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 Novelty Musical Artists

23 May 2020

A micro-story fabricated
from two cabinet card photographs

Maybe he should have stayed home today, thought Gus. Between random hammering from the stage crew for the new set to the rhythmic clatter of tap shoes in that new dance act, his headache was not going to get any rest. Why did that pianist have to play so damn loud? He groaned and downed the rest of his coffee. At his age staying up for a Friday night card game would cost him much more than his winnings, or in the case of last night, his losings. Whatever made him think to bet against a magician? Professor Berkell, my eye. What college teaches you to be a card sharp? Stupid luck.

"Jules," he shouted. "More coffee!" Gus rubbed his eyes and picked up the latest New York Clipper. He flipped through a few pages of the trade paper scanning the dense type for any news of the acts he'd hired this season. The theater circuits were pretty lively this year.

The door to his office opened and a stout young man with a wispy blonde mustache entered carrying a tray with a coffee pot and a tall stack of mail. "Here's some fresh ink, Uncle Gus," he said. "Nice and hot. I put sugar and cream on the side in case your tummy needs some relief too." He pointed to the letters and packets. "You want me to sort them for you? Hide the bills from Aunt Milly?" He grinned.

"Yeah, sure," Gus grimaced. "That's the first job of an assistant theatre manager." He refilled his cup, leaned his chair back, and put his feet up on the desk. Outside his window the sky was darkening. After a minute or two, he looked up from the paper. "Anything to report from the show last night? What's the take?" 

"Not good," said Jules. "Maybe half of last weekend. And that's counting both shows. The rain's supposed to let up this afternoon so maybe folks will come into town. Mr. Ritchie sent a note this morning. Says he ain't feeling well, so his trick cycle bit is out. But Mr. Parker said he could add another turn with his dogs to fill the slot. He has a goat cart that folks haven't seen before."

Gus grunted, he knew what ailed Richie. Little guy drank enough for three last night. Probably couldn't keep his balance if his bicycle had five wheels. He went back to studying the Clipper's adverts.

Jules finished separating the post and picked out one larger package. Taking a penknife he cut the twine binding it and unwrapped a letter with a set of photos. "Say, Uncle Gus. Here's a novelty duo that might play well here. Take a look at this ol' fellow and his gal playing banjo and guitar." He passed a card photo to his uncle.

"Hmmph," snorted Gus. "Hayseed Reuben meets rich big city socialite. That's an original. Where have I seen that before?" He waved at the hundreds of entertainer photos pinned to the walls of his office. Gus handed the photo back to Jules. "What's the matter with her? She don't look like she appreciates having her strings plucked. They got a name?"

"They call themselves Fitz and Frazier. Say they're at liberty next month. Something about a tent show that went bust." Jules turned the letter over. "They're looking for bookings on the route back to Boston. One night or a week."

Gus turned back to his paper. "Banjos are ten cents a dozen now, and there's not much noise in a guitar. What else can they do?"

Jules put another photo on the desk. "Country boys don't usually play saxophone to their cows, uncle. This bit's not your typical minstrel routine. Looks like they got a tenor and a soprano sax."

Gus turned over the second photo and paused in thought. "Okay, this is novel. I'll give them that. A comic sketch with a pair of saxophones ought to wake up the loafers sleeping in the balcony." he scratched his head. "But I still don't get her. She looks like she swallowed a plug of tobacco and is trying to decide whether to spit or ..." Gus started to snicker but it changed into a hacking cough that made him spill coffee on his vest.

Jules chuckled handing him a towel. "Says here, Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald—that's their real names—played good dates last fall in Seattle and San Francisco. They come with a bunch of other instruments. The Mrs.—Mamie is her name—she plays handbells, cornet and violin too. You know the Knights of the Golden Arches have their state convention here next month. With the Tracey trio breaking up after Doris ran off with that Italian trapeze fella, we got a hole in our lineup that week. We could use some novelty musical artists to replace their song and dance numbers."

Gus turned to stare out the window where the rain had returned. "All right. You write to them about dates that week with the usual guarantees, etcetera, etcetera. Tell them we want refined material and decent skits. No bum work. The Majestic Theatre caters to a family crowd." He watched the rain splatter on the marquee below his window. "Mostly. Except when it rains."

"Sure thing, Unk." Jules picked up the tray and scattered papers. "I'll get it out to the post office before this afternoon's matinee." He turned toward the door. "You gonna stay around today?"

Gus sighed. "Maybe. Let me know when the Professor takes his turn. I want to check his bit with the three cards again. I still don't understand how it works." He turned the two photos over. Harris of Chicago was the photographer, corner of West Ohio Street and Milwaukee Avenue. Not far from the theatre district, if he remembered correctly. Seems like a classy studio. So why couldn't they get the dame to smile? 

Gus shuddered. He'd seen that kind of face before. It was like when the sky turns another shade of grey just before the storm hits. Just like Mildred's face when she learns he's been out for a late night of poker. 

With a shiver he threw the two photos into his desk drawer. Maybe he should find a reason to stay around for the second show.

* * *

Sometimes old photos come with really good clues but they still fail to reveal their true history. So instead I get to make up my own story. In this case I've tried to illustrate the purpose of a vaudeville entertainer's promotional photograph.

