Good-times rag

The Chico Ragtime / Tin Pan Alley Open Mic keeps old-time music alive

Open mic performers, from left: Doren Rosenthal, Harold Gilbert and Bernie LoFaso.

Open mic performers, from left: Doren Rosenthal, Harold Gilbert and Bernie LoFaso.

Photo By Ken Smith

The Terraces
2750 Sierra Sunrise Terrace

Before performing at last Friday’s installment of the Chico Ragtime/Tin Pan Alley Open Mic, Doren Rosenthal made a brief introduction: “I read in Bernie’s e-mail about all the instruments we regularly have—guitars and banjos and ukuleles and ‘even a French horn’—so I thought I’d bring something to add to her list.”

Stepping to the left of the makeshift stage set up in a meeting room in the basement of The Terraces at Sierra Sunrise Village—a retirement community off of Bruce Road—Rosenthal traded his guitar for a tuba. He premiered his interpretation of the Kingston Trio’s “They’re Rioting in Africa,” mostly a capella punctuated with an occasional BUMP-BUMP-BA from the gigantic instrument. “It’s pretty hard to sing and play the tuba at the same time,” he said.

The aforementioned Bernie is Bernie Pardon LoFaso, master of ceremonies for the event held the second Friday of each month. LoFaso also organizes the showcase with her husband, Bob, and is a frequent performer. After Rosenthal—a regular here when show time coincides with visits to his girlfriend’s mother, a resident of the community—Bernie took the stage to wish a woman in the audience a happy 100th birthday. “She doesn’t look a day over 95,” someone shouted from the back as the centenarian chuckled and LoFaso settled behind the piano to play an old Irving Berlin tune.

“Guess which year,” she called to the audience. “1910,” someone said. “Wow that’s close, it’s 1911,” Bernie acknowledged. “He musta been thinking about it in 1910.”

This is obviously not your typical open-mic scene. Absent are the clinking glasses and low rumble of people drinking, ordering pizza, heckling or practicing their own compositions while waiting for their 10 minutes of being largely ignored.

“Someone can come in and they can sound terrible, but they have every right to be here as long as the music fits,” Bernie said, alluding to the event’s comfortable setting and format. “But we’ve never had anything that I’ve had to say, ‘Please don’t play that anymore.’”

“Every performer who has ever played here has been treated with dignity,” added Bob.

Bernie’s passion for live music, particularly ragtime, is evident. She and Bob, one-time co-chairs of the Butte Folk Music Society, are regular attendees at local jams and help organize other musical events at Sierra Sunrise Village. Bernie has collected her compositions into music books and MIDI discs she sells at the open mics and other performances.

“I didn’t start playing music until I was an old lady and returned from living in Europe for a second time,” she said. A desire to share the experience with others—particularly seniors—is how she said the event initially started.

“It began as a slow jam, where people who couldn’t play terribly well or had never played with other people could get that experience,” she explained. “Then it became an open mic where those same kinds of people could practice performing in front of a friendly audience.”

Though the open mic is built around the turn-of-the-20th century American ragtime style as well as the classic repertoire of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters, Bernie said there just aren’t enough people to support an exclusively ragtime or Tin Pan Alley night in Chico, so they also welcome other styles, but with an emphasis on music from the 1800s to 1950. Although even these rules are loose.

“If you want to do Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ that’s perfectly fine as long as it’s in a style that’s appropriate.” Bernie said. “I do [The Beatles’] ‘Yesterday’ sometimes because it’s just a beautiful song—if it was written in the ’30s it would’ve been a hit.

The LoFasos also emphasize that people of all ages are welcome to attend and perform: “I imagine,” Bob said, “that in your eyes this is a pretty ancient group here today. But from my vantage point, it was a pretty middle-aged group.”