Music Man Comes to Gardiner: A Roger Thorpe Story
A longtime Gardiner resident who needs no trumpeting is musician, bandleader and raconteur, Roger Thorpe. Roger leads the world famous Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye orchestra/big band and is a nationally recognized Classical/Jazz trumpet player, musicologist and professor emeritus.
Roger arrived in Gardiner from Freeport, Long Island. When his mom, a divorced mother bringing up twin boys, announced that they would be “moving Upstate,” Roger was “dumbstruck.” He never wanted to leave the civilization of Freeport, and all his friends. Though Mary planned to relocate to Columbia County, where they had 18th century roots, the Thorpe family’s journey, in a 1939 “car with shades,” ended in Gardiner.
For $4,000 his mother bought the 1840/50s house next to the Parsonage on Main Street in the Hamlet (now restored by architect Matt Bialecki for his office and home). There was no water, heat or bathrooms, just two connected outhouses out back. The kitchen consisted of a big wooden sink with a hand pump that drew water from a brick cistern in the cellar, which collected rainwater from the roof. Young plumber George Majestic told Roger’s mom she needed a well and she, thinking she was being taken for a naive city girl, reminded George that she had a well. George proceeded to install all the plumbing for a modern kitchen and bathrooms and after one day of use, the well, only 15 or 20 feet deep, was dry! As a consequence, Roger remembers that the winter of 1947 made “George Washington’s Valley Forge seem like a picnic.” He and his twin had to drag a sled (with steel runners) through deep snow to The Creamery to get water in 4ft steel containers.
Roger still remin-isces about the “unforgettable first day of school” when he and his twin brother, who had come from a school of 1,500 children in Freeport, were walked up the street by their mother and arrived at the two-room school house (now the Gardiner Town Hall) in white shirts, jacket, ties, knee sox and shiny shoes, to be greeted by teacher Mary Jenkins, who proceeded to show the twins where the hand pump was outside for the water cooler, the wood stove for heat and the two outdoor Boys and Girls “restrooms.” The kids, some with rifles leaning against the door for hunting after school, were garbed in farm clothes and Roger recalls that the room smelled like a “barnyard.” The local kids called the twins “tootsie-rolls” but, within a month, the Thorpes were dressed like the others and Roger became a true “Gardiner boy,” fishing in the Wallkill, working in Floyd McKinstry’s store as a soda jerk, mowing six to eight lawns a week for one dollar each.
His love of music began with trumpet lessons in Freeport at age 10, but he never said a word at school until Mary Jenkins persuaded him to bring his trumpet in. He stunned the class with a jazz rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown, instantly becoming “teacher’s pet.” When the New Paltz High School band director found out, he was picked up once a week and taken to rehearse with the High School band.
In April 1952 Roger won a series of talent contests needed to appear on the famous NBC Ted Mack Amateur Hour TV and Radio show. He was the youngest competitor to appear on T.V., played The Sugar Blues, popularized by Clyde McCoy, and won. When he came back a second time, Ted Mack said on the air that Roger was going to put Gardiner on the map. Roger was bewildered and just smiled. He had seen it on a map before! This one event launched a long and exciting career.
In 1953 Roger was invited by the Smiley family to play for the 4th of July celebration at Mohonk, and to play recitals from a summer house across the lake. This June will mark Roger’s 58th consecutive year of playing for the 4th of July ceremony. For 30 years his was also the house orchestra at Mohonk, daringly playing ballroom dances instead of the square dances that were the tradition. After graduating from New Paltz High School in 1955 he went on the road with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, then played with Woody Herman and Les Elgart, to name a few.
In 1960, Roger graduated from SUNY Fredonia with a Bachelor of Music and a passion for classical music. He then received a Master of Music from the Eastman Conservatory of Music in Rochester, and did doctoral studies at Columbia University in orchestral conducting, trumpet, and music theory. He taught and performed for many years, but the culmination of good fortune was his “father/son relationship” with Sammy Kaye. If you run into Roger he will regale you with stories about their fortuitous meeting and long career together. In 1986, the ageing Kaye asked Roger to take over for him, and when Kaye died the next year the estate left guidance, directing and responsibility of the band name, “Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye” to Roger, the little boy from Gardiner. Sammy Kaye is the only artist with three stars in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and Roger has been true to Kaye; the orchestra performed nationally in 40 states, on five cruise lines, 16 years on Miss Queen & American Queen river boats, at dances and in concert halls. The band has been to Hawaii forty eight times, cruised around the world five times. Leading the band led to lasting friendships with June Allyson, Maxine Andrews of the Andrews Sisters, George Montgomery, Virgina Mayo, Douglas Edwards, CBS Evening News commentator, Eartha Kitt, Leslie Uggams, Mrs. Fred Astair and Patti Paige.
In 1996 Roger was inducted into the Big Band Hall of Fame as a trumpet player and leader of the Sammy Kaye Orchestra. Now 75, he is picking and choosing engagements, and still living in “little old Gardiner” with his wife Barbara and two children. And, speaking of his beloved Gardiner, he laments the disappearance of the stately old trees that grew on both sides of the road, the Gardiner Train Station and the beautiful Gardiner Hotel. He is thrilled by the new Library and the wonderful things that have occurred in the town… I would say, after spending so much enlightening time with this “local boy-made-good,” that we should consider naming a Gardiner village street Roger Thorpe Lane.