In the key of life
In a tiny unassuming shed-turned-studio on an authentically Crested Butte alley, you might be fortunate to hear the sounds of classical music in its muted journey through the crisp winter air. Fingers deftly floating across her piano keys, Randi Stroh is re-teaching her arm how to play after shoulder surgery. But muscle memory is strong when you’ve played an instrument nearly half a century. “I am going to perform this year, a concert here,” Randi says, smiling with a hint of both victory and defiance.
“This shoulder odyssey,” she says of her injury that’s taken the better part of the last year to deal with, “it’s healed enough now and it’s fine for playing piano. I practice every day.” She’s aiming for an autumn performance.
Randi was born on the upper west side of New York City, and her parents signed her up for piano lessons with the neighborhood maestro at the age of five when she was forced to start kindergarten over, due to an illness. She loved piano from the very start, although she says, “It wasn’t my whole life but it was a regular part of my life. I was pretty much a tomboy. I hung out with boys mostly and I liked baseball a lot and riding my bike.”
Her father was a lawyer born in Norway and her mother a native of Colorado Springs when they met in Florida after WWII. They moved up to Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., where Randi basically grew up. In the ninth grade, Randi was sent to the Masters School, a private all-girls school, where, she says, “A lot of very wonderful musical things happened for me. It was a good experience because it was good for me to be around girls. It got me out of the social scene pressure and gave me opportunities for leadership, because in public schools, at that time, the boys were going to be the leaders, not the girls.”
Musically, Randi advanced and evolved to a level she would not have been able to accomplish in a public school. “I had a spectacular piano teacher, a wonderful theory and composition teacher and also a glee club teacher, who were very nurturing and I learned so much from them. I was given opportunities to do things with my music. I was composing and they would perform my compositions, and there were recitals.”
Randi graduated in 1967 and went off to Smith College in North Hampton, Mass., another women’s school. And then, the entire globe around her went into a tumultuous social upheaval.
“The whole world changed from 1967 to 1971. From the world that I entered to the world that I left, there was so much change and turmoil. There were student protests over Vietnam, and the faculty supported the student strike, which disrupted the entire spring semester classes—everything was at a standstill. Women, at that time, were starting to go to law school and medical school, things were beginning to open up,” she says of one of the most radically liberating eras that aggressively sought a new way of living and altered the course of America, at least for the times.
The music was influential for her as well. “We had the music to go with the women’s and war movement like Joan Baez, and I was Dylan-smitten. This music reached me and it was an incredible time,” Randi says, although she was playing mostly classical music.
Not enamored of her music teachers, Randi somersaulted out of music in her sophomore year at Smith, but it was to be a relatively brief hiatus in the scheme of her life. “I was getting ready, preparing all my life for the graduating from college moment, and I realized that of all the opportunities that existed for me at that time, I didn’t want to do any of them,” Randi says.
“The bravest decision I made in my life was to leave college with no plans. I didn’t want to go to law school or grad school.” So one week after graduating in 1971 with a B.A. in American studies and a minor in music, Randi went west for an Outward Bound course in the Marble area, which also encompassed the Rustlers Gulch area.
“I needed to get away,” Randi recalls, “I was ready. I was out of shape. I needed to do something physical, not mental, and this sounded fun. It was a workout for sure. It was a life changing experience on several levels, one of which was, I came to realize, not only was it beautiful here, there was a whole big wide world out there that I knew nothing about.”
After the month-long course, Randi spent the rest of the summer hiking around in Estes Park with friends who had taken jobs there. “After the summer I was thinking, now what? I assumed I was going to go back East, probably ending up in New England, but by the end of that summer I realized I had no reason to go back East and several reasons not to. I didn’t know what I was going to do except that I felt I needed more time and space.”
She boldly determined to spend the winter somewhere in the mountains.
Randi set out hitchhiking to mountain towns she had heard of, Breckenridge, Crested Butte, and Telluride, the latter just beginning to break out from its dilapidated boarded-up sleepiness. Exiting from a VW van that had picked her up, she was met on the edge of Telluride by a marshal who outright told her they didn’t want her kind in town. “I said, ‘That’s fine with me,’ and I turned around and hitched back to Crested Butte. It was early October and it was already starting to get cold. I decided that if I could find a place to live and a job I would stay that winter. I checked into the Forest Queen,” Randi smiles, recalling Thelma, a Forest Queen stalwart who treated her with kindness. “She told me to go to Willard’s [Ruggera] house, the little stucco one on the corner. Thelma said, ‘I think you can room with this girl named Sue Navy.’ Sue became my first roommate in Crested Butte. We were both a million miles from home.”
