CHAMPAIGN — Pianist Reed Phillips of Champaign is among the finalists who will compete in the 40th annual World Championship Old-time Piano Playing Contest over the Memorial Day weekend in East Peoria.
Ragtime and honky-tonk players from around the world will compete for more than $4,000 in cash prizes in the junior and senior division. Phillips is in the junior division.
The Old-time Piano Playing Contest and Festival will be from Thursday through next Monday, Memorial Day, primarily at the Embassy Suites East Peoria.
The featured performers will be Brian Holland and Paul Asaro. A stride pianist, Asaro lives in Champaign and sometimes plays at The Blind Pig on Walnut Street. He and Holland will teach workshops during the festival, and Asaro will judge the New Rag Contest, in which pianist play their own original compositions.
A "Tune-Up" dinner is Thursday evening at Sky Harbor Steakhouse. Also, the Spirit of Peoria Riverboat hosts a luncheon cruise Friday in which the competitors show off their skills before the contest begins. The cruise luncheon is sold out; call 1-800-676-8988 to get on the waiting list.
The festival also features the New Rag Contest, a Silent Film Luncheon, Dinner with The Champ, The World's Greatest Sing-Along Show, the Junior and Grand Championships, and a Red, White and Blue Brunch.
Past winners of the contest read like a who's who:
— Marty Sammon is now touring with Buddy Guy and recently played on "The Tonight Show," "The Letterman Show" and "The Ellen Degeneres Show."
— Adam Swanson played for the 100th anniversary of Carnegie Hall and in the weekly concert series at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
— Ethan Uslan recently played on "A Prairie Home Companion."
— And last year's winner, Russell Wilson, regularly plays for presidents and world leaders as the piano player for the White House.
Some past champions will return to perform at the 2014 festival because it is the 40th anniversary of the contest, founded by Ted Lemen.
He started the contest in 1975 to raise money for the Monticello Railway Museum. Lemen also founded the museum; after it became self-sustaining the contest became part of the non-profit Old-Time Music Preservation Association, which hosts the championship to educate people about old-time piano music — written before 1930.
In 2012, "The Entertainers: A Documentary Moving Picture," about six contestants in the contest, was released. It was shown at several film festivals and won several awards.
One of the stars of the documentary is ragtime pianist Faye Ballard of Champaign, who competed at the contest several times. The documentary was shown last August at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign.
Tickets for individual festival events or a weekend pass may be purchased via OldtimePianoContest.org or by calling 356-3012.