Oscar Wilde’s Big Leadville Adventure
“Please Don’t Shoot the Piano Player. He’s Doing the Best That He Can”
By Kathy Bedell © 2015 Leadville Today
Leadville has seen a resurgence of The Arts in recent years, with live music, murals and other cultural events. However, back in the frontier days of The Cloud City, entertainment was a bit more difficult to come by. Sure, the harmonica could liven up most campfire gatherings, but it wasn’t until the big gold and silver veins were struck, that such wealth could support the more cultural fêtes. That’s when Lead Vegas really rolled out the red carpet for entertainers.
By 1879, Leadville boasted the biggest opera house west of the Mississippi, thanks to Horace Tabor’s wealth. The venue attracted national and international performers, actors and orators, along with Leadville’s new rich in attendance. And while there were some “cheap seats” in the upper balcony, most miners and other hard-working types found their musical satisfaction in one of the many dance hall saloons.
During its heyday, there’s no doubt that Leadville’s former Red Light District saw its fair share of traveling fiddle players, guitar strummers, and accordion squeezers. However, it was the piano player who stuck it out, night after night, through boom and bust. Maybe that was due to his instrument of choice, one a bit more difficult to travel with. Regardless, it was usually the floating melody of a ragtime tune that brought in the passersby; and those honky-tonk favorites being pounded out on the well-worn keys that kept them hanging
around ‘til dawn! However, one night in 1883, The Magic City saw these two worlds, of opera house finery, and dance hall bawdiness, collide. The result was one of America’s favorite Old West sayings: “Please Don’t Shoot The Piano Player, He’s Doing The Best He Can!”
Well, of course this musical musing has its roots in Leadville, what worthwhile story doesn’t? The year was 1883 and famed English author and orator Oscar Wilde was in town for a visit. Of course, his eloquence in elocution packed the historic Tabor Opera House with high society intellectuals. However, the local, hard-working types had also extended a one-of-a-kind invitation to Wilde; one he took them up on.
Wilde agreed to venture underground, to the bottom of a silver mine, in a bucket. There in the cavern way below the earth’s surface, he dined, drank whiskey and smoked a cigar. But the big event came after dinner, as described by Wilde:
“Then I had to open a new vein, or lode, which with a silver drill, I brilliantly performed, amidst unanimous applause. The silver drill was presented to me and the lode named “The Oscar.” I had hoped that in their simple grand way they would have offered me shares in “The Oscar,” but in their artless untutored fashion they did not. Only the silver drill remains as a memory of my night at Leadville.”
Well, maybe one more thing . . .
As the story goes, after his underground musing, Wilde and his newfound miner friends made their way back downtown, gathering at the Legendary Silver Dollar Saloon, across from the opera house.
While in the bar that night “with the miners and the female friends of the miners,” Wilde noticed the sign “Please don’t shoot the pianist; he is doing his best.”
While the saying has slightly different versions, from not shooting the “organist” to “fiddle player,” this is the most commonly accepted version. In fact, the “Please don’t shoot the piano player. He is doing his best” eventually became one of the most popular signs in western saloons – and churches – across the country.
The saying stuck with Oscar Wilde as well. Back in England, when touring for his “Impressions of America,” Wilde recalled all this with delight:
“I was struck with this recognition of the fact that bad art merits the penalty of death, and I felt that in this remote city, where the aesthetic applications of the revolver were clearly established in the case of music, my apostolic task would be much simplified, as indeed it was.”
After all, as the primary source of musical merriment, the piano player’s demise through the crossfire of a gunfight or direct gunfire due to an out-of-tune organ, may very well mean the end of entertainment for months, if not years.
Making music in Leadville must have been tough back then! It still is; so be sure to support live music and local musicians whenever you can . . . In The ‘Ville.