updated 04/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Don't expect any Top 40 hits from Michael Feinstein, 29. "Punk is junk," declares the tuxedoed charmer who has been playing piano and singing old standards and show tunes to SRO crowds at the Oak Room of New York's Algonquin Hotel for the past three months. His first album, Pure Gershwin, has become a cult favorite since its release last July, and critics on both coasts have hailed Feinstein as "the next Bobby Short."

A musical prodigy in Columbus, Ohio, Feinstein taught himself to play piano by ear at 5, thus amazing his salesman father and former tap dancer mother. He got his first professional job at 16, earning $25 at a wedding. Convinced "there was a greater world outside Columbus," Michael headed for L.A. in 1976. Liza Minnelli was so impressed when she heard him play at a private party two years ago that she helped launch his career with a bash at the town's Le Mondrian Club. "He's a treasure," coos Liza.

An ardent musicologist (whose Hollywood Hills bachelor pad is crammed with old records), Feinstein spent six years working as the late Ira Gershwin's discographer and "legs to the outside world." Says Feinstein, who is writing a book on the Gershwins: "I realize Ira gave me a gift. I learned how the songs should be done." That is the legacy the new king of saloon singers hopes to keep alive.

It was more than mere horseplay when her teammates on the Mount Holyoke College riding team gave sophomore Kathy Petersen, 19, a celebratory boost on their shoulders last fall. Petersen, the first blind rider ever to compete on a college team, had just won her first blue ribbon, riding so well that the judge had not realized she was handicapped. "I was ecstatic," recalls Kathy. "It made me so happy to prove I could do it."

The daughter, ironically, of an ophthalmologist, Kathy was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive degeneration of the retina. By age 5, the Seattle native could distinguish only shadows and light. She walks with the aid of a Seeing Eye dog. Petersen has a well-developed sense of balance, and her keen awareness of the horse's movements gives her an edge over some sighted riders in equitation classes (walk, trot and canter). But it is her acute sense of hearing upon which Petersen relies most. "She hears things the rest of us miss," says Carol Nichols, director of riding at the Massachusetts school.

A French and biology major with a 3.4 grade point average, Petersen has been riding only three years. She picked up a second blue ribbon later in the fall and is striving to fulfill another goal: qualifying for next month's nationals at the University of Virginia.

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