CLARA’S UPRIGHT PIANO

Most western movies that attempt to depict an old west saloon have a rinky-tink piano playing in the background.  These old “upright” instruments provided the atmosphere needed to set the mood for gamblers, and saloon girls.  In actuality, there weren’t many saloons that could afford such an instrument, nor were the rooms large enough for a stage on which a line of dancing girls would strut their stuff.  To be able to find a piano player who could play rag-time music was out of the question in the old mining camps.  But, there were a few.  One of these was the Lawrence Saloon in Frisco, Utah.  The old piano in the corner was thumped on almost daily by some would-be musician moving through town.

            Children growing up in the camp report that one of their adventures was to sit on the boardwalk in front of the saloon and peek under the swinging doors to watch the “painted ladies” move about the room, dressed in their fancy gowns, and listen to the music of the saloon piano playing tunes of the day. 

            The more conservative mothers of Frisco, of course, became concerned about this activity on the part of their kids and would insist that they stop the practice.  This demand, of course, made the activity even more adventurous.

            Clara Griffith was one of these strict mothers.  She was raising six young ladies and a son of her own and she was “worried sick” that her girls would be attracted to such low standards.  She told her husband, James, that she wanted him to purchase a piano of their own so that her girls could take lessons and instill an appreciation of higher quality music.  Jim Griffiths wasn’t quite sure about this, but, after days and days of listening to Clara’s persistence and nagging, he finally agreed and ordered a good quality upright piano from the ZCMI Department Store in Salt Lake.  ZCMI stood for Zions Commerce Mercantile Institution, owned and operated by the Mormon Church, and carrying everything the residents of Utah could need.

            It arrived via the Southern Extension Railway at the Frisco depot firmly wrapped in protective cotton quilting. A crew of sturdy miners rolled the piano, equipped with metal casters, onto the family wagon and with some fanfare pulled up Main Street. Everyone in the town could hear the clanging, tinkling, and clanking of its hammers on the strings; announcing its arrival with every bump in the road, to the Griffith home on Horn Silver Avenue.

            It took its place in the living room next to the front window in the Griffiths home.  For many years it was the only piano in a private home in Frisco.  Quickly the Griffiths home became the center of youth gatherings.  Most of the girls in the family learned the basics of piano performance, and gathering around the beautifully engraved instrument to sing and dance became a weekly teenage town party. 

            So the piano became a basic part of the culture and lives of families that extended from the six girls and their brother Walter.  After he had left his home to move to California, his home would contain not just a grand piano but a Lowry Organ as well. 

            The old upright piano moved from home to home over the decades; finally ending in my mother’s home where both my sister and I learned to play.  The keys became worn from many fingers, some of the fine ivory fell away, and many of the keys became reduced to wooden tops.  The finish was changed by my aunts to a deep oak stain. As many feet worked the pedals, two of them failed, over the years, to soften its brassy sound. 

I kept it in my summer home for twenty years and loved to pound away on it and listen to the bright, cheerful, ringing sound – even if the strings were slightly out of tune.  To me, as I played some of the old standards, it has the same, delightful rinky-tink sound of those old Frisco saloons pianos.

Now it sits, wrapped in protective plastic in my garage, waiting for my grandson to haul it away. He wanted to have it to remind him of his heritage and all the years it has filled his ancester’s homes with music and memories.

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