98-year-old plays piano for fellow Homewood at Williamsport residents

April 01, 2008|By MARLO BARNHART

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WILLIAMSPORT -- Although she has been playing the piano for most of her 98 years, Ethel Irvine admitted to feeling a little nervous Monday before she gave her first concert in many years.

Since moving to Homewood Retirement Center in Williamsport a year ago, Ethel has made it her practice to slip down to a recreation room in her Hilltop building to play the piano for her own pleasure.

She is no stranger to performing.

Ethel said that in the 1930s, she played sheet music in a music store window, taking requests from customers who wanted to hear what the songs sounded like.


Later, she and her late husband, Robert Irvine, and his sister, Charlotte Irvine Decker, had a radio show that aired three nights a week in Hagerstown.

Ethel's daughter, Barbara Irvine, said the show, "Candlelight and Silver," provided listeners with what was called dinner music. Ethel was on piano, Charlotte at the organ and Robert sang baritone.

"It was the (Homewood) staff who persuaded me to have a concert," Ethel said. So on Monday afternoon, Ethel held her first "informance" as she called it, for about 30 residents.

"I told them something and then I played something, so I called it an 'informance,'" she said.

When she announced that she would play "Together," Ethel told of providing accompaniment for a man named Nelson Case as he sang that song.

"He was trying to get a job on a radio station in New York, and he did," Ethel said.

The audience was excited when Ethel launched into her next piece, an old favorite, "A Shanty in Old Shantytown."

There was a story behind that song, too.

"My late husband, Robert, worked for the railroad in Baltimore and we had free passes to ride the trains," Ethel said. A favorite trip was to hear 1930s bandleader Little Jack Little play that song and others when he was in Baltimore.

For her final selection, Ethel chose "God Bless America," and spoke of the patriotic roots of the song written by Irving Berlin.

"Kate Smith reintroduced the song on her radio show in 1938," Ethel said. After that, it became a national treasure.

Homewood resident Harrison Baker, 90, spoke of his travels around the world with his wife, Kay. Although it was interesting experiencing many different cultures, Harrison said they were glad to come home to America.

With that, he led the enthusiastic audience in the singing of the patriotic favorite as Ethel played several choruses.

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