Her silver hair in a tight bun while wearing pearls and a red dress, Violet Addison sits in a wheelchair in front of a shiny wooden piano.
She won’t be playing today, though, since her hands are unable to tickle the ivories. Addison turned 104 earlier this week and on Saturday, she’s having a party at Wesley Enhanced Living at Stapeley, 6300 Greene St.
It’s both a birthday and a reunion, as there will be a guest performance by the current Philadelphia Boys Choir and special visits from other singers for whom she played the piano over the years and years and years.
The South Philadelphia native has been playing since the age of 11. She says she loves classical music, but clarifies that religious songs, though not gospel per se, make her heart swoon.
“I just love doing it,” she says, noting that she actually likes the organ more than the traditional piano. “I had a key to the church and whenever I felt like it and I’d go in by myself and just play and play. You can just get more out of an organ.”
The pianist says music may have been what moved her, but traveling kept her busy. For years, she traveled around the world with the Philadelphia Boys Choir. She visited the Pope and even played in the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris.
“I don’t have a degree,” she explains. “While my friends were in college, I spent my time traveling.”
Among the make keepsakes in her scrapbook is a signed concert program from a Kenneth Goodman, a world-renowned organist and Philadelphia native. She called him “top quality” as a performer but a better friend.
Addison rattles off countries she’s visited. China. Japan. India. All over Europe. She says her time in Germany puts the trips into context.
“I was in Germany when Hitler was there,” she shares.
While some specific details escape her, Addison remembers much about her choir boys. For instance, there was that time a hotel double-booked their rooms and a group of girls checked in first.
“The boys demanded the bed sheets be changed,” she laughs, reminiscing the good times and noting that there aren’t any secrets to a long life as best she can tell.
Friends for long life
Addison is not alone in her long-living world, though. Her roommate, Beulah Stewart, a soprano, is 102 years old. Stewart and Addison met when they were in their 50s when their respective Baptist churches had rehearsals.
The last time the duo played was years ago.
“‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’ was the song,” Stewart says before starting to sing softly. “She really wants to play but her fingers are numb and she can’t.”
A classical religious tune, Addison says it gave her peace.
“So I know he watches over me, God watches over even the sparrows,” she says.
According to the senior-center staff, the roomies are scarcely apart. Stewart says she considers it her duty to keep her friend in good spirits: “She looks so alone. That’s my job, to do whatever I can to help her.”
The pair was featured in a 2010 independent documentary called “Porches” where they described what it was like to grow up as African American women during the Great Depression. It will be shown at Saturday’s party.
The talkative Addison in the film has changed, though; those close to her say she’s pretty quiet now. Still, she revels in fond memories gleaned from more than a century of experiences.