Legendary pianist Van Cliburn dead of cancer at 78

An appreciation of a unique American original that time almost forgot. Photo: AP

FT. WORTH, Texas, February 28, 2013 – Van Cliburn, the legendary American pianist whose victory in Moscow’s 1958 Tchaikovsky International Competition electrified America and the world, died Wednesday morning, February 27, in Ft. Worth, Texas, his longtime home, at the age of 78. He had been suffering from bone cancer.

Van Cliburn: The Legend 

It’s perhaps difficult today for Americans to grasp the importance, the sheer thrill of Van Cliburn’s unexpected victory in what was regarded as a key international musical competition—but one which could be expected to award its prizes exclusively to musicians from Communist countries. Post-Stalin Soviet Russia had been moderating somewhat, but was still regarded as an implacable U.S. foe, as indeed, the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis would soon prove. 

Adding to the deepening Cold War fears in the U.S. was the fact that in 1957, the Soviet Sputnik satellite had been launched into Earth orbit, leading to very real fears here that the Russians had hopelessly outdistanced this country in what was then regarded as a very real “space race.” 

With politics, science, and the threat of nuclear warfare hovering in the background, a tall, thin, impossibly boyish-looking young Texas pianist of 23 strode almost sheepishly onto the musical scene and proceeded to win his own Cold War victory without even meaning to, astounding and then delighting Moscow audiences and thuggish Communist bosses alike with his brilliant, unselfconscious, seemingly effortless, and utterly passionate interpretations of the greatest Russian piano concertos of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff; but, most memorably, Tchaikovsky’s massive Piano Concerto No. 1.

Van Cliburn won the piano competition hands down, and was lionized both in Moscow as well as in the U.S., where he was accorded a rare New York City ticker tape parade upon his triumphal return, cheered on by a crowd estimated at over 100,000—regarded as a huge turnout at the time. 

Van Cliburn in Moscow, 1958. (AP) Pianist Van Cliburn performing before an SRO crowd in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, April 1958. The occasion: the first International Tchaikovsky Competition, from which Cliburn emerged victorious, already a legend at the age of 23.

After his return home, RCA signed him to an exclusive recording contract, and his later recording on that label of the Tchaikovsky First was the first classical album in history to actually go platinum, eventually achieving triple-platinum status for its worldwide sales. Van Cliburn also copped the 1958 Grammy for Best Classical Performance for this recording, according to his Wikipedia entry. The online encyclopedia also notes that in 2004, “this recording was re-mastered from the original studio analogue tapes, and released in the highest quality ever on high-resolution Super Audio CD.” In other words, it’s a collector’s item, but you can still obtain it in a recording that’s even better sounding than the original.

It was also at this time, again according to Wikipedia, that “during a dinner hosted by the National Guild of Piano Teachers, President and Founder Dr. Irl Allison announced a cash prize of $10,000 to be used for a piano competition named in Van Cliburn’s honor. Under the leadership of Grace Ward Lankford and with the dedicated efforts of local music teachers and volunteers, the First Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was held September 24-October 7, 1962 at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Until his death, Cliburn continued to serve as Director Emeritus for the Van Cliburn Foundation, as host of the quadrennial competition and host of other programs honoring his legacy.”

In demand as a soloist practically everywhere, Cliburn concertized energetically before excited fans both here and abroad. And yet, his career gradually took a strange trajectory. A genuine master of both the epic late-Romantic concerto repertoire and the associated solo piano repertoire, he seemed unable to develop beyond that point. His attempts at Mozart and Brahms were not well received by critics, and he gradually faded from the classical scene, retiring from active performance in 1978. 

Van Cliburn: the Beginnings of an Almost Brilliant Career 

Although regarded by the public as a native Texan, Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Jr. was actually born in Shreveport, Louisiana July 12 1934. His mother, Rildia, was a highly trained pianist and his father, Harvey Sr., worked, rather prosaically, as an oil company purchasing agent.

