Pianist and showman Karl Modery will bring George Gershwin – a widely renowned American composer and pianist of the 1920s and ’30s – back to life at the Bret Harte Theater in Angels Camp on Sept. 21 at 7 p.m.
“Fascinatin’ Gershwin” is a live two-hour show about the life and music of George Gershwin, from his ragtime start in Tin Pan Alley to the classical compositions of his later years.
It’s centered around a fictional story of a piano tuner sitting down at Gershwin’s grand piano after a performance. With a short window of time to play before the stage crew has to put the piano in storage, the tuner enters a dreamstate and flies through 22 Gershwin classics.
“The whole idea of this was that George Gershwin in the ’20s and ’30s did something nobody did,” Modery says in an empty Bret Harte Theater weeks before the show. “He took blues, ragtime and jazz and put it in classical formulas.”
Modery says the theater takes on a “black and white ’20s and ’30s New York theme.” His outfit changes parallel Gershwin’s career – from traditional ragtime pianist attire (a collarless shirt with arm bands and a gold vest) to the more formal black tuxedo, cane and top hat of a classical composer.
“I have mics hidden in my hair, people come dressed in character, everybody’s dressed in character in the lobby, I have cigarette girls walking around with trays. There are two Model T’s out front,” Modery says. “When you walk in, there’s no 2019, it’s gone.”
Along with the piano tuner, Modery enters a dreamstate as he hits the first note.
“Once a song gets going, I’m gone. I don’t know where I am, where the audience is. That’s all gone. It’s just me and my good friend here,” Modery says, slapping the piano. “It gets pretty passionate; it gets pretty crazy.”
Modery started playing keys at the age of 36. Working a day job at United Airlines, he eventually started spending his nights playing lounges in the Washington, D.C., area.
As he developed his piano playing, Modery became entranced with popular music of the early 1900s – Cole Porter, Jerome David Kern and George Gershwin, among other composers that got their start on the Lower East Side of New York – “because it was simple.”
“I needed strong melodies to learn how to play the piano,” Modery says. “I didn’t hear the notes, I just heard the sentence. Then you put them together to create the song, adjust it and do it the way you want to do it.”
In 2006, Modery moved to Southern California, where the idea for “Fascinatin’ Gershwin” would manifest 10 years later.
“I was really on my own. My daughter had moved on with her life, it was just me, and then I thought, ‘Do it.’ Even if it all fails, you went for it,” Modery says.
Over the span of a year, Modery read countless books on Gershwin to pull the storytelling component of the production together and assembled a crew and a game plan to bring it to life.
“Now the audiences are starting to get bigger, the stages are starting to get bigger. It’s been about two years, and it’s not going too bad,” he says, before springing his fingers down onto the keys.
Modery’s peaceful rendition of “Our Love is Here to Stay” rings through the empty theater in Angels Camp – a piece in a catalogue of Gershwin tributes. Some of his favorites to play are the upbeat “I’ve Got Rhythm” and the romantic, dreamy “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
As he waits for the spotlight to hit the curtain signaling the start of the show, Modery says he is “pacing and thinking every negative thought you can think of. Then there’s this voice in my head that says, ‘Stay here, I got this.’ And this other guy comes out. He comes out, and I’m at home, I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.”
With his eyes on Calaveras County as a new location to settle down with his girlfriend, Modery hopes to continue to share the lives and work of Gershwin and other composers of the era with his performances.
His advice for young performers hoping to pursue a career in music?
“Don’t ever wait for anybody or anything to help you out. Go create it,” he says. “There’s too many of you out there, everybody’s in line and they’re more talented than the next. So go create your own world. In a period of two-and-a-half years, I was able to quit my day job, (start renting theaters), and I’m now sustaining at this. There’s hope.”