Oscar Wilde’s Big Leadville Adventure
“Please Don’t Shoot the Piano Player, He’s Doing the Best He Can.”
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
Leadville has seen a resurgence of the arts in recent years with live music, murals and other cultural events. However, back in the frontier days of The Cloud City, entertainment was a bit more difficult to come by.
Sure, the harmonica could liven up most campfire gatherings, but it wasn’t until the big gold and silver veins were struck, that such wealth could support the more cultural fêtes. That’s when Lead Vegas really rolled out the red carpet for entertainers.
By 1879, Leadville boasted the biggest opera house west of the Mississippi, thanks to Horace Tabor’s wealth. The venue attracted national and international performers, actors and orators, along with Leadville’s new rich in attendance. And while there were some “cheap seats” in the upper balcony, most miners and other hard-working types found their musical satisfaction in one of the many dance hall saloons.
During its heyday, there’s no doubt that Leadville’s former Red Light District – now 2nd Street – saw its fair share of traveling fiddle players, guitar strummers, and accordion squeezers. However, it was the piano player who stuck it out, night after night, through boom and bust. Maybe that was due to his instrument of choice, one a bit more difficult to travel with. Regardless, it was usually the floating melody of a ragtime tune that brought in the passersby; and those honky-tonk favorites being pounded out on the well-worn keys that kept them hanging around ‘til dawn!
However, one night in 1883, The Magic City saw these two worlds, of opera house finery, and dance hall bawdiness, collide. The result was one of America’s favorite Old West sayings: “Please Don’t Shoot The Piano Player, He’s Doing The Best He Can!”
Well, of course this musical musing has its roots in Leadville, what worthwhile story doesn’t? The year was 1883 and famed English author and orator Oscar Wilde was in town for a visit. Of course, his eloquence in elocution packed the historic Tabor Opera House with high society intellectuals. However, the local, hard-working miners had also extended a one-of-a-kind invitation to Wilde; one he took them up on.
Wilde agreed to venture underground, to the bottom of a silver mine, in a bucket. There in the cavern way below the earth’s surface, he dined, drank whiskey and smoked a cigar. But the big event came after dinner, as described by Wilde:
“Then I had to open a new vein, or lode, which with a silver drill, I brilliantly performed, amidst unanimous applause. The silver drill was presented to me and the lode named “The Oscar.” I had hoped that in their simple grand way they would have offered me shares in “The Oscar,” but in their artless untutored fashion they did not. Only the silver drill remains as a memory of my night at Leadville.”
Well, maybe one more thing . . .
As the story goes, after his underground musing, Wilde and his newfound miner friends made their way back downtown, gathering at the Legendary Silver Dollar Saloon, across from the opera house.
During his merriment in the bar “with the miners and the female friends of the miners,” Wilde noticed the sign “Please don’t shoot the pianist; he is doing his best.”
While the saying has slightly different versions, from not shooting the “organist” to “fiddle player,” this is the most commonly accepted version. In fact, the “Please don’t shoot the piano player. He is doing his best” eventually became one of the most popular signs in western saloons – and churches – across the country.
The saying stuck with Oscar Wilde as well. Back in England, when touring for his “Impressions of America,” Wilde recalled all this with delight:
“I was struck with this recognition of the fact that bad art merits the penalty of death, and I felt that in this remote city, where the aesthetic applications of the revolver were clearly established in the case of music, my apostolic task would be much simplified, as indeed it was.”
After all, as the primary source of musical merriment, the piano player’s demise through the crossfire of a gunfight, or a direct intentional shot due to an out-of-tune organ, may very well mean the end of entertainment in this old west mining town for months, if not years.
Making music in Leadville must have been tough back then! It still is; so be sure to support live music and “Please Don’t Shoot the Piano Player, He’s Doing the Best He Can” . . . In The ‘Ville.
Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin, A Media Company located in Leadville, Colorado which publishes LeadvilleToday.com and SaguacheToday.com. All content and research contained in this story is copyrighted and may not be reproduced in any manner without express written consent of the author.
Living on the Edge: Five Years of Leadville Today
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
“It kinda sounds like Leadville is losing its edge.”
The comment had popped up innocently enough in a conversation I was having with someone who was raised in Leadville, but currently living down valley. His words caught my attention, ensnaring me and making it difficult to pay attention to the remainder of our discussion.
The statement made me sit up in my chair, shifting my weight from side to side, as if to reset the balance between my role as a professional journalist and that of a 25+ year resident who had moved to the highest city in America to escape just the type of influences and attitudes that had now found their way to the mountain top.
The words twisted and turned, over and over like the mountain road I was driving, as I made my way back to Leadville along Highway 24. It was unsettling, and spoke to the ongoing comments and concerns that had come into focus recently. It was about the gentrification of Leadville; it was about newbie vs. long-timer; it was about new ideas literally taxing stoic generational families out of their homes, out of their neighborhoods. It was about change.
