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
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

The Rainbow Orchestra

19 July 2013

It was the small child balanced precariously on a chair that sold it. Otherwise it was just an unremarkable postcard of a man and woman standing behind ten young kids seated with band instruments. But the child holding a baton added a lighthearted quality that made it a better photograph. Were they a school band? A church ensemble? A musical family? Their ages from around 6 to 20 years seemed too broad for a school. They clearly were not British, or American, or even French as the helpful caption was written in an unfamiliar language. Who were they?

Māc. V. Fetlera gimenes orkestris

The language turns out to be Latvian. The translation in English reads:

Pastor (mācītājs) V. Fetlera family orchestra

Ten children makes quite an impressive family band! Postcards of musical groups from Eastern Europe are not common. What year could this be? 1950s? 1930s?

A second photo postcard shows the same group but this time the caption is in a different language - Swedish.

Familjen Fetlers "Regnbågen" - orkester.

Now the Rainbow Orchestra has 12 children! All lined up neatly by height, Pastor Fetler and his wife stand proudly just behind them. Their instruments and dress now suggest 1930s. Are they from Latvia or Sweden?

The next postcard shows the line reversed this time and the shortest boy is on the right. They wear matching outfits but have no instruments. A small portrait of the pastor and his wife is inset in the corner. The caption is now in English.

The Rainbow Family Orchestra of Riga
(Pastor and Mrs. William Fetler's Children)

Are they Latvian, Swedish, English, or American?

The second boy from the right in the last photo is Jacky Fetler. He had his own solo postcard as the "Bandmaster" of the Rainbow Family Orchestra, Riga. He wears a pair of Bavarian style lederhosen and looks to be about age 8.

The Rainbow orchestra are now 13 children! The ten boys and three girls are seated in this next postcard which has the title:

The Fetlers Family Band of Riga, Latvia
Thirteen Children of Rev. & Mrs. Vaseely Andreyevich Fetler-Malof

They wear black shirts and white ties in a sophisticated fashion that seems less European than the earlier photos. There is a reason for that, as they are very far from Riga now.

Reverend William Fetler was born in 1885 in Talsi, Courland, as this part of Latvia was then known. His father was a pastor of a Baptist church and William took up the calling too. He went to London to study theology and graduated in 1907 from Spurgeon’s Pastors’ College.

The religious history of Eastern Europe is far too complicated to describe here, but suffice it to say that the people of the Baltic nations were destined by geography to be entangled in the long struggle between empires and the Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Russian Orthodox faiths. Evangelic Baptists did not find favor with any of these dominant religions, and were consequently subject to discrimination, limitations on property rights,  and sometimes very harsh treatment for their beliefs.

When he returned to Riga, Latvia, Fetler ran afoul of the Russian Orthodox church for his charismatic Christian zeal, so the Tzarist government banished him from the country in 1914. He narrowly escaped from being exiled to Siberia, and instead emigrated to America, living in New York and Philadelphia during the war years where he helped establish a Missionary Aid Society for the Russian community. After the war, he and his family returned to Latvia and in 1923 he took over the Golgotha Baptist Church in Riga and each Sunday preached three services to Latvian, Russian, and German congregations.

Around 1933 he also began to include his talented children as a musical ensemble for his evangelical services. When the politics of the new government of Latvia became too authoritarian, the Fetler family moved to Sweden where they discovered that they could make money with concerts of a family band. The children already knew several languages, so they put together a show of songs and instrumental music that toured Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Germany, and Switzerland. In 1938 they found themselves in Munich, Germany where Pastor Fetler picked up on the ominous signs of the Nazi programs and decided it was time to leave.

They boarded a ship in Copenhagen and sailed for America.

On the back of this postcard the children had their signatures printed.

  • Jacky
  • Paul
  • John
  • Philip
  • Elisabeth
  • Andrew
  • Peter
  • David
  • Mary
  • Lydia
  • Timothy
  • Daniel
  • Joseph
and their parents:
  • Barbara Fetler
  • William Fetler. 

You will also note that they now make their home in Evanston, Illinois.

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The Gettysburg, PA Times - July 20, 1939

In July 1939, the Fetler family arrived in New York. Pastor Fetler had arranged for them to attend the International Baptist World Alliance convention in Atlanta. They came with 80 pieces of luggage and needed two seven-passenger cars to travel south to Gerogia. A family band like this had a great advantage for promotion, and their appearance was featured in newspapers across the country. Even Time magazine had an article on the Fetler band in Atlanta.

