March 23, 1997
Bob Brundage: Well, good morning again. This is Bob Brundage. We’re still in Los Angeles at the Callerlab Convention of 1997. And this is the last day of the convention. Last night we were, had the pleasure of having a new nominee for the Milestone Award, which is Callerlab’s highest honor, and the recipient of that award is with us this morning, Dr. Ralph Piper. And so, we would like to have Ralph tell us a little about what life was like before he got so wrapped up in square dancing and other forms of dance. So, tell us, where were you born and brought up, Ralph?
Dr. Ralph Piper: I was born in Manchester, New Hampshire, so I’m a goddamned Yankee.
BB: Okay. And let’s see, you started square dancing, I think, in 1917.
RP: Right. In the town halls and the grange halls around the Manchester, and then up around Lake (?) in the summer time. (?), Newberry, New London, Bradford, New Hampshire.
BB: Right. Okay. Well, that was an interesting time of your life, I’m sure. Then you went to Springfield College in Massachusetts.
RP: Right, that’s a long story. I went to high school in Manchester, but I couldn’t see any use in going to school, so at almost the end of my Freshman year, I dropped out of high school and went to work in the industry, cotton and rolling mills along the Merrimack River there, for $15 a week. After about a year and a half, I decided that I wanted to go to college, so, to go to college, you have to go to high school. So I went back and started over, graduating from high school in 1924. Then I went to Springfield from ’24 to ’28. I had done qua, I loved dancing, and even as a kid, like a lot of us at those dances in the grange halls, in the town halls, we would dance mostly the round dances or the, what we call ballroom dances, I guess now. Or the one step, the two step, the Schottisch, the (?), Schottisch, polka, and we would get roped into fill out a square at times, and also to make another couple in the contra line.
BB: Right. Well, so your field actually was physical education. If I remember, Springfield College in Massachusetts at that time, and I guess to this day to some extent, is a large physical education institution.
RP: It’s not large. Very small.
BB: No, it’s a small school.
RP: But they’re well known all over the world for its graduates.
BB: Right, right. So, following that, then you got into, Kansas State.
RP: Well, in between, right, right. After graduating, yeah, from college, then my first position was coach of swimming and tennis at Kansas State College and athletic trainer, and instructor of physical education. I did about everything except sweep out the gym.
BB: Right. Okay. So, following Kansas State, then you went to the University of Minnesota?
RP: Right. At Kansas State, I had, got $2,000 for the school year. They were going to give me a raise of $200 for the next year. But I had met Fred Loring, the Director of Athletics at the University of Minnesota, and for some reason or other, he wanted me to come to Minnesota. Offered me $2,500.
BB: There you go.
BE: So, I quit Kansas State and went to Minnesota as Head Gymnastics Coach, and Instructor of Physical Education.
BB: Very good, very good. So then I understand that you got into square dance calling around 1938.
RP: Well, I, after finishing high school in 1924, I did no more square dancing until 1938 when I was in New York studying for my Doctorate at New York University, and I happened to join up with the first organized square dance club in the United States, supposedly, it was the American Square Dance Club with Margo Mayo from Kentucky as the leader, and Ralph (?) (Teefeteller?), who was the director of the Henry Street Settlement House. And he was from Tennessee, and he was the caller. We used to dance on Sunday afternoons with Teffy calling, and after the dancing, we sat around and sang under the direction or leadership of Burl Ives.
BB: AIl right, very nice. Well, I knew, Ralph (?)(Teffeteller?), not very well, but I knew him in New York City when I
RP: Okay, really?
BB: Yes, right. Did you by any chance ever know Lawrence Loy at the University of Massachusetts?
BB: Well, I worked with him. I was at the University of Massachusetts for a couple of years, and I worked closely with him in square dancing
BB: And he was just, I don’t know if people realized, but he was one of the first callers to put square dance things on a major label. That was RCA Victor, the great big 12 inch, 33 1/3 RPM records.
RP: Well, it was then that I really got interested in square dancing again. And I said it’s such a wonderful recreational activity, so I put it into my dance classes that I was teaching at the University of Minnesota, using calls, singing calls, that I picked up from the little book called “Good Morning” by Henry Ford. But it was actually written by Benjamin Lovett, because the calls were simple. The dances were simple, very easy.
