Volume 73, Number 40 | February 04 - 10, 2004


Max Morath
Opens Feb. 8
York Theatre Company
St. Peter’s Theatre
619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street
212 868-4444
Mon, Tues, Fri, and Sat at 8 pm
Wed, Sat, and Sun at 2:30 pm, Sun at 7:30 pm
$50, Thru March 14

Max Morath, at the piano ‘doing what he does’

By Jerry Tallmer

Photo by Diane Fay Skomars

Ragtime man, Max Morath, will be at the piano uptown at St. Peter’s through March 14

The show is called “Ragtime and Again,” but, says Max, “it’s just Max doing what he does, sitting at the piano, knocking out some tunes, getting some laughs, doing some stuff on smoking and drinking and other politically incorrect things.”

Max is Max Morath, the ragtime man, an artist and spellbinder with a face as American as a baked potato, or maybe Gene Hackman (but skinnier), and the “and Again” of Max’s return to New York in a York Theatre presentation through March 14 at St. Peter’s, Lex and 54th, is “just to say: ‘Hey folks, there’s some new material here.’ “

Smoking, for instance.

“I smoked for 20 years,” Max says. “Quit at 34. This Bloomberg anti-smoking crusade. I don’t get it. How can he ban smoking by fiat? Didn’t he have to go through some committee or something? How can he just do that?

“Well, in my show I’m going to have a wonderful song, a 1902 song, very hip, extolling cigarettes. ‘When your pals are few, / Here’s a friend who’s always true. / Ain’t it funny what a little smoke will do.’ It’s by two guys nobody ever heard of.”

He’s also probably going to recite “The Ballad of Salvation Bill,” a poem by Robert W. Service:

“Now there was I, a husky guy, whose god was Nicotine,

“With a ‘coffin-nail’ a fixture in my mug . . . “

And he may borrow a bit from his own portable stage reading on Peter Finley Dunne, American sportswriter, humorist, political and social commentator (1867-1936).

“It’s a thing I’ve worked on for years. I don’t say I’m obsessed with him, but I’m close. He wrote in an almost untranslatable Irish brogue, and came to hate his creation, ‘Mr. Dooley.’ Dunne was one of the first Catholics accepted by Long Island society. A woman said to him: ‘Mr. Dunne, I hear you’re a Roman Catholic. He replied: ‘No, ma’am, I’m a Chicago Catholic.’ When Payne Whitney died, he left $500,000 to his pal Dunne. Peter Finley Dunne later said: ‘I never wrote another line.’ “

And then, of course, Max is going to play some music.

It wasn’t Max Morath who in the 1950s brought ragtime back, because, as he said then and says now, it never went away. But he did his share to make us all very aware of it, and very glad we are.

“I don’t go to the past,” Max says. “I hate nostalgia.” It certainly isn’t past when Max Morath rolls out Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin.

“The rediscovery of Scott Joplin 30 years ago was long overdo. But the myth is that here was this lonely black man, who in 1899 wrote the ‘Maple Leaf Rag.’ Not true. Ragtime was a movement bigger than the rock-’n’-roll movement — and who was the big guy [in the ragtime movement]? Irving Berlin. Beginning with ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band,’ 1911.

“One of the things I’ve done more and more,” says Max, “is establish Irving Berlin in all this. I distrust all terms — ragtime, swing, jazz, blues, folk, rock, whatever. I never met Irving Berlin face-to-face, but we did have a lot of phone conversations, starting with when he called me up during my first New York show, at the Jan Hus House. He said: ‘The only one of those things that has any meaning is the blues. The rest don’t mean a thing.’

“In the Jan Hus show I had a song of his called ‘How Do You Do It, Mabel, on $20 a Week?’ Mr. Berlin phoned and said: ‘Why are you doing that old song? I’ve got better songs.’ I said it was in there for women’s rights. Well, he gave me that song and two others to do — free. No royalties.

Max Morath himself was born Oct. 1, 1926, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, of “mongrel” ancestry: Scots-Irish, British, German, Bohemian, “and a Rumanian great uncle who was probably Jewish.”

Says the 77-years-young ragtime man: “I figure I can fool ‘em another five years.” And he says: “People talk about the good old days, but I don’t think there is such a thing. And if there is, it depends on how old you are.

“If it’s my good old days, we’re talking about the Depression. My folks separated when I was 4. I don’t know how my mother did it. Well, you know: Everybody was scuffling.”

It was Max’s mother, a good pianist — “She played ragtime real well” — who made Max take piano lessons as a kid. “And like any kid, I quit, but I got real good at it.” His first two years at Colorado College he was a math and physics major. Then at 17 he landed a job as radio announcer at the Colorado CBS station.

“I thought I was hot shit. My heroes were, you know, Fats and Tatum and Teddy Wilson and Jess Stacy. I didn’t get locked in to ragtime until about 1950, when I was playing for the drunks up in the mountains at Cripple Creek, Colorado.

“The thing that got me really locked in was the 1958-59 ragtime series I did for NET, the forerunner of PBS. Suddenly the phone started ringing. Club dates and concerts.” And people like Barney Josephson and Max Gordon, who brought Max Morath the ragtime man into New York City’s Blue Angel, uptown, The Village Vanguard, downtown.

“My cabaret debut was at the old Blue Angel on East 55th Street. I shared the bill with Woody Allen. I think it was his first uptown gig, and I was lucky to be on the bill with him. In the front room was Bobby Short!”

The Village Vanguard booking, 14 weeks in the summer of 1964, was a huge smash. It put new life into what was at that time an ailing Vanguard. “We did really great business — thanks to guys like you” [i.e., an appreciative press].

Morath had one precondition: that for the length of the booking the other Max, Mr. Gordon, allow the idiosyncratic Village Vanguard murals to be covered over with red plush cloth on which were affixed blow-up photos of Scott Joplin, Eubie Blake, composer Joseph Lamb, et al. “And I did that.”

Max, who has a studio in the West 50s, spends a good deal of time in Duluth, Minnesota, where his wife Diane Fay Skomars is director of development at the University of Minnesota. She’s also a professional photographer.

His three children from a previous marriage are Kathy, a singer actress in Los Angeles; Christine, a Westchester jewelry designer, housewife, mother of two kids; and Fred, an artist and carpenter who lives in Hawaii.

The way Max likes to close his current show is: “Mr. Joplin and Mr. Berlin never got together” — dramatic pause — “until tonight.” And then Max Morath hits the keys.


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