Still keeping time at 100
Viola Smith pulled up to her 100th birthday party in a pedi-cab and entered, appropriately, to a drumroll.
As one of the first mainstream female drummers, Smith was a pioneer for women in music who earned her fame during World War II, a breakthrough period for female performers.
Inside the Piecemakers Country Store in Costa Mesa Thursday, a couple of dozen friends and relatives cheered as the Piecemakers band belted out a birthday song.
Smith has put down her drumsticks, and last year she moved from New York to Costa Mesa, where she stays with the Piecemakers. But through a century, relatives say, her vitality hasn’t slipped a bit.
“She’s 100, and she’s got more [expletive] and vinegar than I ever had,” said Linda Bartash, Smith’s niece. “But she was always like that.”
Smith grew up in Mount Calvary, Wis., where her parents ran a concert hall. It’s where Smith and her seven sisters started an orchestra, and as their popularity steadily grew, they were asked to play bigger and bigger venues in Milwaukee and around the state.
Eventually, she landed in New York, and in her heyday of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Smith performed with dozens of musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb, appeared in films with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, and hob-nobbed with the likes of Frank Sinatra.
She also became the face of the Zildjian cymbal company and Ludwig Drums during that time. Each company sent their regards to Smith for breaking the century mark.
Her big break came when she and her sisters were the featured band on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour radio show in the ‘30s, said Smith’s nephew, Dennis Bartash.
He is the son of Mildred Bartash, Smith’s sister, who played the saxophone and clarinet with her in the Coquettes, an all-female orchestra in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s.
Smith continued performing into her 60s when she was on Broadway with the Kit Kat Band.
Up until last year, she had lived in the same New York apartment for more than 65 years — zipping around on a scooter and keeping her cash in her shoe as she went grocery shopping, Bartash said.
But on her 99th birthday, Smith reunited with her cousin Marie Kolasinski, the founder of the Piecemakers, who decided to throw her famous relative a bash at the store.
After experiencing the West Coast, she moved to Costa Mesa at the urging of her relatives and now lives with the Piecemakers.
Linda Bartash had traveled from the D.C. area to attend the party and peppered vintage photos of Smith throughout the room.
“I decided I can’t not come,” she said.
Near the store’s register, a small TV looped black-and-white performances of Smith behind her trademark drum kit.
But despite her relatives’ urging, Smith wasn’t going to sit behind a drum kit that day.
“I can’t play drums. You know why? I haven’t exercised for all these years,” she said. “When I play drums, my heart beats, beats, beats, even when the drum solo is over, my heart is still beating. ... I’m afraid I’ll have a heart attack.”
Nobody suggested she take it easy and just tap out a light beat. That wasn’t Smith’s style.
“When I play drums, I have to play loud,” she said.