But they were fun. In fact, in those days when we first started, square dancing was fun. And anybody who stuck his head in the door, where the group was dancing, they were invited in. Come on in. You can dance. Dance with us. If you can walk, you can square dance. But now, it’s so different. Now, if you take up my course for 8 weeks and you graduate, you might be able to join a square dance club.
BB: Right. Ralph, while you were at NYU, did you happen run into Michael and Maryann Herman?
RP: Oh, yeah. Michael and Maryann were very good friends of mine. I had a shop there where they sold equipment, and dresses, and paraphernalia. Well, they had a dance hall on 14th Street.
BB: I’ve called there several times. There was a professor at NYU, I think it was at NYU, Dick Kraus.
RP: Yeah. Well, Dick was at Columbia.
BB: Oh, Columbia, you’re right.
RP: My recollection of Dick was at the convention in Detroit when I was, when I arranged an evening of square and round dances inviting callers or teachers from all over the country, physical education teachers to call or present a round dance at this convention. Well, Dick, I corresponded with Dick and he said he would like to teach some little waltz routine that had just come out. There were, these new dances were coming out every week or so. So, he said, I need a partner. I don’t have anyone with, that will be with me, and so I got Mary Elizabeth McCoy from Lindenwood College to dance with him while he demonstrated this little waltz. Well, afterwards, Mary came to me with tears in her eyes as she said, I couldn’t help it. He led me into this two-step pattern of the waltz instead of the waltz, the common step, step, close. He did atwo-step pattern, step, close, step and it was a shame because there were several hundred members of the national dance association there to teach us who knew how to waltz.
And, but Dick, then Dick wrote a book. He asked me to send him one of my favorite square dances which I did. As I remember, it was called The Route.
BB: Oh yes, okay. Right.
RP: I was probably interested in his book.
BB: Right, also in that territory, and I think from the folk dance field, was Olga Kulbitski. Does that name ring a bell?
RP: Oh, Olga’s a very good friend of mine. In fact, she called me not long ago.
BB: Oh, is that right.
RP: From New York.
BB: Well, she got
RP: Olga had a background of ballet, teaching at Hunter College.
BB: Hunter College, right.
RP: And also, I believe, she taught some ballroom. She was the best lady partner that I ever remember for following. I would try to, I would start to tell her what we were going to do. She would say, don’t tell me, just lead me, and I will follow. She was a wonderful dancer.
BB: Well, she was a little taller than you, wasn’t she?
BB: Yes, right. Well, she got involved in the square dance field but not too long with (?)
BB: Yes. A little bit. Way back, way back when.
RP: Is she still living?
BB: As far as I know. I.
RP: Out on Long Island.
BB: I guess. No, I’ve lost contact with her for many years ago as a matter of fact. So, was it at that time that you made your association with Charley Thomas?
RP: I’ve forgotten how Charley and I got to know each other or got interested, but Charley, and Jimmy Clausen, and I happened to begin the American Squares magazine some time in the’ 40s. And then in 1949, we started the first America Square Dance camp at the Medford YMCA camp in Medford, New Jersey. Then we moved it to Camp (?) in Laredo, Minnesota. And Charley came only for about 2 years, but Jimmy kept coming, and I directed the camp for several years. We had students and leaders in from all over the country, and we would bring in some expert for teaching folk, or ballroom, or square or contras. Men like Don, or Don and Marie Armstrong
RP: I had them on the staff and Ricky Holden and people like that different summers. We ran the camp until about 1956, ’57. In ’56, I wasn’t there, nor was I at the national square dance convention in the summer of, in Minneapolis because I was teaching on a Fulbright award in Burma, at the University of Rangoon. I’m probably the only living or dead person that turned down the chance to coach an Olympic team or a United States team in the Olympics. But the same year, I was Chairman of the National Rules Committee of Gymnastics, and I had a Fulbright Award to teach at the University of Rangoon. And the State Department made a deal with me that if I would accept that award and teach, they would give my wife an award to teach at the women’s college in Burma. And that meant the whole school year of teaching and a chance to visit a lot of other countries going and coming back. So, I resigned from the Rules Committee and withdrew my nomination as a coach, Olympic coach. I was on the Olympic Committee for about 14 years.
BB: Right. Well, this is a far cry from a Fulbright student to a high school drop-out.
