February 25, 1997
Members of the local Methodist Ladies Aid Society were having a meeting in the church basement one afternoon several years ago when they were surprised to hear the lilting melody of "St. Louis Blues" being played on the brand new pipe organ in the sanctuary upstairs. A couple of aspiring young musicians were at the keyboard but were unaware that they were doing anything wrong.
One of them was Warenne Kennedy, a daughter of Ivan and Hazel Kennedy, and the other was Ashley Alexander, who also was born with music in his soul. Warenne, now eighty-two, still delights in telling the story. "I was young then, at sixteen, and didn't realize it was the wrong thing to do." As it turns out, both Warenne and Ashley have made music their life and have brought entertainment to thousands as a result.
"I was in the Perry schools from about the fourth grade until graduation in 1930," Warenne says. "Before that (our family) had lived in many places. Our Dad, Ivan Kennedy, was a violinist and orchestra leader in theaters. They played for silent movies and vaudeville acts. Our Mother, Hazel Kennedy, played piano and organ in the theaters. When I was born, their first child, she said she took me in a basket and set me on top of the pipe organ while she played. We lived in Oklahoma City a number of times, (and in) Shawnee, Tulsa, Okmulgee, Manhattan, Kansas, and Grand Island, Nebraska. Our folks decided that it was harder to move around as the family got larger, so they came back to Perry, where both of their parents lived.
"My mother taught me piano from the age of five. Music was always my interest. When I graduated from high school in 1930, my folks weren't able to send me to college. Luckily, the Methodist church purchased a pipe organ that year. I had been the pianist and played the pump organ in the basement of the church for Sunday school and junior church since I was about nine years old. The church organist, Ethel Knox, a teacher in the school, was on a trip to Mexico that summer. So, I went to Kansas City to take the lessons and learned to play the organ. This was the first pipe organ in Perry. It was a Wurlitzer and my lessons were in a studio where station WHB broadcast. I was privileged to play on those programs. My first song was 'When It's Springtime in the Rockies.' I played for church the next year and took a post-graduate course at school." That's when her impromptu concert with Ashley caught the ear of the Ladies Aid Society, but that little misstep did nothing to deter the musical careers of either one of them.
"The next summer mother took me to Stillwater to try and find a job as I wanted to start to school (at A.&M.). The Physical Education Department hired a pianist for classes, paying 35 cents an hour. They had a pianist, but took my application. After a few days (the other pianist) cut her finger and I got the job, which lasted through college. I also got in a dance band, Bob Amend's Collegians, which I played with all through college. I studied piano, organ and voice, and graduated in 1935 with a degree so I could teach school.
"I taught in Ames and Mannford, then in Perry for three years. I taught grade school music and penmanship. With Thelma Brown, I taught auditorium, which was a period of giving plays, operettas and May festivals. Thelma was handling the dancing and physical activities. I enjoyed giving the operettas. I also had a boys' choir of fifth grade boys, of which I was very proud. They wore white robes made by their mothers. Their voices were so good, and we did some special appearances.
"I married Charles Harris in 1940 and left the teaching field. During World War II, while he was overseas, I was in California. I worked for Southern Pacific Railroad a year, then started playing in restaurants and clubs. I had many interesting experiences and met many interesting people. I played the organ for Doris Day and Errol Flynn when they got married in a Warner Brothers movie. I once worked with Johnny Carson for a show. During the intermission he told me, 'I'm just batting around, doing a little radio work, hoping to get some kind of a break.' As you know, he did get a break -- the Tonight Show.'
"I played for (the comedian) George Gobel once when he sang and for Phil Harris and Alice Faye when they sang. On one of my jobs, a young man named Clint Eastwood used to bring his drums and sit in with me. He was working in a (TV) series called 'Rawhide.' I had the privilege of giving piano lessons to Stephanie Zimbalist when she was around six to eight years old. It was an experience to teach her on their twelve-foot Steinway grand and to know her dad, Efram Zimbalist Jr.
"I am now eighty-two years of age. I had to stop working with a girls' trio about seven years ago. I fell and broke a knee while working. It was on a hardwood floor, and I tripped on a throw rug. Later I had a knee replacement and this year I had a hip replacement because of severe arthritis. It's been three months and I am recovering nicely."
Warenne, the composer of "Dear Old Perry High," added that she hopes to be in Perry next September for the annual Cherokee Strip celebration to relive the thrill she always feels at hearing her song played by the PHS band. This recent series of columns has dealt with the family of Hazel and Ivan Kennedy by highlighting some of the ways they have entertained audiences here and elsewhere for the greater part of a century. Their story also helps tell a special part of the earlier days in the growth of this community. Thanks to all of them for the wonderful memories their lives and their music have inspired.