December 12, 1999
For too long, Mary Lou Dempler says, the ukulele has been the Rodney Dangerfield of musical instruments. And the Louisville woman is crusading to win the instrument the respect she thinks it deserves. That's no easy task. The ukulele is lightweight. It's dinky. Some people even think it's a toy whose highest calling is to play ``Tiny Bubbles'' and ``Little Grass Shack.'' But Dempler, a ukulele enthusiast whose husband, Shane, calls her ``Kentucky's Ukulele Lady,'' is undeterred. She recently formed the Louisville Ukulele Association Unlimited - known as LUAU - to promote the instrument and recruit people to play it. At a recent rehearsal, about a dozen LUAU members sat strumming ``Row, Row, Row Your Boat,'' ``Will the Circle Be Unbroken?'' and ``Hound Dog'' in unison, as family members sang along. Dempler says the group has about 40 members. ``Here we go, `Three Blind Mice'!'' called conductor Myra Jo Kean, who stood up front, in a bright blue LUAU T-shirt. Kean and Dempler both teach at the Ursuline School of Music and Drama. ``Play the lead if you can,'' Kean instructed. ``If you can't, sing along. Rhythm people, don't let the lead people push you around.'' Spectators were encouraged to dance during the ``Hokey Pokey.'' ``Now it's time to really rock the house,'' Kean said, announcing ``When the Saints Go Marching In.'' Dempler, who also helped lead the group, is a long-time guitar teacher who says her life changed two years ago when her husband gave her a custom-made $2,000 ukulele from Hawaii. He had lived there for five years while in the Navy and thought a ukulele might be a refreshing change of pace. She now lists membership in the Ukulele Hall of Fame in Duxbury, Mass., among her credentials and plays ukulele in two other smaller groups, formed mostly from musicians at Ursuline. One is the Bow Ties and Strings ensemble (including keyboard, cello, flute, violin and saxophone), which played for the recent Taste of Louisville event at the Galt House hotel. The other is Unique Ukuleles, a quartet. Dempler has attended a ukulele workshop at Harvard University, taught by a Hawaiian ukulele master, and she taught a class on learning to play the ukulele in October for Bellarmine College's Continuing Education Program. The class will be offered again in March. (The course description says that Elvis Presley played the ukulele and that Bette Midler and Bob Seger do, too.) The recent rehearsal was LUAU's second. Dempler hopes the group eventually will perform in the community, perhaps for the WHAS Crusade for Children and other events. ``I have high expectations,'' she said. ``But we want to sound good before we go public.'' In other words, she doesn't want to reinforce misconceptions about the ukulele. ``It's a real instrument that can be taken to any level,'' Dempler declares. ``I want to make this known: It is not a toy.'' She has devised her own system of musical notation to help beginners and hopes to publish an instruction book. ``Within minutes, you can sound like you're really playing - because you are,'' Dempler said. ``But it sounds like you've been working at it for months.'' For example, her husband, Shane, describes himself as ``musically challenged,'' but he was playing up a storm at the rehearsal - practically leading the group at times. He hadn't played an instrument during 11 years of marriage, but after four weeks could play more than 30 songs, he said. He took his wife's class at Bellarmine, registering under a fictitious name, H. (for Herman) Bodine, as a joke so she wouldn't know he had signed up. During a discussion of the chords for ``I Just Want To Dance With You'' at the rehearsal, Mary Lou Dempler issued a reprimand: ``No cheating, Mr. Bodine. Don't you be telling people they can use a G instead of a G7.'' ``Mr. Bodine'' was seated next to Richard S. Phenpimon, who is originally from Bangkok, Thailand. He took up the ukulele 50 years ago in Singapore - and then gave it up. Asked how his latest effort was going, he said: ``Not too well. I feel like I'm back to where I started.'' At the other end of the age spectrum was Mary Garrett, 10. Mary and her grandparents, Hal and Linda Mooney, were all at the rehearsal, and Mary felt she had already surpassed her grandmother. ``I can play lots of pieces,'' she said. ``I can go a lot faster than she does.'' Brigid Smith, also at the rehearsal, said she took the Bellarmine class after seeing a flier and thinking it sounded like fun. She then signed up for private group classes with Dempler, and now ``I don't want to stop,'' she said. After the rehearsal, Kean, who teaches saxophone, piano, flute and violin, admitted to misgivings about the ukulele when Dempler started talking it up. But she's been impressed with its versatility, saying it can be adapted to any musical style: pop, swing, big band, Baroque. Kean said of Dempler: ``She really proved to me that it's an instrument to be respected.'' PHOTOS BY TRAVIS DOSTER, SPECIAL TO THE COURIER-JOURNAL Shane Dempler, left, and Richard Phenpimon concentrated on sheet music during the ukulele rehearsal. Phenpimon played the instrument years ago and is trying to pick it up again. Mary Lou Dempler led a rehearsal of the Louisville Ukulele Association Unlimited, which has about 40 members.
Martha Elson - Courier-Journel