The Piano Player

by Scott Pendleton

For a divorced woman getting by as a music teacher in 1921, Patti Adams Shriner achieved an incredibly bold ambition and bequeathed to Tulsa an eye-popping palace for nurturing music. And though it didn’t operate for long as the Patti Adams School of Music, Shriner’s one-of-a-kind building remains a historical fixture on Riverside Drive. And thanks to Shriner, hundreds if not thousands of piano students in Oklahoma can trace their musical lineage directly to Ludwig van Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn. Newly discovered diaries and newspapers now bring her remarkable story to light.

Patti Adams was born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1882. Though her family was never particularly prosperous, she did manage to attend Polytechnic College, which would later become Texas Wesleyan University, in Fort Worth. At 19, she achieved sufficient distinction to be listed among its faculty as Superintendent of Piano Practice.  Her talent brought her the opportunity to be featured as a performer in the Texas Building of the St. Louis World’s Fair, which during its seven-month run was attended by 18 million people. A reporter later described Patti as “an artist of rare ability, an artist whom it is as pleasant to look upon as to hear. Gifted with a magnificent physique, she adds masculine strength to her feminine delicacy of touch and expression. A musical soul is apparent in all her work.”

It was an impressive beginning, but Patti wanted to hone her talent under the best masters, which meant traveling to Europe. Forty years of the Belle Époque had cemented Paris as the cultural center of the universe, the ideal place not only to study but also to be noticed and to make useful connections. Americans with a little money might visit Europe for a year. Nouveau riche industrialists might stay for five or forever, knowing that friends from America would visit or were there already.

“We are now on board the Berlin [a ship of the North German Lloyd line]—Everything is fine & I know we’ll have a wonderful trip,” Patti wrote on January 29, 1910. With her were Mr. and Mrs. Conlan and their 14-year-old daughter, Hattie. They were fellow Presbyterians from Oklahoma City, where Michael Conlan had invested successfully in real estate and was now treating the family to a year on the Continent. Perhaps they had told Patti about their upcoming trip and urged her to throw in with them.

The ship arrived in Naples on February 9, giving Patti’s group the opportunity to backtrack to Paris via Rome, Venice, Florence, and Lucerne. On March 3, Patti finally moved into her Paris residence, the literally named Student Hostel, at 93 Blvd St Michel.

Patti spent the next year exploring Paris, from the catacombs and sewers to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, and every palace, chateau, church, museum, theater, monument, and public garden listed in her Baedeker’s guide. She was determined to absorb as much of the voluptuous excess of Old World culture as she could. Her recorded insights weren’t exceptional, though. About one site she noted: “Many famous people were beheaded here.”

Many of the sites that she saw then you can still see today. But definitely envy the performances she attended: “How great is this wonderful Caruso!” she wrote of the opera tenor. “The finest voice I’ve ever heard. So sweet and full of sobs and tears in places, and his climaxes are so wonderful. He holds a high tone very long, and one doesn’t feel at all uneasy about his voice.”

About legendary stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, Patti wrote: “Wonderful in the extreme. She is 66 yrs old, but certainly does not show her age. She played the part of Joan beautifully and the audience nearly went wild calling her back 6 times at the end of the 1st act.”

Or this: “Heard Fritz Kreisler and Harold Bauer tonight in a grand recital. Kreisler is the best violinist I think I ever heard! He did such wonderful things—not technically, but musically. One number was ‘Chant of Louis 13th’ and when he started it, I thought it was a woman’s voice! He played many old-fashioned things, & oh! So lovely!! Bauer is one of the finest pianists in the world, I know. His runs are pearly and so full of tone quality.”

While taking every chance to appreciate the talent of others, Patti also immediately set out to further develop her own. For that, she turned to Maurice Moszkowski.

Though not a household name today, Moszkowski had rock-star status in Patti’s time. Composer, performer, teacher—Moszkowski was regarded as equal to Frederic Chopin. His photo adorned post cards in Paris, where he resided. Moszkowski had studied under Eduard Franck, who had been a student of Felix Mendelssohn.

A day after registering at the Student Hostel, Patti obtained Moszkowski’s address and dropped in unannounced. She hoped to impress him enough to be accepted as his pupil. If she failed, her voyage to Europe would be wasted.

“Went to interview the ‘Lion’ in his den,’” she wrote afterward. “He was not in, but I was determined to see him, & waited for 2 hours for him. When he came, I told him frankly of my errand, & he asked me to play for him. I played Romance by Rubenstein, and he gave a grunt (of dissatisfaction or satisfaction, I could not tell) & said I lacked rhythm & asked me to play a scale in the same key. I made an awful ‘bobble’ & he gave me a list of music to get, including scales, by himself.”

Mission accomplished, if a bit clumsily. Her first lesson went better: “Mr. Moszkowski was playing scales when I rang the bell, & my! How clear & lucid the runs! He came in with his smoking jacket on, & I was not bit nervous. He kept saying ‘good’ & ‘very good,’ and I dearly loved him for his sympathetic interest.”

