Interview with Michael Silverman: Renaissance Man in the Age of Digital Music

The music industry is currently going through drastic changes that require a new mindset for today’s working musician, especially when it comes to things like distributing your music, getting gigs, going on tour or even having your recordings used in TV or movie soundtracks. Technology is screaming past many of us at a dizzying rate and, if seasoned musicians want to stay in the game, maybe even make a little money while they’re at it, then they need to embrace these new technologies and dive into the “new way” of doing things.

Michael Silverman’s musical success involves his ability to shift paradigms and his willingness to think “out-of-the-box.” He and his brother Rob, who is also Michael’s musical partner, stumbled into a “stream” of luck when they started distributing their music via online streaming services about a decade ago. Michael is a pianist and composer who, along with his brother, created the very successful touring band known as Bach to the Future, a fusion of well known classical tunes with jazz, rock and world rhythms. His new age and fusion recordings have found their way into the soundtracks of TV shows like “Two and a Half Men,” “The Good Wife,” HBO’s “The Leftovers” and “American Horror Story: Asylum.” There are also countless commercials.

Rob and Mike Silverman
Rob (left) and Mike Silverman, impresarios of the U. City and Chesterfield Jazz festivals.

The brothers have over 800 albums of music currently available on all of the major music streaming services, including Pandora and Spotify. Michael and Rob have also become organizers and promoters for several large annual events like the Chesterfield Wine Festival, the U City Jazz Festival, the Winter Jazz Festival at Grand Center, and they provide sponsorship for several other local festivals as well.

As if that wasn’t enough to keep the duo busy, Michael purchased the legendary Clayton Studios from Dick Ulett a few years back.

A musician myself, I was fascinated to learn the secrets that Michael knew about digital music distribution and his experiences with marketing his many projects. He had posted a comment on Facebook that caught my eye, about developing a meet-up place for artists of all types, painters, musicians, photographers, dancers, etc., who would convene on a regular basis to network and brainstorm with each other about the arts, marketing and collaboration.


Val: So, whatever became of the idea to unite artists for a coalition?

Michael: I’ve done a few things. As a starting point one night we did a “Jazz Career Night.” It was a free get together. I showed them things that I knew would be the obvious next step for a lot of people. I showed them how to distribute online and some of the other basic things an artist needs. You should have a CD, a video, a promotional picture, you should have a website, and probably a Facebook presence. That’s just a starting point.

If you want to be a touring artist, you need a technical rider. You need to have some other things like a bio that they can use in promotional materials for your upcoming concert. You need a stage plot. Once you have those things in place, when opportunity knocks you could actually go out and play a tour, or travel and play some big theaters. If you don’t have those things,theaters don’t know what to do with you. They don’t want to teach you how to do it.

I chose “Jazz” Career Night because I didn’t know if I could talk to everyone who was doing hip-hop and pop and reggae … I didn’t know … so I said let’s just start with the jazz musicians, but it turns out that it’s pretty much true across the board.

Another message I’m trying to get across to people is everyone thinks that streaming is the death of music, when it’s actually the best thing that ever happened for musicians. It’s an uphill battle to explain that to musicians, because they’re all sure that I’m wrong, but I’m sure that I’m right, because I make a living with streaming music. They just aren’t getting it that, sure you only get a fraction of a cent per play, but an album has a lot of plays on it. A person will often loop an album and you get paid forever for those listens.

Instead of selling an album and getting an initial splash and then those people own the record and listen to it whenever they want for the next 30 years, you keep getting tiny bits of money forever and ever for your recording, so that’s a good thing. It may not seem like you’re getting much, but people will keep listening and over time you’ll get paid forever.

When you started streaming, how long did it take to start seeing real revenue coming in?

Streaming has only become popular in the last three or four years. When the iPod came into being they opened the iTunes store and that was the first time 99 cent downloads were a thing, and Napster was over.

We didn’t really catch on to it for a while. We released some jazz fusion records that didn’t sell, because that’s what we really love. I also like to play solo piano music and that turns out to be more popular than jazz fusion. About 2007 we got into recording solo piano music and new age and relaxing titles, yoga music and so on.

At Christmas time, my Christmas records make a little bit every year, even the ones that I did ten years ago. It just builds up, like a little mountain slowly, cause the old titles are working and you record something new and it just sort of adds a tiny bit, and over time it becomes a living. Then you have more time to record and that’s when it kind of snowballs.

When I switched to streaming, I thought “this is probably over,” because how do you go from 99 cent downloads to a half cent a stream or less? It turned out very quickly that it was slightly more. Now that there are a lot more people streaming, it’s actually a lot more.  People are willing to discover music that they aren’t familiar with because they’re not paying anything. Very much like the way you’ll watch movies on Netflix that you wouldn’t have watched before. You wouldn’t have spent money on documentaries for instance. Suddenly documentaries are huge on Netflix.

Can you share some of your experiences and insights from being a festival promoter?

Music festivals are very popular and you can expose a lot of local artists to a lot of people very quickly. People won’t go and see your band on a Thursday night at a club downtown, maybe there’s a $5 cover or it’s hard to park. There are barriers to people coming to hear you.

We have wine and jazz festivals. Even if you aren’t there for the music, you have wine! The wine really brings most of the people, and then you get bands with 8000 listeners rather than 40. All of those local artists are getting a lot more exposure and having a great time, and all of the people that are there think it’s great.

So you have a free festival, lots of people come, and then you just call banks and people who want to sponsor that and want all of those eyeballs. They just want to put their name on the stage and it pays for everything. All of the biggest events in town, they’re always free, and that’s why.

Whatever you want to do in the arts, you have to think clearly about what people want and how people really operate, instead of just being a pure artist that is hoping people will discover you. You should make music or make art that is purely for your own enjoyment … the act of creation … but realistically, everybody that has ever made a living is trying to appeal to an audience. You have to think about how is the audience taking it in, how are they consuming music? You need to pay attention to that.

It’s addictive actually, to talk about this stuff, because a lot of musicians get excited, and when you have something to say that musicians are excited about hearing, you can’t wait to say it again.

Can you gIve us an idea of what your family was like and your introduction to music?

My father was in the Saint Louis Symphony until about ten years ago. A cellist. He did 42 years there, so I grew up around the Symphony. My mother also played cello, but not in the Symphony, and she played and taught piano for many years. They met because they had the same cello teacher as teenagers, and then they met again in college and eventually got married.

She had no interest in performing. She didn’t even particularly like being in the Symphony Hall, that was just sort of boring to her. She really hated to sit in there, but she loved music of course.

My brother and I, and my mother, all taught at Baton Music in the Loop back in the 1980s. I was a teenager and my brother was maybe 22 when we started. My mother was teaching there since we were kids. She did that for a long time, then she got tired of teaching music and started teaching GED up at the jail. She taught my daughter how to play cello.

I don’t play cello. My father scared us away from the cello. He made it seem too serious, too hard, too daunting to become cellists, but the piano is easy to bang on. My brother and I would make up things on the piano for years together. Lately we’ve been doing that in our show, my brother will come off of the drums and we’ll play something together and it gets pretty wild.

Was your mother your first piano teacher?

I guess so, but my brother (Rob) was probably the most important piano teacher. He’s four years older … he’s 50 and I’m 46. He figured out how to improvise with the blues scale, so he taught me how to do that and it was sort of the beginning of the craziness. We started playing duets and things when I was around six or seven.

Our biggest influence as kids was the band Rush. I had the Rush album “2112” and that’s the only album I listened to for many years. I was fascinated with science fiction, especially as a kid, so it was sort of a science fiction/progressive rock thing. It was a great influence for me.

