'A star' lives on through Chicago Federation of Musicians scholarship program

  • Courtesy of Susan NelsonChicago Federation of Musicians Dorothy Olson Pauletti Piano Scholarship Contest grand prize winner Danny Gainor of Wheaton Warrenville South.

    Courtesy of Susan NelsonChicago Federation of Musicians Dorothy Olson Pauletti Piano Scholarship Contest grand prize winner Danny Gainor of Wheaton Warrenville South.

  • Courtesy of Susan NelsonAll seven participating musicians received certificates of participation in the Courtesy of Susan NelsonChicago Federation of Musicians Dorothy Olson Pauletti Piano Scholarship Contest. Pictured with Scholarship Committee member Susan Nelson, daughter of Dorothy Olson Pauletti, are, front from left, Trinity Bryant, Kaitlyn Truvilleja and Alexandra Dorula; and back, from left, Danny Gainor, Mitchell Galyen, Kayla Lockhart and Sophia Garvin.

    Courtesy of Susan NelsonAll seven participating musicians received certificates of participation in the Courtesy of Susan NelsonChicago Federation of Musicians Dorothy Olson Pauletti Piano Scholarship Contest. Pictured with Scholarship Committee member Susan Nelson, daughter of Dorothy Olson Pauletti, are, front from left, Trinity Bryant, Kaitlyn Truvilleja and Alexandra Dorula; and back, from left, Danny Gainor, Mitchell Galyen, Kayla Lockhart and Sophia Garvin.

  • Courtesy of Susan NelsonA promotional photo of Dorothy Olson Pauletti at 85 years old.

    Courtesy of Susan NelsonA promotional photo of Dorothy Olson Pauletti at 85 years old.

  • Courtesy of Susan NelsonA  montage of Dorothy Olson Pauletti's bookings and news clippings through the years.

    Courtesy of Susan NelsonA montage of Dorothy Olson Pauletti's bookings and news clippings through the years.

  • Courtesy of Susan Nelson"Well-known songstress" Dorothy Olson Pauletti was highlighted in Where Magazine in 1967.

    Courtesy of Susan Nelson"Well-known songstress" Dorothy Olson Pauletti was highlighted in Where Magazine in 1967.

 
 
Updated 5/29/2022 6:49 PM

If the young performers playing at the first Chicago Federation of Musicians Dorothy Olson Pauletti Piano Scholarship Awards can entertain people even half as long as the awards' namesake, they'll have done very well for themselves.

Seven high school pianists performed on May 21 at the Federation space, 656 W. Randolph St., Chicago, before an exclusive crowd including Dr. Franklin Larey, director and professor at Illinois Wesleyan University's School of Music; Terryl Jares, president of the Chicago Federation of Musicians; and Susan Nelson, daughter of the late Northbrook resident Dorothy Olson Pauletti.

 

A mainstay of Chicago keyboard magic for 84 years, in 2020 the nearly 103-year-old musician died in Northlake, not long after performing at the North Suburban YMCA's 2019 "Seniorpalooza."

"I made the promise to my mother before she died that I would set up this scholarship, and I'm so happy that these two institutions would come together and partner with me in the fruition of this dream that I have had to honor my mother's legacy," said Nelson, of Northbrook.

It's a legacy that includes an American Red Cross commendation signed by President Harry Truman acknowledging Olson Pauletti's approximate 1,000 performances in military hospitals and installations during and after World War II.

"She could turn any place into a piano bar," said Nelson, a Spanish language teacher.

"I am humbled that this magnificent person is my mom. She's singular in her many accomplishments."

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Billed as Dorothy Olson during her long career, she played piano in a who's who of classic rooms before officially retiring at 97, after her last gig at Hackney's restaurants in Glenview and one now-closed in Wheeling.

Enlisted to play in the Empire Room of the Palmer House Hilton from 1977-85, she was the last person hired by Merriel Abbott, founder of the Abbott Dancers and the entertainment director of all Hilton Hotels, Susan Nelson said.

The Drake, Italian Village, Sherman House, Mayfair Regent, the Hyatt, Bismarck, Sheraton, LaSalle and Congress hotels, the Cypress Inn Northbrook, and more -- Dorothy Olson played them all.

She volunteered as an entertainer at nursing homes, hospitals, grocery stores, Nelson recalled. Around Christmas she'd play the calliope at Sunset Foods.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"If it had keys on it, she could play it," Nelson said.

She composed for WGN, and wrote background music for the soap opera, "The Edge of Night," Nelson said, adding that Irving Berlin once approached her mother to ask her to compose a piece.

"Fiercely independent," Nelson said -- Olson Pauletti divorced in 1959, radical for the era -- she declined Berlin's request upon learning she would not get credit for her work.

She had a repertoire of 5,000 songs she could play from memory, Nelson said, though her signature pieces were her own arrangement of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Zez Confrey's 1922 "Kitten on the Keys."

A mother of two, grandmother of eight and great-grandmother of eight, Olson Pauletti received the Chicago Federation of Musicians' Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019.

"Dorothy could play anything, and I'm not exaggerating. Anything," Nelson said. "She was a prodigy and she could play anything, and play it brilliantly."

Living independently, which Olson Pauletti did until her death, perhaps was due to her early childhood. She was born in May 1917 at the St. Vincent de Paul Orphanage in Chicago. At 2 she was adopted by John and Amelia (Heinz) Hoppe, and raised in Bloomington.

Taught by her mother on piano and violin until 6, and classically trained until 12, her unusual talent earned a review by the Bloomington Pantagraph when she was 9.

Olson Pauletti went on to earn scholarships from Illinois Wesleyan University -- in whose orchestra she played despite not graduating from the college -- and by the American Conservatory of Music, which brought her to Chicago in 1935 at 17 years old.

She credited both Illinois Wesleyan and the Chicago Federation of Musicians union as key factors in her career.

She would have been proud to hear one of her standards, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblee," played by Piano Scholarship Awards runner-up Mitchell Galyen, of Watseka.

Three judges, including Craig Nelson, Susan's son and Dorothy's grandson, weighed the seven statewide contestants who each played a classical selection and one of their personal favorites over about 20 minutes apiece on Saturday.

Wheaton Warrenville South's Danny Gainor, who played a medley of Chopin, Beethoven and Debussy followed by a minor-key rendition of Billy Joel's "Piano Man," earned the grand-prize scholarship of $1,000.

Kaitlyn Tufilleja of Lemont High School earned the second-place scholarship, and home-schooled Trinity Bryant earned third place.

Other high schoolers selected to play were Hersey's Alexandra Dorula, Mother McAuley's Sofia Garvin, and home-school student Kayla Lockhart.

"They all had that entertainment quality, which is what I was looking for, as well as that piano efficiency. They were all able to relate to the audience in front of them," Susan Nelson said.

That was a spark her mother had for more than 84 years at the keyboard.

"She walked into a room and suddenly the room lit up," Nelson said. "She was a star."

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