SLIDELL, La. — Some veterans in St. Tammany Parish will owe a lot to Sgt. Pepper. Because of the two living members of The Beatles, those veterans will have homes they otherwise couldn’t have afforded.
Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr recently signed a piano to benefit East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity. The piano is a big lift to an organization that has struggled since the beginning of the recession.
“It’s been a lot different the past couple of years,” said the organization’s president and CEO, Debbie Crouch. “We’re back to 2-3 new houses a year and rehabbing about five. The funds aren’t flowing in like they did for a long time.”
One of Habitat’s annual fundraisers is an art auction called Home is Where the Art is. In 2013, local artist Lori Gomez donated a painted piano, which sold for a higher amount than anything else that night. For 2014’s auction, she decided to do another one with an 1890 Kingsbury piano.
“The piano probably should have been junked,” Crouch said. “But it was in the family for 100 years. She restored it. I mean, she took the ivory keys off and had to replace them.”
But just like a Habitat house, she made it into something beautiful, decorating it with images of The Beatles. When Habitat board member Kim Bergeron saw it over the summer, she suggested that they try to get McCartney and Starr to autograph it.
“And I went, ‘yeah, I think that would be really neat,'” Crouch recalled. “Then we laughed and went back to, you know, the real world.”
Bergeron spent weeks researching the two music icons and speaking to their representatives before each of them agreed to be a part of the project.
“Apparently they saw the piano,” Crouch stated. “It’s very pretty. But then the story of Habitat, you know, apparently really got to them, too. And if you can tell the story, and the piano, it came together and they both agreed to sign it.”
Starr’s signature came relatively easily. Several Habitat representatives drove the piano to Biloxi, MS, where he was performing, and got pictures with him signing and playing the piano. They tried to have McCartney sign it in New Orleans when his tour stopped there, but it did not work out. Instead, they were asked to meet him in Louisville, KY.
Because of trouble with bad gasoline, what should have been a 10-hour drive ended up being a 29-hour fiasco, but the group arrived on time for his sound check.
“Then, about 10 minutes before the sound check was over, [his assistant] came and got us and went and took us where they had unloaded the piano,” Crouch said. “And we’re just standing there, and then all of a sudden, around the corner came Paul McCartney, and it was like we were 12 again! Luckily, he stopped to talk to some people and we had time to compose ourselves. And he came over and shook our hand; was very, very pleasant, was funny. But both Beatles were very, very nice.”
Only a handful of people knew what Crouch, Bergeron, and the others were up to. Even some board members did not know that they took the piano on the road trips to get McCartney’s and Starr’s signatures.
“Ringo Starr and Sir Paul McCartney are inundated with requests all the time, and so we felt like we really had to respect their wishes, not to let anybody know,” Crouch stated.
All the proceeds from the sale of the piano will go towards a new veterans initiative.
“There’s no veteran that should ever be homeless,” Crouch said. “There’s no veteran that should ever struggle to find a home. They give their time, their sacrifices, for our country. There’s no one that should ever suffer like that.”
The first home in the veterans initiative is currently under construction. A veteran named Roger is part of the crew helping to build it, and he will live there with his three children. Neither McCartney nor Starr sign many autographs, so Crouch hopes the piano will pay for several more homes.
“At $80,000 a house, we’re hoping. We’re hoping for big money, and we think we’ll get it,” she said.
“We think it’s worth millions and millions! And it could be, to one person. And if you get the right person, you know.”
Her wish is for the piano to raise $800,000, which is more than double Habitat’s yearly budget.
Megan Mulrooney, an art appraisal expert for ValueMyStuff.com, says the piano has a value of $15,000-20,000, but acknowledges that the sale price could be much higher because it benefits a charity. She said the piano would be worth much more if it was one they played or owned.
Crouch said Habitat has not heard from the leading auction houses to get a potential sale price. She said she expects to get that soon, and could put the piano up for auction in January. She is not nervous about the auction process, rather, excited about all the good that will result from it.
“It’s still, sometimes we want to pinch ourselves and say, did we really meet Ringo Starr and Sir Paul McCartney?'” she said. “Well, we really did.”
Anyone who wants to learn more about East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity, either to volunteer or to apply to become a homeowner, may call (985) 639-0656.