Area singers take a journey through 'Decades of Music' to benefit Blairsville historical group
Organizers are gearing up for the third annual staging of “Showtime,” a showcase of local musical talent that raises funds for the Blairsville Underground Railroad historical group.
“Decades of Music” is the theme of this year's event, slated for 7 p.m. Saturday at the Blairsville High School auditorium.
Marna Conrad, a member of the UGRR group who is booking the talent and will serve as the show's master of ceremonies, noted there will be music, dance and costumes representing each decade from the 1920s through the 1970s.
Performers who are returning from previous Showtime productions include Anthony Frazier, Bryan Werner, Dominic Camarote, James Furlong, Rachel Henegin,Valerie Mize and Denise Jennings-Doyle, who is the vice president of the UGRR group. Others who are new to the show include pianist Brian Parks, dancers Bill Baronie and Donna Shearer and singers David Holland, Kim King, Sarah Noone, Ashlee Steiner and Kasey Zemba.
Conrad said, “There is so much talent in this area — people who could have been professional performers if their lives hadn't taken them in other directions. Their talent is tremendous.”
She added that she's always recruiting for Showtime: “I love live theater and live performances. When I see someone good, I keep them in mind.”
Anthony Frazier of Indiana will be singing “Just My Imagination” and “Imagine,” both from the 1970s. He said, “I chose those two songs because they are both about thinking outside the box.”
Frazier has been the host of The Acoustic Hour, a radio program on 1160 AM that features local musicians, for the past 11 years. He also performs and records music himself and helps to organize musical events throughout the area. In addition to his musical activities, Frazier works on the information technology team at the Indiana County courthouse.
None of the acts in Showtime are paid for their participation. Frazier said, “The Underground Railroad is an example of how we can and should work together. It's important to show what the community can offer and how it deals with diversity. I'm glad they don't pay or it would turn into something different. At our core we are givers and sharers. This night is beyond the music.”
David Holland is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who is studying at Blairsville's WyoTech automotive school after completing two tours of duty in Afghanistan. He'll be singing “Sleepy Time Gal” from the 1920s and “The House I Live In” from the 1940s.
Holland is from Lisbon, Ohio, and has played saxophone, trombone, drums and bagpipes since he was a child. He played in his school and church bands and wrote songs while he was in the military, learning to play the guitar so he could accompany himself. He plans to cut his first solo CD in the near future.
During his year at WyoTech, Holland has entertained residents at local nursing homes and facilities for the mentally ill and challenged. “I love playing for the elderly. It makes them happy,” he said. “I don't get paid for it. I do it on my own. It's a shame more people don't go and spend time with them.”
Holland said he signed up as a Showtime act “to broaden my music. I like some of the older stuff and I love our history. This is a good opportunity to learn and meet people. I like to play whenever I'm asked. I see it as giving back for the gift I was given.”
When Holland graduates from WyoTech on March 26, he will be returning to his hometown to work at Chesapeake Oil Co. and to open a trim and upholstery shop.
Noone lives in Greensburg but grew up near Blairsville and graduated from Derry Area High School before studying vocal performance at Seton Hill University. She will be singing “Someone to Watch Over Me” from the 1920s, “The Trolley Song” from the 1940s and “You Belong to Me” from the 1950s.
Noone was involved with many productions at Seton Hill both before and after her graduation, has sung weekly at the First Presbyterian Church in Greensburg since her freshman year in college, and performs at numerous local venues. She interned with Pittsburgh's Civic Light Opera, where she became proficient at costuming and styling wigs and hair for the theater. She will contribute that talent to Showtime in addition to singing. She plans to obtain a master's degree in vocal performance in the near future.
“I am happy to participate in Showtime because I am interested in the cause,” Noone said. “It has been a pleasure putting everything together and exploring the genres. I can't wait to do the actual performance.”
Steiner, a sophomore at Blairsville High School, will sing “Music, Music, Music” from the 1950s and “Over the Rainbow” from the 1930s.
Steiner said she started performing at a summer camp in Indiana County and was hooked. Since then, she has had parts in many school productions including Lady Marian in “The Somewhat True Tale of Robin Hood” at Indiana Area Junior High School and Bloody Mary in “South Pacific,” which finished its run Saturday at Blairsville High School.
“Both songs fit my voice and I'm excited to do them,” Steiner said of her Showtime selections. “I've always been fascinated about things from the past and I really enjoy performing. It's a chance to express myself and it's fun.”
Werner will be performing in Showtime for the second year both as a solo act and as the music leader for the Promise Keepers group. His solo songs include “Minnie the Moocher” from the 1930s and “Heartbreak Hotel” from the 1950s. The Promise Keepers will perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a popular song in African-American churches.
“‘Minnie the Moocher' is fun,” Werner said. “It was originally done by Cab Calloway and was the first scat song.”
In addition to singing, Werner's musical background includes playing piano, saxophone and guitar. Involved in a music ministry with his late wife, Nancy, for many years. Werner was ordained a minister in 2011 and is now the associate pastor and pastoral minister of Christ's Church Ministries in Penn Hills. A retired engineer and manager at Westinghouse, he is also president of New Alexandria Borough Council and a member of the board of directors of the Westmoreland Arts and Heritage Festival.
Werner has been involved for 17 years with the Promise Keepers group, which includes members from New Alexandria, Blairsville, Derry and New Florence.They meet weekly for prayer and singing and frequently entertain at nursing homes.
According to Conrad, Blairsville was an active stop on the 19th century Underground Railroad, a series of safe houses where those fleeing enslavement could find shelter and support as they journeyed toward freedom in the North.
John Graff, a white businessman, and Lewis Johnston, a coal miner who was the son of a free black man and an enslaved woman, were both “stationmasters” in the community. They and a group of residents were involved in the 1858 rescue of Richard Newman, a fugitive who had lived in Blairsville for a number of years when slave catchers came to arrest him.
Blairsville's UGRR group was formed in 2006 to preserve the history of the Underground Railroad activities in Indiana County, educate the public and maintain a museum at 214 East Lane. Showtime generates about $3,000 annually for the upkeep of the building, a former African-American church built in 1918.
“The Underground Railroad is such an important part of history in this area,” Conrad said. “It was blacks and whites working together. They were doing it because it was the right thing to do. These people were heroes and should not be forgotten.”
Jeanette Woff is a freelance writer.