Chubby Checker returns to Settlement

A Grammy Award-winning alumnus helped a Queen Village school of the arts to accept a new grant.

By Joseph Myers
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 22, 2012

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Chubby Checker, far left, joined dignitaries, including Settlement’s Executive Director Helen Eaton and Mayor Michael Nutter, second and fourth from left, respectively, to celebrate a grant that will benefit youngsters from underprivileged families.

Photo by Greg Bezanis

Though he came to fame by inciting national listeners to twist their hips in the 1960s, Chubby Checker began his musical odyssey a decade earlier by wielding his fingers as a piano student at Settlement Music School’s Mary Louise Curtis Branch, 416 Queen St.

The two-time Grammy Award-winning singer returned to the 104-year-old melody mecca March 7 to join the announcement of its receiving a $250,000 grant from a Virginia-based nonprofit. The endowment will allow the Queen Village haunt to give Checker, born Ernest Evans, more peers, as 80 children from low-income families will benefit from its two components.

The 70-year-old performer, a graduate of South Philadelphia High School, 2101 S. Broad St., capped the afternoon event by discussing how he indulged his curiosity as a 9-year-old boy by enrolling at Curtis, one of Settlement’s six branches.

“Little did I know what would become of my hopes,” he said, drawing laughs when revealing his instructor’s advice not to pick his nose when playing the keys.

Checker made the jaunt from his home on the 500 block of Christian Street for one year and proudly declared his status as one of 300,000 predecessors to the youngsters whom Settlement will assist through the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. The eponymous 12-year-old entity receives funding through the estate of the former owner of the Washington Redskins and Los Angeles Lakers and Kings and chose six sites to participate in its Widening the Stage program.

Set to assist Settlement’s four Philadelphia sites and renewable for three years, the allotment will allow Executive Director Helen Eaton and her colleagues to select 50 pupils for their ensemble program and choose 30 students to receive private instruction, with the latter learners to prepare for ensemble auditions. The children, ages 8 to 18, will take master classes, perform solo and as groups, and attend leadership institutes to ready themselves for college tryouts and music careers. Parent workshops and instrument loans also will mark the ensemble expansion.

“We are looking for students who dream concertos,” Cooke Foundation program manager Natalie Rodriguez Jansorn said of recruiting from various agencies to land the youths, who will begin to advance their acumen in June.

Her employer approached Settlement in the summer, and Eaton, whose 19-month tenure has included the creation of a Willow Grove facility and a successful centennial campaign, submitted a September proposal and received favor in December.

“We want to give all children occasions to thrive,” Eaton said, reiterating Jansorn’s point that limited economic circumstances should not restrict opportunities for achievements.

Settlement customarily awards $2 million each year to maturing music makers. Its latest bequest, one of its largest, had Mayor Michael Nutter beaming.

“Settlement has played a monumental role in forming Philadelphia’s creative economy,” Nutter said of the country’s largest community school of the arts, which, in addition, to Checker, has instructed such famous figures as actor Kevin Bacon, tenor Mario Lanza and one of his predecessors at City Hall, the late Frank Rizzo.

The current mayor, who last year earned a National Public Leadership in the Arts Award, lauded Settlement’s environs as sources for obtaining high-quality cultural experiences.

“I’ve said it many times and will continue to state that art and music are as important as math, science and social studies,” Nutter said. “Settlement nurtures talent and helps it to reach its fullest potential.”

He flashed frequent smiles when introducing Checker, who offered his gratitude to the Cooke Foundation, whose half-dozen gifts total $1.26 million. Admitting to nervousness, the man renowned for his pipes let his voice project its smooth cadence to thank his old school’s benefactor.

“Because of you,” he said, “someone might twist into a bright new future.”


A South Carolina native, Checker occupied the last speaking spot, which presented novelty for an entertainer whose ’60s success accustomed him to being at the top.

“I had not thought I accomplished that much,” he said after the event of tickling the ivories at Settlement.

He confessed to taking up the piano because it presented the means to understand the notes bouncing around in his head.

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