A refurbished memory debuts with Hudson play

May. 10, 2013 @ 02:14 AM

Merrium Johnson Throneburg’s love for Hudson happened slowly.

People involved in the day-to-day life of this little foothills town talk about it with fierce pride. They relish its small-town hospitality. They’re proud of its dinner theatre and its yearly Butterfly Festival and the Hudson Uptown Building, the renovated school that now is part of the center of downtown.

People love living in Hudson.

When Throneburg first came to the town, she hated it.

That first visit was in the mid-1930s, when she was nine (and still just Merrium Johnson).

Throneburg’s father, the owner of Johnson Piano Exchange in Hickory, had done business with Alfred Helton, the owner of a Hudson-based music publishing company -- and Helton owed him a hefty sum of money.

To partially settle his debt, Helton offered music lessons for Merrium and her brother. They spent two weeks at Helton’s boarding house, which had a piano or an organ in every room.

Nine-year-old Merrium loathed Hudson. Each night, she stood on the back porch brushing her teeth, because Helton had no running water. She’d look up to Lick Mountain in the distance and feel more homesick than she ever had in her life.

“I told myself that if I ever got out of Hudson, I’d never come back again,” she said.

That’s not quite how it worked out.

Instead, she met and married Jack Throneburg, a member of an old Hudson family. When she graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne in 1946, she started teaching at Hudson School.

Four years later, her father sold the school a 1949 baby grand piano at cost. Over the years, the piano sat up on the stage in the yawning auditorium of Hudson School, with its sloped floors and big, circular windows.

So there the piano stayed for years and years, always on hand for recitals and performances. Adults who attended the school years ago still remember playing it. Hudson's town manager has a photo of her elementary-aged self at a recital, fingers poised against the baby grand’s ivory keys.

But thousands of children passed through Hudson School and set their drinks down on the piano’s lid, and banged the keys, and spilled sticky milkshakes down into its strings.

By the time the school was closed in 1998, the piano was barely usable.

The building was taken over by the town of Hudson and saw new life as the remodeled Hudson Uptown Building, affectionately known as the HUB.

But when pianists came in to play for the town’s dinner theatres and other events, most refused to play the out-of-tune baby grand and asked for an electric keyboard instead.

“Every time I heard that, I kind of wanted to cry,” Bentley said. “Because this was our piano -- this was Hudson’s piano.”

Years later, in 2012, Throneburg found out the piano her father had sold was still there. Keith Smith, who directs the town’s dinner theater, mentioned it to her in passing around 3 p.m. one day, and by 6:30 that night she had called Smith to tell him she’d pay for the restoration of the piano, no matter what it cost.

Throneburg had only one condition. She wanted Allen Wilson -- the current owner of Johnson Piano Exchange, and her niece’s husband -- to do the restoration.

“I knew Allen would do it with expertise and with love,” she said.

Wilson restored the piano in his free time, from the basement of his townhome. He opened it to find it corroded, coated with dust and, of course, all those milkshakes.

Piano restorers often spray solution over the whole instrument to rid it of dust and grime, but Wilson removed all the individual brass pieces to be cleaned and polished.

“I really wanted it to be special,” he said. “Because of Merrium.”

It took almost a year, but the piano is now restored, and can now sound a deep, perfectly tuned note through the auditorium of the HUB. Those notes will sound out tonight, during the opening night of “Children’s Letters to God,” Hudson’s 15th dinner theatre production.

All the piano’s champions -- Wilson, Smith, Bentley and, of course, Throneburg -- agree the instrument is back where it belongs.

“I think most people thought, ‘Just get a new one,’” Smith said. “That would have been a whole lot easier, but this is history, and heritage. It was meant to be.”

As for Throneburg, she’s no longer the little girl who looked out over Hudson and hated what she saw. She has lived here for 67 years, and it’s home.

“I’m just happy to be here and I love all the people in it,” she said. “This town’s been very special -- it’s a sweet little town.”