What is it about Rush’s music that really grabs you?

I think that it’s really the drums. Neal Peart as a drummer. We learned everything about everything (from him). We learned odd time signatures! The other thing about him is, he is the only drummer I have ever heard that is a compositional drummer. You’ve probably seen people do air drums to Rush songs? They don’t do it to any other band ever!

We learned everything he did, and how he developed grooves throughout the song, how he developed them and built it up into solos at the end. That’s still how we think about music now. When we play with our group Bach to the Future, we take Bach tunes and turn them into Rush. Rob develops parts like Neal Peart and does it over classical music, and then we’ll do it in 7/8!

At some point I got a (Rush) book and it had the chords, that’s how I learned chords … from Rush tunes.

I was around music a lot. My neighborhood in U. City was highly unusual too, everybody played music and pretty much everyone played drums, but also played trumpet or piano or something like that. U. City was quite a place to grow up, and it was full of Symphony musicians! All of the Symphony kids lived there, so the level of musicianship was pretty high. Jeremy Davenport was in our age range and went to school with us. Peter Martin. Neal Caine who was with Harry Connick Jr.’s band, Chris Thomas who plays with Brian Blade … a whole lot of guys. It’s unbelievable how many people came out of there.

I played drums all the way through school because Rob had drums everywhere and I’d just learn what Rob was teaching me.

How does a drummer turn into a pianist?

Rob and I would bang on the piano, but he was really serious about drums. I think I chose the piano because we couldn’t play drums in the same band. When he was 19 and worked at Burger King he saved up his minimum wage money and bought me a keyboard to play in his band. He would always drag me along, so that was good. He’s really my biggest musical influence.

I went to a little bit of college and then I met my teacher at Forest Park Community College … my jazz teacher. Then I stopped going to school and would just take private lessons with him. I was playing so many gigs and things, I just stopped going.

Whenever I had a real strict teacher, I’d just quit. I don’t take direction well, but I have a good ear and I just kept figuring things out. If I had to I’d get a book out and I’d struggle through reading (the musical notation). I have a good sense of music theory. When I heard it, I could figure it out and I could understand it. I was always examining and breaking it down and being analytical about music.

These days you can learn from YouTube! Good lord! The things I’m learning now! I wanted to learn some gospel chords so I just typed in “Gospel Piano Chord.” When people tell me today that their kid is like I was, and say “We don’t want any strict teachers, he’s figuring it out,” I say just go to YouTube. Youtube will teach you so much more … you can rewind! If you don’t want to listen to that lesson, go to a different lesson. I think that’s where college is headed too.

My kids have so much access … my son has taught himself to draw magnificently … from YouTube. He’s eight years old and he just looks up how to draw whatever cartoon character, and there’s a very careful tutorial and an explanation by a real artist about these techniques, and he’s doing it, and he’s great at it! Now he’s into trampolining. There’s a tutorial for everything now. We had nothing!

Since Rob was older, did he go “pro” first?

Yes, he joined a Greek band when he was 15 and he learned how to play in 7/8  and 9/8 and all the odd little rhythms and timings. He learned a lot from that group. He really learned some very complex things and they really let him show off the whole time. He’s a real ham, so he developed his personality in that group too. We still do a lot of Middle Eastern rhythms, I think because of that.

How much time do you spend with your hands on the piano keys each day?

I hardly ever sit and play for long periods. I keep the piano in the living room at home and I’ll wander by and play for five minutes, probably eight or ten times a day.

When I got into writing jingles, 30 second commercials and things, that’s when I really learned about short term efficiency. There’s a reason that commercials are short. The music has to be succinct at the start, do it’s thing and … done!

How did you get into writing jingles?

One of my piano students, his parents made commercials. They asked me to write music for some hospital commercials. I had also been writing music for Six Flags for their onstage shows when I was in my early twenties, so I did everything. With a keyboard you can do so many things, you can sound like so many things. If someone needs a little piece of big band music, you can fake it. If you want some jazz or some rock or whatever, reggae and Caribbean music, you can do it all on the keyboard. Drum machines and bass lines … you could mock up anything. I had lots of weird opportunities that came up and I would do any kind of music. That helped me a lot to learn all of the styles.

I idolized Jay Oliver. Jay left St. Louis and went to L.A. and became a big shot in jazz, but he also did a lot of production. I remember, way back, the website JayOliver.com. It had a quote that said “Learn everything! Learn every style of music you can, learn about production, about arranging, learn about recording, just learn everything.” Don’t limit yourself. I was in my mid-20s, but that was a really influential website.

I started coming in here (Clayton Studios) to do jingles, like 20 years ago. It was always very exciting to come into this studio … this is St. Louis’ oldest studio. I liked the people who were working here. Dick Ulett, the owner, he decided to sell it and thought I’d be a good fit, so here I am.

What is your tie to WSIE? Does it still exist?

It doesn’t anymore, because they switched formats. They were purely jazz and now they’re … not. Dick Ulett, who owned this studio, was the program director until last summer, but we used to do a radio show together. We’ve revamped a lot of the shows, and we’re still playing them on the classical station about once a month. It’s kind of nice because we still have a show, but we don’t have to do any work. We’ll dig up an old one, re-edit it and put it out.

I’m trying to figure out if I can be involved in having a jazz station. I’d like to have a small one, a small radio station that maybe only covers a few blocks, but I’d like it to be a physical, terrestrial station, and then be an internet station.

I don’t just generally listen to whatever all the time, I dial in what I want to hear because (musicians) have very specific interests in music. For a lot of people, they don’t really know what it is that they want to hear. They’ll think “I’m in the mood for jazz,” and that’s why I think the jazz festivals are popular. They don’t seem to care much who’s in it. Jazz musicians will go “Oh wow! The Wooten’s are coming!,”  but most people think if it’s quality jazz they’ll listen to local players just as much as they’ll listen to Wynton Marsalis, or whatever. That’s why Pandora is popular because people don’t really know what they want. They’ll think “I like Bob Dylan, I’ll put on a Bob Dylan station,” and that’s really worked. I don’t listen to it because it drives me crazy. It’s never the right song coming on next.

I have had to learn to think about how non-musicians think.

The other thing is that a lot of us, we’re working on stuff that takes incredible chops. Whether it’s a classical fancy piece, or a big scatting thing that’s really complex, that’s what we think is cool. Most people, they might enjoy it for a minute, but they don’t go home and listen to that. Virtuosity is still cool, especially live, but they’re not listening to it at home. People listen mostly to ballads and music they can chill out to.

How did you make the transition to New Age music?

My mother had a George Winston record when I was a teenager, and she would play that album “December,” it was very popular. I could understand it and once I started to do it, I got hooked on it. As far as our jazz fusion band, really I always think of it as Rob’s personality. Rob is really sort of hammy and a show-off, but that’s not my thing. I enjoy playing frantic music, especially with him, but the other side of my musical personality is really mellow.

The solo piano thing … I’ll play with as much space and as light as I can and that seems to be where I get the biggest audience. George Winston led me to another pianist named Philip Aaberg and others. There’s actually a very big world of chilled piano music that people don’t know.

