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March 11, 2013

Opera great's visit still a thrilling memory

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The Daily Star

---- — Opera singer Marian Anderson (1897-1993) has been called the “most distinctive American voice of the 20th century.”

Anderson thrilled audiences for four decades. She is most famous for being denied an appearance at the Daughters of American Revolution Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., because she was black.

Enter Eleanor Roosevelt.

After first resigning from the DAR, the first lady invited Anderson to instead “sing at the feet of Lincoln.” The singer’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939 was heard by 75,000 people who attended in person and millions more who listened in to the live radio broadcast.

We don’t know if a young girl named Laura listened in on her wireless in Oneonta or not. But as a grown woman, Laura had a chance to not only spend a weekend with Miss Anderson but also to actually hear her give a concert.

In Oneonta!

“My mom, Laura, was absolutely crazy for Marian Anderson,” Marilyn Roper told me. Roper is the owner of the Crystal Phoenix store on Dietz Street. “She thought Anderson was a goddess,” she laughed.

Norman Roper was then-president of the Oneonta Community Concert Association, and the group booked the great opera star for an appearance in February 1961 at Hartwick College.

The word of this famous woman’s appearance spread like wildfire throughout the arts and cultural world of central New York. It didn’t take long to realize that a bigger hall was needed to accommodate the crowd.

“It just so happened that the Oneonta Armory was available, so the concert was moved to there. It was all such an exciting time. I was only 10 years old, and I remember my mother just being overcome with the thrill of it all. And we were the hosts!” Roper exclaimed.

Anderson arrived alone by train. “My parents were waiting for her at the station (now the Stella Luna restaurant). They helped her off the train, welcomed her and drove her in our family car up to the Oneonta Hotel. They helped her settle in and spent some time with her talking about the logistics of the show.”

Ultimately, more than 2,500 people bought tickets for Anderson’s concert. 

“That evening was all such a blur for a little girl,” Roper explained, “but I do remember the announcer saying over and over for everybody to move their chairs together to fit more people in. My sister Donna and I sat in the front row with my mother. Mom was decked out in her finest outfit, long white gloves and all.”

And where was Dad?

“Well, it was funny,” she said. “The room was absolutely wall-to-wall people, so there was no backstage area or side rooms or anything. When the announcer finally said, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Miss Marian Anderson,’ the room exploded and what do you think we saw?

“Here comes my father, dressed in a tuxedo, walking slowly right down the center aisle of the Oneonta Armory in the midst of that huge, cheering throng with the great Marion Anderson on his arm. He guided her to the front stage, helped her up and then sat with us in the front row. And my father was a short man, about 5 feet, 4 inches tall, and Miss Anderson was much bigger, a towering, regal woman. It was quite a sight.”

Later in the evening, Anderson asked Laura Roper for a sip of warm tea with lemon at intermission. “My mom brought her own little individual silver tea service down from our house.”

Marilyn Roper remembers Anderson announcing from the stage that night that, “She was overwhelmed by the warmth and hospitality she had been shown by everyone in Oneonta during her brief visit.”

A half-century later, one song still sticks out in Roper’s mind. “I will never forget Marian Anderson singing ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’ not 10 feet away from me that night. It was my mother’s favorite.”

The next day Laura and Norman Roper picked the singer up at the Oneonta Hotel, took her back to the train station, and in an instant she was gone.

“My mother remembered that evening for the rest of her very long life. She lived into her 90s. Even when I visited her in the nursing home just before she died, my mother would reminisce about the concert and then smile up at me, reach out with cupped hands and sweetly sing the words, ‘He’s got the little bitty babies in his hands ...’”

I’ll catch you in two ...

“Big Chuck” D’IMPERIO can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.” You can find “Big Chuck” on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.