But as I rounded that last bit of highway, before it opens up to present Colorado’s tallest peak, a sense of surety returned. Mt Elbert: it’s never the same, yet it never changes.
I’ve looked at Mt. Elbert pretty much every day for the past quarter century. Like many who choose to live here, it anchors me; it’s always there. I can depend on it. Whether it’s laden with the green velvet of summer scrub or ablaze in the brilliance of autumn’s colors, it reminds me of what is true, of what is Leadville. Even on those days when Colorado’s highest peak is encased in clouds receiving the life-giving gift of water, I know it’s still there, even though I can’t see it. Mt Elbert has stood the test of time; it has endured the storms of life; it stands firm and strong while all else around it seems to swirl in uncertainty.
It was in that spirit that I created Leadville Today five years ago on November 1, 2011. At that time, there was a growing concern that the only news being distributed and shared about America’s highest city was bent towards the negative. There seemed to be a vacuum for good news and the daily information that people needed to live their best Leadville life. So, I choose to step into that space and create something that would balance out that view, to make a true difference for the people who live and visit here.
Because, you see, it’s together that we weather the storms that loom and pass over Mt. Elbert. It’s as a community, that we enjoy the days of summer’s sunshine, even if we’re not under the same roof or in the same neighborhood. It’s collectively, that we believe that there IS daily good news coming from our mountain town, even though we might not be able to see it.
In fact, it is exactly that union, our commonality, that gives Leadville its edge, whether you’re a native son, new comer, or visitor. Whether you’ve been here a week, or a quarter century; whether you ride a bike or hunt. Whether you work in town or commute, whether you are raising children or are retired, Mt. Elbert stands tall over all of our differences, providing a common goal to look up toward.
And that edge, THAT Leadville edge, like Mt. Elbert, is something that can never be lost. Because it’s bigger than me, and it’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than whoever gets into office, or whoever has the most cash or owns the most property. And it will continue to be there long after you and I are gone.
Just something to think about and remember as you live your best life, on the edge in Leadville Today! Thanks for all of your support and encouragement these past five years. It’s uplifting and truly DOES make a difference.
Halloween 1990: The Day Hunter Came to Leadville
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
The day started out different. It was Halloween 1990 and the series of costume parties from the night before had left me with a splitting headache and a hollow belly. It was mid-morning and I was taking in one more cup of coffee on my front porch, when the whirring of a mechanical bird interrupted my recovery.
Shading my eyes from the bright October sun, I looked up and quickly determined it was not a Flight for Life helicopter, which could have made for a different type of news story that day. But then, who would be coming to America’s highest city, especially by air?
Then, I remembered: it was “Justice for Jessie” day. It was the day Hunter S. Thompson came to town.
Like many young journalists, Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” had whet my appetite for the crazy, carefree life on the road. Little did I know that I would soon be experiencing my own “Cigars and Margaritas,” but this time in in Lead Vegas!
From time to time, Hunter would take up the cause of some under-privileged, under-paid, and under-the-thumb of justice person. “Justice for Jessie” had become his most recent cause, and he was coming to Leadville be a character witness for a Pitken County resident who found herself in trouble after passing through Lake County on her way home to Aspen.
One summer day in 1990, a hard-working housekeeper named Jesse had hitch-hiked her way home as far as the Kum and Go on historic Harrison Avenue. But it wasn’t until her ride was long gone, that the damsel-in-distress realized that she had left her backpack in that car.
Her quick, albeit questionable, thinking prompted a call to the Lake County Sheriff Department, who was able to locate and stop the car, and retrieve Jessie’s backpack. A quick search of the backpack by deputies revealed the owner’s identify, but also turned up illegal paraphernalia and a small amount of marijuana.
The boys in blue returned to Kum & Go to reunite the pack with its rightful owner. Jesse cheerfully identified the bag as hers, and then was promptly charged with possession of an illegal substance.
Now the story probably would have ended there, but this particular woman was already on probation out of Pitkin County and had rallied the support of famous Aspen resident (although he really lived down valley at Woody Creek) Hunter S. Thompson to help fight her battle. This most recent “search and seizure” of a down-on-her-luck Aspen housekeeper only seemed to amplify the Gonzo Journalist’s message. He had become increasingly concerned about citizen’s rights when it came to law enforcement looking through your stuff without probable cause.
The “Justice for Jessie” case would be heard on Halloween, which only added to the media circus that started to gather at the Lake County Courthouse on October 31, 1990. All of the news rags known for their sensational reporting wanted to hear what Hunter had to say. Now remember, it was 1990, so it was way before smart phones with cameras and the onslaught of social media. In fact, in today’s world this may have been a very different story.
