When Mrs. Ernestine Lomax told friends, “Sure, I play a little piano,” she meant that literally. The Memphis woman not only played a teeny-tiny toy piano, she became a national sensation by appearing on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour.
For my three or four young readers, perhaps I should explain the nature of this memorable show. From 1948 until 1970, Ted Mack hosted what was one of America’s first “reality” shows — an hour-long production, aired on both radio and television networks, that was essentially a talent showcase. Contestants sang, danced, juggled, whistled, played all sorts of musical instruments, and did just about anything they could to win valuable prizes and college scholarships. If I recall correctly, viewers mailed in ballots, voting for their favorite performers.
I’m sorry to say that I was unable to locate any tapes or recordings of the remarkable appearances of Ernestine Lomax, who appeared on Ted Mack several times in the mid-1950s — playing a cheap little toy piano, not (as you might suspect) just a miniature version of a real one. The story goes that Ernestine gave her daughter a “Ring-A-Round-A-Rosy” brand toy piano some 15 years before. When the little girl grew tired of it — or simply outgrew it — the mother began plinking away at the keys one day and discovered she could bang out some pretty good tunes. And she wasn’t the only one who thought so. A Memphis Press-Scimitar article noted, “Soon she could play any tune after hearing it a few times. She got such tuneful, tinkling music out of that little baby grand piano that it amazed and captivated her audiences.”
I should point out that Ernestine did not actually sit down on a tiny bench to play her tiny piano. That would look silly! Instead, she tucked it in the crook of her left arm and played it with her right hand, just like in the photo above (that kid is another Ted Mack contestant).
Ernestine twice appeared — well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say “was heard on” — the radio version of the Amateur Hour, then took first prize when she traveled to New York City for the TV version of the show, which was broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall. She was invited back several times, and eventually became one of the show’s few five-time winners. Ted Mack himself bought her a new piano when she mentioned before one performance that her old one was falling apart.
“It’s certainly no secret now what God can do,” she said after one of her TV victories. “He gave me the ability to make music from this tiny piano.”
In later years, Ernestine performed before church and community groups in Memphis, as well as for hospital patients and other convalescents. Newspapers reported that “she particularly enjoyed playing on church programs, during which she gave short devotional talks. Her theme song was ‘Twelfth Street Rag.’”
When she passed away in 1967 at the age of 68, the Press-Scimitar paid tribute to her as “a cheery, talented woman who was happiest when she was making others happy. Her little piano’s tuneful tinkling will go well with all those harps.” The harps played by angels in heaven, you see. Ernestine and her husband, John, who owned the old Lomax Rexall Drugstore on Lamar, are buried in Forest Hill Cemetery.
I wonder if they buried Ernestine with one of her little pianos? That would have been a nice touch, I think.
PHOTO COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES