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Powers plays leading man at Pen Mar

May 13, 2002|BY ANDREA ROWLAND

andreabh@herald-mail.com

From booking bands to jitterbugging and impersonating the late Liberace, organist Jim Powers has long played a key role in the Big Band concert series at Pen Mar Park in Cascade.

Assisted by his wife, Fay, Powers has been organizing the weekly ballroom dance music concerts at Pen Mar since he took over as executive secretary of the American Federation of Musicians Local 770 in 1993.

"It's a labor of love. Pen Mar is such a special place," said Powers, 61. "It's a lot of work, but we do it out of love for the park and the program and the people."

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Jim and Fay Powers of Hagerstown were nominated for Washington County's Most Wonderful Citizen award last October for their involvement with the concert series.

The pair has been dubbed "Mr. and Mrs. Pen Mar."

Thousands of music lovers flock to the scenic park in the northeast corner of the county every Sunday afternoon from mid-May through early October to listen to the Big Band-era sounds that have kept Pen Mar's main pavilion swinging since the 1930s.

This year's concert series starts May 19 with music by the National Apple Museum Dance Band.

"I can't wait," Powers said. "Pen Mar is my pet."

He begins booking bands from his busy basement office nearly a year ahead of time, contacting those musicians most requested by concert patrons.

Powers fills the concert dates - 21 this year - with a variety of bands that play the Big Band-era/ballroom dance-style music reminiscent of Pen Mar Park in its heyday. He books park patrons' favorites while striving to introduce about three new bands every year, he said.

"The program isn't for Jim Powers or Local 770," he said. "It's for the patrons who come Sunday after Sunday after Sunday."

Each concert draws between 1,500 and 2,000 guests if the weather is good, Powers said.

Everybody's Day, the highlight of the concert series, attracts about 5,000 visitors. Powers has planned a special Everybody's Day program for Aug. 25 - including the popular Richard Bray Orchestra, classic car show and dance contests - to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Pen Mar's reopening, he said.

Once a mountaintop resort and amusement park, Pen Mar Park closed after World War II when many families began traveling to oceanfront resorts. The county's parks department reopened the park in 1977.

Powers reaches the park early on concert days to wait for the performers, help them set up and greet guests as they arrive. He serves as behind-the-scenes organizer and master of ceremonies.

When the music starts, Powers and his wife can often be found on the dance floor doing the jitterbug or cha-cha. The couple has been boogying together throughout most of their 40-year marriage, Powers said.

A retired funeral director who started "fiddlin'" on the organ at the funeral parlor between embalmings, viewings and funeral services more than 30 years ago, Powers now enjoys performing at private parties, banquets, ballroom dances, and, once a season, at Pen Mar.

He has made a flamboyant, Liberacesque entrance at the park for the past three years, arriving by horse or extravagant sports car to please the crowd behind his candelabra- and mirror-topped Yamaha organ.

Powers wears showy tuxedos modeled after those worn by the famed pianist, whom he met four years before Liberace died in 1987.

Like his idol, Powers' performances are marked by costume changes and such Liberace one-liners as, "Look me over. I didn't get dressed up like this to go unnoticed," he said.

"It's just so fun," said Powers, who will perform at Pen Mar on July 14. "I'm in my element when I'm playing."

His performance schedule and work with the American Federation of Musicians Local 770 - which promotes live music and offers support services to musicians from parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia - keeps Powers busy with different activities year-round, he said.

He is now working with the City of Hagerstown to bring swing music events downtown during Pen Mar's off-season.

But none of Powers' musical responsibilities satisfy him as much as his work at Pen Mar, he said.

"That keeps me the happiest," he said. "I just love it. I love everything about it."

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