Seattle's famed virtuoso classical pianist Dorothy Eustis arrives in Tacoma on November 16, 1946, in advance of an ill-fated concert.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 11/04/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20169

On the cold wintry day of November 16, 1946, the New York-based Dorothy Eustis (1916-2001) returns to her native Pacific Northwest for what was to be her only local concert that year -- at the Lakewood Theatre in the Lakewood Community Center, near Tacoma. But an historically bad weather front will disrupt those plans and disappoint her many ticket-holding fans.

Dorothy Eustis had been a child prodigy on the piano -- one who made a big splash locally when she was invited to perform with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra at age 13. In 1943 she was brought to New York City’s prestigious Town Hall auditorium where she wowed the crowds and even the jaded critics at The New York Times, who gushed that she was a musician "possessed with the brilliance of a real virtuoso" ("Eustis Plays..."). From there she went on to an acclaimed career presenting recitals at prime venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to the Hollywood Bowl. Years of international tours commenced, as did a career that included cutting records, and soundtracks for Hollywood movies. Eustis would also display a ready willingness to pitch in during World War II, often agreeing to perform for USO shows, at military hospitals, and for troops out in the field. 

So, in 1946 it was a pretty big deal to have Eustis returning to the Northwest for a sole scheduled concert -- this one to be at a little theater just southwest of Tacoma, in Lakewood. By November 14, the Tacoma News Tribune was already sharing its excitement at having Eustis come through town: "As she comes back to Puget Sound just long enough to play at Lakewood theater ... it seems incredible that just a few years ago Dorothy Eustis was laughed at when she said she was going to become a top-drawer concert pianist. Yet she has seen fulfillment of that dream, and is still in her early 20's!" (November 14, 1946). 

November 16, 1946

On Saturday November 16 Eustis spent time in Tacoma being feted by senator-elect (and former mayor of Tacoma) Harry P. Cain (1906-1979) and the two of them were photographed by that town's prominent photographer, William Richards, of the Turner Richards Studio. They evidently had a fine time, sipping coffee, reviewing some sheet music, and having Eustis plunk out a few notes on a handy piano. The photographs were likely intended to help publicize the upcoming concert booked for the Lakewood Theatre.

Also on the agenda that day was a visit to Madigan General Hospital at nearby Fort Lewis -- today’s Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord -- where the Pierce County Chapter of the Red Cross had arranged to have Eustis perform. A brief daytime show was held for the grateful patients convalescing in the wards of Section 5, and then a second complete concert took place later that evening in the recreation hall. Following that, Eustis traveled up to Seattle where she presumably spent a couple nights visiting with her family in its Green Lake neighborhood home (102 E 63rd Street), all the while with the weather threatening to get nastier. 

November 18, 1946

Eustis's concert in Lakewood represented what was intended to be that winter's concert season opener in Sidney Dean and Frederick Gamble’s lineup of stage attractions. Their promotional efforts even resulted in the Tacoma News Tribune publishing (on November 16) what was to be the pianist's planned program for the show -- the song-list included works composed by Scarlatti, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Saint-Saens. In addition, it was promised that Eustis would perform these classical works on a genuine Steinway grand piano. 

Then on November 18, the Tacoma News Tribune published a piece that had clearly been prepared in advance -- not anticipating what Mother Nature might have in store. It noted that: "Tacomans will hear Miss Eustis at Lakewood theater tonight, Monday, in her only Northwest appearance this year. She will wear one of her $1,000 Adrian gowns which measure 17 yards at the hemline. Of rare Italian lace, this is the much discussed gown that she wore for the first time at her Hollywood Bowl performance in September." 

Alas, that very same morning, the greater Puget Sound region awoke to find a heavy snowfall on the ground. Tacoma saw about 16.1 inches pile up within 24 hours, a climatological phenomenon which merited this headline on November 20: "Freeze Forecast as City Wrestles Heaviest Day’s Snowfall Since 1891" (Tacoma News Tribune). 

Pity then, our poor pianist who faced the daunting task of heading out from Seattle, down into the maw of the snowstorm, and the 30-mile trek to Lakewood. "Driving from Seattle that evening was a hazardous experience, But Dorothy Eustis arrived at the theatre on time, only to find there were no lights, no heat and no audience" (Miller). The show had been cancelled.

No published sources have been located that relate how her return drive back home went but, the Tribune had already published what her known travel schedule was: "After her Lakewood engagement she flies to Boston for a recital Nov. 26, then to New Haven, Dec. 4, after which she makes her New York re-entree [sic] at Town Hall, Dec. 8" ("Eustis To Show..."). Thus, bad weather had conspired to thwart the Lakewood concert plans, and neither that town's citizens nor Tacoma's would ever get another chance to have Dorothy Eustis perform for them. 


Sources:

Richard E. Hays, "Dorothy Eustis' Tacoma Recital To Be Nov. 18," The Seattle Times, November 11, 1946, p. 16; "Eustis To Show Mon.," Tacoma News Tribune, November 14, 1946, p. 13; "Virtuoso," Ibid., November 15, 1946, p. 25; "Eustis Plays At Madigan," Ibid., November 15, 1946, p. 23; "Eustis In Concert," Ibid., November 16, 1946, p. 18; "Miss Eustis In Person," Ibid., November 18, 1946, p. 8; "Tacoma To Get More Snow," Ibid., November 19, 1946, p. 1; "Freeze Forecast as City Wrestles Heaviest Day’s Snowfall Since 1891," Ibid., November 20, 1946, p. 1; "Tacoma Hard Hit By Fall -- Schools Closed for Day, Power, Phones Cut Off, Traffic Tangled," Ibid., November 20, 1946, p. 1.


Related Topics:   Biographies | Music & Musicians | Weather

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