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Baby grand once played by celebrities visiting Argentia has new home at CFS St. John’s

CFS St. John’s commanding officer Lt. Cmdr. Gerry Parsons sits at a historic and restored Wurlitzur baby grand piano in the Argentia Room at the St. John’s base.
CFS St. John’s commanding officer Lt. Cmdr. Gerry Parsons sits at a historic and restored Wurlitzur baby grand piano in the Argentia Room at the St. John’s base.

To look at it six months ago in a building at the former U.S. Naval base in Argentia, you’d say the 75-year-old Wurlitzur baby grand piano had seen its day.

Pushed to the side for years — since the base closed in 1994 — it lay dust-coated and faded, its cabinet chipped and showing signs of rot, the old iron strings no longer able to carry a tune.

When St. John’s master piano technician Alastair L. Collis had a look at it at the request of the Port Authority of Argentia a couple of years ago — the port authority oversees economic development at the former base site — he found it to be “in terrible shape.”

“Only for what it was,” he said, “I would have condemned it.”

But because of “what it was” it has been given a second life.

No piano in this province has gotten more play in its day. It’s a piano steeped in history: among those said to have tickled its ivories during its years at the American base are the likes of Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and Connie Francis.

Historian Edward Lake researched the history of the piano and documented the restoration project for a storyboard.

Other celebrities who played, sat on or danced around the piano during the famous USO shows there included Vera Lynn and Jayne Mansfield.

Many local bands and performers, as well, used the piano during the many dances and concerts at the base over the years.

Fully restored during the summer, the piano now sits in what is known as the Argentia Room at Canadian Forces Station (CFS) St. John’s. Getting it there took a partnership among a number of people and organizations.

Last spring CFS St. John’s commanding officer Lt. Cmdr. Gerry Parsons contacted Collis — head of A.L. Collis Piano, Organ Sales and Service — to ask about the cost of buying a piano for the sitting foyer outside the officers’ mess at the Lieutenant-Commander W. Anthony Paddon Building in St. John’s.

Collis told Parsons about the piano at Argentia, and Parsons was intrigued.

Master piano technician Alastair Collis says the Wurlitzer Baby Grand piano he restored sounds better now that it would have originally because of new and better strings.

“My intent was to have that piano, to be played and enjoyed by all who pass through here to promote the military camaraderie and traditions,” Parsons said in his office at CFS St. John’s.

“We spend so much time reflecting on remembrance of our fallen — and not to take any focus away from that — but I wanted to put a spotlight on the good times and the importance of the mess, membership, the at-home support and the social outreach that you find in bases that provide that camaraderie and strength behind the deployment. And that relation-building with your fellow comrades, sailors, airmen and soldiers, and the stories that get shared and the musical performances that are put off.

“And with this piano, with such a musical history with all these famous artists coming up and through that base of Argentia, it was a great and fitting tribute to that to have this baby grand restored.”

Local historian Edward Lake wrote up the history of the piano that was made into a storyboard to accompany the instrument.

The storyboard notes that in 1943, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army purchased 17 pianos — five grand, six baby grand and six upright models — from A.L. Collis and Son, then located in Harbour Grace, for placement throughout the base at Argentia.

When the Americans left the base in 1994, only one piano was left — the Wurlitzer baby grand — and it was stored on the lower level of the former Windjammer Club at the base. (In 1943, the piano had been in use in the Navy 103 Club, which was also known as the Sailors’ Hall.)

A marker shows the piano had been the property of the U.S. Navy at Argentia.

In May of this year, the board of directors of the Port of Argentia voted to donate the piano to CFS St. John’s.

Funding for the restoration work was provided by well-known philanthropist Elinor Gill Ratcliffe, who has contributed to many projects in the province, including the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Gallery at The Rooms.

She said the piano project, however, was different from the other projects she has been involved with.

“It’s unique. I have chosen mostly, over the years, to support things of culture and the arts, and they are usually the orphan things left over when there’s a cutback,” Ratcliffe said.

“This was quite different from other projects that I’ve done, but nonetheless rewarding. All the projects I support, I treat them like they are my children because you do put quite a bit of your emotional personality into it, too. It’s not just where can I spend money, it’s what’s going to happen and who are these people. But this was very inspiring and a lot of credit to so many people.

A plaque attached to the restored Wurlitzer Baby Grand piano.

“We had a little celebration and reception to welcome the piano to its new home, and we heard some music from the period.”

Vivian Smith, chair of the Port of Argentia board of directors, said her husband, George, actually played at the American base as a musician in local bands such as the Midsounds and the Ducats, and as backup for bigger visiting acts.

“It was pretty sentimental for us to make the decision to donate the piano, but we felt it was a great place for it to be, where everyone could enjoy it in the Argentia Room,” Smith said.

“My husband played for some of the USO shows that came to Argentia. That piano kind of touched all of us here in the Placentia area and we are just so happy it has a great home right now.”

The Argentia Room at CFS St. John's houses the restored Wurlitzer Baby Grand piano from the former Argentia U.S. Naval base.

Port of Argentia CEO Harvey Brenton said he had long hoped the piano could be salvaged and put to use again. He said learning the full history of the piano was an eye-opener.

“The piano sat there in that room (at Argentia) and I used to, on Friday afternoons, play some songs on the piano myself, with nobody around, and would kind of imagine that Jane Mansfield sat on top of the piano, or Frank Sinatra or Bob Hope were there playing that piano,” Brenton said.

“We didn’t realize what we had until Alastair came out and gave us the backstory to it. The history that was there was just remarkable.”

Collis and his team of Frederick (Teddy) Young, Darrell Williams and Jeff Tucker restored the musical components of the piano to like-new condition, and furniture restorer Lyle Hampton refinished the woodwork.

In fact, Collis and his family’s business, which was started by his grandfather in 1908, had a long connection with the former American base. His father, in addition to selling the pianos to the base, had the contract to keep the pianos tuned.

The restored Wurlitzer Baby Grand piano proudly sits in the Argentia Room at CFS St. John's.

Collis said the baby grand piano arrived at his workshop in May and the restoration was completed in time for a dedication ceremony held at CFS St. John’s last month. It was dedicated to the memory of the American military presence at Argentia and the significant economic impacts of the U.S. presence in the province.

“It was a big job just to clean the keyboard. But the action wasn’t too bad, apart from cleaning and pinning, the hammers were good on it, but the cabinet was destroyed,” Collis said. “We rebuilt the cabinet.

“It means the world to me. I did it as if it was my piano. And with the new strings it sounds beautiful. It’s better than original because the strings you are putting on pianos today are so perfect, it is much different than years ago.

“I was very honoured to be asked to restore that piano and I hope they have many years of enjoyment.”

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