Next lesson: “Went to my lesson—had a good one. Moszkowski tested my touch at the clavier, and said it is good. Also said many nice things to me, and I feel so much elated. He smoked two cigarettes while giving me the lesson. I don’t feel at all nervous before him, for which I’m truly thankful.”

And so it went: “Nice lesson from Moszkowski & I’m delighted. He said I have an unusual trill with 3rd & 4th fingers—‘very rare,’ & said my hand was good, & everything I played his comment was a hearty, ‘good.’ Said I was improving very rapidly & that 3 hrs was enough for me to practice daily, as my hand was supple & needed less practice than most hands. It’s hard to believe he’s the Moszkowski; he’s so nice to me. We talk & enjoy every lesson.”

On the other hand, Patti fretted frequently in her diary over her uncertain finances. “Am sure I shall have to go home after one month in Paris!!!” she wrote just two weeks after arriving in Europe. She took piano students of her own and found gigs at church services, but it wasn’t enough. On May 3 she moved into the Student Hostel’s “poor house” as it was known, a room shared by more than two students.

The very next day brought Patti hope. “Have heard something about a ‘scholarship’ which sets my toes tingling. How I’d love to get it & stay another year!” she enthused. The hostel’s management, which bestowed the scholarship annually, favored Patti. They also urged her to seek a letter of recommendation from Moszkowski, which she did.

“Just after writing him, I rec’d a pneumatique from him enclosing a ticket to Edward Gares’ piano recital tonight and on a little note, he wrote, ‘With best regards from M. Moszkowski.’ I prize the words more than the ticket. I’m the luckiest girl in all the world, & I know it.” And when her idol did help her clinch the scholarship, his letter of endorsement became the prize of Patti’s career, framed and displayed ever after.

“Am anxious to see my dear old ‘Mosey’ again,” Patti wrote at the end of August. She had been the guest of French friends in the countryside for much of the summer. Unexpectedly, she and Moszkowski fell out.

“Had a lesson today & Moszkowski was a regular a__,” Patti shuddered. “I heard him scream out at a maid before he came in, & then he seemed to try to take his anger out on me. He railed & railed until I couldn’t do a thing. I was so choked up with tears I could hardly see. Feel as if I gained nothing at this lesson. I may decide to change teachers.”

She did just that, though her affection for Moszkowski returned. Besides the fright he had given Patti, she had another issue. “Am dissatisfied with dear old Mosey. He doesn’t give me what I want,” namely, public performances that could win her recognition.

Friends at the hostel suggested that Patti try Wager Swayne. Swayne was an American, the son of a Union Army Major General and nephew of a Supreme Court justice. He had been an outstanding student in Vienna of another great piano master, Theodor Leschetizky, who learned from Carl Czerny, a student of Ludwig van Beethoven.

By January 1911, she finally got what she was hoping for. Swayne, she wrote, “asked me to play in two concerts—an honor he bestows on few. He said several complimentary things. Said no telling what I could do if I’d try harder. Am afraid he thinks I’m not a very serious student, but I am.”

Swayne featured Patti a number of times. One of her performances caught the attention of a Miss Mansfield, Paris correspondent for Music News in Chicago. She invited Patti for tea the following week, where she promised “a good write up” in her paper. It was reproduced by the Chickasha Daily Express on April 15: “One of the most successful of the students is Miss Patti Adams who played the Sixth Rhapsody of Liszt in a manner that elicited the enthusiastic applause of a critical audience.” It further stated: “She will go back to America in July to enter the concert field. As she has had such great success in Paris, her success in America is assured.”

Meanwhile, she was homesick and ready to leave Paris. The weather often made her ill. The skies were so often overcast that no one had been able to see Halley’s Comet the previous May. Money was ever a challenge, and not just for her. Patti’s father had failed to obtain an “oil inspection position” in Oklahoma City. “Had such a blue letter from home. It made me of the same deep hue this morning,” she wrote. “Things will come all right, I’m sure. Wish I could help the dear ones now, but hope to be able to make ‘loads’ of money later.”

On May 27, Patti quit the hostel. “Miss Smith broke her glasses in kissing me goodbye. I did hate leaving! I love that gay city and all my friends there.” After making her way to London, Patti embarked for New York on the White Star Line’s Oceanic. She arrived June 14, 1911, and was back in Oklahoma by July.

In some respects, Patti didn’t leave Europe a minute to soon. Britain’s King Edward had died the year before, marking the beginning of the end of glorious Edwardian England. And in the spring of 1911, the French minister of war had died in a gruesome aviation accident. The Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in August and wouldn’t be recovered for two years. And Oceanic’s sister ship, Titanic, sank in April of 1912.

These calamities were mere portents of the ghastly disaster to come. Between July 1914 and November 1917, World War I killed 17 million people and wounded another 20 million. With the Belle Époque eviscerated, Wager Swayne fled to New York. Moszkowski was bankrupted when the war instantly made his bond investments worthless. Patti had been able to experience the very pinnacle of European refinement and culture just before it was swept away in a cloud of deadly mustard gas.

