History of the mysterious Wawona Piano

Note: apparent variances in the photographs suggest that there may have been two pianos of the same make and model, or that the piano was damaged and/or modified. This remains a mystery and casts a shadow of doubt as to the true identity of the Wawona piano.

c. 1928 A Knabe in residence on the Dance Pavilion stage at Camp Curry, c. 1928. The bass drum on the left, showing the outline of Glacier Point, depicts the Fire Fall (discernable in other images that date the drum to c. 1928).

The Wawona Hotel piano was born in 1906 in Baltimore, Maryland, at the Wm. Knabe & Co. factory. How it came to be in Yosemite is, so far, a mystery.

The Knabe in the above photograph, taken on the Camp Curry Dance Pavilion stage, appears to be the same Knabe as the one currently at Wawona, except for the apparently horizontal surface at the right side of the keyboard (consistent with other photographs of the piano in the Pavilion). Camp Curry was founded in 1899 as a less expensive alternative to hotels in Yosemite Valley; David and Jennie Curry's tent-cabins continue to serve thousands of guests every year. In reference to David Curry's booming voice, and a nightly ritual known as the Fire Fall, a news release from 1910 reported "Every night they kindle a great campfire. The people gather about it, and as it dies down, some impromptu entertainment starts, or the whole camp overhears Mr. Curry's private conversations. And up on Glacier point, three thousand feet above, they kindle another fire, and as it dies down they throw it over the cliff. It makes a veritable cataract of flame and sparks--a beautiful sight. Mr. Curry thanks them at a distance of a mile."

The "impromptu entertainment" soon evolved into organized stage productions—musical variety shows that would include classical music, comic and popular songs, skits, and poetical readings. Early photographs of these productions show that they were performed on the porch of the front office (now the Curry Lounge) next to a good-sized bonfire, and later on at an outdoor amphitheater stage. Photographs also show that Camp Curry had several pianos, possibly including a second Knabe.

c. 1938 The Dance Pavilion was built in 1913, and was converted into guest rooms in 1968. This picture shows a Knabe piano around 1938, when Jay Jacobsen (second from right, front row) played for the dances over three or four summer seasons.


This photo comes from Gene Merlino (seated center, just left of the mike stand), who played sax and sang for the Bob Holroyd Orchestra, which performed at Camp Curry for one season in 1947. Merlino went on to have a successful career as a studio vocalist, including performing the voice-over singing for Franco Nero in the movie Camelot. The pianist, Bob Soder, went on to found the first public school jazz band programs in the nation.

Note the addition of wooden dowel-rods bracing the pedal-lyre, indicating that the pedal assembly was wearing out, or worse, that the piano might have been rolled off the edge of the stage. These unfinished dowels were still in place when I started performing on the piano in 1983.

According to Merlino, the piano was moved to the outdoor amphitheater for musical programs there, including accompanying the singing of "Indian Love Call" during the Firefall, and moved back to the dance hall every night. While possible, it also seems possible that there were pianos in both locations.

In 1968, the Fire Fall was discontinued along with the nightly musical programs and dances. It is believed that the Dance Pavilion underwent conversion to guest rooms the same year. Also, in 1968, the Knabe was in a storage room attached to the outdoor amphitheater. Dudley Kendall worked at the Wawona Hotel that year as dining room manager.

According to Kendall, a Camp Curry porter named Marvin Mulder used to like to play Beethoven on the Knabe piano when it was at the Curry amphitheater. Mulder brought it to Kendall’s attention that the neglected piano was being damaged by rainwater leaking in through the roof of the storage room.

Kendall convinced Wawona Hotel manager Bill Wismer that the piano should be moved to Wawona. In July, 1968, Kendall enlisted the help of locals Steve Attardo, John Simmons, and somebody named Sid (last name to be discovered), headed to Camp Curry, and loaded the Knabe on a manure truck borrowed from the Curry horse stables. Driving the truck himself, Kendall remembered a bewildering multitude of gears on the stick-shift; he told me “I found a gear that worked, and stayed in the same gear for the entire trip to Wawona.”


Here I am in 1983 in what then was called the "bar" at the Wawona Hotel. This was my first year on the job; I started on May 25th. Note those back braces shown in the previous picture are still on the pedal lyre. It was here that the piano sat from 1968 to 1984, played on by casual passers-by, guests, amateurs, professionals. Dudley Kendall, the dining-room manager, played on it fairly regularly in 1968. I once met a lady who worked in some other job at Wawona, but played the piano for tips and meals for a time. Bob Bradford and other ragtime piano players from Los Angeles would often drop in and jam. Finally, the upper management of the Yosemite Park & Curry Co. decided it was time to employ a full-time professional musician, and I got the job. Note the not-so-horizontal surface to the right of the keyboard, apparently different from what is seen in earlier pictures. Is it a different piano than the one in the Curry Pavilion?


Here's another view of the piano in the same location, to the right of the entrance of the main dining room. Here I am at 25 years old. That's a Carleton Watkins photo on the wall--these images have hung in the Wawona since before 1900. That's Yvette and Isolda (diningroom manager & hostess) going over the evening's battle plan. Note that the floors were gloriously un-carpeted. My costumey garb is a holdover from my previous job as pianist at JoAnn's Chili Bordello, in southern Cal.


 In 1984, the piano was moved across the room, next to the bar, where I regularly performed concerti for piano & blender.


 Around February 1988, master rebuilder Dennis Scott brought the piano to his shop in Clovis for a complete overhaul. During this time, his wife Becky came down with cancer. She helped quite a bit in the meticulous restoration work, but did not live to see it completed. Her photo rests on the nearly completed Knabe. Dennis (right) has since remarried and lives in Washington state. The piano was delivered back to the Wawona in 1991, possibly better than new, and certainly good for another 80 or 100 years.

December 22, 1992

During the winter of 1986-87, the upstairs rooms in the main hotel building were renovated. Formerly used as employee housing (I lived up there for four seasons), the added guest capacity caused managers to decide that the "bar" should be returned to its original function as a dining room, and so it was renamed "the petite dining room." The piano (after some discussion of moving it into the main dining room) was moved out into what was then called the "card room."

As it turns out, the piano was moved to the same room where Estella Washburn had played her upright piano in 1885; thus, one of the Wawona's oldest musical traditions has been restored in a round-about way. The image above is a watercolor painting by my wife, Diane Detrick Bopp.