Musicians will think, “Well Coltrane isn’t getting a lot of listens,” but if he’s on an album called “50 Best Jazz Songs of All Time,” he is, because people are not going to connect deeply with each player the way that you and I do. They just like jazz, and they like chill-out jazz, and they want to mellow out to jazz, but they may not be paying attention to who’s playing on the radio, or on Pandora particularly. We have to think in those terms that they do like the style, they just don’t really know the artist. They may not ever really figure out that they’re listening to Charlie Parker in their whole lives. They’ll think, “Oh, I like that one,” and then they never even figure out who it is or care again. If they hear it again they’ll think, ‘Yeah, that’s the kind of thing I like.”

It’s a very surface thing, but it’s the same way that I like Monet. I think I like art, but I don’t know anything about it. I like wine. I don’t know anything about wine, I’ll say “I like sweet wine! What’s the sweetest one you’ve got? Oh, and it’s pink … I’ll take it!”

If the audience is essentially not paying close attention, are you able to get a following?

Yes. I have developed a real following, which is nice. We’re streaming over 3 million tracks a day, but a lot of it is on compilations. If only a half a percent of those people ever looked me up, that’s tens of thousands of people who have looked me up every day. My brother does a lot of solo drum music, but really the vast majority is solo piano music. We also have Caribbean music and all kinds of things in our catalog. We have a thing called “Christmas Rocks,” which is like a heavy metal guitarist playing Christmas tunes.

When I started streaming in 2007 and it started to work, I thought I have to figure out how to dedicate more time to this. Jingles never paid all of the bills, so I had to keep teaching for 20 years and I had really had enough. I was teaching 7 days a week, 50 students a  week, mostly kids.

I figured out how to put out a record every week, and then I was putting out records every two days for a while. You just play, you record it and then you release it and it’s done and you go on to the next thing. I would keep a list of things that I wanted to record, whole albums of stuff. Jewish piano music. American folk songs … patriotic music. Then I started doing compilations, and that’s when it really took off. I have an album called “Thanksgiving,” it’s always in the top 2 or 3 on Thanksgiving Day on the New Age chart. For a day and a half it gets massive sales every year from I guess around 2009 till now. Sometimes it’s #1. It’s really just a compilation of music that would be nice background music for Thanksgiving, but there it is … every year I get a little paycheck from that.

Do you produce anything that you have to pay royalties for, or is it all original?

Not much. At first it was all public domain or original music. I did a lot of classical favorites, which is weird because I didn’t grow up learning classical music, but as a piano teacher I learned all of the classics. I would just learn it with the kids and then I would have a repertoire, but I didn’t study it with any seriousness.

I don’t ever play any of them straight for the most part. I just do my own version of it, and then that’s kind of cool because then people want the sheet music of my version, so I have a sheet music store (online). I sell a few pieces a day, it’s nothing big, but that tells me that I have a fan base. I only have 40 pieces of music up, but I plan to have hundreds soon because people just keep asking for different titles.

I was saying the other day on Facebook that people should do cover songs. We did “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” because we always loved that music and we’ve been playing it every year for some event or another. The thing that really made us finally do it was that we play with this sax player, Eric Marienthal. We thought wouldn’t it be great if we did “Charlie Brown” and got Eric to play sax on it? So, we did the trio stuff here, leaving space for him, and he just filled it in (at his own home studio). It sounded like he was right here with us the whole time. I had to pay royalties on that, and that’s actually cheap. There’s nothing to it, it’s just a little bit of paperwork.

Do you pay royalties for pressings (physical CDs,) or just streaming (online)?

I hardly do any pressings. Once in awhile I’ll make a box of CDs of something, but of those 800 albums we’ve done, I bet we’ve done less than 20 of them as physical CDs. It’s all online.

That’s what I mean, you can release an album and … it’s an album! You don’t even have to think about it again. It’ll make money or it won’t. It’ll find an audience or it won’t, but move on to the next one. That’s how we operate.

Why aren’t you teaching? This info is amazing.

I want to do that, I want to talk about music marketing stuff. I don’t have any marketing background or anything, but I wrote a little e-book called “Music Marketing in the New Music Economy.” It’s 99 cents and 35 pages and it’s just all of the basic ideas that I talk about all of the time.

Now that we have (Clayton Studios) one of our goals is to not just be a recording studio, but have it be a place where artists can get all kinds of information. Also to help them get their music online, since some people just can’t seem to get from here to there. For $200 you can bring your CD in and we’ll put it in all of the (online) music stores for you. If they don’t have cover art, we can help hook you up with somebody who can make cover art. We hope to offer website services too, like basic websites, it doesn’t take much but many musicians don’t know where to begin. They don’t have a big budget and they think it’s too expensive.

A one page website with a little description and a picture and a link to a CD, contact information, maybe a YouTube video link all on one page. It doesn’t take long to put together and can be really useful. It’s the new business card. You don’t even need to have your gig calendar on there, send people to your Facebook page.

You have had your recordings used for HBO’s drama series “The Leftovers,” and your “Carol of the Bells” was prominently featured in the FX series “American Horror Story: Asylum.” How did you make that happen?

Music production supervisors will go look online and find music that they want to use. If you have a lot of music out there, you’re probably gonna end up being in some things. I get a lot of what are called “sync licensing,” which is great. They’ll say “can we use your music?,”’ and I’ll say “yes.”

Tunecore is the online distributor that I use, and they handle it all for you. They have a thing called Tunecore Publishing Administration, and for $50 you’re signed up forever. I did that and it’s paid off, so well. I’ve had so much of my music synced and they negotiate it all and I get quarterly checks from that. It’s really cool.

For “The Leftovers” I think it was a classical thing that I did. It wasn’t even an original piece, but I get a lot of my classical things placed in things. The Bach Air (“Bach on a G String”) was in “The Good Wife,” and my recording of “Fur Elise” has been in a lot of things. With “American Horror Story,” they basically scored a whole episode with my “Carol of the Bells.”

Did you know anything about the end product before you sat down and watched those episodes?

No, and they also don’t even guarantee that they’ll use it. They’ll make the whole deal, but they don’t guarantee anything. (My music) was going to be in the new “Despicable Me” movie and I was all excited about that one … but they couldn’t guarantee it. They kept saying “Yeah, it’s in there, it’s in there,” and then it came out and it wasn’t in there. They didn’t have to pay.

There are surprises too, like I won’t find out until something comes out. My brother got one in a Martin Scorsese movie called “Silence” that came out last December. They used two pieces, two solo drum things that he did. We didn’t know until I just happened to look on IMDb for my brother and I saw that the movie had just literally come out like that week! I hardly ever look at this thing, but I just looked him up to see if there were any credits and there it was, a Martin Scorsese movie. I was pretty psyched! And (Rob) was in a Ken Burns documentary, so he gets a lot of placement too. The funny thing is, his music was used in “The Leftovers,” his drum pieces were in there, and then the next season my music was in it.

Do you ever hear your music playing anywhere while you’re out?

I’ve had some funny experiences like that. Last year I was in Florida on the beach. We’re walking back into the hotel and there was a beach wedding. They were walking down the aisle, on the sand, and my “Canon in D Major” was playing. My kids were thrilled! I hear my stuff in commercials sometimes. There’s one in a Booking.com commercial, so yeah, it does happen.

I was in San Francisco and turned on PBS Kids and they were playing some of my music between shows on a PBS Kids promotion. It was funny, because I knew at the time that they hadn’t paid me. The other thing that I find surreal is that if I look my name up online there are people doing tutorials on how to play my original tunes.

Did you and Rob used to tour a lot?

We really only had one really big year … in 2013 we went all over with Bach to the Future. We did like it, but everybody in the band has young kids, so that got us forming big events in St. Louis. We figured if we have festivals in St. Louis we wouldn’t have to travel.