Back in Oklahoma, it took Patti a year to capitalize on her Europe-acquired connections and credentials. In the fall of 1912 she joined the Fairmont Seminary in Weatherford, Texas, as “teacher of piano, harmony, and composition” and as “director of the music department.”

Then things got strange.

On December 29, while home on Christmas break, Patti married Jacob Schreiner. Eight years her senior, Schreiner was a stellar violinist who was then teaching at Patti’s former school in Fort Worth. Evidently they met mere weeks earlier when he chanced to attend her performance at a Fairmont faculty recital. To the Daily Ardmoreite the wedding was “a great surprise.” The Daily Herald in Weatherford noted that “the bride is one of the most popular young ladies ever holding a position in the faculty of the Seminary” and relayed the expectation that Jacob Schreiner would soon join its faculty.

Instead, just months after the nuptials came this staggering tidbit in the Chickasha newspaper: “The hosts of friends and acquaintances in Chickasha of Miss Patti Adams will regret very much to hear that she has been critically ill since the holidays. Miss Adams was removed from Texas, and carried to her home in Ryan, where she is now slowly convalescing.”

Miss Adams? Back to her parents’ home? Whatever the true nature of the personal disaster, the marriage would last until 1921, when Patti was granted a divorce on grounds of “extreme cruelty.” Her great-niece Barbara Abbott thinks there may have been some physical abuse. Jacob ceded to Patti $500, their Tulsa house, and the furniture, including a Knabe grand piano. She also kept his last name, but in simplified form. For the rest of her life she was Patti Adams Shriner.

Now 39, she spent the summer of 1922 in Colorado and Southern California, visiting friends from her Paris days. In Los Angeles she found the studio of Albert Witzel, the photographer of choice for hundreds of Hollywood starlets. She had Witzel take her own starlet-style photo at a grand piano—evidence of the ambition that the undaunted artist would soon reveal.

In September, readers of the Tulsa World saw this: “Patti Adams Shriner (pupil of Moritz Moszkowski, Paris, France) announces the reopening of her piano studio.”

Patti wasn’t simply teaching lessons; she aspired to create her own institution for teaching music and so began laying the groundwork for a music academy. During the next four years, Patti prospered in terms of students, money, and social connections. But the “Patti Adams Piano School” was still a name without a building.

In 1928, she bought a plot of land facing the Arkansas River at the west corner of Riverside Drive and Houston Avenue. On the east corner, banker James McBirney was now erecting a 15,900-square-foot Gothic Revival mansion. With financing from McBirney, whose niece was a student of Patti’s, she built something so unique that it has been called “Tulsa’s Taj Mahal.”

It might be unfair that the building is now most famous under the name “Bruce Goff’s Riverside Studio” instead of the “Patti Adams School of Music.” Most of Goff’s other works—Bavinger House, for example—are named after the person who approved the famous architect’s design and wrote his check. (As a matter of fact, Shriner rejected Goff’s first design and approved his second.) Even Western Architect magazine, which featured photographs of the finished building prior to occupancy, referred to it as “Riverside Hall.” (Today it’s the Tulsa Spotlight Theatre.)

Patti opened her school to the public on Easter Sunday, March 31, 1929, to a thriving Tulsa. The Tulsa Worldwrote a glowing account of Patti’s building and the artworks inside. The Chamber of Commerce featured an exterior photo in its publication under the headline “Much of Tulsa’s Beauty is the Gift of Those Who Built for Business.” Patti had overcome every obstacle by charm, determination, and talent. She had created in The Oil Capital of the World a monument to high culture.

And then the Great Depression seized America. Demand for crude oil, the source of Tulsa’s money, evaporated. Shriner clung to her building, her school, and her vision until September 8, 1933. Just four and a half years after opening, the Patti Adams School of Music closed.

Patti later settled near family in Cleveland, Oklahoma, and continued to teach until her death in 1965 at age 82. She taught her sister Dimple’s children and grandchildren. Great-niece Barbara Abbott, who still accompanies middle and high school choruses, learned from Patti. Barbara passed that instruction to the next generation of the family, which includes Eddie Walker, Patti’s great-great nephew, the executive director of the Oklahoma City Symphony; and Barbara’s daughter, Mollie Heaberlin, who teaches French and music at the Christian Montessori Academy in Tulsa.

Perhaps the last word on Patti should come from Elwyn Ratliff, the very advanced student whom she presented in the last recital held at the Riverside Auditorium—her name for the school’s recital hall. Ratliff went on to become one of Tulsa’s best-known piano teachers until his death in 2002.

In an undated letter signed “Your devoted pupil, Elwyn,” Ratliff pledges to stand by Patti when other teachers had abandoned her school. “I shall always be loyal to you, and I say this with God as my witness,” he wrote. “Please believe me, Mrs. Shriner, when I say that my association with you will ever and forever be close and sacred.

“You have given me a wonderful musical education for which I can never, never thank you enough.”

Originally published in This Land: Spring 2016