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March 11, 2013

Opera great's visit still a thrilling memory

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.”

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