|February 4, 2016
Any time I have the opportunity, I tell young music students to “grin and bear it”. It’s true that for much of every musician’s early tenure, there’s a fine line between their “instrument” being one of music or one of torture, but prevailing through the agony always brings huge returns. This old man collects those music “dividends”, in fact, often these days. One recent night I played with Penny Arcade, a jazz sextet headed by singer extraordinaire Penny Towers, up at Maple Corner’s Whammy Bar. Penny Arcade is one of my favorite groups because it’s so much fun, plus it gives me the chance to “spread my wings” through jazz improvisation. To me that’s the ultimate musical experience because there’s no work involved having to read music (and I’m lazy). I just draw musical ideas from my head and blow them into my horn.
At the Whammy Bar, I also get to “spread my wings” in another way: I spent my first five years up on Robinson Hill overlooking Maple Corner and it’s so good to “go back home”. My memories of Maple Corner are of a bucolic neighborhood full of folks who both worked and played hard. Much of the “playing” part of life back then centered around Maple Corner’s Community Hall and Store. Even though I was so young, my memories take me often to the that community hall where some kind of “home-grown” music would always complement great food, drink, and dancing people. I remember especially one Corner couple, Stanley and Elaine Fitch being at all those shindigs. They were always dancing up a storm and havin’ a ball!
Just a stone’s throw down the road from the community hall was the Maple Corner Store. The store, like in all communities back in those days, was also the place for social gathering. Whether the hushed tones of mothers keeping kids in rein or the weightier fat-chewing of old folks around the pot bellied stove, there was never a shortage of “fodder” for my four-year-old ears. I’ll never forget the music Marion Anderson’s cash register made for every departing pound of nails or box of salted cod.
Although the Maple Corner Store has survived, like all stores, its face and ownership has changed over the years. The current owners are my cousin Nancy Morse Toulis and her husband Artie. A few years into their tenure, they realized that a traditional small grocery model was marginally sustainable in this day and age. Enter the Whammy Bar, tiny by bar standards, but quite viable by demand. Reminiscent of the old days, their mission was “to make a welcoming place that neighbors could gather and talk”. And the end of the story is just that: the bar was built in back back of Maple Corner Store and “they came”.
The other night at the Whammy Bar, after “elbowing” myself and my trappings a place on the bandstand, I scanned the small, intimate crowd. All of a sudden, I was fighting tears…there on a couch in the back of Whammy Bar sat Stanley and Elaine Fitch! The Fitches, ninety-two and eighty-six respectively, have been left behind by most all others of their generation but, thanks to the devotion of daughters Donna and Diane, are still a presence at the Maple Corner gathering spot du jour!
That night I not only collected music dividends with Penny Arcade but “danced” with the Fitches right back to 1953. They were a young couple in love in a smaller and simpler world; a world where music, and dancing, and love of community mattered. And, you know, in it’s own way, it still does thanks to folks like Nancy and Artie Toulis.