In this last postcard, the Fetler children are once again lined up by height, but with new hair styles and matching open neck shirts that make them look very modern Americans. Their band instruments are no longer European but are distinctly American made designs, like the trumpet, melophone, euphonium, and tuba.

After the Baptist convention in Atlanta, William Fetler and his Rainbow family stayed in America. They started their concert tours again, often providing music to their father's lecture/sermons. One appearance in the November 2, 1939 edition of the Danville, VA The Bee included the same photo of young Jacky Fetler and a detailed program.

Russian folk songs, religious anthems, folk songs of several European countries - the group has made its home in 12 different countries and speaks seven languages and a talk by Rev. Fetler on "The Revolution and Religion in Russia" constitute their unique program.

Little James (Jacky) Fetler, eight year-old bandmaster, will lead the orchestra in several numbers. The 12 children - instruments include Daniel - 24, trumpet; Timothy - 23, clarinet; Lydla -22, cornet; Paul - 19, trombone; John - 17, second trombone; Philip - 16, bass horn; Elizabeth - 15, altohorn;  Andrew - 14, baritone horn; David - 12, cornet; Peter - 9, drums; James (Jacky) - 8, bandmaster; and Joseph - 5, the cymbals.

Opening with a Latvian march conducted by Jacky, this program will continue with "The Twelve Robbers"; an old Russian cloister song; "Concerto In B Flat Major"; a clarinet solo; the ever popular "Russian Volga Song"; "Ey Uchnyem"; Richard Wagner's "The Pilgrim's Chorus" from "Tannhauser" arranged by Daniel.

"Jamshtshlk", Rusian coachman's song will be followed by "Bethlehem", a Czech song featuring trombone solo by Paul; a spiritual "I Ain't a'Gonna Grieve My Lord Any More"; the Gospel according to St. John 3:16 in thirteen languages; "The Rainbow March" composed by Paul; "Mein Herzchen soll Seln, Wie Die Lilie so Rein, German nursery song; and "They Come From the East and West".

Dunkirk NY Evening Observer - July 20, 1939

During that summer of 1939, some newspaper editors even added the Fetler family photo to the front page in an effort to let a small light shine through the dark clouds of impending war. Only one month later on September 1, 1939, the German army invaded Poland and lives everywhere were changed forever.

Pastor Fetler and his family band performed at churches around America until at least 1944, but like every family, their aspirations and priorities changed. In 1941 the Soviet Union assimilated the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, so they could not return to Riga. Instead, the Fetler family made America their new home. Latvia would not regain full independence until 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union.

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I have found several sources for research on the Fetler family history, but I would like to cite three as very important to this story. One was a memoir of Robert Tarziers who considered Fetler to be his mentor. Robert Tarziers had quite an exciting life too, and I recommend the Tarziers family website for those who like exciting family history.

Lydia Fetler, who was the third oldest of the thirteen Fetler children, died in 2008 at age 91. The Washington Post carried a beautiful obituary and tribute to her life, and it is still available online and includes a reprint of the second postcard.

The Metropolitan, an arts journal for the Rochester NY Arts & Cultural Council, published an article in the Fall of 2010 (page 13) on David Fetler, who went on to study music at Julliard and the Eastman School of Music, and become a successful conductor and composer. He now lives in the Rochester area. The article reprinted an image of the first postcard.

David Fetler was the little boy standing on the chair.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where Amazons stand guard this weekend. 


The Silver Fox said...

What a remarkable family! Thanks for telling their story.

Helen Bauch McHargue said...

So interesting and so many stories going on here. The photos of the stair step kids are wonderful. Thanks for another great post.

Nigel Aspdin (Derby, UK) said...

I don't know how you managed to produce such a long post about musical kids in a descending height order without mentioning the Sound of Music !

Kristin said...

Very interesting, as was the obituary. I can understand why she had no desire to travel. The photos remind me of a family photograph of cousins in the 1920s with stairsteps and a variety of horns. There were only 7 children in that family though.

Alex Daw said...

What Nigel said. And thank you so much for telling us about this family. What an extraordinary story. Great photos and you set them out so well. I just kept having to count all those children. I couldn't believe there were so many.

Boobook said...

A beautifully researched blog. Excellent work.

Little Nell said...

A fascinating post and obituary. It was interesting to compare the changes in the siblings as they grew older.

Karen S. said...

What a fine tribute, this is quite the treasure. The photos are all so amazing, and many of them quite a fashion statement, and interesting in their own way!

Brett Payne said...

I'm most impressed, not only with your compilation of the Fetler family's story, but also with the perseverance, commitment and expense that it must have taken to find all of those postcards. A fascinating story - great work.

