Recovering the Keys to Her Musical Past

Leonard Reed is a Times staff writer

It is 9:30 a.m. at Maywood Acres Healthcare Center, a one-story building across from Mervyn's and next to a Catholic church, doctors' offices and a mortuary. In the Maywood's north dining room, 24 clients in wheelchairs are parked for what should be described as morning coffee.

But Martha Van Zandt, 83, has changed that.

Van Zandt is a native South Dakotan who has lived at Maywood for two years. She moved to Los Angeles 49 years ago "to get out of a mad love affair" in Minneapolis, where she was living at the time. South Dakota is pertinent, though, because people at the Maywood heard about Van Zandt's far-flung activities in high school in Harrold, S.D., in the 1920s.

Van Zandt was a working pianist in and about Harrold. She was paid $1 to play live accompaniment to the silent movie. Sometimes she did back-to-back shows, playing for hours. That was arduous work, as movie music has never had many breaks in it.

Van Zandt preferred regular dramas or even love stories. She was able to watch the screen and meld a sonic "mood" to what she saw. The worst, sadly, were the most common: Westerns.

"All those cowboys chasing Indians," she says, "meant fast, repetitive playing, and that would just wear me out."

She is, of course, speaking of a time in her life that was more than 65 years ago. Today there are no signs of her musical exhaustion as she entrances her Maywood mates.

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On this particular morning--she does this every day from 9:30 to 10--she plays rock-steady renditions of "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Jesus Loves Me! This I Know," and, among others, "Softly and Tenderly."

She takes no breaks. The songs segue seamlessly. The piano looks beat but works fine and is reasonably in tune.

Van Zandt, showing the influences of her silent movie era, pumps extra sound from the thing by heavy use of the sustain pedal--resulting in fluid chords that fill every nook and cranny of the room. Her left hand jumps back and forth in flawless cadence; her right winds up and down the keyboard, mostly to find chord variations. Within the span of one tune, she may change key three times.

As Van Zandt plays, many of her mates sing along. Some clap in time.

Her neighbor Bertram Godfrey wheels about the room passing out napkins in preparation for the postponed coffee serving. Even Godfrey, in transit and given to talking sports, apes a lyric or two.

At the end of the show, Van Zandt confesses that the piano has played many roles in her life. In her youth in South Dakota, it not only "paid for clothing in high school" but symbolized a special resourcefulness: She'd taught herself to play "since there was no one around in my town who could."

In her Minneapolis life, it was her ticket to work in nightclubs and won her regular solo performance time on local radio.

In California, however, the piano and its commercial possibilities left her. She lived in Los Angeles and then Camarillo and "gave the thing up" for more than 20 years. She worked as a secretary, got on with a life that, she notes with a laugh, "had two marriages and two divorces."

Now Martha Van Zandt, dressed in a green cable knit sweater and blue floral pants and slippers, is again playing piano--in Oxnard in a fluorescent-lit, vinyl-tiled room to an audience that likes hymns more than anything else.

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It's OK by her. The Maywood's clients helped Van Zandt find her musical way home.

"I have great support for my playing here," she says, smiling. "And while it can be quite tiring, I get satisfaction because it makes these people awful happy."

With that, she is assisted in standing up from the piano bench. She shakes a bit. Slowly, she regains equilibrium, throwing a radiant smile.

It's the faltering you don't see when she's at the keyboard, performing with impeccable precision. Martha Van Zandt, itinerant and expansive spirit that she is, has Parkinson's disease.

Happily for her, and even more so for those who once wheeled in for a plain old coffee break, it just doesn't get in the way.

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