At the time we thought the only way we could get a big crowd is if you can leave town and go to another city, it’s their only chance to see you, so they’ll show up. And every city thinks that their city doesn’t support music because people won’t come out to see your band over and over, but the math doesn’t work out. If you had 500 people at your concert and you play every week, what do you have to have? Like 25,000 local fans spread out over the year? That’s just not gonna happen. It’s not that your city doesn’t support you, it’s just that they can see you anytime.

We love playing in little small towns where, when you get there, there’s like posters of your band in the windows of the stores. Sometimes it’s on a billboard. It’s really amazing. You don’t have to be U2 to get that kind of reception in these small towns. You’re the big deal of the day in the whole city.

We don’t go to Chicago … we’ve never played in Chicago or New York. We played once in New York as a showcase. You should go to the small towns, they’re so happy to see you.

Are you doing any touring these days?

We just do little one-off things. Mostly things we can drive to because we have weird instruments that are hard to transport. There’s lots of theatres within two or three or four hours from here … all over Missouri and Illinois and Iowa. We’ll drive out somewhere, do a concert, and then also we’re getting ourselves into more jazz festivals. We’ll fly out for those because they’re fun, they’re worth it. I love jazz festivals!

We played at Clearwater Jazz Fest. That was a thrill. We opened for The Commodores. (The jazz festivals) are not all jazz anymore.

About Bach

I grew up listening to Bach. My father is really classical. He really likes Bach and Beethoven and Mozart. I thought it was really interesting for our band, because Bach’s music isn’t … when you think of most music it’s chord changes with a melody. Bach’s music is fugal, which means two or more parts (playing simultaneously,) individual parts. When we had our trio and were playing the jazz fusion stuff, the bass parts weren’t always just bass parts. They were counterpoint lines a lot of the time. So we thought it would be cool to work out these two complex lines, but there’s no chord.

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We realized we could do a whole album of just Bach’s music, and then we came up with the name Bach to the Future, it was just a laugh, and became immediately sort of popular. Everywhere we went with that we’d hear, ‘Oh, that’s great! We’d love to have that.’ So, it was really an easy thing to book, it was a lot of fun.

I don’t really like to perform solo piano in concert. I get bored being all by myself on-stage, so I like to have this group. It’s with my brother, and the bass player we grew up with since I was four years old. We just grew up on the same street and he just kind of understands us, so that trio has been playing music for all these years.

I think it’s kind of exciting live, but it doesn’t sell well on the internet. Live music is different than recorded music. Musicians have to understand that if they want to do well. Smooth jazz is a perfect example.

If you listen to a smooth jazz radio station it’ll put you to sleep. Go see any of those artists live and they will blow your mind. They know that they have to make a certain kind of record that fits in the smooth jazz, chill out background. They can’t do the exciting stuff on the radio. It just needs to be kind of a groove, kind of simple. That’s what people listen to at home, but on stage if you do that, they’ll be bored. They’re not there to chill out. They’re there to hear some exciting music, so what you get are fantastic musicians doing concert tours, but they know that when they make a record that it will not fly, so they make a completely different thing for the radio. It’s a totally different experience listening to them on record compared to listening to them in concert.

The most popular jazz record of all time is “Kind of Blue,” by Miles Davis. It was so chill, but he didn’t play like that in concert. He went completely to the moon, you know? So, I guess it has been like that for a long time.


Approximately one week after conducting this interview with Michael, my husband and I took a short trip to Arcola, Illinois to do some antiquing. Shop after shop had soft piano music playing in the background. Public domain Christmas Carols, sometimes with a mellow jazz edge to them. Was it Michael? I don’t know for sure, but it definitely proved the point that he is in tune with popular culture in a way that most of us are not.

For more information about Michael Silverman, visit www.michaelsilvermanpiano.com.

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Santa’s Magical Kingdom: The Ultimate Light Show

For nearly three decades, Santa’s Magical Kingdom has been a top wintertime attraction in far West County. Located on 35 acres near Six Flags in Eureka, more than four million lights and dozens of animated characters dazzle and delight thousands of visitors each year.

From April to October, the property operates as Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park, a family-friendly and award-winning resort offering a “back-to-nature vacation,” with amenities including a pool, free wifi, train rides, miniature golf and a chance for kids to interact with Yogi himself.

SMK1

Scott and Kathy Jones bought Jellystone Park in 1989 and admit they knew absolutely nothing about working in the hospitality industry or running a campground. Their sole intent was to find a space large enough to provide an annual Christmas light show each season.

Scott recalled that when he was young his family would travel to downtown St. Louis each year on Thanksgiving Day to view the Christmas lights and decorated storefronts. His dream was to provide families with a similar experience in the county, but on a much grander scale. Jellystone was just the right size and the campground would produce revenue during the Spring, Summer and Fall months.

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Driving through 2.5 miles of glistening forest, visitors will encounter several light tunnels and fountains, life size cartoon characters, Elf Land, Santa’s workshop and much more. For a more adventurous experience, visitors can board the wagon at Kringle’s Store and take an open-air ride through the shimmering wonderland. Blankets are provided.

Planning for the light show each year begins in February. Kathy points out, “Everything we do is 100% designed for us,” and the design team continually strives to incorporate new ideas and technologies in their presentation. In August the decorating begins and by mid-November the show is in full operation. It takes 8-10 weeks around the clock to get everything assembled, and about the same amount of time to take it all down. Kathy discloses, “We’re lucky to get open by April 1st for campers!”

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The first year that Santa’s Magical Kingdom opened, the region experienced one of the worst ice storms on record. The hilly terrain of the park was impassable for a good chunk of their season, but they were open long enough for the attraction to become a big hit. Now, 28 years later, Kathy reports that these early visitors are now returning each year with their own children and grandchildren in tow.

On their busiest nights there are approximately 50 crew members on-site to help run the show. Kathy advises, “I think it’s honest to God passion with which this is done. This is done because we really care about doing something wholesome for families.”

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That said, the couple puts a lot of effort into serving local charities by providing contributions and offering free admission to underprivileged children and families. This year’s efforts will benefit the BackStoppers, Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis and the St. Louis Area Foodbank. As in past years, visitors who bring a toy for donation, Mondays thru Thursdays, will receive $5 off of their admission.

Santa’s Magical Kingdom is open every night through January 7, including Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Hours of operation are from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. most days, and open until 11:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

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General admission, per carload, is $22, with larger size vehicles like limos and buses costing up to $30. Private wagon rides are also available and require advance booking.

For more information, visit santasmagicalkingdom.com.

The Nutcracker: Holiday Classic Keeps Dancers On Their Toes

Nothing quite captures the imagination of a child at Christmas-time like a live performance of “The Nutcracker.” This timeless masterpiece is by far the most often performed and most beloved ballet of all time. In addition, the musical orchestrations by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky are arguably some of the most famous symphonic compositions known to the world.

Each December the Dance Center of Kirkwood performs the complete production of “The Nutcracker,” featuring a large cast of 55 incredibly talented dancers who also happen to be teenagers.

At the helm of this annual production is Kathy Massot, director and choreographer, and the owner of the Dance Center of Kirkwood. As a youngster she enrolled in dance classes and became fascinated with ballet, which soon led to her dancing with the St. Louis Civic Ballet.

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Kathy Massot

After high school, Kathy went on to study at the National Academy of Arts in Champaign, Illinois, and performed in their company, the National Ballet of Illinois. A few years later, she made the big leap to New York City where she danced for 11 years with the Leon Faulder Dance Company and the Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians. During her time as a professional dancer, Kathy performed in countless productions all over the United States and Europe.

Like professional athletes, the physical demands on a dancer take their toll and most are forced to retire at an early age due to injuries. Kathy decided she wanted to stop dancing professionally before an injury caused her to miss a performance, and recalls “I felt like I had accomplished everything that I had wanted to accomplish and I felt satisfied. So I thought, it’s a good time to come back home. I always knew when I was done dancing that I was going to come back home. I was home-sick all of the time!”

Upon return to St. Louis, Kathy began teaching at the Dance Center of Kirkwood, and in 1999 bought the studio from the previous owner. It was at that point that she decided to produce her own version of “The Nutcracker” each year with her own students. She relays, “when I was a kid and a dancer, doing ‘The Nutcracker’ gave me such great memories, so I wanted that for my students. They work really hard, but we also have fun.”

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The two hour production is filled with fantastic costumes, colorful props, brilliant scenery, snow and, most importantly, a very large troupe of accomplished ballet dancers. The principal dancers in the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier are Miss Chiao Shih, a teacher at the Dance Center, and Dustin Crumbaugh from the Big Muddy Dance Company. Jonathan White will play the role of Herr Drosselmeyer. The role of Clara will be played by Juliette Schulte and Emma Sandidge, with each girl dancing the lead in two of the four shows.

Kathy discloses, “it’s really cool because (the students) graduate from part to part. As they get better, get more advanced, they get into those tougher roles so they have goals for themselves. They start out probably in one of the younger parts and every year just work their way up the ladder. By the time you’re done, you’ve pretty much done the whole show and every part in it.”

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Conjointly, Kathy is the director of the Dance Concert Society of Kirkwood, a non-profit group that takes short performances of “The Nutcracker” into nursing homes and other facilities for the elderly and disadvantaged. Kathy advises, “We like to provide the community with good quality dance. We like to reach out to Assisted Living and Nursing Homes to get out and tell a story of dance.” She adds, “It’s wonderful to talk to people that live there afterwards. Many of them danced as children and it’s a great way to help brighten their day.”

The Dance Center teaches year-round classes in ballet, tap, modern and jazz. “We teach dancing, but we try to teach other things too,” asserts Kathy. “We try to teach comradery and anti-bullying. We only dress our students appropriately, we only let them dance to music that is appropriate for a child. The movement, the costume … everything. It’s just for kids, not kids trying to look like adults. That’s important to us. (Our studio) is a safe place for kids.”

SugarPlumFairyShe continues, “It’s a great place for them to build confidence, even if they don’t turn out to be a professional dancer, they build confidence, and develop friendships. They learn how to work and be responsible, show up for class, learn their dance and pull their own weight.”

Other public performances for the students throughout the year include recitals, competitions and participation in National Dance Week. In January the group has been invited to perform with a few other companies at the Grandel Theatre in a fundraiser to collect food for people in need.

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The Dance Center of Kirkwood is currently enrolling and is eager to get more kids and adults interested and involved in dancing. “We have summer camps now,” says Kathy, “from the ages of three and through every age group, as well as the older kids who have a week of dance intensives for tap, jazz and modern.”

Continuing, she points out, “Little kids will do camps that may encompass several disciplines like tap, ballet and jazz all in one. For the little people we do a lot of fun camps that do crafts, a “Frozen” camp, and I do a Nutcracker camp every summer for kindergarteners through 2nd grade, it’s a week-long camp. They make their own sets, learn the dances, work with props and make lots of Nutcracker crafts. It’s really fun. They are the choreographer, set designer, they do all of that. I try to teach them everything involved and help them think it through.”

Performances of “The Nutcracker” will be held at the Robert Reim Theatre on Saturday & Sunday, December 16-17, with shows at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. The group will also perform a preview of the second act at the Saint Louis Art Museum on December 9th, at 1:15 pm in the Main Hall.

For more information, visit www.dancecenterkirkwood.com.

Perfect Harmony: The River Blenders Chorus

Since 1978 the River Blenders Chorus has performed for audiences far and wide. The group sings barbershop harmony and has been a member of Sweet Adelines International since their inception. Although that may sound a little “old-timey,” let me assure you that the River Blenders have taken the art of barbershop harmony to a whole new level. The group’s next performance, entitled “The Bedrock Road Show,” will be held on November 4 and is inspired by everyone’s favorite stone-age family, the Flintstones.

Each year this company of women concocts a fantastic new theme show for the chorus, complete with a script, choreography, outrageous costumes and heaps of hilarity. Past performance highlights have featured themes taken from “Laugh-In,” “Psycho/Bates Motel” and “Orange is the New Black.”

The vocal quality of the group is quite superb as well, and the Blenders have proven their mastery of song by winning a number of prestigious awards, including First Place in the Harmony Classic Division AA Chorus Competition in 2015 and the Regional Chorus Competition Division AA Midsize Chorus Award in 2014. They are also the current Region 5 Sweet Adelines International Champions.

The barbershop style of singing originated in America in the 1830s when local neighborhood barbershops became a common gathering place for men. Often a barber would sing to entertain his customers while he worked, and customers would add their harmonies and use “call and response” types of songs as their repertoire. Around 1890 the advent of printed sheet music helped to propel the style to the top of “Gay 90s” culture. When vaudeville houses began using Barbershop Quartets to entertain audiences between acts, the traditional costume evolved to include oversized mustaches, red and white striped vests and straw hats.

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So, what is Barbershop Harmony anyway? According to Wikipedia, it is “a style of a cappella close harmony, or unaccompanied vocal music, characterized by consonant four-part chords for every melody note.” Each quartet will have a leader who sings the melody, a tenor who sings harmony above the melody, a bass who provides the bottom of the chord and a baritone who provides another harmonic note to complete the chord. The Barbershop Chorus is simply a larger group singing in the traditional four part manner described above.

Diane Huber, a self-described “homemaker and domestic engineer,” originally joined the group as a member of the chorus, but in 1989 assumed the position of Musical Director, a position that she still holds today. When asked about her background, Diane advises “I served on the Sweet Adeline International Board of Directors for 12 years, was the International President from 2004-2006 and I’ve coached choruses and quartets all over the world. I was also in a championship quartet called Ambiance and we traveled extensively to teach and perform for 10 years.”

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Musical Director Diane Huber

Sweet Adelines International, born in 1945, is an organization dedicated to the preservation of Barbershop Harmony and providing competitive opportunities for female barbershop quartets. Today the Adelines hold an international competition that hosts over 8,000 participants annually.

Diane discloses that over the years the River Blenders have had as many as 110 members, with approximately 85 currently participating. The youngest member is 19 and the oldest may possibly be around 90, although no one is brave enough to ask. Diane says that the group is a “great mix of women from all walks of life, including doctors, educators, stay-at-home moms, students and a variety of others.”

The group has had many notable performances over the years, including several opportunities to sing the National Anthem at Busch Stadium, providing vocal backup for both Kenny Rogers and Andy Williams at the Fox Theatre, and even singing for then President Ronald Reagan at an event under the Gateway Arch.

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Most of the arrangements performed by the chorus are obtained from Sweet Adelines International, however the River Blenders are lucky to have Kevin Keller, a choir member’s husband who is also a musical arranger, and Holly McKee, a member of the chorus, who write and contribute special arrangements for the group. Kevin and Holly have crafted many of the specialty numbers used by the group and, according to Diane, have been a god-send for the chorus. It is often these specialty numbers that give the chorus a leg up in competitions.