Alan Burnett said...

Mike, in your hands there is never such a thing as an "unremarkable postcard of a man and woman standing behind ten young kids seated with band instruments". You could make the photographic equivalent of a telephone directory fascinating.

Bob Scotney said...

A stupendous post and a fascinating family story.

barbara and nancy said...

Absolutely fascinating--every word of it. And I loved finding out what the little conductor is doing today.

Wendy said...

The Osmonds and Jacksons had nothing on the Fetlers. What a great story!

barbara and nancy said...

That post was an absolute novel. So much going on. A few mysteries. Solving of the mysteries. Then to be able to find out what some of the children are doing today (published in the obituary). Fascinating post as usual.


You mentioned Courland and it triggered a memories from my childhood, "La demoiselle d'Avignon", a French series of a princess [of Courland] who leaves royal life behind to explore the real world. Of course, when her father gets sick, she has to leave everything behind, her new life and the man she fell in love with, to return to her family...


anyjazz said...

That newspaper really brings the story to reality.

john smith said...

Hi there!
I was born in Talsi,Kurland (Latvia). This blog is about families that do music together.
A very fine work.
But William Fetler is more about the work of God himself through a man.
Oswald J. Smith wrote a lot about him in his book - Working with God
Fetler brought the evangelical faith to Russia - he is still called the apostle for Russia, Evan Roberts of the Baltics, . . .

Vitali Petrenko said...

Hi, my name is Vitali Petrenko and I would love to talk to anyone who knows anything about William Fetler.
I am a Director of Latvian Biblical Centre and we are restoring the building where William Fetler had a Bible school in 1920s!!!

Would love to hear from you!!!


Vitali Petrenko

Heather said...

I enjoyed finding this post about my grandfather's family (John Fetler, one of the trombone players). I had a few of these photos but not all of them. There was a fictionalized account of their travels called The Travelers, published in 1965 by Andrew. Many of the children remained in lifelong contact with each other. Philip and Andrew visited us several times over the years and enjoyed discussing philosophy and playing chess with John and his family.

Andrew M said...

Wow - the youngest, Joseph, was my father. He died at 80 on January 7, 2015. See a remarkable documentary on the Fetler/Malofs on YouTube,
A familial-connection endeavor is renewed. Interested parties, please contact me on my link - assuming I know how this blog works.

Mike Brubaker said...

Andrew M, please contact me at my email address on the sidebar. I have other Fetler family contacts that I would like to share.

VdR said...

Hello to all of the family members here. I am interested in finding out about my childhood guardian, who was my grandfather's late in life love.
She was a magnificent harpist named Fifi Fetler, and after my grandfather passed away, she and my mother lost touch. I'd known her my whole life and missed her. I only know she was of Greek descent and Fetler wasn't her maiden name. I'm wondering if she was married to one of the brothers? I'm just trying piece together some of her life. I knew her from 1960 - 1973, my early childhood years. Very kind to me. I never got to see her perform, though she had a harp quintet that had an continuous gig at the Desert Inn, Las Vegas. She also lived part time in Los Angeles.

Thank you, if anyone knows about the marriages of the brothers, please contact or post here.

Betty Stevens said...

I just found a program from a performance in Charleston that my late husband's mother kept. In it was the photo graph of the whole family with names on the back, like yours. I find your article very interesting as I had never heard of them before today.

Rachelf said...

Message for VdR - My name is Rachel Fetler, I'm the daughter of Timothy (the second son). Fifi Fetler was my father's first wife. I don't know much about her other than that she was a harpist, but I'd be glad to talk to you!

Vlad N said...

Hi there, we have someone in our church who wants to have contacts of Fetler/Malof family. Pls let me know how we can talk to them, we are Slavic church in Pennsylvania who wants to find out relatives here in states.

Vlad N said...

Pls let us know how to contact Fetler/Malof family members here in states.

Mike Brubaker said...

@Vlad N If you send me a email, (my Gmail address is on the sidebar), I can provide some email addresses for some of the Fetler family descendants who have contacted me.

Rachelf said...

Hi, Vlad, I'd be happy to help you. Mike has my info as well.

-Rachel Fetler

VdR said...

To Rachelf, Hello and thank you for your answer. I am so thrilled to find this tidbit, and at least start to track her life some! At your leisure, if you know anything about where and when they were married I would love to know that info. You have some wonderful family, music is life! I missed the emails coming to me earlier, but just noticed a more recent one, and now very happy. Thanks!, you can directly contact me.


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