Around 1940, about six years after Van’s birth—his popular name was adapted from “Lavan”—the family moved to Kilgore, Texas. By that time, he’d already shown considerable music aptitude to the point where his family added a special practice space for him onto their garage where he continued to study the piano with his mother, who, according to the pianist, taught him the value of the “bel canto” playing, a performance style modeled after early Romantic opera singing and much-prized by Chopin in his own piano works.

By the age of 13, young Van had already won a Texas state piano competition and performed the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto—the one that would later win him worldwide fame—with the Houston Symphony Orchestra.

By high school graduation, Van, now a lanky and very noticeable six foot four in height, moved to New York where he studied with the famous Rosina Lhevinne, a native Russian teacher-performer, at Juilliard.

Continuing to make waves as a performer, he won the Leventritt Foundation Award in 1954, and performed the Tchaikovsky with several orchestras as a result of his win, including a performance at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic. It would be just four years later than he would dramatically establish himself as a rock star in the classical firmament with his Tchaikovsky Competition win. The rest of his life, true to the oft-stated cliché, “was history.”

Van Cliburn’s later years and decline

After his retirement from active performing in 1978, Cliburn led a relatively quiet life, living a life of quiet luxury in Ft. Worth, and only beginning to concertize again on a limited basis only in the late 1980s. But by then, his talent seems to have faded, a fact duly yet ruefully noted by the critics. I myself saw him not too many years ago, here in Washington. His powers had clearly flagged, a ghost of his former self. But many in the audience still remembered him in his glory days. Everyone knew his best days were past. But he was accorded a tremendous standing ovation nonetheless. The reality is, none of us remains at his or her peak forever. So we honor the good times anyway, whenever they may have occurred.

Texans even named a street after Van Cliburn. After all, he was tall and famous just like any Texan should be.

A discreet homosexual, Van Cliburn’s lifestyle suddenly erupted into unwanted publicity when, in 1995, he was sued by Thomas E. Zaremba, a companion with whom he had a 17-year relationship, spanning roughly the years 1966-1983. Zaremba had moved out, becoming a funeral director in Michigan after the relationship was over but decided to sue Cliburn for millions of dollars he believed was owed him. The suit was invalidated due to provisions of Texas law, but the stress of the suit seemed to damage the pianist’s health, causing unexplained fainting spells that disrupted some of his performances.

In spite of the chaos and the gradual failure of his gifts, Cliburn continued to be a revered figure of classical music legend. In recent years, he was accorded honors by both President Bush and President Obama, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom; and also was the recipient, in 2001, of a richly-deserved Kennedy Center Honors Award.

In 2008 remarks, Cliburn still extolled the exquisite virtues of classical music. “It’s like breathing, like nourishment,” he said, “because within the realm of classical music you have eternity and infinity, and mathematics and architecture, and spirituality and wonderment.” All of which remains true today, a day—and a lifetime—after his passing.

A personal appreciation of Van Cliburn:

In 1957, at the age of nine, I began to study the piano. A year later, my father made the decision to become a half-season ticket-holder for the Severance Hall concert series of the Cleveland Orchestra, then in its near magical heyday under the baton of conductor George Szell. He had the prescience to reserve a pair of tickets, hoping to be accompanied by my mother, a former territory band singer. But mom was more or less strictly big band, so I became the beneficiary of that ticket by default. For me, at least, that remains her wisest decision.

Both experiences, however, caused problems for me. I was instantly hooked on classics after my first Cleveland Orchestra concert. That, of course, made me the odd kid out in Cleveland, home now to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as my hometown was famous then—though many forget—as the ultimate proving ground for many a rock star’s brilliant career.

So a childhood steeped in the classics was a lonely one, though it didn’t much matter to me. I had my own rock stars. And Van Cliburn was certainly one of them.

I’ve offered a brief obit of the pianist above. But I prefer to remember him the way I encountered him: occasionally up close and personal. But more often, as a distant star on a distant horizon, a musical hero who epitomized the Romantic pianist: passionate, tragic, personal, and heroic, all wrapped up into one.

