Marie, the mistress of musical marathons

SOMETIMES we journalists are stumped when that perfect phrase we are seeking remains stubbornly elusive. We optimistically keep dipping our pen into the ink pot – or, in more recent times, impatiently tapping the keys of our typewriter, word processor or computer keyboard – as we search our memory for it.

Perhaps it was because I was not working at my desk, but lounging in my holiday hotel in Menorca reading a British newspaper, that the perfect phrase sprang to mind instantly.

In one of those columns where readers pose questions and others reply was this: “Does anyone remember a pianist called Musical Marie who was famous in the 50s and 60s? She used to play piano for seven days and nights without stopping. I saw her perform on Merseyside.”

That struck a chord with me! There it was: the perfect phrase, painlessly produced!

Yes, I certainly remember Musical Marie, as will many older residents of the Great Yarmouth area, for the 40-year-old 17-stone pianist spent a week here in August 1954, striving to beat the world record for non-stop playing.

The venue was the old Plaza/Central cinema in the Market Place where the Ethel Austin shop now stands; Woolworth was there between the cinema’s demolition in 1958 and Ethel Austin moving in, succeeding the chain store when it went bankrupt in 2008.

Holidaymakers and residents flocked into the old movie-house, paying one shilling (5p) for adults and sixpence (2�p) for children to watch her marathon daily between 9am and 11pm.

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Her manager, local businessman Bernard Woolley, gave his word that Musical Marie would continue to pound the keys throughout the night, playing melodies from her 3000-song repertoire, or occasionally from sheet music.

And the police and press were given round-the-clock access to ensure that she kept her word and did not take a surreptitious snooze.

I do not know if any constable or reporter paid a snap visit to check on her activity. A nurse was constantly on duty there.

Daily paid press advertisements provided an update of her progress and physical condition (“53 hours, both ankles swollen, suffering from severe stomach cramp” and “on the verge of collapse”), although it was puzzling that these were written and placed in advance.

Fortified by gallons of tea, plus fruit juices, eggs with milk and brandy, and 100 cigarettes a day, she played for more than 157 hours, beating the existing 134-hour record, before collapsing into the arms of her trainer, Arthur “Dixie” Lea, and being taken to Yarmouth General Hospital on Deneside for a precautionary check before she was allowed to return to her hotel after an absence of nearly a week.

Her condition at the end was described by Mr Lea as “remarkable”, much of it due to her great stamina, but nonetheless, her endurance feat had resulted in considerable mental and physical strain.

According to Mr Woolley, her intention was to head for New York to embark on another piano-playing marathon on the so-called Great White Way: Broadway!

But after her feat in Yarmouth came reports that other pianists had already played for longer than she did...

In the national newspaper I which I read in Menorca about Musical Marie, a Manchester reader had written: “I knew her as Auntie Agatha Ashton because my mother used to make all her stage costumes. She was a larger-than-life character who I thought of as posh.”

Even if some sceptics cast doubt on the authenticity of her record claim, I am sure it is totally factual that never during her 157 hours did she resort to a vamping-stick to give her fingers some respite.

Vamping-stick? Well, even if Musical Marie did not possess one, my Grandma certainly did.

I have never heard the term since those far-off days. Nan kept it in the piano stool along with some sheet music and half-pages from the News of the World that used to publish a popular song every Sunday.

A five-finger exercise, and Oh Can a Sailor Wash his Shirt, was the limit of my piano-playing ability, but the vamping stick did broaden my repertoire by the tiniest of fractions.

It was made of a horizontal piece of ebony about a foot long and an inch thick, and had perhaps half a-dozen felt-tipped “feet”, some vertical, others at a downward slant.

Those feet could be placed on the white notes and between black ones, and could produce a chord or two. Ah, there’s that “striking a chord” phrase again!

Using it made this little lad briefly become a potential challenger to pianists Charlie Kunz (“Clap Hands! Here comes Charlie”), classical duettists Rawicz and Landauer (regular broadcasters on popular BBC radio programmes), and Kay (“Kitten on the Keys” Cavendish.

While on this musical theme, let us finish with a coda, with more information about Yarmouth-born soprano Helen Hill who made many radio broadcasts during the war.

This comes to me from Mrs Doreen Stokes, with confirmation that the family did indeed once trade on Beach Road in Gorleston, as a reader suggested when I wrote on the topic recently.

“I do remember going into the Hill family’s Beach Road shop before the war when I was only a little girl of perhaps seven or eight,” 89-year-old Mrs Stokes tells me.

“It was about half-way along the road, near Pops Meadow, and sold bread and cakes, and there was also a little teashop.

“My uncle took me in there and I had an ice-cream served in a silver dish, and I ate it with great ceremony, a little spoonful at a time.

“I was a middle child and middle children usually get left out for some reason, but I could not believe my luck that day because my brother and sister were not there, only me with my uncle.

“It was a great treat!”

She always enjoyed listening to Helen Hill on radio, and recalls attending a concert version at our Town Hall of Edward German’s Merrie England in which Miss Hill sang the soprano part.

“She wore a green dress and was very charming,” recalls Mrs Stokes who now lives in Gresham Close in Gorleston.

As a child, when she was Doreen Nicholson, her family home was situated at the junction of High Street and Cross Road.