This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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The Music at "Churchill's" Broadway and 49th Street

15 August 2010

The sound of music is everywhere today. Recorded music of every flavor permeates the air of hotels, supermarkets, and shopping malls. Multi-speaker sound systems in cafes drown the gaps in conversations. Classic Rock assaults the ears while pumping gas. And holiday tunes subliminally steer the mind to shop and buy. But long ago it was different, and the joy of music could only be experienced if you actually saw and heard the musicians. That was real entertainment and in 1911 New York, if you wanted the best in food and music, you went to Churchill's Restaurant at Broadway and Forty-ninth St. to hear Maurice Levi and his orchestra.

This card was sent in August 1911 to Mr Stuart W. Smyth with an inside joke, "Could Mr. Blackstone beat this? E.L.H." Mr. Smyth was an editor of the Owego Times newspaper and presumably Blackstone refers to a local bandleader. Maurice Levi was one of New York's more successful performers at the turn of the 19th century and a popular composer in the growing music industry of Tin Pan Alley. His orchestra shows a typical ensemble of 15 musicians - strings mixed with solo cornet, clarinet, flute, trombone and percussion. Maurice also played solo violin too. 

But his stage is unusual, a kind of balcony band shell. Just what kind of place was Churchill's?

In 1909, Jim Churchill, a former NYC Police captain and ambitious restaurateur made a deal to buy the southwest corner of Broadway and 49th St.  More here: Jim Churchill  
There he established one of the largest and best restaurants in the expanding Broadway theater district. It soon became the place where every celebrity in the city and theater district could dine and be seen. Note the rooftop garden and the lineup of taxi cabs on the right. These postcards were printed in Germany as were most souvenir postcards at this time in America until the start of WWI. A German artist has added small cars and people into the foreground of the original photograph in order to exaggerate the size of the building. But it was still a very grand place.

In this postcard of the restaurant's interior you can see the band shell in the back left. The orchestra here is not Levi's and seem to be men dressed in Scottish kilts. (Two horns are on the very back row. But no bagpipes.) This was no ordinary dining hall. It could seat 1,200 and employed 300 staff. What was on the menu?

In a typical New York newspaper ad from 1911, we find Churchill's special dinner price of $1.25. It was higher than others but one can imagine the menu by seeing what 65¢ bought at Colaizzi's. And that included wine too! On the advert it says that Churchill's music was provided by Maurice Levi and orchestra with vocalist Elizabeth Spencer. 

Elizabeth Spencer was a famous soprano who was one of the first popular artists to make recordings for Thomas Edison. Here she is on a card postmarked 1912, and here is her voice from a 1911 Edison Cylinder recording singing My Southern Rose. 

The recording comes from the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the Donald C. Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara. Cylinder Preservation Collection UCSB  The instrumental accompaniment sounds like an orchestra very similar to Maurice Levi's. And he  recorded for Edison too.

Photographs and postcards help recreate the high times of the Big Apple, but what kind of music did Maurice play? Here is Happy Days March performed and written by Maurice Levi in 1909. It is also from the Special Cylinder Collection of UCSB.

In a most unlikely newspaper from Kansas, The Hutchinson Times I found a report on the current popular music of New York City. The date was November 12, 1910.


Not since the days of Patrick Gilmore has any band master or orchestra lead­er created such a sensation in New York as has Maurice Levi, the Maestro of the excellent orchestra at Churchill's, New York's elite restau­rant. Levi begins where Gilmore left off, and Is the idol of the after theater patrons of this notable Broadway re­sort.

When he steps upon the platform and raises his baton, a hypnotic spell seems to hold every man In the orchestra for the few seconds that elapse before its descent, and once started he seems seems to sway both his orchestra and his audience at will, and the music seems to centralize  and emanate from him personally, just as the music of a phonograph comes from its horn. All eyes are centered on him and every little movement is watched as closely he if he was the star of an operatic performance.

He is constantly introducing novelties that create enthusiasm and his "by play", to use a theatrical term, is wonderful. The compositions of American composers receive his especial attention and many an unknown composer has risen to fame through the attention given his work by Mr. Levi.

His own and latest composition, "Happy Nights", is played by request only, but as this seems to be the favorite of the public, he is compelled to render it every evening.  His rendition of "The Music of the States" and the "Songs of the College" are wonderful, realistic, and from a musical standpoint artistic creations. His latest and probably most novel creation is a      musical mosaic which he has named "Our Presidents." It opens with a patriotic musical tribute to the illustrious men, including Roosevelt and Taft, and ends with a grand finale that arouses intense enthusiasm - for it is Washington, who at last carries off the honors of the musical masterpiece.

Mr. Levi Is not a fanatic on the sub­ject of classical music, and intersperses his program here and there with the popular. Thus you may hear a rhapsody or an operatic: selection followed with a potpourri from the "Chocolate Soldier" or by the latest ballad, "Love Dreams," or an aria by Verdi sand­wiched in between the "Hono-Lulu Rag" and "Silver Bell".

Mr. Levi is the highest salaried leader in New York, and the royalties from his "Happy Nights" march, and other compositions, amounts to a small fortune yearly. It Is the latest fad to go to Churchill's to dine and hear Maurice Levi and his orchestra, which by the way, is composed of the best musicians in the metropolis, every man being a virtuoso on his own instrument. 

Both Maurice and Elizabeth made numerous recordings for the Edison Phonograph Company. I found this amazing ad from a Cedar Rapids, Iowa newspaper with another image of Elizabeth Spencer. It is from 1915 and the fine food at Churchill's seems to have stretched her waistline a bit. Like the flowery prose used in the Kansas report on Maurice Levi, this advertisement is also a model of the kind of show business promotion and hyperbole that started in the 1900's. Little did our performers know that the recording industry would soon make restaurant concerts a forgotten entertainment of the past.

Jim Churchill sold his restaurant in 1921. Competition must have been fierce in the years leading up to WWI and then there was the inevitable change in public tastes in the post-war period. This postcard is from a later period and you can see that dancing and cabaret were the new fancy of New Yorkers. 

Churchill's remains a kind of antique icon in the explosion of cultural life in early 20th century New York City. Today the gigantic Crowne Plaza is on this Broadway site, but how long might that last? In 1964, David Merrick produced Jerry Herman's musical Hello Dolly! with tunes that everyone should know, in part because of the constant repetition of recordings. But the principal character is called Dolly Gallagher Levi and the main action of the second act takes place at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant. Did the stories of Churchill's musicians inspire this wonderful story?  Hello!    


iowa fair said...

blog is too gud... nice article i agree with your post and thanks for giving information.....

Gerhard Santos said...

This was a very informative and interesting article! Thanks & GOD BLESS!!!

guest1 said...

Thank you for this great post on my great grandfather's restaurant! He was a fascinating character, larger than life type of person. I appreciate you featuring his most successful restaurant this way.

Mike Brubaker said...

You are very welcome "guest1" but I wish I knew your name. I assume you meant that Jim Churchill was your great-grandfather, and not Maurice Levi. I would love to learn more of Mr. Churchill's history if you'd send me an email at mkbrbkr _at_ gmail _dot_ com.


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