The story surrounding his rise to fame also made him a Cold War Hero as well, something that those not around at that time, and now living through the Socialist re-making of America, can scarcely comprehend today. But all of the Van Cliburn legend meant so much at the time. It was a story of hope, perseverance, and, above all, a story of brilliant, immortal music, performed as both its composers, and perhaps God himself, had meant it to be performed.

In remembering Van Cliburn’s life and times, I was rather surprised to find that certain key videos, now readily available via YouTube, can tell his story in music. So I’ve put together a series of videos here, offered with comments that, I hope, will make the experience more real for generations who’ve never experienced this kind of music or this kind of national excitement and patriotism, the kind that cut across all parties and all boundaries. It’s a nostalgia trip, perhaps, but one, I think, that’s well worth taking as we search for an America we seem to have lost.

Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody #12

To begin, let’s take a relatively short sample of Van Cliburn as a recital pianist. In the following video, he’s performing Franz Liszt’s ever-popular “Hungarian Rhapsody #12” in a live performance. For the uninitiated, a “rhapsody” is a relatively formless piece consisting of several not necessarily related musical ideas in one marvelous hodgepodge of virtuosity.

The best American example of a rhapsody, of course, is George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. But it was Liszt who perfected the non-form almost a century earlier, and #12 is perhaps his most famous. Even non-classical fans will recognize its puckish central theme, beloved of cartoon soundtracks from the 1930s on, and still occasionally purloined for commercials today.

In the following video—a little jumpy as most older videos are—note one of the key reasons for Van’s mastery of the most difficult works in the pianistic repertoire: the phenomenal reach of his hands and fingers. Performing much of the mid- to late-Romantic repertoire requires an ability to make cruel stretches without a break in tone. It must have been ridiculously easy for Van, whose reach had to have been the envy of every pianist and would-be pianist including this one. Liszt himself would have been in awe. Take a look:

Liszt: Consolation #3

While Van was most famous for his excellence in performing classical music’s most difficult piano works, he also had a quieter side, a polar opposite to many of today’s pop singers who express powerful emotions in only one way: by belting them out, or belting them out even louder. Sometimes the greatest of passions can be stated quietly, as in this performance of Liszt’s famous Consolation #3. It’s perhaps the best short illustration I’ve found of Van’s ability to excel in the bel canto, or “singing” melodic style beloved both of his mother/piano teacher and of that ultimate pianist/composer, Frederic Chopin, who held this ability in the highest regard. This is a side of Van Cliburn that few people are likely to remember:

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1

Liszt aside, if anything established the career and the legend of Van Cliburn, it was his definitive performances of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. He made several vinyl recordings of the concerto over the years, but the earliest ones, featuring Russian conductor Kiril Kondrashin (first name occasionally spelled with a double “l”) at the helm, are to my mind the finest ones.

Like the previous video, this one doesn’t show Van or the orchestra live, but the sound is of pretty decent quality, given that all these early examples date considerably previous to CDs, DVDs, digital sound, and occasionally, even stereo, as monaural vinyl was still the most prevalent at the time.

The entire concerto is on this clip, but if you don’t have time to listen to all of it, by all means, don’t fail to check out the opening portion of the lengthy first movement—the famous, majestic opening theme that, once developed, never returns during the remainder of the concerto.

Van’s performance here was, and perhaps still is without equal anywhere at any time: dramatic yet measured, Romantic yet precise and not sloppy, and above all, containing the clearest, cleanest, most mistake-proof passagework one will ever hear in this concerto. Seeing and listening to this live was almost literally heart-stopping, the memory of a lifetime.

I, myself, was privileged to hear Van in this Concerto live with the Cleveland Orchestra, likely in the late 1950s. The Cleveland audience was stunned, awestruck, even. I was nearly in tears as the music and the performance hit emotions I’d scarcely known were there. People were quietly trembling. No one could move. It was utter, heavenly perfection, unearthly magic, the music of the gods themselves or so it seemed. Tchaikovsky himself would almost certainly have been stunned. You never, ever forget moments like this. This old recording comes remarkably close to re-living that moment.

