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50 years after receiving a gift, Lantz still giving his gift — music — back to Punxsy

January 4, 2013

Pictured is jazz musician Ray Lantz, a Punxsy native who, despite being visually impaired, performed as a teenager in a jazz group called "Jazz from the Darkness Combo." Groundhog Day 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of the town of Punxsutawney gathering together and presenting Lantz with a set of drums. (Photo by Destiny Pifer of The Punxsutawney Spirit)

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Everyone has a story to tell, but for one local man, his story wouldn't be complete without the generosity of one town — Punxsutawney.

Residing in this very town is a man who has achieved a great many goals despite being partially blind.

Ray Lantz was born on Aug. 21, 1946, to Robert and Rachel Lantz. He was born with congenital cataracts, which left him completely blind.

Taught to walk with assistance from a collie dog, he received his first operation at 2-1/2 years of age on his right eye.

The cataracts was removed, and for the first time, he could see. It wouldn't be until 1950 that he would be able to receive surgery on his left eye. Though that, too, was successful, he was still left with 
only partial vision.

In 1957, Lantz was sent to the Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind. It was there that, by mere coincidence, he would become part of a young jazz band called "Jazz from the Darkness Combo."

While performing in one of the rooms, he garnered the attention of two other students who were performing as well. Those students were Eric Kloss, who played the sax, and Lou Schreiber, who played the piano.

At the time, Lantz was 16 years old, Schreiber 14, and Kloss only 13.

What started out as an outlet for their passion turned into something much more when Kloss' father — Superintendent Dr. Alton Kloss — heard the boys play and decided to get them gigs.

Before the boys knew it, they were performing at the Lions Club in Pittsburgh and raising money for their school.

After a few performances, word of mouth spread, and the boys found themselves performing on live television.

They gave a performance on a television show called "Daybreak" that aired on KDKA-TV channel 2. The program was hosted by the legendary Johnny Costa and Joe Negri, best known for his role on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.“

They were soon booked on other shows as well, including WPXI Pittsburgh's show "Dance Party" hosted by Bill Cardille and "Popeye and Knish," a children's program. In 1963, they performed on "The Mike Douglas Show."

"I didn't realize how big these shows were and how many people were watching" said Lantz.

The trio also performed at the historic Bedford Springs Hotel, which is now called The Bedford Springs Resort, the Pittsburgh International Airport and a famous restaurant in Greenville, Pa., called Schusters.

According to Lantz, though, perhaps his favorite gig was coming home to Punxsy in ‘63 and performing on Groundhog Day.

It was while performing at the Elks Club that he was presented with his own set of drums after years of having to use the school's set.

The people of Punxsy had gathered together as a community, and for that young boy, it was a gift that forever changed his life.

"The people of Punxsutawney are second to none when it comes to helping people," said Lantz.

Lantz resided at the school for most of the year, coming home on holidays and for the summer. When he was home for the summer, he traveled with a local band called Crimson Trio.

While performing with the Crimson Trio, he became friends with fellow drummer Chuck Ellenberger.

After graduation in 1967, Lantz, Kloss and Schreiber went their separate ways. While both Kloss and Schreiber went on to recording careers, Lantz chose a different path.

He moved to Erie, where he trained in refinishing furniture. But in his spare time, he still performed with various jazz groups. He came back to the Punxsy area and worked at a local shoe factory from 1970-1974, and from 1974-1984, he resided in DuBois, where he worked at Goodwill Industries and connected with other local musicians.

Fate once again brought him back to Punxsutawney in 1987, and that is where he resides today with his partner, Linda.

"If I would have stayed in Pittsburgh playing just jazz, then I would never have known the beauty in the different types of music," said Lantz.

He now plays a variety of music from rock and country to polka and swing. Working at normal jobs and becoming a part of the local music industry has enabled Lantz to meet a variety of people and perform with a variety of bands.

He has performed with Johnny Sierra, considered a local icon, as well as Bobby Spicher, who currently does studio work in Nashville. Bobby's brother, Buddy Spicher, is a famous Nashville fiddler.

Lantz's nephew, Billy, performs in the local band Ridin' Shotgun and is thrilled that his uncle has left such a legacy.

"You have to have a lot of drive to play" said Ray Lantz, adding, "I want to play until I'm 103, that’s my goal!"

Lantz often plays with fellow drummer Ellenberger and his band The LaVelles.

Feb. 2, 2013, will mark the 50th anniversary of his receiving the drums from the community.

As a way of expressing his thankfulness, Lantz will be performing on drums with his old friend Schreiber on keyboards, Ken Kovach on bass guitar and singer Autumn Kunselman, a Punxsy native as well.

"The people of Punxsutawney deserve to know the good that they have done," said Lantz.

The trio will perform from 9 to 10:30 a.m. in Barclay Square on Groundhog Day.

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