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Who was Mern Reitler?

Yesterday I received a message from a stranger, via Facebook. It seems he had been in a Ruby Tuesday restaurant in Columbia, Missouri, and come across a photo on the wall. It mentioned a band/music school in Denver sometime in the early 1900s—the Mern Reitler Music Company. He also posted an old newspaper article about her and her many, many students.


I was thrilled to see his information. Mern Reitler was my accordion teacher in the 1950s and early 1960s, not in Denver but in the little southern Colorado town of La Junta.  She taught classes in her studio at the top of a long staircase above a furniture store.


I began with group lessons, and she began by coloring my fingernails with crayons, the colors matching the keys on my tiny “starter” accordion: red for C, blue for D, and so on in this order: red, blue, black, orange, green, brown, purple. Then she colored the music to match—the object being to match my fingers and keys to what was on the page. It worked.


My main memory of those first group lessons was Mern’s threat to misbehaving kids: If you were bad, she would call Santa Claus and tell him not to bring you any toys. One day, when a boy was acting up, she actually did it. She went out into the hallway and called Santa!


I never got over it. I was a well-behaved little girl, but that action made a huge impression on me. I was scared silly.


When I started private lessons, I heard tales of how Mern would smack a student’s hands with a ruler, but I’m skeptical. She was always kind to me—maybe because I probably resembled a terrified little rabbit.


She hand-wrote out music for her students. I can't imagine how tedious that must have been. I still have some of the pages she copied out for me. She also wrote songs. For some program I was in, she taught me to play and sing a song that I was told she wrote. I still remember the words—corny, but probably cute sung by a six or seven year old:


If I could do just as I please,

Oh, boy what wouldn’t I do.

Bet I’d have some fun, too.

But mother’d say I’m bad and ought to be ashamed of myself.


I’d make a face at Johnnie Green,

and call him smarty pants.

If I had a good chance.

But mother’d say I’m bad and ought to be ashamed of myself.


I’d pull the old cat’s tale

Just to hear him wail,

And I’d put a snail

In the cranky, good-for-nothin’ teacher’s dinner pail.


If I could do just as I please,

Oh, boy what wouldn’t I do.

Bet I’d have some fun, too.

But mother’d say I’m bad and ought to be ashamed of myself.


I can't remember where my keys or my glasses are half the time, but I can remember that song. (In fact, now I can't get it out of my brain, where it seems to be on constant replay.) I also remember playing the accordion on a float in a parade in downtown La Junta. It was summer, and in La Junta the temperature often exceeds 100 degrees.  I was with an accordion choir wearing black choir robes and playing “Bringing in the Sheaves.” It was not fun.


I also remember playing on a local radio station with one of the accordion bands while a girl named Kitty tap danced. Even then I thought that tap dancing on the radio was a little weird.


And, finally—one more memory. I was learning to play “Flight of the Bumblebee” and feeling pretty proud of myself. Then my dad surprised me with a wonderful new (to me) accordion that he had bought at a pawn shop on Denver’s Larimer Street—back when it was a seedy area of downtown Denver. Thrilled, I started practicing “Flight of the Bumblebee” but soon ran out of keys! It turns out that some “female” accordions were made smaller then by simply not including all the keys. Not to worry, though. Mern just rewrote certain parts of “Bumblebee” to accommodate the notes I did have. To this day, my memory of "Flight of the Bumblebee" is not quite the same as the rest of the world's.


I was so happy to read the newspaper article and see the picture of Mern—which I hope to have permission to post  after I talk next week to the man who found them. But they raise so many questions in my mind. Did Mern ever marry? Have children? And how the heck did she wind up working above a furniture store three and a half hours from Denver? I would love to know more. I'll keep you posted. 

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