Southern People
Piano woman: Evelyn Butterhoff
Piano woman: Evelyn Butterhoff first played with Frank Skalski and his Silver Eagle Orchestra at the Polish Home Club in Fells Point.

The woman behind the piano was wild, gifted and fearless.

Music was in Evelyn Butterhoff and it had to come out, whether in gin mills, Holy Roller churches or events at which someone had already been hired to play the piano.

“At my 40th birthday party on a [boat] in the harbor, Mom asks if she can play a song or two. She’s the mother of the birthday girl, so what’s the guy going to say?” laughed her daughter, Mary Carol Ambrose of Parkville, Md.

“She sits down at this electric pi-annah and RIPPED it up! The band didn’t know she could play. Everybody’s screaming for more, and the regular keyboard player didn’t want to follow her.”

Evelyn Butterhoff – who gave virtually all of her 86 years to music – died last month at the Hamilton Center nursing home on Harford Rd. in Baltimore from complications of dementia and a stroke suffered in 2005.

Evelyn could do more with one hand on a set of 88s than many musicians can do with two. But that never translated into fame or fortune.

“That girl … plays for a few lousy dollars [in saloons],” lamented the pianist’s mother – Agnes Beck – not long before her own death in 1990. “It breaks my heart to see these other people with no talent who have two or three homes and cars.”

Eveyln’s last performance was more an act of bravery than entertainment.

“Mom’s sister [Dorothy] was visiting not long before she died and took her downstairs to see if she could play the piano,” said Ambrose. “My mother played ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ with her one good hand.”

Live from East Baltimore

The former Evelyn Anna Beck was born at the height of the Jazz Age to an East Baltimore factory worker named John Charles Beck and his wife, Agnes Smrha.

The couple belonged to St. Wenceslaus Roman Catholic Church in the days when the parish was strictly Bohemian and Czech. It is where Eveyln and her three siblings were baptized.

The young Evelyn Butterhoff: "she absolutely did not want to be a homemaker.”

The Beck family lived at 443 North Curley St. in Baltimore, just around the corner from Butterhoff’s Grocery where Evelyn’s future husband was born.

“Mom’s father was a natural musician,” said Ambrose. “He played piano, violin, drums and mandolin. Never took lessons.”

Evelyn attended St. Elizabeth of Hungary parochial school adjacent to Patterson Park and began 50 cents an hour piano lessons with a neighborhood woman her mother described as an “old maid.”

At age 12, Evelyn began studying with Jack Rohr at the Hammann Music Co. in the 200 block of North Liberty St. downtown. Those lessons cost $2 each.

“Jack really socked it to me,” said Evelyn in a 1986 interview, recalling Rohr as the biggest influence on her playing, particularly in regard to keeping time. “He taught me sonatas, Beethoven, how to change keys, improvise and fake it.”

First Professional Gig at 17

In 1940, Evelyn graduated from St. Elizabeth’s business school. Her first professional job came when she was 17, a gig with Frank Skalski and his Silver Eagle Orchestra at the Polish Home Club on South Broadway in Fells Point.

In those pre-Elvis Presley days – when pianos were as common in bars as shuffleboard tables – she played a wide range of Baltimore taverns, restaurants and social clubs, many of them long-gone.

And kept at it deep into the dark epochs of disco, grunge and gangster rap.

A quick sampling of the houses rocked by Evelyn Butterhoff includes Meushaw’s Restaurant on Frederick Rd., the old Finnish Hall in what is now Greektown, various Democratic clubs and Odd Fellows halls, the fabled Emerson Hotel downtown, dance halls at Moose and Elks clubs, and nightclubs from Essex to Pasadena.

“Mom had to deal with crappy pianos in bars and hated it,” said Ambrose. “She played many a crappy piano.”

Toward the end of her career, Evelyn’s regular gigs were at Rickter’s on Belair Rd. near Herring Run Park, a job behind the organ at Winston Ave. Baptist Church on East 39th St., and the Glenmore Tavern on Harford Rd.

“I never hired her,” said Cal Bitner, who owned the Glenmore at the time. “She’d just come in and play the piano.”

