Black History Month 2011 Books Picture Book Challenge 2011 Picture Books PoC Reading Challenge 2011

Ragtime Love, Silent Movies, and A Grampa Tale: The Piano Man by Debbi Chocolate and Eric Velasquez

PictureBook Challenge Update: 21 of 72

PoC Challenge Update: 14 of 25

When I saw this book from the NIE Library I have to admit that ragtime music was playing in my ears. I am aware that there are quite a number of other picture books that are vying for attention during this 8-day period but I simply couldn’t resist Debbi Chocolate’s tribute to her grandfather, Sherman L. Robinson and the luscious artwork by Eric Velasquez.

Silent Movies and Background Music. This book takes you back in time when the experience of the commercial movie theater was not relegated to the 3d (or even 4d) experience as is the wont nowadays – but the clicking of the projector, the grand piano, and dexterous fingers playing ragtime music to the delight of “moviegoers.” In this website, “Perfessor” Bill Edwards provides readers with a comprehensive overview of “Music as the Voice for Silent Movies.” He noted that “the first commercial movie theatres showing projected pictures started to open” in 1902 in the United States. Rather than have the audience listen to a variety of projector clicks, most theater owners would hire pianists to provide musical accompaniment between reels and the appropriate mood music to whatever emotion or action is being portrayed on screen. And this is how the Piano Man, Debbi’s Grandfather, Sherman Robinson made his living during this period:

My grandfather played piano for the silent movies. He wore a bowler hat, a starched collar, and fancy shirt garters on his sleeves.

When there was a pie-throwing scene, my grandfather tickled as silly a tune as you’d ever hear. He made audiences bowl over with laughter.

When the hero got one last kiss, the whole theater sighed as my grandfather played sweetly, tenderly.

When there were monsters on the screen, my grandfather played thrilling themes from Phantom of the Opera. People said my grandfather’s playing made their hair rise and sent chills up their spines.

This is a beautiful time that is lost to us now, a lovely heritage captured through these pages.

Broadway shows, Ziegfeld’s Follies and Vaudeville shows. The image that popped into my head immediately was the movie Dream Girls which featured how a trio of African American female singers became pop icons in the 60s – a movie which I thoroughly enjoyed.

In this book, Debbi Chocolate gives us a glimpse of the evolution of American musical theater through her grandfather’s life story as he also played piano on Broadway: “He was called ‘professor’ because he knew more about music than even Mr. Ziegfeld” – as the Piano Man performed Joplin’s rags on the road with the Snake Doctor’s medicine show: “In between songs he performed daring feats, pitched snake oil and pulled rabbits out of hats.” – and played piano in vaudeville shows where he met Debbi’s grandmother, a lovely woman who “performed a high-strutting cakewalk and the Charleston just for him.”















Debbi’s grandparents performing “musical comedies in ballrooms and theaters from the Carolinas to Arkansas”



The End of an Era and the Advent of Talking Pictures. While we take for granted how movies always seemed larger-than-life, with OST (official sound tracks), and perfectly synchronized dubbing with Dolby digital all-surround sound – it was a sad state of affairs for people like Sherman Robinson when these types of movies first came to the big screen:

… one day a new movie came out. A movie with sound. People flocked to the theaters to hear the new pictures talk. One by one piano players lost their theater jobs. One day the manager of the Rialto told my grandfather he didn’t need him anymore.

With tears in his eyes, my grandfather played the theater’s piano one last time. Then he packed up his sheet music, buried his hands inside his pockets, and went home.

Shared Passion and Musical Ancestry. The strength of this book is in highlighting this shared intimacy with music, the passing on of the torch so to speak with Debbi indicating that she herself has become an accomplished musician, the walk-through in history when music and theater were not packaged in the way that we know them today (think ipods, mp3, mpeg, avi files). And the quiet celebration of who your mother’s father was and sharing it with the rest of the world through these lovely illustrations, moving narrative, and yes ragtime music playing in your ears.

Since I was unable to find a youtube clip of Sherman Robinson playing the piano, I looked for Jelly Roll Morton who supposedly taught The Piano Man how “to play two pianos at the same time. One with each hand.” And lucky me, I found this clip:

This one on the other hand, shows Scott Joplin, otherwise known as the “King of Rag” who also taught the Piano Man how to play “a lightning-fast ‘Maple Leaf Rag.'” Enjoy!

Debbi Chocolate has published several books for children, several of which have owned awards such as Talk, Talk, an Ashanti Legend which won the Parents’ Choice Award and My First Kwanzaa Book, winner of Coretta Scott King Award, and The Piano Man, a John Steptoe Awardee. She was also a former faculty member at Chicago’s Columbia College and a former editor of children’s books. Click here to be taken to Debbi’s official website and know more about her.

Eric Velasquez was born in 1961 and grew up in Harlem. He is said to love drawing and doodling even as a child, and he also loved taking art classes. Thus it made perfect sense that he became an illustrator when he was an adult. In this link by Houghton Mifflin, he encourages young people to “draw, draw, draw, paint, paint, paint, read, read, read” so that young artists would be able to find their own styles and “invent their own visions.

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

2 comments on “Ragtime Love, Silent Movies, and A Grampa Tale: The Piano Man by Debbi Chocolate and Eric Velasquez

  1. Pingback: February Round-Up: Reading through the Month of Love and Announcement of 1st batch of Whodunit Winners |

  2. Pingback: Black History Month 2012 «

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