BB: Well, do you happen know how Charley Chomas and Jimmy Klausen got together? ‘Cause
RP: No, I can’t remember that.
BB: Wasn’t Clausen from Texas?
RP: Yes. Jimmy was from around El Paso. He and Herb Greggerson.
BB: Yeah. It was an odd combination for a Texan and New Jerseyian, and a Minnesotan to get together, but, I think you’d like to know that in the Lloyd Shaw Dance Archives, where I’m volunteering, there are many, many workshop brochures from this camp. How do you pronounce it again?
BB: (?), right. And these were all came from Don Armstrong when he wanted to preserve his collection, we got many, many copies of workshop notes at the various camps that you were running at the time.
RP: Yeah. I hired Don and Marie. Marie was very good on children’s rhythms. And of course, Don was good on contra.
BB: Right. And still is, right. Yeah. And even though they’re separated, they still work together.
BB: Yes. Yeah, I see Don once in a while, and I had a letter from Marie, yeah, trying to get me to come to her camp which is in Kentucky in August.
RP: Oh, really?
BB: Yes, right. But Don won’t be there, and so they’re still friendly and still working together.
RP: That’s interesting. I’m glad to hear it. We had people of, as Shaw did, I was at Pappy’s summer school for three summers.
BB: Oh, were you.
RP: 1942, ’43 and ’45.
BB: Is That so?
RP: If I remember it, and a lot of callers and dancers from all over the country. I learned more from them than I did from Pappy.
BB: Yeah, right. Okay.
RP: Pappy was an interesting person, a great philosopher. I never knew of anyone with a philosophy that said one thing and did just the opposite. Pappy used to say, don’t teach square dancing to young children, like elementary kids, but he did all the time. He said don’t mix square dancing with folk dancing, but he always included folk dances in his programs.
BB: Right. Well, I hadn’t thought of that. That’s interesting, yeah. So you maintained your association with the square dance activity for many, many years, and
RP: Yes. It just grew and grew and grew. After I started calling, it (?) from the singing calls in the little book, “Good Morning” by Henry Ford or published by Henry Ford, but actually written by Benjamin Lovitt. There were six singing calls and very simple. And that’s what I cut my teeth on. Do you remember any of the names by the way, out of “Good Morning”?
BB: Well, we all have copies of Good Morning so, I
RP: It was published in 1924, if I remember correctly .
BB: Is that right? I didn’t know.
RP: Or maybe not (?)
BB: I don’t have that figure in mind, but Ralph, I’m going to stop the tape for a moment so I can turn it over. We stopped for just a moment to turn the tape over. We have some more questions that we want to ask our good friend, Ralph Piper. Ralph, at the presentation last night of the banquet of Callerlab, you made a tremendous impression on the audience.
RP: Well, thank you. I was scared to death. I was afraid I couldn’t do it.
BB: Oh, yeah. No, you did great. There were a couple of stories there that kind of shocked the audience, but I think it’s the first time at Callerlab that I ever heard people laugh almost without stopping for a good 3 or 4 minutes, in all. You really took them over.
RP: Thank you. I enjoyed it. But, but I was going back to the beginning, I called at the, in my dance classes at the University, and that same fall, 1938, I ran, or I called at a series of square dance sessions at the institute, the international institute in St. Paul where they had five fewer dancers and they took up a collection of 10¢ from each dancer which they used to pay the accompanist. I didn’t get paid, in fact, I called for 2 years without charging anything for my services. Then I quit using live music and went to records, and I charged $5, and $10, and $15 and occasionally, $25 at some big dances at a country club, or athletic club and I got probably $200 or $250 for a seminar weekend and seminar some distance place, and I called for some groups at reg, met regularly like the first Monday of every month, or twice a month, or, and, also for just 1-night stands. In fact, I got so many calls, I couldn’t take them all so I sometimes sent out some of my dancers or students lending them a record player and some records, and said, go ahead and take the job.
BB: There you go.
RP: So I started a lot of callers that way, including, oh, such as Arden Johnson who became one of the presidents of the state federation.
BB: Okay, going back to Massachusetts, I just happened to have a thought. Did you ever happen to know an old fiddler by the name of Sammy Spring?
RP: It don’t
BB: Sammy Spring. Okay. Well, one of the stories you were just relating, my Father ran into him when he retired to Florida, and they used to talk, and he said, well, do you ever go out and play anymore, Sammy. And he says, well, I’ll still go out, he says, but I, I don’t go out for less than $15. And this was in the 50s, right.
