Elmer Booze, The Man Behind The Piano At The Newport Music Festival

Jul 20, 2017

Behind every great pianist, is a page-turner. And at the Newport Music Festival – which turns 50 next year – that page-turner is Elmer Booze.

He’s been turning pages at the festival for 45 years.

During a recent concert in the grand ballroom of the Elms Mansion, Booze was hardly visible behind the piano. In a powder blue suit jacket, he stood, leaning over the pianist, periodically turning the page.

His movement is so quick and subtle, you barely notice, which is exactly as it should be. He’ll perform that same action again and again over the course of a single piece.

“If the piano’s on the stage, and there’s a performer, I’m up there with him,” said Booze.

It may seem like a small thing, but a page-turner like Booze is invaluable to musicians. He allows pianists to focus on the music, without needing to lift a hand off the instrument at the end of every page.

“There’s huge responsibility, because if you turn the page wrong, the whole concert stops. And that has happened with other page turners,” said pianist Frederick Chiu, a festival veteran.

As Chiu points out, a concert can come to a grinding halt if a page-turner isn’t paying close attention, often eliciting a collective gasp from the audience.

“With Elmer it’s always been great because he’s very responsible, he knows the job, he’s experienced, and we have confidence in him,” said Chiu.

“We couldn’t manage without Elmer, really,” said Tim Carey, a British pianist playing in Newport. “He’s an absolute godsend. He’s always on the ball. The pages are always in the right order, like they weren’t when I tried to turn them for myself.”

Carey and Chiu are just two of the musicians who rely on Booze for the many concerts they’ll play during the three-week festival. But no one will grace the stage more times than Booze himself.

And by the way, Elmer Booze is not a stage name.

“Most people think it’s a nickname, gotta be a nickname,” said Booze. “Nope. Family name.”

On a break between morning and afternoon concerts, Booze relaxes in his room. All the musicians are put up in Salve Regina University dorms during the festival, creating a sort of music camp atmosphere.

Booze suspects he’s turned millions of pages during his decades-long career. And now he says he doesn’t feel the pressure of being onstage anymore.

“For me it’s not pressure, because I’ve done it so long, and it’s almost like second nature to me just to look at the score, and follow comfortably with the artist, but not everybody can do that,” said Booze.

Booze started out as a librarian at the Library of Congress, where he helped Newport Music Festival organizers researching scores. Having studied piano in college and graduate school, he was invited to help out in Newport. The first year went well, then a second. Eventually it became an annual pilgrimage for Booze to make the trip to Rhode Island, a tradition he has continued for well over four decades.

Over the years there have been mishaps, like the time a page came loose from the score and fluttered away.

“And it went off the stage down into the audience," recalled Booze. "I had to get off my seat, go around the performer, jump off stage, pick it up and get back there before he got to the top of that page."

According to Booze, he made it back just in time.

Then there was the time a pianist had taped notes to his score, covering up parts of the music, unbeknownst to Booze, who quickly – and understandably – lost his place in the music.

“And I said to myself, well I don’t know where he is, but I think I should get up and turn pages, because I’m being hired to work, and I don’t want them thinking I’m not working,” said Booze. “So I got up, and I just politely turned the page.”

The music came to a halt, but Booze kept his cool because panicking would be bad for everyone.

The last thing a pianist needs is a spastic page turner,” said Booze.

These days accidents are few and far between, though Booze rarely rehearses with the musicians beforehand. He says it’s not the music that can make page turning tricky, but the pages themselves, which can vary in thickness and weight depending on the publisher. Booze has developed his own trick for dealing with sticky pages: fingertip moistener of the kind typically used by bank tellers to count out bills.

Booze says he’s returned to Newport for the last four decades, because of the camaraderie he’s developed with the musicians, who also return again and again.

And, of course, the music.

“Music as we know is universal,” said Booze. “So it doesn’t have to explain itself. If you enjoy music, you enjoy. You don’t need explanation as to why I’m enjoying this. I’m sitting here patting my feet because I like that. Music is to be felt, and if it touches you, its job is done.”

And at 85 years old, Booze says he has no plans to quit this job anytime soon.