Before heading over to the courthouse, I stopped in for another cup of coffee at The Golden Rose (now, the Chinese restaurant) and watched the scurry going on across the street, as everyone vied for position and a glimpse of the famous character witness.
Just as I swilled that last bit of java, a small parade of people whisked past the window and entered into my space. It was the Gonzo Journalist himself; he bellied up to the empty bar and called out, “Margaritas for everyone!”
Then he added, pointing to me, “A margarita for her too” And so it began – “Cigars and Margaritas” in Lead-Vegas!
For the next couple of hours Hunter set up camp in the restaurant, as his minions would run back and forth across to the courthouse, keeping him apprised of the case’s progress, waiting for his turn to take the stand.
Screw the court case, I thought. I’m drinking margaritas with Hunter, and it’s hardly noon! The rest of the journalists were across the street in a packed courthouse, waiting for some tidbit, some sound bite. I was sitting across the table from the Gonzo Journalists wearing his hat and swilling Cuervo. I was living every journalist’s dream!
There are many things that stay with me from that day; I’ll share a couple. First, I was amazed at his ability to consume tequila. I mean, it wasn’t until nearly 3 p.m. that he actually took the stand and he seemed pretty coherent after drinking mucho margaritas. It was classic Hunter; but honestly I don’t know if I would have believed it, unless I saw it.
Which leads me to my second impression, the guy was smart, very smart. I knew I was one of the lucky few to be part of his roundtable discussion, as the politics of the day were discussed, dissected and diluted over massive amounts of tequila.
Eventually, Thompson went over to the Lake County Courthouse and took the stand. I followed along to witness the legendary event, peaking through the small windows of the courtroom back doors. The place was packed with journalists and there he was on the stand – as a character witness! I couldn’t hear a thing he said. I just stared in amazement, watching through those small windows, as he swung that unlit cigar about in the air.
After his testimony, the media circus moved across the street; word must have got out that Hunter was hanging out at The Golden Rose and the crowd started to grow. I was surprised at the number of generally, unimpressed-with-celebrities locals who turned up. But this was Hunter S.Thompson. As the day stretch into Happy Hour, the margaritas continued to flow.
The party finally came to a screeching halt with the arrival of Hunter’s pilot, who announced that if they didn’t leave now, that they would be spending the night in Leadville.
Whoosh! They were gone. The party was over.
As I walked back to the table to get my jacket, I spied a notebook out of the corner of my eye. I quickly picked it up, looked around, and slid it under my coat. Jackpot!
I couldn’t walk home fast enough. I sat down on my couch and began flipping through Hunter’s notebook. There were half-written essays, scribblings about the “Justice for Jessie” case, and notes on an upcoming trip to Hawaii. It was the latter that I found most interesting; the “grocery list” and budget for this Hawaiian vacation was something I could only aspire to.
That fantasy was interrupted by the whirring of Hunter’s helicopter; I knew it was him, after all Leadville does not have an afternoon flight pattern. As the sun set over the mountains, I watched Hunter’s helicopter head over Mount Massive, back to Aspen, back to Woody Creek.
What a day, I thought! And I suppose it was that feeling that prompted my next action. I put the notebook in a manila envelope, sealed it up tight, wrote “Property of Hunter S. Thompson” on the outside, then put it inside another envelope and addressed it to the Aspen reporter who was part of Hunter’s entourage, and had given me her business card at some point in the day. I then slapped enough stamps on it to ensure its journey home, and walked it down to the post office.
Did I hesitate for a moment as I stood in the dark before the mailbox? You bet I did! Not only had the tequila buzz and ethical determination to return his personal property begun to fade, but I started to think about all the money I could make by selling it. I thought about my call to Rolling Stone Magazine or The National Enquirer. There was some classic Hunter on those pages.
But justice prevailed again that day, and the envelope slid from my hands down into the depths of that big, blue mailbox.
That day stayed with me for a while and the Hunter stories reigned supreme at the Leadville bars, until somebody else did something we could talk about. As the weeks passed, it seemed like just another story; a story I’d tell to people, who would always ask, “Is that true? Did you really have his notebook? Why didn’t you keep it?”
I started to wonder if the notebook had found its way to back to its owner, Then I got a call from the reporter at the Aspen paper; she had a message from Hunter.
It seems the Gonzo Journalist was pretty impressed by my gesture to return his private notebook, and had invited me to his New Year’s Eve party at his Woody Creek home. I was thrilled, and a bit scared. After knowing what a day of tequila-drinking in preparation for a court case was like, I could only imagine what a New Year’s Eve with Hunter might bring.
But I never made it. A bad case of the flu left me down-for-the-count that New Year’s Eve. Besides, that’s definitely a story that nobody would have believed from a journaist living In the ‘Ville!
Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin LLC, a digital media company located in Leadville, which publishes two online news websites: LeadvilleToday.com and SaguacheToday.com. She may be reached at email@example.com
The Story of The Great Pumpkin: My VW Bus and Me
For me, it was love at first sight. Not the kind you might experience with another person, or even with a place, like Leadville. This was different. This was love of a vehicle.
And I know, some of you can relate.
It was January 1998 and I was in search of my traveling journalist vehicle. I had sold everything I owned and had whittled my possessions down to two suitcases, a trunk full of journals and some family photos. I left Leadville, looking for a reprieve, and headed south toward warmer weather to execute the next phase of my traveling-journalist plan. Every day, I searched the Arizona Republic classifieds, until my dream vehicle appeared – in print – one rainy Sunday morning:
1974 Westfalia. Incls all camping gear, new clutch & tires, 2 Brits flying home, quick-sale required. Only $1,200. Lv msg at KOA site #194.
A phone number was included, but I wasn’t going to risk a call. Three weeks into my search, I had learned that if you didn’t jump on a good deal, someone else would. I had already been beaten to the punch a few times.
Driving across to west Phoenix, the highways were eerily empty; a fog had descended on the valley floor and misted the desert with an unusual density. When I arrived at the KOA Kampground, the haze-seemed to have cast a spell on the normally early-to-rise RVers; not a soul was stirring.
I turned down one of the aisles toward site No. 194, my headlights burned through the mist and suddenly I caught a quick glimpse of my future. My heart leapt. It was nothing like it read in the ad. This time, it was better.
It was a bright orange, 1974 VW Westfalia bus -The Great Pumpkin! It was a two-story, two-bedroom traveling house, equipped with a sink, a stove and a refrigerator. It was perfect! Sure, it appeared dwarfed compared to the giant looming RVs camped around it. And, yes, it might have shown a rust spot or two. But for me, it was love at first sight!
The owners were nowhere around, so I spent the entire day at that KOA – waiting, and wondering why anyone would place such a “for sale” ad and then not be available to close the deal.
“I think they left with another couple in a bigger RV early this morning. Probably won’t be back until tomorrow,” announced one neighboring camper once the morning had started to shake everyone loose. He must be wrong, I thought. Who would post such an ad and then leave, I thought as the KOA clerk placed another phone message regarding the ad on the bus’s windshield: “Maybe the wind and rain will blow them away,” he sympathetically suggested.
It wasn’t long before word spread through the campsite about my determination. I met all kinds of wonderful people that day, from all across the country. I heard all about their stories and travel adventures. They brought me snacks and hot coffee. They would honk and wave at me as I sat in my mom’s Buick that rainy Sunday, waiting, all, day long.
By the end of the day, there had been no sign of the owners. Perhaps they would be gone for the night. Reluctantly, I wrote a note, bigger and bolder than the weather worn messages that the clerk had posted. I folded it up and wrote, “Read me first!” on the outside. I stuck it on the windshield among a soggy pile of post-its, knowing that to remove the other notes would have been bad karma.
As I prepared to leave my post, the skies finally cleared. Looking at The Great Pumpkin one more time in my rearview mirror, I saw the sunset glow orange and I knew. I knew that big orange bus would be mine. It was destiny.
That next day, I got the call. “Hi, this is Alex, calling about the bus.” I immediately recognized the English accent; the ad had said two Brits. My note had worked!
“I have to tell you,” he explained, “We had no idea that we’d get the response we did. Otherwise we never would have left for the night. We were bombarded (think heavy English accent) when we returned. Not only were all those notes stuck to the windshield, but everyone in the bloody campground came to us, saying that we must call you first. They said that you waited here all day for us yesterday. Is that true?”
Well, when he said it like that, it did sound a bit manic. But I stood my ground. I had seen my future: traveling through the forests of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons, trekking down the Baja Peninsula, and finally back to my beloved Leadville.
“Yes, that’s true,” I said. “And if you haven’t sold it, I’d like to come right now.” My hope had been restored when I met Alex and Katherine, a wonderful English newlywed couple. After getting married in England, they flew to British Columbia (his dad lives there), saw The Great Pumpkin, fell in love with it and bought it. They had just completed a three-month honeymoon, traveling through the Rocky Mountains, down through Washington, Idaho, Montana, circling through Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, and chasing the warmer weather, their travels finally ended in Arizona.
They had to sell the VW bus and return home to England, deeply saddened by leaving their first home together as a married couple.
I had not divulged much more about my life other than my traveling-journalist plans, and that I was staying with family in Arizona, until I found my dream vehicle.
It was clear to all of us that fate was playing its hand. But if I had any doubts, they were quickly put to rest when the couple answered my question: what was your most favorite place you visited during your Rocky Mountain honeymoon?
Leadville, Colorado, they said, it was love at first sight! Ah, yes there’s magic – and The Great Pumpkin – In The ‘Ville!