Van Cliburn bonus clip: Receptions in Moscow and New York

Most Van Cliburn obits yesterday and today dwell on the cultural and political importance of the pianist’s Russian victory. But, lest we forget, no one was more surprised at what happened than the Russians—I mean, the Soviets—themselves. Still trying to extricate their minds and souls from the decades of pure terror that were the reign of Josef Stalin, Russians had learned to be careful not to deviate from the Party Line lest it be the last deviation they would ever undertake in their lives.

And so it was remarkable when the “Aw shucks,” boyish, lanky, gawky Texan known as Van Cliburn strode humbly onto the stage and, slowly and surely, showed Russians how their own national treasures were meant to be performed.

The following, surpassingly odd video clip is incredibly fascinating from an historical standpoint. It is apparently derived from a Russian or USSR source in circulation at the time, although I can’t precisely identify it.

Filmed in the USSR and with a Russian language voiceover, it’s a short video survey (six minutes) of the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Competition held in Moscow. But roughly a third of the way through it, the commentator’s enthusiasm for Van Cliburn takes over from the Party Line agitprop language that permeates the video. The English translation superimposed on the film makes it quite clear we need to interpret the self-serving Soviet propaganda here, but this is propaganda lite, rendered ineffective by the utter shock of a young Texan’s piano magic.

You can readily see here that even the old Communist die-hards were swept up into the arc of Van Cliburn’s heroic Russian vision, enchanted as they were by this naïve, lanky, American man-child’s mind-meld with the spirit of Russia’s most famous composers.

Extra bonuses in this clip are an astonishingly frank love letter to Van from a Soviet fan—not an uncommon occurrence, apparently; a brief clip of Van’s encore interpretation of the popular song “Moscow Nights;” and some clips from Van’s triumphal New York ticker-tape parade, complete with a suitably pro-Soviet voiceover in this video as the commentator not-too-subtly re-frames this All-American celebration into a triumph of the Soviet People. Propaganda aside, it would be hard to imagine any American classical musician getting this kind of ecstatic reception anywhere in the U.S. today. And indeed, this was the one and only time an American classical musician was honored with a ticker-tape parade.

In these days of electronic trading, I’d guess that current—and still rare—ticker tape parades would have to special order the ticker tape. So it goes.

In any event, enjoy this unusual clip.

Let’s not forget Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto

While the Tchaikovsky Concerto still gets all the ink in any discussion of Van Cliburn’s life, art, and times, let’s not forget that he also performed the even more towering Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3. The following video focuses on the closing portion of this work’s final movement.

This is truly music of legendary difficulty for the pianist. But Van went far beyond mastering this work as this clip makes clear. Again, as in the Tchaikovsky and even the Liszt Consolation, he brings out the bel canto quality of the melody line even amidst some of the most dramatic, almost bombastic piano scoring ever written.

For the wind-up and the pitch, fast-forward to about 2:40 in this video. After a dramatic buildup, the orchestra backs off only to re-enter ominously to the beat of the tympani and the growl of the winds and lower strings, beginning a thrilling, climactic duet of sorts, in which the piano begins its minor-key confrontation with the percussion section; and then, gradually, relentlessly, takes on the entire orchestra. A snare drum is added to the building orchestral attack, one that is answered with increasing ferocity by the piano, leading to a brief piano cadenza and a brilliant recapitulation of the final movement’s primary, soaring, Romantic theme, one of infinite longing and love.

This old video, alas, is a bit jittery. Yet the monaural sound holds true, and you can still see Van’s passion and determination as he and the orchestra build to a thrilling, utterly cathartic conclusion.

But some of the best stuff comes next, as the Moscow audience begins to applaud enthusiastically, holding off for a bit after the artist and conductor leave the stage, only to erupt again in that classic, rhythmic Russian clapping as the artists emerge again for another bow.

What’s astonishing here, at least for this critic, is the fact that this reaction is occurring quite spontaneously in a recently post-Stalinist Soviet Union that customarily refrained from admiring any American openly lest there be severe consequences later on. No one seems to care here. Fear of authority is gradually abandoned, and the reaction builds and builds. Van’s own boyish reaction just spurs them on. For them, it’s almost too good to be real.