That winter, Randi landed a job flipping eggs at the Skicrest Lodge, which she loved. “I had to be there at 5:30 a.m. and I got to see the sunrise on Whetstone every morning. I felt safe here, it was exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to be by myself. I wanted to be anonymous, someplace where nobody knew me, where I didn’t have a history.”
With about 300 full-time town residents in 1971, of course Randi started meeting people, neighbors, and it felt welcoming. She wound up staying well beyond winter.
Summer was beautiful, she remembers fondly, and mud season was really mud season with dirt streets. She’s pretty certain it was far colder back then and there was much more snow. “I remember getting up so early to flip eggs and it was so cold you could hear the electricity crackle through the lines. In the summer, I worked for a while at Frank and Gal’s as a waitress,” she says of the local bar and polka place. And yes, she learned to polka from Botsie, who taught most of the young women in town how to do that lively three-step oompah.
Randi is grateful that she got to know the local old timers when she worked at Stefanic’s for a summer with Tony and Eleanor Stefanic and June Krizmanich. “It was a wonderful summer. I made ice cream cones, kept everybody’s tabs, and got their groceries for them,” she says.
Randi weaves a heartwarming image of simpler times in Crested Butte. That first winter, she went on her first Nordic ski schlep. “I had been here for two or three weeks. It started snowing on Kebler.” On the way up to ski with a friend they picked up another friend who happened to be Tony Stroh, who had moved to town for many of the same reasons Randi had. She and Tony hit it off somewhat and began seeing each other around town. Moving in together in the magical summer of 1972, Randi says, “It was fate, especially from where we both came from in our lives.” They celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary last summer.
Another life changing experience for Randi was the transformation of Penelope’s from an old house into a restaurant, because they decided to hire a piano player. “They had an old upright, a really pretty antique one, and they gave me the job. I got to play the piano every night and they paid me and people appreciated it!” she says, still somewhat awed by the turn of events. She played her classical music at the restaurant in the winters of ‘72 and ‘73. “I remember sitting there practicing and that’s when it hit me—I needed to do more with music.”
Randi’s revelation concluded in a move to Boulder, where she was accepted into CU’s music program. She graduated with a B.M. in music, and dove right into a master’s program, graduating with a master’s degree in piano in 1982.
“I wanted to perform. One of the first things I did when I finished my master’s was become a leader of a chamber music group, the Boulder International Chamber Players,” she says of the first World Music group in Boulder. “We did music from India, Africa, didgeridoo, we used all sorts of instruments and vocals.”
Randi was also active in the arts as one of the first founding board members of Boulder’s The Dairy, now known as the Center for the Arts. But she felt she was losing focus on her own performance and technique so in 1992 she stepped away from her roles that had become more administrative and sought a fresh path.
“We were always coming to Crested Butte a lot and we realized in Boulder that we really missed the mountains,” Randi says. She points out that their thoughts turned to finding a place. Their first choice was the abandoned mining town of Pittsburgh and in 1983, an old mining claim became available. “It was going to be the town site for the Augusta Mine but never happened because the silver market crashed and it was impossible to do anything in the winter there,” Randi explains. “There was just too much snow so they were never able to make it into a full-time town, although there was about 200 people there at one time.”
The couple camped a lot on the property in the first years, restoring the only cabin existing from those early mining days. All in all, it took them 25 years to restore the 1880s cabin and its outhouses.
Completely off grid, they put the whole property into a conservation easement with the Crested Butte Land Trust, writing into the easement that there will never be electric lines on the property. “I wanted to create a piece of history, a place maybe reflecting how my great-great grandparents lived when they got here,” Randi says of her maternal grandparents who were Colorado Springs homesteaders in the early 1870s. “Even though I didn’t grow up in Colorado, after I’d been here I really felt like this is where I belong, it’s my home.”
In 2003 Randi and Tony bought their home on Maroon. “We’re not here for long periods of time, but we’re here a lot. I knew when we moved to Boulder that I was not really leaving Crested Butte. I also knew that I cared about how the town would develop, and that I wanted to remain involved in community issues. That has meant being at the table and working on several land use and conservation issues, speaking up on several political issues over time, and supporting the growth of the arts community and the arts economy. I have always believed that the arts could be and should be part of the future of Crested Butte. I am very pleased to be on the board of the Center for the Arts. This is an exciting and pivotal time for the Center and all the arts in the valley.”
One day while flipping through handwritten archival records to trace the history of their Pittsburgh property, Randi came across mining claims in the Irwin area belonging to her great-great grandfather, Justus Seldomridge, and felt, “No wonder I love Crested Butte! He probably rode his horse down Elk Avenue in the 1800s! It was one of those goosebumps moments in my life. Here I am, loving the same mountains.”