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Last updateFri, 16 Sep 2016 12pm

When you meet Palm Springs resident Dan Waddell, you immediately get the impression of someone who is gentle, affable, pleasant and relaxed—but the quintessential pianist will definitely confront you if necessary.

I met Waddell when I was producing Palm Springs Confidential, a comedy/musical revue, in the early 1990s. He came on board as musical director on the recommendation of Bill Marx, the noted local pianist and composer who had written the show’s music.

As the producer of the show, I had to keep the peace when Marx was at odds with Waddell over how some piece of music should work. There is an expression that comes over Waddell’s face when he doesn’t get his way—yet he is a consummate professional, and things always end with a harmonious result, “as long as the result is the best it can be.”

Waddell, 75, was born and raised in Tacoma, Wash., as the eldest of three. His mother played piano in the church, so Waddell studied piano as a kid, playing recitals that put him in front of audiences. He learned the organ as well, and played in church while he was in high school; he also worked gigs around town. However, Waddell did not feel compelled to make the piano part of his professional life—and is as surprised as anyone that it turned out that way.

“I had no idea I was going to do this for my whole life,” he says. “I probably assumed I’d go into a building trade. My dad was a utility engineer who did woodworking, which taught me how you can screw things up if you’re not precise.

“I got a music scholarship to college, and thought it was better than going to Vietnam. I had to play an audition for the scholarship, and they told me I should go into music education. I did what I could do best. If I had any real musical influence, it was my teacher, Leonard Jacobson. He made me want to do the work.”

Waddell furthered his musical education with post-graduate studies with the likes of Arthur Loesser, Constance Keene, Abram Chasins and Richard Faith.

Waddell became a member of the musicians’ union while still in high school and worked clubs while in college. He met his wife of 51 years, Robin, while they were students at the University of Puget Sound.

“I met her at a going-away party for her music teacher,” he says. “Robin also sang and played piano. We had just gotten married when I enlisted in the Army with a guaranteed assignment for two years—I actually enlisted for three—to go to their music school. It was once again the best way to stay out of Vietnam. The Army sent me to Arizona, and after my time was up, and my son was born, I became a lecturer in music at the University of Arizona in Tucson.”

Prior to settling in the Coachella Valley 27 years ago, Dan and Robin, along with their son, lived in lots of different places. Waddell worked cruise ships for seven years, “and I think the only place I haven’t yet been is Australia and New Zealand. I kind of fell into (playing cruise ships). I was playing at a club in Seattle, but (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) had put up such a fuss about people drinking and driving that people stopped coming downtown, so the club went downhill. I auditioned for a booker for Sitmar (Cruises), so Robin and I moved to Cuernavaca (Mexico), because it was a lot easier to pick up a ship in Acapulco, which wasn’t that far away.”

Over his long career, Waddell has played with such notables as Cab Calloway, Tony Sandler (of Sandler and Young) and Frank Stallone. He has been a featured concert pianist, music director, vocalist accompanist, organ designer, and judge for the local Virginia Waring International Piano Competition. He has also played organ and piano locally at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in La Quinta, and Temple Isaiah in Palm Springs, among other places.

“I’m a professional musician,” says Waddell. “I don’t play from some burning desire to create music. I play because people pay me to play. I’ve worked with many, many talented local people, and with the Desert Symphony at the McCallum Theatre.”

Waddell has been teaching others for more than 25 years at College of the Desert, leading students in basic and applied piano, fundamentals of music, and the music theater workshop. His advice for young musicians? “Learn as much as you can about music, taking into consideration that we all have limitations. You have to learn how to work around your limitations.

“I’d also have to say it’s important to move to a big city for exposure, and to meet people and network. I should have gone to Los Angeles and the Dick Grove School of Music, where I would have spent my time writing charts and working with really good musicians, but I got married and went into the Army. I would advise anyone serious about a music career to put themselves in an environment where they can hang out and get paid for it. That’s how you learn and sharpen your skills.

“It’s a given in any endeavor, particularly the entertainment business, that you have to do what you do well. You have to get out there. It’s all about diversity and opportunity.”

Bill Marx likes to introduce Waddell as “the best piano player nobody has ever heard of.” Waddell responds: “I hate that,” adding with a wry smile, “but he’s absolutely right!”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Rancho Mirage resident Bill Marx is known both for being the eldest son of Harpo Marx (the mute, harp-playing Marx Brothers star) and for his own talent as a composer and performer. He and his wife, Barbara, are among those named in bold print as attendees at many local charity functions, and Bill is often a featured performer, combining his piano-playing talent with comedic stories about growing up Marx.