Initially, after the concerto’s concluding note, Van seems thrilled he got through his confrontation with Rachmaninoff without a hitch, thanking the orchestra profusely and embracing the conductor (Kondrashin? It’s hard to recall) with genuine Russian-style enthusiasm. Which, of course, only drives the audience crazier.

Van is buried with bouquets during each curtain call, giving some of the floral gifts to the bemused and truly astonished conductor. And, near the end, Van is again gifted, this time with what appears to be a genuinely hand-made, hand-decorated Russian balalaika (a type of mandolin made in varying sizes).

Three balalaikas of varying size, from a Romanian advertisement.

Observe as well in this video the members of the orchestra, smiling, joking, yakking with one another without a care. They are obviously enjoying the entire experience, knowing, as both professional musicians and devoted audiences always do, that they have witnessed and participated in a special moment of history. Extraordinary moments like this only happen to each of us once or twice in a lifetime. For the orchestra and audience that evening, this was truly one of them.

Van Cliburn as teacher: Interlochen

Here’s an entirely different kind of video clip, taken some years later, of Van Cliburn in a teaching role at Michigan’s famed Interlochen Center for the Arts, not far from Traverse City, Michigan. Here, young musicians live and work with the finest classical musicians of the day, giving numerous concerts during many an evening, which are enthusiastically attended by the public at large.

Van, as we’ve already mentioned, is here in the role of teacher and conductor, rehearsing his young charges for a performance of Prokofiev’s vigorous, energetic, and highly percussive Piano Concerto No. 3. Unusually, he conducts the public performance from the keyboard. Although it’s clear from the video that he’s not an accomplished conductor, he manages to get an incredibly professional sound out of his young musicians, while adding his own, patented flair for the Russian Romantic repertoire to the musical brew.

This video, now in color, can be a bit chattery in spots. But the recording is rather good, all things considered. The concerto is merely excerpted here, starting out with the deceptively simple, almost pastoral opening bars of the work (approximately 8:00 on the video) before abruptly switching to the climactic moments of the driving finale at approximately 8:50.

Note Van’s flowing, passionate approach to the finale’s major theme before his rapid switch into the more percussive piano part that concludes this thrilling, virtuostic concerto. Also note, from time to time, the close-up shots of Van’s hands as they expertly navigate the challenges of Prokofiev’s score.

Unusual here also is the program source, which you’ll see at the beginning. It’s a broadcast, without commercial interruption, of the long defunct “Bell Telephone Hour,” hearkening back to the day when sponsors and networks alike were proud to bring highbrow arts programming to actual network television. Those days are long gone, alas. So, too, is much of the cultural education American students used to get both at school and on the tube. What’s left of it has been exiled to PBS, and there’s not much of it any more even on those so-called “educational” channels either, where a typical “Great Performance” is likely to feature some aging rock singer, the better for current ratings sweeps, I’d guess. This is the sort of thing Tocqueville worried about. But that’s another article.

Note that after the program’s introduction, Van actually narrates the action himself in voiceover, providing a rare opportunity to hear him speak in his rich, reassuring baritone. Unfortunately, the clip ends abruptly as Van attempts, somewhat haltingly, to articulate his musical philosophy.

Van Cliburn champions forgotten American composer Edward MacDowell

And now, let’s conclude this video collection with something completely different: a full, recorded performance, in three individual clips, of Edward MacDowell’s Second Piano Concerto with Van Cliburn as soloist.

Edward MacDowell? Who’s he?

Well, you actually should know, assuming at least, that you attended grade school prior to, say, 1960. Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) was, perhaps, the greatest American classical musician/composer of the late 19th century. He studied in Europe with famed pianists, including the fiery Venezuelan, Teresa Carreño, and even played for an aging Franz Liszt.

In this country, he became famous for his solo piano compositions as well as for his Second Piano Concerto, a robust, late Romantic composition with wide-ranging appeal at the time.

