Veteran pianist takes reinsBy THEO JEAN KENYON of the Journal Star
Posted Sep 27, 2008 @ 10:11 PM
PEORIA — Name a musical, any musical that's been performed in the Peoria area, and chances are you've heard Mel White at the piano or seen him on stage.
When White sits down at the piano for the Caterpillar Employees Mixed Chorus production of "The Music Man," opening Thursday at East Peoria Community High School, it will be his 157th show.
And he'll also be conducting the eight-piece orchestra.
Most of his shows have been performed in Peoria with Peoria Players and Corn Stock Theatre, but he's also performed as accompanist, director or actor in shows at Conklin's Barn II Dinner Theatre in Goodfield, the former playhouse in Farmington, at Bradley University and even one gig of 2 1/2 months in Venice, Fla.
Some of his favorite shows, he says, have been "My Fair Lady," "The King and I" and "G.I. Jukebox," a USO-style show performed earlier this year at Conklin's.
"It was all that music from World War II, about 90 percent music and 10 percent dialogue," White says of "G.I. Jukebox."
The Caterpillar Employees Mixed Chorus called him this spring to take over as accompanist and orchestra director for "The Music Man."
White previously had accompanied the mixed chorus shows for 26 years while working in the accounting department at Caterpillar Inc. until retiring after "32-plus" years.
He still thinks the chorus is a remarkable idea.
"They take everybody, and for a lot of people it may be their only chance to make it on stage," he says. "We've had a blind person in the show, and it took extra people to guide him on stage."
This year the show suffered a plague of summer colds during rehearsals, and White himself caught one from others in the cast.
But he showed up anyway.
"I've never missed a rehearsal," he insisted to music director Helen Ferguson.
"At 84, he makes us all look bad," says Ferguson whose husband, Alan Ferguson, is making his directorial debut with "The Music Man."
"I'm not a classical or technical player," says White. "I studied in grade school, where we had those cardboard keys, and I had a year and a half of private lessons."
"But my grandmother and the grandmother of Betty Merkel were in the same set, and when my grandmother heard that Betty had been enrolled in a dancing class, my grandmother enrolled me, too," he recalls of his early introduction to music and dance.
Merkel, who died in 2003, grew up to become a well-known local dance instructor and choreographer who owned and operated the Betty Merkel Ford Dance Studio in Peoria for more than 40 years.
White says of that early class he took with Merkel: "I do know dancing."
Although White graduated in accounting at Bradley University and made that his career, he has been playing and performing ever since on one stage or another.
White says "The Music Man" has "a wonderful score." He dug out the one he used when the Caterpillar chorus first produced it several years ago and found the new one has more pages and some changes, but noted that Willson's memorable songs are still in the same key.
Now in his 80s, White admits his back gives him some trouble when walking or standing.
"But sitting is no problem," he says, and he'll be sitting at the piano starting Thursday.
Theo Jean Kenyon can be reached at (309) 686-3190 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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