Sometime in the summer of 2004, I was playing Scrabble in a New Hope, Pennsylvania book shop. The Book Cellar was an independent used book store, and the Scrabble group that met there was a friendly competitive club that held annual tournaments. One of my competitors was Mark Walter, a New York lawyer who would drive all the way out to Bucks County every Friday evening to permutate his seven letters and socialize with the local book nerds. I had been playing Scrabble with this guy for about four years and knew little about him, but as time passed and Mark continued to outscore me in every game I played with him, he began to open up about his father. I learned that he had been a pianist in New York, and had passed on when Mark was young. Only gradually did I learn that his father had been Cy Walter.
Apparently Mark, too, was gradually learning that his father had been Cy Walter. He was not that familiar with the musical genres that his father embodied, and he wasn’t particularly savvy about the popular music culture of the mid-Twentieth Century. Nor, for that matter, would he have then recognized much of the Great American Songbook. But then his mother, Cam Walter, showed him her veritable treasure of memorabilia, unpublished recordings, photographs, signature books, announcement cards, telegrams, radio discs, sheet music and a plethora of other rarities and one-of-a-kind ephemera that she had carefully preserved, and which had been lying dormant in storage for decades. This revelation changed everything.
It may have been fate that Mark had just laid down a seven-letter word (technically known as a Bingo), effectively putting his score 120 points beyond anyone else playing that evening. Or, if not kismet, then Mark’s inspired play was certainly an happy harbinger of a similarly successful venture soon to be. After the game we were chatting excitedly about his recent disclosure of the existence of Cam’s awesome collection of Cy-abilia. “Why don’t we throw this material up on a web site, so the whole world can enjoy it?”, I asked.
Mark immediately shined to the idea. He had found someone who would help him construct the edifice for fun, instead of for profit. I had been working as a web developer for almost a decade and had specialized in web-based applications for business. To do a web site devoted purely to preserving a cultural heritage was an opportunity that I did not want to miss. I saw the project as an experiment on whether we could not only create a living memorial to Cy Walter, but also simultaneously to the composers, the musicians, the piano enthusiasts, and the fans of jazz, cabaret, Broadway, and the Great American Songbook, from whom Cy had drawn inspiration for his greatest material.
As a personal challenge, I wanted to see if a web site could revive an artist who had been unjustly diminished in musical history. For the decade of the ’90s, the World Wide Web had been a boom town for business opportunists and start-ups, a digital gold rush in which twenty-year-olds were becoming millionaires even before their companies had turned a penny of profit. Fortunately, there was a non-commercial world of fans, of enthusiasts for every aspect of culture, who were publishing web sites about everything from their favorite rock bands to pre-blog trivia about their lives. I figured that if we were to digitally scan, archive and publish even a portion of the Cy Walter treasure-chest, we could outshine most of that noise and create a strong revival of interest in this unique artist’s oeuvre.
It worked beyond our imaginings. Not only did the Cy Walter web site (www.cywalter.com) start receiving upward of a million hits a month, but Mark began to correspond with hundreds of fans: musical colleagues, old friends, professional musicians who valued Cy’s music, those who had just been on the scene, those who had helped make the scene, audio specialists, musicologists, historians, caretakers of the songbooks, and cabaret performers who had perched, mesmerized, on the side of Cy’s Steinway as he caressed its keyboard with all ten fingers (although some would swear he had twenty).
And what a pleasure it was for thousands to go to the virtual jukebox and play all that music that almost didn’t make it back into daylight. What a joy it was for pianists to see the long-lost scores of Cy’s original arrangements and compositions, to print them out, and to give the music its most glorious praise: a performance before a live audience. How wonderful it was for Cy’s vault to be opened and enjoyed for free, readily accessible to all. Internet technology made that all happen. We had harnessed that technology in service to the spirit of art, and Cy Walter was back in business.
Over the past ten years, I’ve witnessed Mark reconnect many broken threads of both musical and cultural history using the Cy Walter web site as his home base. It’s a living entity, ready for new growth as we prepare hundreds of items to be newly-posted. We are giving the web site a face-lift and transforming it from an early ’90s web platform to a fully modern and interactive one. It has served us all well, giving birth to a new awareness of Cy’s artistry, and a genesis of many happy performances and successful projects (including the CD that you now hold in your hands). We pledge that we will do all we can to ensure that the Cy Walter web site will continue to keep Cy at his 88 ivories for decades to come.
Richard Behrens is a novelist and web developer. In 2015 he founded Nine Muses Books to promote his literary creation Lizzie Borden, Girl Detective. For more information visit www.lizziebordengirldetective.com.