by David Hall
Almost sixty years ago a young St John’s Ambulance nurse was on duty in the Keighley Hippodrome, watching Syncopating Sandy beat the world record for non-stop piano playing.
It was May 1956 when Betty Collins – now Mrs Betty Vear of Cross Hills – saw Sandy needing to play for 133 hours to beat the record, held by Jim Montecino from New Zealand. It was the last year of the Keighley theatre and almost 20,000 people paid to see Sandy – one shilling for adults and sixpence for children – and many heard him finish with a flourish, playing The Dam Busters March.
When I chatted to her recently about that occasion it brought back my own memories. As a junior journalist working on the then Nuneaton Evening Tribune in Warwickshire I was always looking for a way to impress my senior colleagues.
When the moment came in 1956 I conducted my own undercover exercise, intending to rival some of the greatest journalistic scoops of the time.
Visiting Nuneaton, at the time was Syncopating Sandy – a pianist who was confident that he was going to break the world record for non-stop piano playing.
He was appearing at the Hippodrome Theatre in Nuneaton – a few miles from my home – but that was no problem. At 2 o’clock in the morning I crept out of my bed and eased my way down the stairs, taking the greatest care not to waken my parents and my four sisters. I went into the back yard of our middle-of-a-terrace house and took my cycle, which had been carefully left in a position so that I could make an easy getaway.
It took a few minutes to get to the theatre but once there I discovered all the doors were locked. I banged and rattled on a back door until a sleepy, tousle-headed youth appeared and, when I proudly showed him my press card, allowed me in. His voice, as I entered, became louder and I was puzzled as to why.
I made my way through a passage, past dressing-rooms, and finally into the main theatre where the Bolton-born James Strickland – his real name – was sitting at the piano, his fingers caressing the keys.
I stayed for half-a-hour listening and trying to see if anything was amiss. The fact that the door had been locked was a mystery. When I asked about it I was politely told that they didn’t want “any old drunk wandering in and making a nuisance of himself. This is a serious competition – not a place where dossers can get a night’s sleep.”
That didn’t seem unreasonable, but…
His vision for beating the world record had been given in 1931 when he had learnt that a German, Heinz Arntz, had played non-stop for just under 200 hours.
His first attempt was at the Castillian Club, previously the Floral Hall in Higher Bridge Street, Bath, but Sandy collapsed five hours short of the record.
It was, however, the incentive to take up marathon piano playing and he was to make more than 500 appearances in different halls in the UK – a number in the North West – in an effort to keep cracking the record.
He did, I believe, once meet Heinz Arntz in competition but, because the rules in Germany allowed a 60-minute break in any 24 hours Sandy complained that his German opponent did not play
continuously whereas he never stopped. It was a conflict of rules which was never solved.
It was always a mystery as to whether Sandy did stop playing, however, when nature called. For although when he began to play Lady of Spain a colleague would wheel across a commode while another drew a curtain round the performer. It was impossible to know whether someone else was tinkling the ivories during those few moments or whether Sandy did actually never stop.
While he was playing his head often slumped across the piano while one hand kept up the motion on the keys. His team would coax him into continuing to play while he would often ramble incoherently into a microphone for the benefit of the audience who paid a modest fee to sit and listen for as long as they wanted.
But the fact that the doors were locked at night, and he was contained behind a curtain was closed at certain moments, always left a question over the whole exercise.
I believe that his last performance was in Hampshire, in 1964, when he played for 132 hours. He died 11 years later.
When I spoke to Betty recently – we are now both 75 – she shared my apprehension as to how fairly conducted was the recordbreaking event. She was of the opinion that he had a twin and the two swapped under cover of the curtains being placed for comfort breaks.
Sandy’s efforts, however, were never recorded by the Guinness Book of Records which records the longest marathon playing piano as 103 hours 8 seconds by Romuald Koperski of Poland in the Alda Centrum, Gdansk, Poland, from January 27-31, 2010. That event was officially timed by Tissot of Poland and officially started by Danuta Walesa, the Polish First Lady.
Sandy’s attempts did not have such careful or openly impartial umpires as the Guinness organisation insists on.
But however it was done, and whatever the result, it filled theatres and brought gave me happy memories of my earlymorning adventure which uncovered nothing to write home about – or even to
write in my newspaper. My editor was impressed by my enthusiasm but the editorial team were chuckling behind my back.
Enthusiasm and getting a real story don’t always go hand in hand.