A pass of the hat might be enough for Evelyn to get a sandwich and cab fare home with a few nickels left over.

All-Girl Band

In 1950, Evelyn joined the Queens of Rhythm, an all-female band that played in the mid-Atlantic area. A surviving band member – Viola Stelmack of Essex, still playing music – was one of the mourners at Evelyn’s funeral, a Mass of Christian burial held at St. Pius X church in Towson.

“She’d just come in and play the piano," said one bar owner.

A year or so before joining the “Queens,” Evelyn had married John Frederick Butterhoff, Jr. Family legend holds that John, a drummer who graduated from Mt. St. Joseph High School, was smitten by Evelyn’s talent as well as her beauty.

The attraction set in motion a conflict – the life of a musician versus the more mundane obligations of a wife and mother – that dogged the couple to the end of their days.

“Mom had no interest in domestic things,” said Ambrose, noting that her mother was a loving parent whose interests lay outside the home. “She absolutely did not want to be a homemaker. She wanted to play music.”

Ambrose said that when she turned 18 in 1968 her mother “ran away from home,” leaving Mr. Butterhoff with her and her brothers. “We didn’t even know where she was at first,” she said.

Mr. Butterhoff died in 2004 and was buried at the Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery in Owings Mills. Although he hadn’t lived with his wife for the last 40 years of his life, Ambrose put Evelyn right next to him.

“In life they were too hard-headed to sit down and have a sane conversation, so now that they can’t talk anymore, I put them in the ground together,” she laughed.

Whoop, Holler and a Smack

I met Evelyn Butterhoff in the mid-1980s when I was living on Kentucky Ave. in Mayfield and she regularly played at Rickter’s (now Slim’s Ace of Club) nearby.

I was thrilled by her Keith Moon approach to the piano – she would whoop and holler and smack a hanging plant while playing.

Legend holds that Rickter’s installed a steel plate under the piano because she had stomped a hole in the floor.

A lifelong Roman Catholic and always a woman of faith – sanctity and the rollicking fun of a good-timer living side-by-side in the same heart – Evelyn attended services with a brand of Catholicism known as the “charismatics.”

Her faith was tested – and faltered, according to her daughter – when she began encountering health problems.

“Mom had breast cancer and a mastectomy in 1994 and she was never the same after that,” said Ambrose. “It shook her faith. And after the chemo she was less lively. Never the same.”

Evelyn Butterhoff is survived by sons, John J. Butterhoff of North Charles St. in Baltimore and Robert W. Butterhoff – a drummer in a 1970s local band called “Fresh” – who lives in Manchester, Md.

Other survivors include her sisters, Dorothy Beck Hutchins, wife of the retired Sunpapers photographer Paul Hutchins, and sister Marie Kohl, as well as three grandsons.

Evelyn also leaves behind her piano, an upright made by the Meissner Co. of Milwaukee. She bought it used on Joppa Rd. in 1975 for $250 and paid it off by installments.

The piano – faithfully tuned over the years by Evelyn’s cousin, Bernard Hauser – is “safe and sound,” according to Ambrose, in the home of good friends in Fork, Md.

 

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All photos courtesy of the Butterhoff family. This article first appeared in Baltimore Brew.

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Rafael Alvarez

Rafael Alvarez

A lifelong Baltimorean, born on Bob Dylan's 17th birthday, Rafael Alvarez has spent the last 35 years writing about his hometown -- and when he can get away with it -- nothing else. The author of the epic "Orlo and Leini" stories, he is about to finish a history of The Tuerk House, a pioneering drug and alcohol rehab in Baltimore that was one of the first facilities for the poor when alcoholism was decriminalized in 1968.

Alvarez wrote for each of the first three seasons of the HBO drama, " The Wire," and was especially involved in season two, which focuses on the Baltimore waterfront. His book about the show -- the encyclopedic "The Wire: Truth Be Told" -- was published by Grove/Atlantic and was nominated for a 2011 Edgar Award. 

His influences include the great Johnny Winter, Isaac Bashevis Singer and the art of Henry Ossawa Tanner.