Lake Tahoe artist entertains during dark times
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Local artist Mel Smothers entertained drivers with his fiddle as they waited in bumper-to-bumper traffic during the Caldor Fire evacuations.
Smothers went viral when drivers recorded him playing his fiddle on the side of the road surrounded by smoke, while drivers left their homes and belongings, not knowing if they’d see them again.
It was like he was playing violin on the Titanic.
Most of the feedback was positive, although there were some less than kind comments.
Smothers, who has studied Andy Warhol, knows this is his 15-minutes of fame, and wants to get the most out of his moment in the spotlight.
News agencies around the country picked up the video of him playing but soon the publicity died out.
“I thought, ‘okay back to normal,’ and I knew I had to start talking to my friends again,” Smothers jokes.
Smothers first came to Lake Tahoe from Sacramento on a backpacking trip with his older brother when he was 14-years-old.
“For some reason, it clicked with me, I just loved it,” Smothers said. “Tahoe became like a spiritual place.”
Every summer, he’d come back to Tahoe to work-odd jobs. Then he’d go back to Sacramento for school in the fall.
His luck turned when he got a job as a park Rranger. He was then able to buy a cabin near Echo Lake that he was able to flip.
Him and his wife, Liz continued to flip homes but it wasn’t until 1999 that they weren’t just scraping by.
By this time, Smothers was in his 50’s and since money was coming in a little easier, he decided to go back to college. He received his Masters in Fine Art from University of Idaho then became an art professor.
He taught at UC Davis for three years, then got a teaching job in New York City. Just like when he was a teenager, he and his wife would rent out their New York loft every summer and come back to Tahoe.
“It’s been the same lifestyle ever since then,” Smothers said. But even when they’ve been away, they’ve always considered Tahoe their home.
Art is a huge part of Smothers’ life. When you walk through the front door of their Tahoe Keys condo, you immediately enter his studio. A door to the left leads upstairs to the main living area but the lower floor is for Smothers and the couple’s Golden Retriever Peak.
His watercolors cover the walls and on a table, he’s during wood burned in the Caldor Fire to make sculptures. Book shelves are lined with art texts and fiddles and violins line one wall.
He always had a love for visual art but his love for music didn’t come until he was in his mid-20s.
“Me and my friends were part of the hippie generation,” Smothers said.
After hearing one of his friends entertain him with a banjo, Smothers used winnings from a Bingo game at a Stateline casino to purchase a banjo and music book.
He never quite learned the banjo but he said it ignited a love of bluegrass in him. So he turned to violin, which he also wasn’t great at.
At this point, he was a middle-aged adult but he signed up for a class in Carson City which was filled with little kids.
They moved back to New York, where he auditioned and was accepted for a semester at Juilliard, where he honed his talent.
“So, I’ve been dedicated. I spend half my time — originally I didn’t know I was going to spend half my time — but it’s now taken up at least half of my art time,” Smothers.
It’s been six years that he’s been regularly playing, he takes Zoom classes and practices at least three hours everyday.
Then, in August 2021, the Caldor Fire started raging towards South Lake and residents were evacuated on fairly short notice. Cars were backed up through the city, sitting in stop and go traffic. While stuck in the car, Smothers decided it would be the perfect time to get his three hours of practice in.
Several people who had cameras started filming him and before he knew it, people around the world had heard of Smothers.
“I’m not a great violinist but it’s just fun that this happened,” Smothers said.
Smothers, who has white hair that shoots up all around his head and has small round glasses said it probably looks like the ghost of Albert Einstein picked up a fiddle.
And that’s what makes Smothers so enjoyable to be around, he doesn’t take himself too seriously, he just wants to have fun and make art.
“If you love something, that’s sort of the key. It’s nice to have the talent and the love but I think you can make it with just the love,” Smothers said.
Smothers was hoping to win a contest to get to play at High Sierra Music Festival by getting the most “likes” on Facebook. They announced the winners and his name was not listed among them but the Tribune believes that shouldn’t stop people from “liking” him.
If anyone deserves 15 minutes of fame, it’s Smothers.
He can be seen playing on Saturday afternoons out in front of Poke Rok at 4125 Lake Tahoe Blvd Suite I, in South Lake Tahoe.
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