Raised in Beverly Hills, Bill became his father’s prop man at age 12 and his arranger/conductor by the time Bill was 16.

“Dad couldn’t read a note of music,” he says. “I’d write the notes in letters, and he could feel the rhythm and harmony.”

Bill’s dad decided that Beverly Hills was “too pretentious” and moved the family to the desert. Bill went on to study at the Juilliard School in New York and then settled in Los Angeles. While Bill’s father helped him hone his natural musical talent, most people don’t know how much his mother, Susan Marx, influenced who he is as a person.

Bill moved permanently to the desert in 1992.

“I wanted to look after my mother, and I took over the trusteeship of my dad’s estate and professional identity,” says Bill. “But instead of looking out for her, she had to look after me, as my shaky second marriage broke up. I thought I could always go back to living in Los Angeles, but when we started being together without my dad, (my mom and I) developed the best damn absurd relationship, so I decided to stay.”

Susan Marx was something of a trailblazer in the Coachella Valley. She had been in movies and was a Ziegfeld Follies girl before she married Harpo. They became parents to four adopted children; Bill is the oldest.

“When dad died, on their 28th anniversary in 1964, she had no ‘role’ to fulfill anymore,” says Bill. “She had no desire to remarry, although she was courted by lots of wealthy guys. She literally decided to ‘invent’ Susan Marx as a separate person.

“Mom broke into the Old Boys’ Club here, at a time when an outspoken feminist Democrat was not the norm,” Bill says. “She had an opinion on everything and wasn’t afraid to share it. She was the first woman on the board of College of the Desert and served on the board of Palm Springs Unified School District. She even ran for state Senate, endorsed by the local papers, and lost by only about 1,000 votes.”

Susan Marx had always been interested in education and preferred to give her support without fanfare. “Once, they wanted to honor mom by changing the name of a middle school,” says Bill. “Mom didn’t want her name on a building, but she said she didn’t mind them putting a small plaque on the door of the school library. She was just like that.”

When Susan died in 2002, Bill had already established himself in the desert, along with Barbara, whom he met in 1994.

“I had ‘de-citified’ myself,” he says. “Besides, I was doing Marx trustee work and playing a lot down here.”

While Bill is known for playing jazz and standards at various local venues and charity events, most people don’t realize the extent of his musical accomplishments. He is a classical composer whose work has included writing for movies, television and ballet; he’s also created concertos performed in major venues. He is the curator of the Marx Brothers’ legacy, and well known as a local “celebrity.”

“Celebrity isn’t what you create,” Bill says, with typical humility. “It’s what other people create about you. It’s my name value that has counted, more than who I am. I always knew I had a magical name, not just because of my dad, but also because of my mom, but she always said it was important that I get known not just for being my father’s son. I figured that when you have talent, you can use that talent rather than just giving a check or volunteering your time, so the best way I could help others was also my way of fitting into society down here.”

Bill has been using his talent for a greater purpose for more than 20 years. He has actively supported numerous causes, including ACT for MS, established by his old friend, local columnist and personality, Gloria Greer, who died in 2015.

“Mom had said to me early on, ‘There’s one person you need to know here, and that’s Gloria Greer.’ She asked me to be on the ACT for MS board, and I have been ever since.”

Bill currently performs for the public twice a week at AJ’s on the Green in Cathedral City.

“I was given the gift of music, and I like to keep testing my capability,” he said. “It keeps my brain alive, and I love the camaraderie and interaction with the audience. I had nothing to do with the gift I was given, but I do have to honor it. I think I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

Bill has a large group of local followers, including other performers, who often show up when he is appearing. I was recently in the audience when jazz singer Diane Schuur, now a local resident, jumped up onstage with him and blew away the audience.

Bill has advice for young people: “It’s not enough just to have a door opened, even though it helps: You have to deliver. Set out to do something, and see it through—finish it. Don’t think of it as creativity; think of it as self-discovery. Everybody has a unique means of self-expression within them; it’s about how they choose to express it that makes the difference. When it comes out, it becomes unique to the one doing it.

“Trust your own instinct to find your talent. That’s the gift. I was just lucky enough to know what mine was.”

Lucky for us, Bill Marx is still discovering new ways to explore his gift and share it.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors