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 }

Master Wilbur, the Boy Wonder Violinist

19 June 2015






It was the sequins in his satin shirt and breeches that first caught my attention. No ordinary young boy would willingly dress like that. No farm kid would wear those slipper-like-shoes either. This boy violinist was surely a professional entertainer of the music hall stage.

But guesswork only goes so far. This cabinet photo was probably American but impossible to prove. The photo had no marks, not even a photographer's imprint, so the young violinist, who looks about age six, could be from any time and any place.

But one thing I knew. His mother loved sequins.


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He is older in this next photo. Maybe now seven years old. Unlike his first pose where he held his violin in a confident playing position, his direct gaze looks relaxed but self-conscious. His satin costume has a lighter color, maybe blue, and his mother needs to let out the sleeves and cuffs again. His two-tone shoes are too shiny to be typical street footwear for even a city boy. He is surely a theatrical performer.

But yet again the cabinet photo has no identification. The embossed mat board style suggests 1900 to 1920 but that is just conjecture.

Is it possible he played in a larger musical family group?

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Quite possible, as the boy now appears about eight years old in this photo. He has no violin but he is not alone, as two young women wearing satiny dresses are with him. Mother and sister? Two sisters? Cousins? 

Mother has been more restrained on the girl's ornaments but the boy is positively gleaming in sequins. I imagine his costume is a red color this time.

Again there are no markings on this photograph.

Did the girls play instruments too?


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They most certainly did!

The trio have reversed and the younger girl now holds a clarinet, while the other girl has a cornet. The boy has a trombone and is almost unrecognizable because he is in black-face makeup. Arrayed on a stand in front are a violin and viola and numerous crude metal hand bells. Several of the cow bells have a pitch note written on them. The funnel shaped bells may be kazoos instead of bells. There is also a curious folding hat rack with several shiny paper sunbursts attached.

The girls have changed dresses and the boy wears rustic farm clothes which are no doubt part of his minstrel makeup. 

This photo has the same backdrop as the other photo and was likely made in the same unknown photographer's studio.

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Some years have gone by with this last photo of a musical duo. Our boy violinist has matured, perhaps now age 14 or 15, and we might not know him except for his satin costume which is a lighter color, white or yellow, but still resplendent in sequins. However the girl is easily recognizable as she has the same facial features as in the other photos even with her elegantly styled hair. Both musicians hold violins as if ready to give a bow to the audience.

They would remain unknown but for one clue not found on the other photos. The photographer's name and location is embossed in the lower right corner.
Waterman
Las Vegas, N. Mex.

A name and place offers a direction to search. How many boy violinists ever played in New Mexico?

The answer is surprisingly quite a few. But only one shared the stage with two sisters.

Master Wilbur
the Greatest Child Violinist
in the Known World.


x x x







Albuquerque NM Citizen
March 6, 1908

In March 1908, the Crystal Theatre of Albuquerque, New Mexico presented a variety show led by Hall's Musical Comedy Company. It featured Master Wilbur, the Greatest Child Violinist in the Known World, and presented The Famous Hall Family, each a Refined and Talented Musician. There were also the Minstrel Wingates, Banjo and Bone  soloists, and Grant Watkins & Co., with Sketches and Singing and Dancing.   Two shows daily with a matinee at 3:00.



Albuquerque NM Citizen
March 6, 1908


The Hall Family were one example of the thousands of variety acts who traveled on the American theater circuit in the grand era of Vaudeville entertainment. Countless troupes of actors, acrobats, comics, jugglers, and musicians played shows in towns big and small. Show biz was hard work and competition for the best engagements was stiff.

Laughter was a specialty of the Hall Musical Comedy Company which numbered twelve performers doing comedy sketches, singing and dancing, novelty work, bone solos, banjo solos, black face comedy, and all manner of musical instrumental work. A number of talented children in the company are said to attract and delight everyone.  

The dancers were the Misses Myrtle and Velma Hall, in buck and wing and sand jig dancing.
But every act needed a distinctive hook and Master Wilbur was the Hall family's headline talent. The Albuquerque Citizen newspaper described him as but 7 years old, and the greatest child violinist on earth, and


* * *





Albuquerque NM Citizen
March 10, 1908








A few days later the newspaper printed a review of their show.

Master Wilbur, a youngster of tender years, is a wonder. He seems to be endowed with every stage talent known and is clever at all. He dances nimbly, is a good comedian, and plays upon every musical instrument put before him. 

Before the show the Hall trio played for free in front of the Crystal theater.

One must hear big sister lead with the cornet and little sister fill in with the alto, while little Johnny plays the slide trombone and mammy wields the bass drum. 

 
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Albuquerque NM Citizen
March 11, 1908

















The following evening, the Albuquerque newspaper printed a longer article just on Master Wilbur, the boy wonder and included a photo. Unfortunately the grainy quality of the newsprint makes it difficult to see the instrument Wilbur is holding. It might be a violin or a trombone.

A clever child is always a drawing attraction in this city and this youngster us a genuine wonder. While but an infant in other things little Wilbur seems a veteran in stage talents of various kinds. He sings, dances, impersonates characters and plays every musical instrument known. Upon the violin he plays everything from sweet simple ballads to Ole Bull solos, and possesses a touch and tone that is all his own.

One of his pieces de resitance is the intermezzi from "Cavalieria Rusticana." Upon this, as well as upon "The Suwanee River" and others, he receives eight and ten encores at each performance. He plays upon a genuine "Stradi.," valued at $1,300, a gift from a great uncle in Germany, who was also a genius in his day, and whose rare talent as a violinist little Wilbur is said to have inherited. 



Show business invented the art of hyperbole.

It seems most unlikely that the greatest child violinist on earth would play a Stradivarius violin for ticket prices at 10¢, 20¢, 30¢. And Master Wilbur was not seven years old in 1908, but actually age 12.

* * *





The Hall Musical Comedy Company never played the major vaudeville circuits as far as I can determine. Mostly they performed in small towns in the Western and Mid-West states beginning in around 1904. The father was Mark D. Hall, a blacksmith in Denver, Colorado in the 1900 census. Master Wilbur F. Hall was then only 5 listing his birth as November 1896. Census records never reveal much about the reasons behind a family's situation, but a lot changed with this family over the next decade.

The 1910 census for Stafford, Kansas listed the family of Mark B. (sic) Hall, age 50; his wife Etta Hall, 51; Velma Hall, 19; Wilbur Hall, 16; Myrtle (Hall) Soper, 23; and her husband Daniel Soper, 29. With the exception of Myrtle's husband, an operator of a moving picture ma(chine), every member of the Hall family listed their occupation as Musician, Traveling.












At this point I digress from Master Wilbur's story to add a romantic anecdote of his eldest sister, Myrtle Hall.





Tucumcari NM News and Times
March 27, 1909





It happened during a show in Tucumcari, New Mexico (one of the best town names in America) on March 26, 1909.  Myrtle Hall and Thomas Dan Soper skipped the overture to run over to the town's courthouse and have a judge perform the briefest of marriage ceremonies. The two newlyweds quickly ran back to the theater so that Myrtle could finish her parts in the remaining acts. Father was not amused, but soon capitulated to the power of true love.

Myrtle and Dan first met three years earlier when Dan was employed as a ticket taker by the Hall Comedy Company. Mr. Hall took exception to a developing youthful affection and dismissed the young man. Sometime later when the troupe was scheduled to play Tucumcari, Dan Soper's home town, the lovers arranged to elope.

Their story could be the plot line for a Broadway musical.

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These five photos of a boy violinist and his two sisters were a mystery that I had nearly given up solving. I acquired them from different dealers a few years ago and had no leads other than a photographer's mark to search for their identity. So when I made the discovery that the Hall Musical Comedy Company included a family trio of two girls and a boy, it seemed a good bet that the boy violinist in these photos was Master Wilbur. 

Suddenly a light bulb flickered brightly in my brain.
I knew Wilbur Hall because I had already told his story back in June 2012 !!!





Rene and Wilbur Hall



The photos in Wilbur Hall and Rene are also of a novelty music act, though without sequins. Wilbur Hall (1894-1983) was a violinist who wore comic over-sized clown shoes and toured with the Paul Whiteman Band as a bass trombonist and violinist in the 1920s and 30s. His wife Rene played trumpet and together they formed a popular night club act in the 1940s and 50s after Whiteman's band folded.

Wilbur also appeared with another musical comic genius, Spike Jones, who had a popular television show in the 50s with his band the City Slickers. 

Click the link to see a second promotional photo of the couple and more of their full history.

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In March 2012 the website for the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors ran an article on a correspondence in the late 60s and 70s between Dr. Ian Crosbie and some sidemen musicians of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. One of those musicians was Wilbur Hall. This information was provided by Wilbur for Dr. Crosbie.