With these two images we see two musicians dressed in incongruous stage costumes. The man in his big straw hat, farmer's boots, and scrubby duster coat fits a stereotype of the country bumpkin or rube. The woman in her glamorous sequined gown looks the part of a matron of upper-class urban society. Both were familiar character types of American theater and literature in the 1890s, which is the period for their fashions and their over-sized cabinet card photographs. Their trick banjo/guitar style, (take a second look if you missed their hand positions) identifies the couple as performing in the comic genre of novelty musical artists.

On the back of the banjo/guitar duo's photo is a name, Mamie Frazier,  written large in ink. Despite my best effort, I could not find any entertainer by that name, much less someone who played guitar and saxophone too. It doesn't help that it is very common name, which even in Chicago, Illinois, showed up too regularly to fix an identification. But if we look closely both the man and woman wear wedding bands on their left hands so it seems probable that they were married to each other. Stage names that used alliteration was also a bet on an old showbiz tradition.

But it's their second photo holding tenor and soprano saxophones that is especially unique. These hybrid brass/woodwind instruments were still relatively "foreign" to American audiences in the late 19th century. The sound color of the saxophone family–soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass–was only beginning to be used in professional bands. And the notion of a saxophone playing a jazz solo would not be invented for another 25 years or so.

When I searched for "saxophone duet" in newspapers from the 1890s, I came up with very few hits and even fewer that connected to vaudeville musical artists. But in the New York Clipper, the weekly trade magazine for theatrical arts, there was a mention of one couple in February 1893 that caught my attention. 

New York Clipper
23 February 1893
"The Holbrooks are still winning much praise for their clever work with Dr. Goerss' Specialty Co. They are stationed for the present at Galesburg, Ill., and good business is reported. Mr. and Mrs. Holbrook excell in their saxophone duet. Both are accomplished and versatile musicians."   It's a short and succinct notice, likely supplied by the Holbrooks themselves. Self-promotion was another old showbiz tradition.

But searching for this name in the New York Clipper, I learned that in 1891 that, "Al Decker has arranged for the Holbrooks a neat musical sketch, entitled "Down on the Farm."" 

New York Clipper
3 October 1891

The Clipper and similar national newspaper magazines like Billboard, and Variety, were the social media of this era for theatrical and circus performers, agents, managers, and supporting businesses. The pithy notes read like today's Twitter and Facebook feeds and were intended for people working in the entertainment world, and not for the general public. Letters to performers could be posted care of the Clipper to be picked up or sent to the addressee on the road. Like many artists, the Holbrooks took out regular advertisements in the Clipper to seek new bookings. Their full names were J. H. or Josh and Lizzie Holbrook, America's Greatest Musical Artists. The word "Great" was surely the most ubiquitous adjective of this era.

New York Clipper
8 April 1893
The Holbrooks lived in Sherborn, Massachusetts, just 20 miles west of Boston. Josh Holbrook was born in England and in the summer of 1894 he and his wife left America to play on the British music hall circuit. In June they appeared at Mr. Stoll's Panopticon in Cardiff, Wales. This "museum" venue presented a series of several tableaux of sentimental romantic paintings using live but static actors. In between these staged events were musical skits when the Holbrooks were featured.

Cardiff Western Mail
26 June 1894
"Prior to the tableaux, the Holbrooks, an American couple, contribute a splendid musical show. Miss Holbrook plays beautifully on the cornet, bells (a Yankee novelty) and a saxophone. On the latter instrument she is equally expert as Mr. Holbrook, who extracts sweet music from a banjo, cornet, and clarionet."

By August 1894, London's Royal Aquarium advertised The Holbrooks (J. H. and Lizzie)  Instrumentalists, and the Lady Champion Saxophone, Cornet, and Post Horn Soloist. The post horn was described in another report as a coach horn, a long straight bugle used by the driver of a horse drawn stagecoach to signal arrival at the next station.

By October 1894, the Holbrooks were back in the States performing as an act within a traveling variety show. Their musical and comedic talent on "novelty" instruments was enough to keep them get them on the Clipper's notice boards through 1899. After that, they seem to have disappeared.

It's very little to go on. Maybe there is a Mamie Frazier who played saxophone in vaudeville, but I think the name is not directly connected to the subjects of the two photos. The Holbrooks, on the other hand, played both saxophones and banjo. They advertised as a duo of novelty musical artists. The played a comic skit called "Down on the Farm". They promoted Lizzie Holbrook as a virtuoso soloist on saxophone and cornet. And more importantly they played around Chicago during the era for this kind of cabinet card photograph. That's a lot of curious coincidences.

It may not be proof,
but it is enough to make believe.

Maybe one day I'll find a photo
of a dour faced female cornet player
accompanied by an ancestor
of Henry John Deutschendorf Jr.,
a.k.a. John Denver (1943-1997).

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Sandra Williamson said...

I love the "story" and the facts, all very interesting and brings everything to life.

La Nightingail said...

The first name that popped into my head when I saw the gentleman in that first photo was John Denver! :)

JMP183 said...

Those are great photos with a story to match!

Barbara Rogers said...

A likely story...and a most enjoyable introduction to a couple of musicians...all from their two photos. It's unlikely that there were two such couples giving those shows. Yes, Mr. John Denver definitely!

Wendy said...

I'm a believer! I hope you are keeping an eye out for more photos of this couple and the Holbrooks specifically.


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