RP: Well. First, I didn’t call for, didn’t charge anyone for about 2 years. I thought that I should be paying them for letting me practice on them.
BB: Yeah. Well, you’ve also done some writing in the square dance field. You authored some books. Tell us about them.
RP: Oh, yes. I wrote, oh, at least 100 articles in different magazines, many on dance.
And I was associate editor of American Squares Magazine. And Square and Round by Les Gotcher. And on the editorial board of the Roundup, which was a state magazine in Minnesota. Where actually, in 1947, I was co-founder with Maury Gilman of what it was, the folk dance federation of Minnesota. I had, it was my grandchild because I had been called in San Francisco in 1946 to set up a physical medicine service at Letterman General Hospital, and danced with folk dance and square dance groups in San Francisco, and they organized this taped Folk Dance Federation of California in the summer of 1946. So, when I got back to Minnesota, I had that bug in my ear, and at one of the festivals in Mason’s programs in St. Paul, I talked with Maury Gilman and said, what do you think about trying to organize a state federation in Minnesota. So he thought it would be wonderful. So we worked together, and got it organized in the fall of 1947. And then as far as writing, I also wrote, co-authored with my wife, Zora, who was a dancer and teacher, a little booklet called One Hundred Seventy-five Folk and Round Dances. And also the book called Developing the Creative Square Dance Caller.
BB: There you go. Well, I can’t help but think that, when you were sharing your expertise with Les Gotcher, that you and he must have been what we would call an odd couple.
RP: I guess so.
BB: Les was a character. So, Les has passed away, you know.
RP: No, I didn’t know that.
RP: Most of my colleagues have. I’m surprised I outlived them. I didn’t expect to live beyond 55, as I had a brother who died at 31.
BB: Is that right.
RP: And my Mother died at 46, I mean my Father. My Mother died at 54, so I thought if I lived to be 55, I would be lucky.
BB: You’d be ahead of the game, right. Well, Les had moved to Hawaii.
BB: And his wife had passed away, and he remarried in Hawaii. Her name was Sunshine. She was a terrific dancer, but he was still teaching, line dancing mostly. The country western style of line dancing, up until the time he died.
BB: That was not too long ago. So, well Ralph, I think we’re just about through unless you can think of anything else you’d like to have us save for posterity.
RP: Oh, I don’t know. I got to call in 36 countries, 36 states or 38, four Canadian provinces, and nine countries, out of the 83 countries that I visited on (?). And I called in (?) some after I retired in 1970 at Laguna Leisure World in Laguna Hills, and I danced some with some people who were members of the Callerlab, like Bill Johnston, who’s up in Oregon now, AI Rice, And Art Harvey. But I’m, my teaching after 1970 was on a voluntary basis.
BB: Right, right. I just had an interview with a couple in Leisure World. They were, they’re honored by the Round Dance Association like Callerlab which they call Roundalab, and they have won the Silver Halo Award which is similar to the award that you received last night, and that’s Eddie and Audrey Palmquist. And they live in Leisure World. I was there.
RP: Which one?
BB: I went in gate nine.
RP: Uh, in Laguna Hills?
BB: Yes, right.
RP: What was the name?
RP: Palm, oh, I’ll have to look them up.
BB: Okay. Yeah, I’ve got their address, and I’ll send it to you.
BB: Yeah. I don’t think I have your
RP: I live just outside the gates now.
BB: Oh, you do. Okay.
RP: Outside of gate three, at Palm Terrace.
BB: All right. Well, that’s interesting. Well, we really, really enjoyed your acceptance speech last night, and I really, really enjoyed having this chance to sit and chat with you for a few minutes about your
RP: That award will look nice besides my four sports Halls of Fame awards.
BB: There you go. Well, that was a pleasure.
RP: It’s very meaningful to me.
BB: Right. Well, I’m glad of that. So, Dr. Ralph Pepper, Piper, we thank you for taking the time and we’ll hope that you enjoy life down in Laguna Hills. I’m sure you will, it’s a
RP: I’ve lived a couple of lifetimes already.
BB: Not quite, not quite. But thank you so very, very much. I appreciate your time.
RP: Thank you, Bob.