30 to June 1 in next month’s TST.

One of the first acts of the 1973 Steering Committee was to consider hiring someone who could guide the group toward the goal of holding a ragtime festival by the summer of the following year. So, I set out to find such a person, realizing that we had no one locally with knowledge of the music, or of the performers, and the experience of organizing a program for such an event.

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Having attended The National Ragtime Festival on the riverfront in St. Louis twice, I first thought of Trebor Tichenor of the St. Louis Ragtimers group. Trebor graciously acknowledged my request and invited me to visit him at his home to discuss the prospect. Thus, I joined what must be thousands of others over the years and made my first pilgrimage to Federer Place.

In all, I consulted four men I knew to be active in the ragtime revival, Trebor, Mike Montgomery, Rudi Blesh, and Max Morath. They made the selection easy by unanimously suggesting we ask Richard Zimmerman, then of Los Angeles, to be the director.

Richard’s role in the revival of ragtime during the 1960s and early 1970s was vital. He had been a founder of the Maple Leaf Club of Los Angeles and was an accomplished performer and historian. Perhaps most significantly, Richard published a bi-monthly newsletter for the Club titled Rag Times. The Times was filled with contemporary news about ragtime and performers as well as well researched articles about the music and its history.

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In a sidebar here, I am excited to report that I recently spoke with Benjamin Knysak at R.I.P.M. and they will have the complete library of Rag Times on-line this autumn. The newsletter was published from 1967-2003.

Richard was not only agreeable but he came to Sedalia in February of 1974 to discuss plans and he significantly elevated our vision of the event’s structure. The meeting was not only informative, but we were further inspired to raise the bar with still half a year to go.

Newspaper photo of Richard Zimmerman in February 1974

Many in the ragtime community didn’t realize that Richard worked for Mattel in his formal career and that he was a very successful magician in his second avocation. I have a great memory of meeting Richard in Kansas City before the Festival one time to enjoy his performance of legerdemain. He was known for his large illusions that he created for his own shows and for other popular magicians. However, perhaps his greatest magical talent was as a close-up artist. His skill at card tricks and dexterity with all sorts of small objects was astonishing. His hands accustomed to the demands of syncopated fingering were equally adept at sleight of hand.

During a break in his shows, we met in a restaurant and Richard entertained our then six-year-old son, John, by making the logo on a swizzle stick appear and disappear. John was quite impressed.

Richard’s actual planning for the many concerts was carefully organized and he saw to it that the performances never duplicated numbers or clashed in the slightest, even though he was dealing with many talented egos, a large choir, and the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble.


He had barely arrived when he suggested placards naming the performers be made to be placed on an aisle as an artist was on stage. While we were busy with that task, Richard was busy as well and when we returned with the placards, we found the drab old gymnasium stage looking like a Broadway set. Richard had borrowed feather-light dark curtains from a friend on the crew of the Tonight Show and he and some volunteers hung them quickly turning the cavern into a beautiful set for the events. All the curtains incidentally fit in a single large suitcase. A few borrowed plants finished the near masterpiece.

Richard Zimmerman plays the 1974 Scott Joplin Jazz Festival

Richard’s concerts began promptly, and the performers were professionally on time for their sets. It was a joy to watch him work and direct those memorable concerts.

Richard Zimmerman had already made many important contributions to the ragtime revival, and he has continued down to the present. In addition to his other recordings his American Ragtime Company has produced valuable digital collections of ragtime and blues classics. Richard and his wife Tracy currently live in Illinois.


I hope you are planning to attend this year’s Joplin Festival in Sedalia, May 30-June 1. If old age doesn’t catch up with me, I’ll may get to see you there.

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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