Piano from for­mer U.S. mil­i­tary base re­stored

Baby grand once played by celebri­ties vis­it­ing Argentia has new home at CFS St. John’s

The Beacon (Gander) - - Editorial - BY GLEN WHIFFEN THE TELE­GRAM

To look at it six months ago in a build­ing at the for­mer U.S. Naval base in Argentia, you’d say the 75-year-old Wurl­itzur baby grand piano had seen its day.

Pushed to the side for years — since the base closed in 1994 — it lay dust-coated and faded, its cab­i­net chipped and show­ing signs of rot, the old iron strings no longer able to carry a tune.

When St. John’s master piano tech­ni­cian Alas­tair L. Col­lis had a look at it at the re­quest of the Port Author­ity of Argentia a cou­ple of years ago — the port author­ity over­sees eco­nomic devel­op­ment at the for­mer base site — he found it to be “in ter­ri­ble shape.”

“Only for what it was,” he said, “I would have con­demned it.”

But be­cause of “what it was” it has been given a sec­ond life.

No piano in this prov­ince has got­ten more play in its day. It’s a piano steeped in his­tory: among those said to have tick­led its ivories dur­ing its years at the Amer­i­can base are the likes of Bob Hope, Frank Si­na­tra and Con­nie Francis.

Other celebri­ties who played, sat on or danced around the piano dur­ing the fa­mous USO shows there in­cluded Vera Lynn and Jayne Mans­field.

Many lo­cal bands and per­form­ers, as well, used the piano dur­ing the many dances and con­certs at the base over the years.

Fully re­stored dur­ing the sum­mer, the piano now sits in what is known as the Argentia Room at Cana­dian Forces Sta­tion (CFS) St. John’s. Get­ting it there took a part­ner­ship among a num­ber of peo­ple and or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Last spring CFS St. John’s com­mand­ing of­fi­cer Lt. Cmdr. Gerry Par­sons con­tacted Col­lis — head of A.L. Col­lis Piano, Or­gan Sales and Ser­vice — to ask about the cost of buy­ing a piano for the sit­ting foyer out­side the of­fi­cers’ mess at the Lieu­tenan­tCom­man­der W. An­thony Pad­don Build­ing in St. John’s.

Col­lis told Par­sons about the piano at Argentia, and Par­sons was in­trigued.

“My in­tent was to have that piano, to be played and en­joyed by all who pass through here to pro­mote the mil­i­tary ca­ma­raderie and tra­di­tions,” Par­sons said in his of­fice at CFS St. John’s.

“We spend so much time re­flect­ing on re­mem­brance of our fallen — and not to take any fo­cus away from that — but I wanted to put a spot­light on the good times and the im­por­tance of the mess, mem­ber­ship, the at-home sup­port and the so­cial out­reach that you find in bases that pro­vide that ca­ma­raderie and strength be­hind the de­ploy­ment. And that re­la­tion-build­ing with your fel­low com­rades, sailors, air­men and sol­diers, and the sto­ries that get shared and the mu­si­cal per­for­mances that are put off.

“And with this piano, with such a mu­si­cal his­tory with all these fa­mous artists com­ing up and through that base of Argentia, it was a great and fit­ting tribute to that to have this baby grand re­stored.”

Lo­cal his­to­rian Ed­ward Lake wrote up the his­tory of the piano that was made into a sto­ry­board to ac­com­pany the in­stru­ment.

The sto­ry­board notes that in 1943, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army pur­chased 17 pi­anos — five grand, six baby grand, and six up­right mod­els — from A.L. Col­lis and Son, then lo­cated in Har­bour Grace, for place­ment through­out the base at Argentia.

When the Amer­i­cans left the base in 1994, only one piano was left — the Wurl­itzur baby grand — and it was stored on the lower level of the for­mer Wind­jam­mer Club at the base. (In 1943, the piano had been in use in the Navy 103 Club, which was also known as the Sailors’ Hall.)

In May of this year, the board of direc­tors of the Port of Argentia voted to do­nate the piano to CFS St. John’s.

Fund­ing for the restora­tion work was pro­vided by well­known phi­lan­thropist Eli­nor Gill Rat­cliffe, who has contributed to many projects in the prov­ince, in­clud­ing the Royal New­found­land Reg­i­ment Gallery at The Rooms.

She said the piano pro­ject, how­ever, was dif­fer­ent from the other projects she has been in­volved with.

“It’s unique. I have cho­sen mostly, over the years, to sup­port things of cul­ture and the arts, and they are usu­ally the or­phan things left over when there’s a cut­back,” Rat­cliffe said.

“This was quite dif­fer­ent from other projects that I’ve done, but none­the­less re­ward­ing. All the projects I sup­port, I treat them like they are my chil­dren be­cause you do put quite a bit of your emo­tional per­son­al­ity into it, too. It’s not just where can I spend money, it’s what’s going to hap­pen and who are these peo­ple. But this was very in­spir­ing and a lot of credit to so many peo­ple.

“We had a lit­tle cel­e­bra­tion and re­cep­tion to welcome the piano to its new home, and we heard some mu­sic from the pe­riod.”

Vi­vian Smith, chair of the Port of Argentia board of direc­tors, said her hus­band, Ge­orge, ac­tu­ally played at the Amer­i­can base as a mu­si­cian in lo­cal bands such as the Mid­sounds and the Du­cats, and as backup for big­ger vis­it­ing acts.

“It was pretty sen­ti­men­tal for us to make the de­ci­sion to do­nate the piano, but we felt it was a great place for it to be, where ev­ery­one could en­joy it in the Argentia Room,” Smith said.

“My hus­band played for some of the USO shows that came to Argentia. That piano kind of touched all of us here in the Pla­cen­tia area and we are just so happy it has a great home right now.”

Port of Argentia CEO Har­vey Bren­ton said he had long hoped the piano could be sal­vaged and put to use again. He said learn­ing the full his­tory of the piano was an eye-opener.

“The piano sat there in that room (at Argentia) and I used to, on Fri­day af­ter­noons, play some songs on the piano my­self, with no­body around, and would kind of imag­ine that Jane Mans­field sat on top of the piano, or Frank Si­na­tra or Bob Hope were there play­ing that piano,” Bren­ton said.

“We didn’t re­al­ize what we had un­til Alas­tair came out and gave us the back­story to it. The his­tory that was there was just re­mark­able.”

Col­lis and his team of Fred­er­ick (Teddy) Young, Dar­rell Wil­liams and Jeff Tucker re­stored the piano to like-new con­di­tion.

In fact, Col­lis and his fam­ily’s busi­ness, which was started by his grand­fa­ther in 1908, had a long con­nec­tion with the for­mer Amer­i­can base. His father, in ad­di­tion to sell­ing the pi­anos to the base, had the con­tract to keep the pi­anos tuned.

Col­lis said the baby grand piano ar­rived at his work­shop in May and the restora­tion was com­pleted in time for a ded­i­ca­tion cer­e­mony held at CFS St. John’s last month. It was ded­i­cated to the mem­ory of the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary pres­ence at Argentia and the sig­nif­i­cant eco­nomic im­pacts of the U.S. pres­ence in the prov­ince.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.