Otto Helbig dishes on his Milli Vanilli moment
The emeritus professor recalls how he, Professor Emeritus Tony DeNicola, and President Emeritus Clayton Brower joined forces for some musical high jinks.
Professor Emeritus Otto Helbig said he was thrilled to see himself highlighted in this magazine last June. The retired professor, who taught violin, composition, and conducting at the College from 1949–1981, is living in Sun City, FL, these days. Although a recent fall has slowed him down somewhat—“It was nothing serious; I’m getting over it,” he assured us—Helbig said he still enjoys playing the piano.
Unfortunately, the carpal tunnel in his right hand prohibits him from playing his beloved violin these days.“Because I have to use the bow, it will be a long time before I can play that again,” the 96-year-old Helbig lamented.
In the photo that sparked our discussion (“Looking back,” June 2010), Helbig was pictured playing violin in the Rathskeller, accompanied by the late Professor Emeritus Tony DeNicola on drums and President Emeritus Clayton Brower on piano. But the affable Helbig admitted that the scene was, in fact, a ruse. And he was kind enough to write us with his version of what actually occurred:
Was that Clayton Brower sitting at the grand piano? Yes, and accompanied by his faithful accomplices, Tony and I. If you went quickly past the page, you might have thought that this is the end of the story. However, the reality is that this innocent looking trio put the first “Milli Vanilli” over on the College.
Tony and I got together and wanted to do something that we thought Clayton Brower would enjoy. He was a very nice guy and everyone liked him, but they knew that he could not play piano. Our devious duo also knew that Dr. Brower liked jazz and would come by whenever we played a jazz program. As we talked, Tony said, “How about a jazz trio with him on piano?” Since I had played piano with some of Tony’s professional ensemble musicians, I realized immediately what Tony had in mind. The college also had very good recording equipment, so the scam was on. We selected a number of songs and I recorded the piano parts…no Mozart, please.
When we approached Dr. Brower, we knew by his knowing smile that we could count him in. In fact, he was most enthusiastic and thought that it would be great fun.
The “Rat” was selected, with special care, for the “event.” It featured a small theater-like stage upon which reposed a rather high-quality grand piano.
Even the timing had to be just right; a day when there would be few regular classes between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., to get maximum exposure. We positioned the piano so that the audience could not see the keys or the president’s fingers. The recorder and amplifier were hidden behind the piano, around a corner and covered with a lace table cloth.
The trap was set and we began to play. Initially, there were only 10, or so, students lounging around. Tony and I played jazz by ear (is there any other correct way?), so we were free to watch the students filter in. By 1:30 p.m., most of the seats were filled. As we played on, they even had to begin standing in the back.
For many days, talk on campus went something like this, “Was President Brower really playing the piano?” The truth is that he looked very good and acted as though he was jamming, but didn’t touch a key.
Posted on October 21, 2010