If I told you how I joined Whiteman I would have to start after World War One. I joined the Marine Corps about April 1918. I was in boot camp when I was told to report to the Barrack Detachment. Rudy Weidoff was looking for talent for his show for the boys. I did a Buck and Wing dance with my buddy. After we did our routine Rudy asked me what else I could do. I told him I play instruments. He said "What instrument?" I told him I played any instrument. This he couldn't understand. He asked me if I had an instrument in camp. I brought my trombone up. He thought he was going to have a big laugh on me. I played Darktown Strutters Ball. I played so many notes on it he was flabbergasted. I had been playing with an accordion and drummer up around Santa Rosa Calif, my home. Rudy took his wallet out and removed his watch and put them on the floor. He said "I have never heard anything like it before." I was transferred to the Marine Band the next day. Band consisted of 88 men. I guess I was a natural musician. My father and mother were good musicians. Mother played guitar. Father played violin as a fiddler, but a real good one.

....


Born: 1894, Shawnee Mound, Missouri. Left at age of two in covered wagon for Colorado, traveling with father, mother, and two sisters, also a friend (musician) named Grant Watkins. Father was a musician and blacksmith. Settled near Denver Colorado on the outskirts. About 8 miles from town. Name of town Petersburg. Now called Ingelwood.

At age of 3 whistled tune accompanied by my mother on guitar at local school house. Took up violin at age of 4 and studied from a Doctor Rice. Did first concert at 5 years on violin,...at Ladies Aid Society. At 6 yrs. started out on road with family act. Played every state west of the Mississippi river. Around 20 yrs, family act retired. I worked with accordion player and drummer around Santa Rosa Calif. Refer to letter for rest of details concerning my joining [Whiteman] band, etc. I was in the Whiteman band for the Aeolian Hall concert in February 1924. In those days they did not have microphones but large horns to amplify the sound by each important instrument. As you know this was a new thing in Jazz. Concert was a sensation at the time.

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I have a large collection of photographs of child musicians. Master Wilbur Hall is the first young musician where I've also found photos of their later career in music. Even more rare is to complete a life story from back to front. The vaudeville stage was tough training. Few entertainers managed to survive all the dramatic changes brought on by recorded music, film, radio, and television as Wilbur did. There's no business like show business!  

It's an exaggeration to say Wilbur Hall was the greatest violinist in the known world. But he truly was a wonder musician and a comic genius.

Could Jascha Heifetz do this?






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* * *


Maybe. But not on a bicycle pump!









This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where old photos always have a story to tell.




13 comments:

Kristin said...

Interesting to follow them through the years.

ScotSue said...

Another set of wonderful vintage photographs combined with a facilitating story.

Family History Fun

Postcardy said...

Great post! Congratulations on putting everything together.

La Nightingail said...

Oh, what a wonderful post! Great sleuthing to discover everything you did about Willie, & the video caps it all perfectly. We can always count on you for an entertaining & informative post. Thank you!!! :)

Little Nell said...

One would never guess from those early, rather serious, shots, that he would turn out to be such a comedian. I enjoyed seeing WIlbur again and reading his ‘back-to-front’ story.

Sean Bentley said...

Wow, this is a classic post, Mike - a mystery, a treasure hunt, and capped off with a mindblowing video!

Alex Daw said...

Yay! I wanted to know what happened to the sequinned boy when he grew up and now I know. Thank you. Imagine growing up in that kind of family with all those talents. I laughed at the video - so silly and delightful.

Deb Gould said...

Love it all -- your sequinned boy turned out all right, I guess -- such talent. Great to see him mature shot by shot; but I especially love the Crystal Theater ad that has the display ad for the dentist at right...a full set for $8! Yowser!

boundforoz said...

My first thoughts with the sequins was for a gypsy violinist or fiddler but that obviously wasn't the case with the following images. Most interesting.

Jo Featherston said...

Wow, fantastic to have discovered all that about Wilbur, and that video clip of him is hilaroius!

Wendy said...

Oh my -- I remember the guy with the big shoes but I would not have recalled his name without this post. I enjoyed the little love story too. Now that really is the stuff of Hollywood.

Brett Payne said...

I know better than to suggest what extraordinary luck it is that you've assembled this collection from disparate sources. Rather it takes dedication and a great deal of perseverance, and sometimes you can persuade the planets to align and you can weave a wonderful story like this. I still find it remarkable that you managed to find and reunite the photographs from his early years, but I suppose it would be likely that numerous copies of these portraits would have been produced and sold while they were touring, as another string to the bow, so to speak. I'd be interested to know whether you've come across copies of them at all. Well done anyway.

The first portrait looks to me to have been taken by an itinerant photographer. The rough and ready carpets look typical of those used byb travlling photographers.

anyjazz said...

Excellent sleuthing! The boy was a talent and a character! I know it took quite a bit of work to assemble a post with this depth. Good work.

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