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 }

Oreste Vessella's Italian Band

26 May 2018

His sparkling white uniform positively glows
with the musical authority of a noteworthy bandmaster.
With his baton tucked under his crossed arms,
he stands center
the two highest wind instrumentalists,
the piccoloist and E-flat clarinetist,
and is
surrounded by his bandsmen
who are dressed in matching dark uniforms.

On his right are more clarinets, tenorhorns, chimes, and timpani. 

On his left are more trumpets, euphoniums,
horns, valve trombones, bassoon, and bass drum,
making a total of 41 musicians.

This is
Oreste Vessella's
Italian Band

on the Steel Pier of Atlantic City, New Jersey.

In 1911 you did not have to visit
America's most famous seaside resort
to hear Maestro Vessella's Band.

Source: 1911 The Theatre vol. 14

Instead you could relax in front of your
Victor Victrola
and tap your toe to the sound of
nine of the greatest military bands on earth:

Vessella's Italian Band
U. S. Marine Band
Pryor's Band
Sousa's Band
Kryl's Bohemian Band
Police Band
of Mexico
Garde Republicaine Band
of France
Black Diamonds Band
of London
Royal Military Band
of Madrid

As we can see, the illustration of Vessella's Italian Band used in the Victor-Victrola advertisement is a variation of the band's postcard photo, this time having Maestro Vessella seated with the same bandsmen. The postcard was mailed from Atlantic City on the 4th of July1913 when surely the band played every patriotic tune they knew for the holiday patrons.

But before we go any further let's hear what Oreste Vessella's Italian Band actually sounded like. Here is the Grand March from Giuseppe Verdi's opera Aïda as performed for the Victor Talking Machine Co. on November 5, 1912 in Camden, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. This streaming sound file comes from the Library of Congress archives.

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{Click any image for a larger view}

Atlantic City was not a typical American township. It was first conceived as a seaside retreat by developers in 1853 when the first hotel was built to attract people who sought the healthful benefits of sunshine, saltwater, and ocean breezes. In the post Civil War decades, the railroad magnates and hoteliers soon recognized Atlantic City as a real money-maker, as by 1874 the trains from Philadelphia brought over 500,000 passengers a year to the oceanfront resort. The famous boardwalk was originally just a temporary seasonal construction to reduce the amount of sand tracked into hotels by the guests.  The big boom period came in the first decade of the 20th century when more hotels and casinos were built alongside the beach amusement strip.

These gigantic hotels attracted large business and social groups as well individuals and families. The allure of seaside recreations and novelty amusements appealed to people who rarely encountered ocean waves. Even A. H. Klausmeier of Kansas City, Missouri learned something about Atlantic City in September 1909.

We landed
on Advisory Board

Jutting out from the boardwalk, across the wide sand beach and into the ocean was the Steel Pier. Finished in June 1898 it eventually reached 2,298 feet (700 m) long, though over the years Atlantic hurricanes and fires have now reduced it to just 1000 ft.

On August 27, 1909 Miss Henrietta Held of Pittsburgh received this postcard with a birdseye view from the Dunlop Hotel in Atlantic City of the Boardwalk, Steeple Chase, Steel Pier, and Beach.

Atlantic City 8/26 or 27
Frederick is fat + getting fatter
I am bad + getting worse.  We
don't want to come home.
Evaline + Frederick
at the "Hygeia" hotel.

The Steel Pier, Atlantic City, NJ, circa 1915
Source: Wikipedia

Though there were a good number of hearty souls who enjoyed swimming in the ocean, I think the principal recreation in Atlantic City during the 1900s was strolling and sitting. The Steel Pier accommodated a lot of room to do both and provided shade for the more sensitive folk.

Just three weeks before Evaline & Frederick's note, Miss Henrietta Held received a postcard from Atlantic City showing crowds of people on the Steel Pier and under it too. 

"I am trying
to make my
eyes behave"  Lots
of boys down
here from Pitts
J. M.

In this age before amplification, the Steel Pier had a specially designed central concert stage covered by an arched roof. The audience sat on rows of park benches that allowed people to come and go as they pleased. This postcard shows several hundred people under the Steel Pier's Music Arcade listening to Vessella's Band. From 1903 to at least 1916 Oreste Vessella's Italian Band was the featured band at the Atlantic City Steel Pier. Programs included arrangements of popular opera music, many written by Vessella, that included German and French operas as well as Italian. There were marches of course, and various dances medleys from polkas to waltzes. Usually there was a solo instrumentalist or vocalist on every concert.

In August 1918, Miss Mildred G. Price of Brightwood in Washington, D.C. got this card of Vessella's Band from someone who enjoyed music.

Dear Mil:
This band has all
gone back to Italy to fight
but we heard a wonderful
symphony orchestra on
this pier last night.
It is lovely down
here and we are at a
d.... (unclear) place.   Dot

What Dot refers to is the Great War of 1914-18. It is easy to forget that there were many belligerent nations embroiled in this horrific war. Initially Italy belonged to a secret Triple-Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. But in 1915 Italy rejected its Germanic compact and instead joined the Triple Entente of the Russian Empire, the French Third Republic, and the United Kingdom. Italy's main national interests were along its borders with Austria and the Adriatic nations. Most of its battles were against the Austrian-Hungarian forces and fought in the Alpine regions of the Austrian Littoral and northern Dalmatia.

Though I have not discovered reports that any of Oreste Vessella's bandsmen actually did go back to Italy, as most of the musicians, including Vessella himself, were born in Italy, many would have considered it their patriotic duty to King Victor Emmanuel III and/or Italy's constitutional government to return to the aid of their countrymen. Vesssella's band did appear on the Steel Pier bandstand in the summer season of 1916, but not in 1917, so perhaps some of the band were absent that year. However it may be that Vessella just found a better gig.

In June 1918 his band was playing at the Rocking Chair Movies at Brighton Beach in Manhattan. The picture "The Toys of Fate" was silent of course, and the band provided the musical accompaniment. The venue was a novel outdoor cinema with the large screen placed in the ocean before the huge veranda of the Brighton Baths, (and) may be viewed easily by thousands of spectators. The feature films are shown successfully both at high and low tides. This theater is probably the only one in the world whose seating capacity if affected by the rise and fall of the ocean.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle
26 June 1918

Oreste Vessella was born in Alife, Italy in 1877. He was the nephew of Alessandro Vessella (1860-1929) the celebrated leader of the Band of Rome. Oreste trained as a clarinetist in Naples and then did further study of composition in Genoa. He came to America in 1901 as just an ordinary musician in an Italian band embarking on a nationwide tour. In about 1902 the band's conductor became ill, and the young clarinetist Oreste took up the baton. He was such a success that he never handed it back. By 1903 his name appears as a band leader appearing at the Atlantic City Steel Pier. Between 1915 and 1927 he wrote the music for a few comic operettas which played in New York and Philadelphia theatres. They didn't play long and the shows are now forgotten.

With the advent of sound films and then radio in the 1920s and 30s, the public's interest in the grand traditions of Italian band music rapidly began to dim. As recordings of jazz and pop music took over the show business charts, the phrase "Big Band" no longer referred to a large concert wind ensemble like Vessella's band.

Yet once upon a time thousands of people heard beautiful music drifting across the beaches and along the boardwalk of Atlantic City. The sound of an Italian band became an integral element of American ever evolving musical culture. And it was not just the band's wonderful interpretations of opera melodies that became part of our popular conscience. The Italian instrumentalists also influenced the playing styles of American musicians. The Italian fondness for agile clarinets and piccolos, brilliant trumpets, and bombastic bass tubas, became musical sound colors that American players and composers much admired and imitated. Just as German, Bohemian, Hungarian musicians contributed to America's love of music, so did Italian musicians like these bandsmen.

_ _

Oreste Vessella died in Atlantic City on the 20th of June 1963.

The Billboard
13 July 1963

Pittsburgh Daily Post
04 October 1903

Anaconda MT Standard
10 August 1911

I could end my brief account on Oreste Vessella,
the great Italian bandmaster of Atlanic City here.
But my research revealed a fascinating love story
that is worthy of another post.
The following clipping should be
enough to entice my readers' interest.

Buffalo NY Sunday Morning News
21 February 1904

So stay tuned
for a sequel on Oreste Vessella
inspired by

The Long Distance ’Phone Romance
of the Millionaire's
Daughter and the
Italian Band Master.

an Atlantic City Love Story

Bizet's Carmen Selection performed by Oreste Vessella's Italian Band.
It was recorded on November 8, 1912
and is preserved in the archives of the Library of Congress.

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This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where this weekend everyone's heading for the beach.


La Nightingail said...

Your posts are always informative & fun. Looking forward to more about Master Vessella and his romance. A good love story is always welcome. In looking at the members of his band I noted only a few moustaches which was kind of surprising, but made me laugh. In a concert I just appeared in, we sang "The Huntsmen's Chorus" from Der Freischutz. It was, of course, supposed to be sung by men only, but the whole chorus sang it so the women had to put on false moustaches to make it look right. Luckily I had a false 'stache with good stickum, but others weren't so lucky and wound up having to hold theirs in place while they sang. Oh well - the audience just thought it was funnier still. :)

Jo Featherston said...

Vessella looks like a fine upstanding gentleman, and I love the postcard message from Evaline. The Steel Pier was certainly a grand structure. I don’t believe there have ever been piers like that in Austraila. Very few of ours even include kiosks.

Barbara Rogers said...

Oh yes, a love story would be fun also. I just was listening to the PBS show for Memorial Day, some good music there too! Of all the photos, I noticed the amazing clarity of the photo from Wikipedia of the Steel Pier. And my imagination takes me back to the afternoons wearing all those petticoats, and corsets, and covered up to my neck...being in a cool sea breeze in the shade must have been heaven for those women! of course men didn't miss too much in the way of hot clothing of the era...way before deodorants or frequent showers for hygiene were available. Give me a quick dunk in the Atlantic please!

Kathy Morales said...

Unfortunately, I never heard the music in your post. Enjoyed all the rest though! Imagining all those people on the Steel Pier ... I'll look forward to the sequel. I plan to do a sequel next week too.


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