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 Compass - - Sports - BY GLEN WHIFFEN glen.whiffen@thetele­gram.com

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 Lieu­tenant-Com­man­der 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 His­to­rian Ed­ward Lake re­searched the his­tory of the pi­ano and doc­u­mented the restora­tion project for a sto­ry­board. The pi­ano - which dates to the early 1940s at the for­mer U.S. Naval Base in Ar­gen­tia and was played by celebri­ties such as Bob Hope, Frank Si­na­tra and Jayne Mans­field - was in ter­ri­ble con­di­tion and do­nated by the Port Author­ity of Ar­gen­tia and re­stored with the help of fund­ing from Eli­nor Gill Rat­cliffe.

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.

“It was a big job just to clean the key­board. But the ac­tion wasn’t too bad, apart from clean­ing and pin­ning, the ham­mers were good on it, but the cabi­net was de­stroyed,” Col­lis said. “We re­built the cabi­net.

“It means the world to me. I did it as if it was my pi­ano. And with the new strings it sounds beau­ti­ful. It’s bet­ter than orig­i­nal be­cause the strings you are putting on pi­anos today are so per­fect, it is much dif­fer­ent than years ago.

“I was very hon­oured to be asked to re­store that pi­ano and I hope they have many years of en­joy­ment.”


Mas­ter pi­ano tech­ni­cian Alas­tair Col­lis says the Wurl­itzer baby grand pi­ano he re­stored sounds bet­ter now than it would have orig­i­nally be­cause of new and bet­ter strings.

CFS St. John’s com­mand­ing of­fi­cer Lt. Cmdr. Gerry Par­sons sits at a his­toric and re­stored Wurl­itzur baby grand pi­ano in the Ar­gen­tia Room at the St. John’s base.

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