In 1896, Columbia University invited MacDowell to found a new Department of Music there, a task he undertook with great enthusiasm. Sadly, academic politics intervened, and MacDowell left the faculty under duress in 1904. This, along with a cab accident around that time, apparently combined to cause a rapid mental collapse resembling what today would be diagnosed as Alzheimer’s, although there is some disagreement as to its cause. He continued to decline, and died in a poor financial state in 1908, not yet 50 years of age.

A photo of American composer-pianist Edward MacDowell, currently in the Library of Congress collection.

But posthumously, his name lives on, thanks to the devotion of his long-lived wife, Marian, and numerous friends and admirers, including “Horatio Parker, Victor Herbert, Arthur Foote, George Whitefield Chadwick, Frederick Converse, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan and former President Grover Cleveland.” They contributed to MacDowell’s care in his final years, and support from those like them eventually led his widow to deed their farm and summer home in Peterborough, New Hampshire to become the MacDowell Colony—still in existence today as a creative home for writers, musicians, and artists who can live rent free for a time in its rustic dwellings as they pursue key projects.

Van Cliburn came to admire the MacDowell Second Concerto, possibly because, in a way, it possesses elements of the Russian concertos that he loved. Like the Tchaikovsky, the MacDowell Second boasts an almost rhapsodic first movement, a rapid and lively, contrasting second movement, and a triumphal finale. Unlike the Tchaikovsky, however, MacDowell’s Second actually brings back elements of the first and second movements to create a similar yet entirely different finale that knits the disparate elements into a thematic whole.

One commentator on one of the video sites succinctly summed up this concerto’s true value: “On a par with Grieg’s concerto - just not recognized because it was by an American composer in a romantic age that worshiped Europe.”

In this writer’s opinion, the MacDowell is a wonderful concerto that is, unfortunately, almost never heard today. I’m rather partial to it, and, not surprisingly, partial to Van’s recording of the work.

Our sometimes self-deceiving memory is convinced we heard Van play this concerto with the Cleveland in the early 1960s, which may or may not be true. But we’ve heard the following recording—now very difficult to find—before, and regard Van’s performance here as definitive. You might just find yourself enjoying it, so we’re providing three YouTube video clips—one for each movement—so you can enjoy the performance without having to search for it. It’s a 1960 recording of excellent quality, which Van made with the Chicago Symphony on RCA’s excellent “Red Label” of vinyl pressings.

How to play back the following videos: Our anonymous YouTube benefactor has uploaded the recordings (with visual montages, no actual video) from his own remarkably scratch free vinyl recording. The first video below actually contains the entire concerto. Video 2 contains the second movement only, while Video 3 contains the third and final movement.

If you have the time and simply want to sit back and hear the whole concerto—somewhat more than 30 minutes of music—just start Video 1 and enjoy. If you want to break this up, let Video 1 run through parts one and two (the first movement is a long one), and pause it; then pick it up at that point later on. Alternatively, just stop at that point and move on to Videos 2 and 3 at your convenience. Whatever the case, my brief commentaries for each movement precede the respective cuts on the album.

Let’s begin:

The first movement, below, begins almost like a funeral march, before proceding to its main exposition and development, livelier in a way, but again with formidably dark undertones. Bass notes dominate here, and Van’s performance is remarkable in the way the pianist is still able to extract the melodic line without getting immersed in the muddy dark notes that have taken other pianists under and down. A plaintive, Romantic theme is introduced about a third of the way through which loosens things up and previews, in a way, the material in the second movement.

The second movement is a light, bright, impossibly fast contrast to the first, cast in the major key and scampering here, there, and everywhere with remarkable rapidity and sunniness, save for a brief reminder of the first movement near the end—at which point the piano escapes and scampers off, not unlike Shakespeare’s Puck, or Ariel, perhaps. It’s a marvelous moment in American musical history, full of playfulness, vigor, and just plain fun.

The finale, admirably combines elements of the first and second movements before striking out in its own, positive, and virtuoso direction. Van and the orchestra work toward a satisfying, brilliant conclusion in this American treasure of a concerto, one that still deserves a regular place in every American orchestra’s repertoire. Any pianist who could even get close to Van’s performance here could make this concerto his or her own. Any takers?


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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