When asked what she would like the public to know about the River Blenders, Diane conveyed “I would love for people to know who we are and what we’re all about; about the education and empowerment that these women gain by being members. The group currently performs in public about six times a year, but we would love to perform more!”

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In 2018 the International Convention and Competition of Sweet Adelines will be held in St. Louis at the America’s Center, where the River Blenders will be competing in the International Chorus Competition. Stiff competition from Europe, Asia, Australia and, of course, from all over North America will be there, but there is little doubt that the Blenders will bring home another trophy.

The River Blenders Chorus rehearses each Monday at 7:30 p.m. at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville. Rehearsals are open to anyone who is curious or might be interested in joining the group. Diane relays, “The doors are always open, come to any rehearsal. We’d love to have the company!”

“The Bedrock Road Show” performance is on Saturday, November 4 at 8 p.m. at the Purser Center at Logan University in Chesterfield. For more information visit www.riverblenders.org.

Fair Trade Market: Holiday Shopping for a Cause

The Manchester United Methodist Church (UMC) will host its 15th Annual Fair Trade Market, the largest of its kind in the nation, over two weekends in November. The event will feature globally-crafted items, holiday gifts and international foods.

Fair Trade is a movement that provides farmers and artisans, most often from Third World countries, with a “living wage” for their products. To be considered for Fair Trade inclusion, products cannot be harmful to the environment and manufacturers cannot use child or forced labor, must promote gender equality and enforce safe working conditions.

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Edana Huse is a church member who has been heavily involved in the coordination of the event since 2002. When asked how the idea for the annual market was conceived, Edana relays “Kellie Sikes, who was a member of our church years ago, was very much into social justice. She knew the people at Plowsharing and talked to them about doing something. When it (the market) first started, it was just a table or two.”

Edana continues, “Then Kellie left, so I stepped up and co-chaired with Kimi Butler.” Edana has since relinquished her co-chair position, but still works as a liaison between the church and the market vendors. According to Edana, “quite a few thousand people come in for the two weekends.”

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Rich Howard-Willms, Executive Director of Plowsharing Crafts, has been involved with the market since its inception. Plowsharing Crafts was established in 1985 and for years operated out of a single shop on Delmar in the University City Loop. More recently, Rich has opened two volunteer-operated satellite stores in the heart of Kirkwood and in Town & Country. The organization is associated with the St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship and is a member of the Fair Trade Federation. Many of the products that they sell are made with sustainable and recycled materials.

Other vendors participating in this year’s market include Partners for Just Trade, selling items from Peru, and Roots-n-Streams, whose products come from Uganda and Cambodia.

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In addition, Heifer International will be onsite selling items and raising funds to send livestock to villages in Third World countries. The group maintains a global effort that works to end poverty and hunger through sustainable community development. They distribute cows, goats, bees, water buffalo and other animals to poverty-stricken nations.  Heifer is well known for going the extra mile in its efforts, as Edana confirms by pointing out “If they send a cow, they send one that is pregnant.”

The types of items offered at the market will feature over 3,500 square feet of handbags, baskets, jewelry, clothing, toys, musical instruments, textiles, coffee, chocolate and much, much more. All proceeds collected from this operation will help to supply food, education, clothing and medicine to orphans in Africa.

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Approximately 330 volunteers will be required to prepare and manage the market. Phil Wiseman, Director of Strategic Communications at Manchester UMC, advises that there are all kinds of activities to be completed, from unboxing items and cashiering to teardown. Anyone interested in volunteering is more than welcome and interested parties can sign up easily online.

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The Fair Trade Market will be held on the weekends before and after Thanksgiving, November 18-19 & November 24-26, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. The Music Makers, a 4th and 5th grade music group from the church, will open the market with a performance at 11 a.m. on Saturday, November 18.

For more information visit www.manchesterumc.org/fair_trade_market.

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Vintage Market Days: Everything Old is New Again

Now in its third year, Vintage Market Days has become a favorite bi-annual event for thousands of area residents. Held each Spring and Fall in Chesterfield, this “upscale vintage-inspired indoor/outdoor market” features original artwork, antiques and vintage furniture, clothing, jewelry, crafts, home décor, outdoor furnishings, live music, a food court, plants and much more.

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This franchised pop-up market originated in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2011, and in six years has expanded to a staggering 60 cities across the U.S. The traveling bazaar of vendors, who are chosen for their shared affinity of nostalgia, offer a large selection of vintage inspired styles, ranging from steampunk to shabby-chic.

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A portion of the proceeds will benefit Tri-SAR, a search and rescue volunteer group dedicated to finding lost or injured persons.

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The festival runs October 20-22, with gates opening at 10 a.m. and closing Friday and Saturday at 5 p.m., and on Sunday at 4 p.m. Early-bird admission for Friday is $10, with Saturday and Sunday admissions at $5; children under 12 are free. Purchased tickets are good for the entire weekend.

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The event will be held at Chesterfield Mall near Sears. For more information, visit vintagemarketdays.com/market/st.-louis.

Eureka’s Invasion of the Scarecrows

For the fourth October in a row the city of Eureka presents their annual Scarecrow Festival, featuring hundreds of whimsical creations made from reclaimed materials and displayed throughout the town. Each scarecrow has its own unique personality and its own story.

The festival is the brainchild of local resident Barb Scheer, who recalls, “in 2013 I went on a girl’s trip to California and we went to Cambria, near Hearst Castle. As we went into this little town, they had over 300 of these types of scarecrows, all artistically done, and I just went nuts. I thought, ‘I have to bring this back to Eureka.’”

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She continues, “I came home and did research and there was nothing like it around. I put a presentation together and went to the Board of Alderman with it. It took us a while to convince them, but about 6 to 8 meetings later we finally got them on board and they gave us a grant.”

The first year of the festival featured 107 scarecrows on the streets of Eureka, with Barb personally crafting 54 of them. The program was an instant hit with residents and, as hoped, people throughout the region began visiting Eureka to see the parade of characters.

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For the last three years the entire festival was organized by Barb, who handled all of the marketing and administration, the registrations, monitored the website and the Facebook page, plus created most of the scarecrows with the help of several fellow artists. The tasks became too numerous, so she went to the Mayor of Eureka and said “I’m going to have to give it up, I only have a handful of women and I can’t do all of this myself.” The Mayor and Chamber agreed to take on the marketing and administration in 2017, leaving Barb and her team to focus on the construction and maintenance of the scarecrows.

Barb admits that she never had an art lesson in her life, but she loves the visual arts. As a mother of small children she took on the hobby of painting wall murals and managed to develop very admirable and capable skills. Barb worked in sales, marketing and event planning for many years and for the last ten years handled all of the major events for Belden Incorporated. Her work background made her a natural when it came to managing this immense project.

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Barb Scheer & Friend

The Farmers and Merchants Bank in Eureka provides a basement workspace and storage area for the scarecrows, where they are created, cleaned, dressed, restored and housed for most of the year. The artists work year round on this project, and a visit to the workspace reveals an army of scarecrows in various stages of construction. Almost all of the materials come from local garage sales and donations, and any item that needs to be purchased is usually found online at the lowest possible price.

Older scarecrows from past years are cleaned, redressed and sometimes re-fashioned into new characters for the coming year. Other favorites, like “The Ugly Bride,” will return for another year of service.

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Any business, organization or school in Eureka has the option of creating their own scarecrow, renting a scarecrow, or having a custom scarecrow created by Barb’s team of volunteer artists. Participants can also opt to rent a scarecrow for $100 and, as Barb explains, “it has their business name and information on it. (Renters) don’t have to put it up, they don’t have to take it down, they don’t have to maintain it, and it goes away at the end (of October).”

A custom scarecrow will cost $200, which includes a planning meeting with the commissioner, creation, installation and maintenance. This year Barb advises that there will be close to 200 scarecrows on display and hopes that each year the number will continue to rise. She is constantly thinking up new ideas, or seeking inspiration online.

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The public will have a chance to vote for their favorite Scarecrow on the festival’s website. The City of Eureka has several events planned around this year’s festival, with a Photo Scavenger Hunt October 6-8, a Witches and Warlocks Walk October 13 and an Artisan Fair on October 14.

Full details can be found at eurekascarecrowfestival.com.

Chesterfield Valley Pumpkin Patch opens for first season

Each weekend in October, the Chesterfield Valley Pumpkin Patch celebrates the onset of autumn with a wonderland of activities for the whole family. The grounds feature a large display of mums, pumpkins and gourds, with sizes ranging from tiny to gargantuan.

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Since the early 1950s, Chesterfield Valley has been known as the go-to place for Fall and Halloween weekend activities. The renowned Rombach Farms hosted a large pumpkin patch each October for decades and became a yearly tradition for several generations of school children and their families. This past July, the owners announced that the farm would be shutting down and that there would be no pumpkin patch this year. In a Facebook posting, the owners expressed, “We want to thank everyone for all of these years of fun…. lots of great memories!”

Having been one of Rombach’s activity contractors for the past 20 years, Betty Miller was approached and asked to manage a new pumpkin patch, hosted by the City of Chesterfield.

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For $18 kids can get a wristband which entitles them to all activities for the day. Attractions include hayrides, pony rides, train rides, a duck pond and dozens of large, colorful Halloween inflatables. The fun doesn’t stop there however, as youngsters can participate in face and pumpkin painting, sand art, visit the petting zoo or play in a pit filled with corn kernels.

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Admission is free for adults, for whom the facility provides a wine and beer garden with craft beers and live music. Fall foods are available for everyone and will include favorites like caramel apples, kettle corn, funnel cakes, nachos, turkey legs, chili, apple cider, hot chocolate and much more.

The Pumpkin Patch is located on 9 acres next to the St. Louis Premium Outlet Mall on Olive Street Road. They are open 7 days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. thru October 31, but please note that activities are only scheduled for Saturdays and Sundays. There is plenty of free parking and free shuttle service available. Special packages are available for birthday parties and corporate events.

For more information, visit: chesterfieldvalleypumpkinpatch.com.

WF&P Steam Railway Just Keeps Chugging Along

Each Sunday from May to October, the Wabash, Frisco and Pacific Association operates a 12 inch gauge steam locomotive passenger train thru the forest of Glencoe, Missouri. Don’t be fooled, these are no little “toy” trains by any means, these locomotives are actual fuel burning engines that are powered by steam.

Mike Lorance grew up in the area and, like so many other locals, never paid much attention to the “WF&P RR” signs that would appear at Highway 109 and Old State Road on Sunday mornings. Years later he ended up buying a home on Old State Road and, in 1989 at the request of his son, the pair went to check out the mystery railroad.

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Lorance had always had a fascination with steam engines, and on his first visit to the club quickly became captivated by these mechanical curiosities. He says, “the steam engines are the reason that most of the guys join.” His son’s interest waned after a month or so, but 28 years later Mike is still a member. He serves on the Board of Governors, is the group’s Treasurer, handles public relations, and holds a handful of other unofficial titles with a variety of responsibilities.

The WF&P was originally established in 1939 at Brown Road and Natural Bridge near Lambert Field. With one steam locomotive, 30 acres of land and one mile of track, the railway operated for a couple of decades until airport expansion compelled the group to move out to Glencoe. The current site has been in operation since 1961.

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The railroad is stationed near the western end of the Al Foster Memorial Trail, part of the Meramec Greenway project in Wildwood. A large parking area directly adjoins the train depot and ticket station, where riders can embark on a two mile, 30 minute journey along the Meramec River. Following the call of “All aboard!,” passengers take a short ride through the train yard and quickly plunge into a lush canopy of greenery and natural beauty.

The group currently owns ten steam locomotives and three diesels, with several in the yard being machined completely on site by members. Everyone who works on the railroad is a volunteer, from the ticket attendant to the engineer, to the mechanics who meet on Wednesdays and Saturdays to do service and maintenance on the engines, train cars and tracks. There are currently 24 active volunteers working as engineers, signalmen and linemen for the railway.

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The trains carry between 13,000 and 14,000 passengers a year, with visitors coming as far away as India, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. While children ride free, a small donation of $4 per adult is requested for each ticket and provides funding to preserve and expand the railway. Lorance points out that “funding is obtained purely through the ticket booth. We don’t get any grants or anything, it’s completely supported by the people that ride the train.”

Recent floods in 2015 and 2017 hit record levels in West County and put the railway and depot under approximately 12 feet of water. According to Lorance there was “no track damage, but lots of clean up.” Realizing that the Meramec will undoubtedly rise again in future, the group continually seeks new ways to upgrade and protect their buildings and electrical systems. In addition to protecting the existing line, the group is currently laying new track up to Rock Hollow and the infamous Zombie Hill. The new track will provide an escape route for the locomotives when the waters rise again.

trackThe railway is open on Sundays, May thru October, from 11 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., with trains leaving approximately every 30 minutes. Sodas, water, snacks and souvenirs are available for purchase at the station. The train is available for special bookings on Wednesdays and Saturdays by calling 314-401-1687.

When asked what message he’d like to relay to the public about the WF&P, Lorance says, “Come out and ride us and support us, help keep us going, that’s the biggest thing. We think we have something unique.”

Indeed they do.

From YouTube to Reality TV: The Many Personalities of Libbie Higgins

(WARNING – Videos in this article are rated PG-13.)

When Libbie Higgins was a little girl she dreamed of growing up to be a great comedian, but as she confesses “life got in the way.” Plagued by a terrible case of stage fright, she never dared audition for any of the high school plays that she so dearly wanted to be in. Libbie grew up, got a job and got married, and like so many dreamers often do, put her reverie on the back burner. Little did she know that fame was waiting for her in the new millennium.

Libbie, a resident of St. John, is an honest to goodness “Viral Internet Personality” with a fan base of well over 100,000 people. Her video entitled “Woman Rages Over Extra McRib” became a viral hit near the end of 2015 and, to this day, provides fodder for a lively topic of discussion on many online forums.

How does someone become a viral video sensation?

“In 2008 I started to do online broadcasting on Justin.tv.” says Libbie. “There was a chat room, and you could broadcast and people would watch. I would do a “show” and I would do different characters.” The first character to emerge on those broadcasts was Trixie Higgins, “who was essentially me with a wig on,” reveals Libbie. “That’s where I created Claudette, the neck brace lady.”

Claudette Higgins, aka @TheNeckbrace, is a church-going Southern lady who wears a padded foam cervical collar, collects disability checks and is a monster fan of the band New Kids on the Block (NKOTB). When asked how Claudette obtained her neck injury, Libbie says “Supposedly, she was riding one of those mobility scooters (at Walmart) and she hit an end cap and all of the Suave shampoo fell on her. It hurt her neck and she has a “pending lawsuit,” so she has to wear the neck brace at all times. I just love the absurdity of it. It’s so ridiculous.”

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Claudette Higgins – aka @TheNeckbrace

The rising popularity of YouTube around the same time convinced Libbie to begin posting her videos on that platform as well. It was this move that began to push Claudette into the limelight and brought her to the attention of NKOTB and their fan base, known as “The Blockheads.”

“As a 14 year old I loved them so much,” says Libbie, “and back then you couldn’t get close to them. I would have given anything just to be in the same room with them, and now I literally know them, which is nuts!”

She continues, “so, when the New Kids had their reunion in 2008-9, I got on Twitter. Celebrities were really accessible then, so they would tweet you back. Then Donnie Wahlberg had this contest to make a video to one of their songs, and I ended up winning it. I was winning the popular vote (online) up until the last couple hours, and then a ballroom dancer won, but Donnie liked my video so much that he created his own category called “Donnie’s Picks,” so that I could also be a winner.”

The video in reference is called “Dirty Dancing,” and features Claudette and her “son” Cletus re-enacting the famous dance scene from the movie of the same name. “The prize was me and some other girls got to go to Donnie Wahlberg’s house and make a video with him. Still at the time though, I had such bad anxiety that I couldn’t even really talk to him and I just wanted to go home.”

Her introduction to Wahlberg was a god-send, as he would often re-post Claudette’s videos on his personal social media account, driving other fans to view her videos. Libbie admits, “I have a lot of fans in the Blockhead Universe, so Claudette’s kind of famous in that realm.”

In 2015, another NKOTB contest brought Claudette’s talents front and center again when she served as a “ring girl” for the group’s performance in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “They had a contest for ring girls for that tour because it was a boxing theme, and I thought ‘I wanna do that!’ So I made a video of ‘I wanna be a ring girl’ and then they let me do it! I’ve discovered that if you want to do something, just put it out there and often times it will happen. They (NKOTB) have always been really good to me.”

The New Kids were not finished with Claudette however, and later in 2015 she was chosen to be a cast member on the reality TV show “Rock This Boat,” which documented the annual fan cruise held in the Caribbean by NKOTB. Although she was now a member of the cast, Libbie was still expected to pay her own way and this posed a hardship. Fans of the group, also now fans of Claudette’s videos, created a GoFundMe account where hundreds of people donated to pay for Libbie’s cruise.

“If you’ve ever wondered if a reality show is grueling? I have never worked so hard!,” confesses Libbie.

Libbie Higgins

The series prominently featured Libbie and her sister Leigh, their antics aboard ship and their interactions with the New Kids. Near the end of the cruise, Claudette was given the opportunity to do a six minute standup routine for all of the people who had donated money for her passage. The performance was a hit and Claudette was forever linked to the lore of NKOTB.

Although Claudette has garnered a lion’s share of the fame from her deluge of fans, other characters appear regularly in Libbie’s videos; Mathilde Barnstool and Holly Moore who are reporters for iReport News, Donna Carol, a licensed clinical sex therapist, Nancy Graceful and the earlier mentioned Trixie.

And then there’s Carla …

In 2012 a new service named Vine hit the internet and featured short six second videos on a loop. The allotted time was perfect for delivering one-liners in character, and this is where Libbie birthed her most famous creation to date … Carla Higgins.

Carla Higgins

Carla is brash, has a very foul mouth, is incredibly sexual, self-confident and sports one of the largest mullets known to mankind. Claudette brought Libbie to the attention of her childhood idols and their niche fan base, but Carla became a firestorm in 2015 when she released the “McScuse Me” video. The performance is truly one of the funniest viral videos you will ever see, and at press time has in excess of 4.5 million views. What made this video even funnier is that the world at large assumed that Carla’s rant was by a real person, which propelled it into the limelight and onto the front pages of dozens of well-known news websites.

New fans began subscribing to Libbie’s social media accounts and watching her videos in droves. Since her “McScuse Me” video went viral, Carla has appeared as a guest on podcasts hosted by Jenny McCarthy (wife of New Kid Donnie Wahlberg,) and Shaquille O’Neal. Invitations continue to pour in for Carla, which is overwhelming to Libbie, who says “I have these two parallel lives going on, there’s Claudette and the New Kids, and then there’s Carla and the real world. It’s bizarre.”

Almost two years after the initial release of the “McScuse Me” video, Carla’s fame continues to rise and is evident in that at least a dozen online websites offer “McScuse Me” t-shirts for sale. Imgflip.com provides a “McScuse Me” Meme Generator, MobiRingtones.net offers a “McScuse Me” ringtone, and #cooterpunch became a popular hashtag on Twitter.

Unfortunately, Libbie does not receive a penny from any of these outlets.

Most telling of Libbie’s viral success is that the McDonald’s on Dorsett in Maryland Heights, the location of Carla’s ire in the “McScuse Me” video, confirms that they still receive more than 100 calls a day asking for “Charlene,” the catalyst of Libbie’s story. The manager of that location, who asked to remain anonymous, admitted that these calls are quite a disruption to their daily routine and advised that efforts are underway to try and trace and dissuade the callers.

Libbie travels with a bag in her car that contains her wigs and props, so that when inspiration hits she is ready to produce a new video on the spot. Free from the hassles of a traveling entourage or crew, Libbie is the sole writer, producer, director, cameraman and actor in her videos. “That’s how it is all of the time,” she says, “I’m most comfortable when I’m by myself.”

Libbie’s characters are larger than life, however the woman under the wig is somewhat reserved, introspective and incredibly modest. After her divorce four years ago, Libbie decided that it was time to finally chase her dream of pursuing a comedic career and advises “that’s when I started doing stand-up. It was like ‘I gotta do it now, it’s now or never.’”

Still plagued with self-doubt, Libbie discloses, “I have major stage fright, like bad, to the point that it makes me ill.” Luckily, all of that worry subsides the minute that her foot hits the stage. Her dream goal is to move to Los Angeles and become a full time stand-up comic.

Although stand-up is still relatively new to her, Libby has been a member of the Improv Shop since 2015. She asserts that “the Improv Shop is kind of my church, because it’s where I always end up at the end of the night, and everybody that I love is there. It’s like the most comfortable place I go.” She also concedes, “I used to prefer stand-up over improv, but now I prefer improv over stand-up, because you don’t have to prepare for improv … you just show up!”

New opportunities continue to find Libbie. In early August she opened for Tom Green at Helium Comedy Club and starred in the recently released short film “Carla and the Dolls.” Regarding the latter, she explains “it was written by a friend of mine from the Improv Shop, his name is Brandon Rice, and he always makes really weird, dark videos, so I said ‘I want to be a part of this!’”

Upon being presented with a new blonde wig from a fan, Libbie holds the wig in the air, strokes it lovingly and proclaims “Oh … my … god! This is like giving me diamonds! It’s gorgeous!” You can literally see the gears grinding away in her brain as she contemplates the new persona. “Whenever I get a wig I have to try and think, ‘What kind of person would inhabit this … what kind of accent would they have?”

The answer to this question is something only Libbie knows, and while her fans eagerly await her next creation, we also know that it won’t be long before she joins the ranks of St. Louis’ other top comedic talents, including Cedric the Entertainer, Kathleen Madigan, Redd Foxx and, perhaps one of the greatest female comedians of all time, Phyllis Diller.

No one is more shocked at these successes than Libbie herself. Humbly, she exclaims how amazing it is to have such a devoted fan base, while at the same time she realizes that “it’s ridiculous … it’s insane!”

One final note, if you ever find yourself dining at the McDonald’s on Dorsett, be sure to tell them that “Carla sent ya!” (Disclaimer – this publication does not, in any way, endorse “cooter-punching.”)

Links to Libbie Higgins’ social media pages: