"This is the wildest thing that has ever happened to me," said Julia Wright, leaning over her table at Il Porto in Alexandria and sipping a cup of coffee. It was about midnight, and she was taking a break from the piano where she had been playing ragtime and Christmas music for hours.
Julia Wright, 82-year-old pianist, rose at 4:30 Wednesday morning in Topeka, Kan., to fly out to her gig in Alexandria, where she will be playing at least through Dec. 28 -- substituting for Johnny Maddox, alias "Crazy Otto," who is on vacation.
"Play 'Silver Bells,'" shouted a fan, and out came the sheet music and the tune. Wright reads almost everything she plays, now, and she carries enormous piles of sheet music around with her. "I used to play by ear a lot more," she explained, "but after teaching piano for 17 years, where you have to work from the printed music, I lost the knack."
It didn't matter: She seemed to have the music for everything the customers might want, and the applause was loud and long. She played into the small hours that night, showing no signs of fatigue. "It's the first time I have ever played in a barroom," said Wright, and "it's the first time I've been paid for performing since talking pictures came in."
Wright began playing the piano when she was 5 and living in the "Indian Territory" that later became the state of Oklahoma. "I began on an old pump organ," she recalled, "but I was too small to pump, so my mother pumped while I played." Her musical skills have been passed on to her two adopted daughters, who play trumpet and piano.
She became a professional at 11 and played in Kansas City during World War I and the '20s when it was one of the leading creative centers for ragtime and jazz. But she makes light of the experience: "I never actually got to know Scott Joplin or any of the other great performers, though I loved their music and I think I have everything Joplin ever wrote. I was working all the time -- at Montgomery Ward days and playing in movie houses at night. The only great performer I can remember seeing in action when I was young was Al Jolson -- but that was back in Topeka." Her favorite ragtime number is "Dill Pickles," which was published about the time she began to play, and her favorite Joplin rag is "Maple Leaf." "I used to play that one in a Topeka movie house called the 'Maple Leaf,'" she said, "but I don't think Joplin knew about that place."
Wright is self-taught as a ragtime pianist because, she explained, "you couldn't get a teacher to teach you that kind of music in those days. It was considered trashy. I used to like to play music with a beat, but my parents wouldn't let me. Whenever they caught me, I'd get thrashed, but I did it anyway."
She broke into show business at 11 as a partner with her father, who played the violin and took her with him on jobs in silent movie houses. "We never played ragtime, of course -- mostly waltzes and things like that. Later, I went to Kansas City and there were three movie houses where I used to play the piano -- they would pay me $10 a week, which was very good wages at that time. Then talking pictures came in and I had no more movie work. I directed a church choir for 25 years and then taught piano for a music company.
"Now, I play a lot of old folks' homes and charity concerts and that kind of thing, and when a historical society or somebody puts on a silent film they ask me to play. But I haven't played for money in a long time -- sometimes they give you a free meal, and sometimes they don't even say 'Thank you.'"
One fan who said more than "thank you" in Topeka happened to be an Associated Press reporter. After joining the standing ovation at the end of one of Wright's concerts, she wrote a story in October that went around the world. "I have clippings of that story from all over," said Wright, "even from a couple of foreign countries." The story brought an invitation to play at Il Porto and television crews from the "Today" show and "Real People," both of which play to show her in the near future.
At Il Porto, the fans have been enthusiastic. "How long are you going to be here?" asked one man. "I have to bring some friends." The answer is that she is being held over for at least a week beyond the one-week stay originally planned.
The strongest reactions seem to come when Wright interrupts the stream of ragtime favorites to give a taste of her specialty -- music for movies, using a screen that was not only silent but invisible.
"Now look up at the wall over there and imagine a screen," she said. "Can you see the picture? It's more than 100 years ago, and the Brown family is moving West." Her hands moved across the keyboard and you could hear the slow progress of covered wagons in the music, with a counter-melody leaping upward to spell out the high hopes of the pioneer family.
"Now, here come the Indians," said Wright, and suddenly there were drums in the bass notes, menace in the harmonies. "Mr. Brown is shot" -- she hit an atonal tone-cluster, both hands sounding every note in the octave; then the piano slipped into slow, heavy chords. "But here come the cowboys" -- and the music became quick and bright.
Later, she explained the technique of playing for silent films: "The first day, I wouldn't even know what the picture was about until it began to play -- so I would sit at the piano, watching the screen, and try to be ready for anything that came along. I would have some sneaky music ready in case someone began sneaking, music for love scenes and parties and death scenes and fights and chases. After the first performance, if you had asked me what the movie was about, I couldn't have told you much -- but movies would run for a week and by the end of the week I'd know what to expect."
What she expects after her brief stint at Il Porto is just to go back to Topeka and continue playing for herself and her friends. "Sometimes," she said, "I just sit at home and play for hours. It's been lonely since my husband died 10 years ago, and I don't know what I would do without the music."
She particularly likes to play for old people, whom she also teaches in vocational rehabilitation classes, and sometimes she worries about them. "There are a lot of sad old people," she said, "because they don't have music or something worthwhile to do."
But at 82, she said, "I'm never going to get old. I may get feeble, but I'll never get old."