The first time Dorothy Olson Pauletti applied for piano gig in Chicago, she lied to get the job. “They liked the piano playing,” she remembers, “but they said I was too young.”
So this 17-year-old girl from Bloomington told them she was 18. Soon she was working regularly at hotels, restaurants and nightclubs around Chicago.
That was in 1934. If you do the math, you’ll discover that Pauletti is now 102 years old. Her last professional job was just seven years ago. And she still plays piano regularly at her retirement community in west suburban Northlake.
Her first paying job was at age 9, when a Bloomington furniture store started selling pianos. “So I was in the window playing the piano, advertising the fact that they had a piano department now.”
Pauletti became a regular at the Drake Hotel, the LaSalle and the Pick-Congress. Her favorite, she says, was the Empire Room at the Palmer House. “The piano was on the stage, a low stage,” she recalls. “So you could still talk to people in the first row or second row.”
Pauletti married, had two kids, and kept right on playing.
Her daughter Susan Nelson says there has never been a time in her life when she has not heard her mother play the piano: “I have been listening to my mother since I was in the womb!”
“She was a working mom,” Nelson says. “She’d get dressed in the formals and she’d make our dinner and she’d go off to work and we’d have a babysitter and no matter what time she got home from working – she would get up, make breakfast for us and get us off to school.”
Pauletti says that while she loved performing, she always took it seriously as a job. “When people wanted to buy me a drink, I would say, ‘Well now this is my job – do you drink on your job?’ And then none of them ever did. Or they said they didn’t,” she adds with a laugh.
Pauletti says the proudest moments of her career were when she volunteered with the Red Cross to cheer up wounded soldiers during World War II. “They had this little small piano on wheels and they would wheel it from one room to another,” she recalls. “I would just look in their faces and sing songs. Happy songs, love songs, anything they wanted to hear. It was the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done musically. I’ll never forget it.”
After this story first aired on April 17, 2019, the Palmer House invited Dorothy Olson Pauletti to return to the Empire Room. She was welcomed in the lobby by cheering Palmer House staff, then she and her family were treated to lunch while being serenaded by Chicago musicians.
Note: This story was originally published April 17, 2019. It has been updated.