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The Piano At The Center Of The Universe

Pianos placed in public spaces are becoming a staple of urban performance art. This summer you could find them in Portland, Minneapolis, and even Paris to name just a few places.  It seems many of us are fascinated by the magic that occurs when serendipity meets music in a place where music usually is not. 

JPR’s Michael Joyce found just such a place: a public piano on a sidewalk, just one block from the Center of the Universe.

LIZARD: “My name is Lizard. I live in Blue Lake, California. And I love to play the piano. And I was so happy to find this piano on the street. And I’m going to play this song called ‘Ophelia’ by The Band.”

Blue Lake, California - just 15 miles Northeast of Eureka - is a bit of an enigma. It’s a sleepy, former logging town of just over a thousand people, yet it has a bustling casino.  There actually is no lake - blue or otherwise -  but the Mad River passes nearby. And downtown - if you can call 2 or 3 intersections ‘downtown’  -  has a piano …  on the sidewalk … for anyone to play. It was put there by longtime resident Barbara Russell. I meet her bottling wine a half block from the piano at the Blue Lake Winery. She’s being paid in wine and she reads a Shakespeare quote on the wine label for me …

Barbara Russell: It says ‘How shall we beguile the lazy time if not with some delight’.

Michael Joyce: Do you think that relates to the piano?”

Barbara Russell: “Yes. Well, it’s good energy on so many levels. Music goes right to people’s soul and really, the piano helps, but it’s really the love.”

Back on the corner of G Street and Railroad Avenue some folks from the winery have wandered over to hear Lizard play the piano … 

Michael Joyce: “The spirit is something? … how did that line go?”

Lizard: “‘The spirit is something that no one destroys.’ I think of Martin Luther King as the spirit of something that no one destroys and music is something that can keep the spirit coming back.  And there’s echoes from long ago.  People that are long gone return. Music is part of the echoing of the spirit of people long gone.”

A strong spirit that has echoed in Blue Lake for 40 years has been the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theater. Last year it helped the city secure a public arts grant which, amongst other things, helped designate a sewer cover on Railroad Avenue as the ‘Center of the Universe’.       It’s one block down from Barbara Russell’s public piano, and between the  Odd Fellows Hall were Dell’Arte is based, and The Logger Bar, one of California’s oldest continuously running saloons. I’m on a barstool looking out the front door of The Logger with owner Kate Martin.

Kate Martin: “That is the center of the universe. I think it’s just the magnetic vortex of the world. Actually ends up right there in the middle of the sewage cover (cat meows) …  and this is Kevin - Kevin the Cat. He just showed up here and hasn’t left. I think he’s a reincarnated customer because he likes to be on the barstools.”

On a nearby barstool I find actor Cooper Lee Smith who just graduated with his Master of Fine Arts from Dell’Arte.  He’s what locals call a “Dell’Artian”, and  I ask him if he doesn’t think the whole ‘center of the universe’ thing is a touch pretentious.

Cooper Lee Smith: “I’ve never seen it as pretentious. And I think part of it is I know it’s not saying that we are the most important or that Blue Lake is the be-all-end-all. But, first of all it has a spirit of humor and of joy. And so immediately I  love that I can look  at that and laugh. But also, once again it ties back to community for me, and it’s less the location and more the spirit of this place that gives it the ability to call itself the ‘Center of the Universe’.”

Barbara Russell: “What does the piano do? I just think the piano brings good energy. It brings the possibility of song. And I think that music is something that cuts right through any differences and barriers and just makes people’s hearts sing. And that’s got to be a great thing.”