John R. Hoffman, 85, entertainer

October 22, 1993|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Staff Writer

John Rogers Hoffman, a retired entertainer and composer, died of cancer Friday at his home in Cumming, Ga. He was 85.

The former Elkridge resident began his musical education at 6 and ended it 17 minutes later when his piano teacher whacked his hands for dropping his wrists, recalled a niece, Linda M. Bitzer of Providence, R.I.

Even though he never took another piano lesson, he went on to become a music teacher, composer and nightclub performer.

"Uncle played all music in F sharp and B flat, the black keys, which is very unique," said Ms. Bitzer. "He also played by ear. You could hum a tune, and he'd pick it up in no time."

Judy Tormey, a singer and actress who lives in Stoneleigh, performed in Baltimore area theatrical troupes with Mr. Hoffman in the late 1940s.

"He could do anything," Ms. Tormey said. "He composed the most beautiful music, and he wrote in what is called the 'two bastard keys,' and they were the only keys he could play. A little light goes out in the world when a guy like Roger dies."

Mr. Hoffman had been a co-founder of the Alamedian Light Opera Co. and was a member of the Vagabonds and the Curtain Callers. His wrote three operettas, "Gypsy Queen," "Mayaleen," and "The Emperor Takes a Walk," a comedy that was produced in 1951.

One of the songs he wrote was "Why Can't It Be Spring Forever:"

Why can't it be Spring forever, yes, forever and a day

Love would always be in fashion, Nature should have planned it that way!

Trees would never lose their fragrance, should December turn to May

Why can't it be Spring forever, forever and a day?

Mr. Hoffman was born and reared in Elkridge and was a 1925 graduate of Elkridge High School. After earning a bachelor's degree in fine arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1931, he taught music in schools in Elkridge and Ellicott City for many years.

During World War II, he produced and directed more than 600 United Service Organizations shows that toured military installations and hospitals in Maryland and Virginia.

"We played three nights a week, and we traveled by car or train where we sat on our suitcases," recalled Kitty Dierken, 83, who appeared on stage and on radio, including WBAL, beginning in the 1930s. "There were five of us, and we were essentially doing a vaudeville show with a dancer, singer, a pop singer and a comic.

"We would talk to the boys in the ward while Roger pushed along the piano and we performed," said Ms. Dierken, who still performs. "He was also a marvelous dancer, and we would perform for $10 at officers' clubs and the like -- you know, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers stuff -- and people would stop and stare."

After the war, Mr. Hoffman became a nightclub singer in Ocean City, performing at the Irish House on the boardwalk where he worked with Charles "Kip" Chaple. From the mid-1950s until he dTC retired in 1970, he was the featured performer at the Fireside Room in the Sea Scape Motel in the resort.

"If you had a party and invited Roger," recalled Mrs. Tormey, "it would be a success. He would put a drink on the piano, take a sip and never miss a beat and would play song after song."

He won a competition to be the organist at Memorial Stadium in 1954, staying until the early 1960s.

After retiring to Georgia in 1981, he continued to compose and was active with the Cumming Chorale. One of his original compositions, "Only the Master Knows," was performed at his funeral there. He had taped the piano accompaniment some time earlier, and Martha Osborne, a member of the chorale, sang the lyrics.

"He played at his own funeral," Ms. Bitzer said.

His hobbies were model railroading and adding to a Christmas garden that had been his grandmother's.

"He was a child in an adult's body," Ms. Bitzer said. "He was a Victor Borge and Liberace all rolled into one."

Graveside services were set for 11 a.m. today at Loudon Park Cemetery, 3801 Frederick Ave., Baltimore.

In addition to his niece, he is survived by another niece, Audrey T. Rivers of Baltimore.

The family suggested memorial contributions to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or the American Cancer Society.

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