In March of 1981, one of the giants of broadcast journalism, Walter Cronkite, retired. He was called, “the most trusted man in America.” Seeing him anchor the CBS Evening News was a comfort.
Phyllis George became friends with him at CBS during her time there as a sportscaster. They also had a common tie with her being from Texas and Mr. Cronkite had attended the University of Texas.
I received a call from Chief of Staff, Liz Dahl telling me that Phyllis is giving a small private dinner party for about a dozen guests at Cave Hill honoring Walter Cronkite on his retirement. She wants me to play before and after dinner. Are you available?
Walter Cronkite? Play for Walter Cronkite? You bet I’m available!
Driving down to Kentucky from Michigan was always a pleasure; well, once you got through the neverending state of Ohio. (Insert laughter)
The day of the private dinner party I arrived early to Cave Hill. It felt very comfortable to be there and as Phyllis greeted me at the door (this time smartly dressed including shoes) I felt I was seeing a good friend. As she led me back to the family room and piano she says: “You play anything you want. They’re going to love it. There will be cocktails first in here then we will move to the dining room. At that point you can stop playing. NOW, what I want to happen is immediately after dinner the double doors will open and I want the music to start immediately; so they’re all swept into the room with your beautiful music.”
In my mind I’m thinking this is being orchestrated like a scene in a movie. I’m happy to oblige.
Guests start to arrive and I’m already digging in to the treasure trove of Cole Porter and Gershwin followed by Rodgers and Hart. While playing, in walks Dr. Armand Hammer and his wife. I immediately shift into tunes from the musical SHOWBOAT (his favorite) that I remember from the Derby Party. He smiles and says to me:”You remember. Thank you!”
A few other guests arrive. I was briefed that a Contessa was among them and also Greek shipping tycoon-billionaire Stavros Niarchos. Two of the world’s wealthiest men and a Contessa and now Walter Cronkite and his wife Betsy walk in. What a gathering for this small town fellow to be playing for.
Time for dinner.
As the guests saunter through the double doors an attendant is following behind. He passes through the doors turns neatly and closes them. My music stops. Now I just hang out in the family room until the “after dinner reveal.” I hear laughter from time to time.
About 90 minutes later, the double doors fly open and my fingers engage creating the swirl of sound Phyllis wanted. I can see her beaming as the guests fill the room and after dinner drinks are poured. I stop for a moment as she introduces me to the Cronkites. They are both so relaxed and genuinely nice. He shakes my hand and tells me how much he’s enjoying my music. I ask him if there’s anything in particular he’d like to hear and he says:”My favorite is OKLAHOMA so anything from that would be great.”
I sat right down and whipped up a jim dandy medley on the spot for him. I get a broad smile and a nod from Mr. Cronkite. It doesn’t get any better than that, right?
The evening is winding down and as the last guests are leaving, Phyllis and John Y come back to the family room and Phyllis says:”And now I have you all to myself. Play something for me.”
I can’t exactly remember what tune I played but I know it was Gershwin. Phyllis sat down on the sofa and kicked off her shoes while John Y made himself a drink. Just a normal couple taking a victory moment for a dinner party well done! But I also sensed a feeling of satisfaction in having done something for their friend Walter.
When I finished I noticed that John Y was already gone. Phyllis walked me to the door with heels in hand. Barefoot; like the day she welcomed me to Cave Hill. We said goodbye and as I walked to my car I couldn’t help but feel thankful for music bringing us all together. It was a full circle moment.
I was lucky to share these moments because of Liz Dahl taking a chance on me and Mrs. Jones’ tenacity. Jones…Dahl…George. Three strong women who looked out for this kid from Bay City, Michigan.
Well, you’ve stayed with me through my “Tales from the Bluegrass.”
But.. every good pianist has an encore up their sleeve.
It all starts with a phone call.
To be continued…