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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Three Kansas City Vaudeville Musicians

15 October 2011

Today I present a very special photograph. Perhaps more than any other photo in my collection, this lady has inspired my pursuit of images of early musicians and the history behind their careers. I do not know her name, and in fact I know more about who she is not, which I will have to explain at another time. Even so, I have given her the name Florida and she is holding a horn, a single horn in F for those of you who need to know these details. She is wearing a rather stylish costume that has a certain theatrical or even ethnic quality. Her pose in this large format studio photograph shows only the most simple of backdrops with a faint painted landscape in the background.

What makes Florida a remarkable image from the first decades of the 20th century, is that this portrait shows a young woman as a professional horn player. Today this is not at all exceptional, as women play all kinds of brass instruments in orchestras, operas, and bands. But not too many years ago, the world of professional music was very much an exclusive club for men. It was only in certain theatrical groups, or in small bands and orchestras organized by women, that they could make a livelihood. Most of these groups used string instruments or common band instruments, but a photo of a lady horn player is a uniquely rare item.

In the lower left corner above her shoes, (compare them to those of The Vaudeville Girl ) is the photographer's logo. Bert's K.C. which stands for the studio of Burdette Emery Wetherwax which was located at 127 W. 12th St., Kansas City, Missouri. This was also the address for the Gayety Theater.

Bert's specialty was the theater world and there were easily over twenty other theaters in Kansas City's theater district. Vaudeville and burlesque as well as the early films created a major mid-west hub in Kansas City for the traveling entertainment industry in America. And of course, the connection to America's rail network was important too.

The photos marked Bert K.C. that I have found on internet archives include promotional pictures of ballet dancers, chorus girls, actors, jazz bands, and musicians. He may have even taken the photo for this postcard of the Gayety Theater Building.

The Gayety theater was opened in 1909 as described in this report in from the Kansas City Journal:

November 3, 1909

Musical Comedy, Vaudeville With
Burlesque Tinge at the Gayety.
The new Gayety theater will open Sunday afternoon with a matinee by the "College Girls" Company. The house is to be devoted to musical comedy and vaudeville with a burlesque tinge. It is owned by the Kansas City Theater Company of New York and will be managed by Thomas Hodgeman, the present manager of the Majestic theater.

The new theater is at Twelfth and Wyandotte streets and has several innovations. The dressing rooms are all outside the theater proper. On the Twelfth street and Wyandotte street sides business houses will occupy the fronts with the exception of the main entrance on Wyandotte street. The theater is surrounded on four sides by open spaces, which provide four exits from the ground floor and two each from the other two floors, in addition to two emergency exits from each of the top floors.

The interior is finished in "art noveau," the colors being gold and yellow. With the exception of the chairs the theater is entirely fireproof. It will have a seating capacity of 1,650. There are three floors, with 550 chairs on the orchestra floor, 400 on the balcony floor, 600 on the gallery floor and 100 in the twelve boxes. The stage will be protected by an ornamental asbestos curtain.

The auditorium of the theater is 72 by 108 feet, of which 40 by 70 feet is taken up by the stage. Inclines instead of stairs will be used to gain access to the first two floors.

 The exterior lights were novel enough to make the pages of the 1916 Electrical Review and Western Electrician. Any theater with 1650 seats that still needed a 75 foot tower with 3226 light bulbs to stand out, was competing in a big way for the public's attention.

Bert Wetherwax was born in Beatrice, Nebraska in 1882. In the 1910 census he was working in Kansas City as a traveling salesman for photographic supplies. He had a wife, Margaret and an infant daughter. His studio was first listed in the Kansas City directory in 1915 and continued through the early 1940's.

The vast archives of the internet revealed a marriage license from 1921, when at age 40, Bert remarried to Bessie M. Daily age 24. His death certificate also came up, showing his death in 1945 at age 62, survived by his widow, Lucile age 48. Interestingly he was also listed on the death certificate as a veteran of the Spanish-American War, though he would then have been only 16 years old. Unfortunately I was unable to find any corroborating military records. 

But this is only so much trivia that did not really help to answer my real question: What was Florida's real name?

Meet Carolina, another vaudeville lady musician who posed for Bert's camera. Again there are no clues except they are both pieces of a bigger puzzle. Carolina holds a cornet and bears a resemblance to The Vaudeville Girl , but she is not the same girl I think. She also wears a kind of theatrical dress with a rather daring exposure of shoulder. Like Florida and the Vaudeville Girl, she has sensible shoes under a similar hemline. Note the fancy engraving on her cornet. 

I found this report in the same archive of the Kansas City Journal.

January 23, 1910

First Playhouse of This Character
to Be Opened Here Tonight.
Kansas City's first Yiddish theater will be opened tonight in the Hippodrome annex, Twelfth and Charlotte streets. Manager Jacobs has fitted up a snug home for Yiddish drama here, the annex being cut off entirely from the Hippodrome proper by an outside entrance, though there is, of course, an entrance from the inside as well. M. B. Samuylow, who was seen here at the Shubert this season, will head a strong Yiddish company playing "Kol Nidre," a four-act opera with book by Charansky and music by Friedsel. Other Yiddish companies will be seen here from time to time and it is hoped to make the Hippodrome Annex theater the home of permanent Yiddish attractions, as there is a large clientele from which to draw.

Though it is impossible to identify Carolina's background, the inclusion of Yiddish theater in Kansas City certainly attracted an influence from New York's Broadway theater circuit.
Carolina has more the look of a vaudeville performer than just a girl who played cornet in a town band.

But Bert knew ladies bands too. In this large format photo, the lady is not unknown. Her name is Lucy M. Biehl, one of daughters of the  Biehl Family Orchestra . Lucy is holding a tenor saxophone and is dressed in a fine white uniform with a military-like fur shako. (Again compare her hat to The Vaudeville Girl ) And her photo, like Florida's and Carolina's, is also marked Bert's K.C.

The Biehl family orchestra started in Davenport, Iowa but in 1920 they lived in Kansas City where they listed their occupation as musicians, show business. Of the three sisters, Lucy, Leona, and Grace Biehl, Lucy was the oldest born in 1883 and played clarinet and no doubt doubled on saxophone. If this photo was taken around 1920 she would be about 37. The family toured with a tent show, a kind of musical variety and dramatic show that played small towns in the mid-west, but was still very much a part of the vaudeville style. Here Lucy Biehl is dressed either in her family's showband uniform or perhaps a costume from some larger musical theater revuew.

But who was Florida? I have not found her musical show yet, and I may never know for sure, but I did find this all girl musical group from 1926, The Spanish Orchestra produced by the Redpath Bureau, a large artist agency for the Chautauqua circuit.

The Chautauqua events were intended to be bring refined class and artistic acts to the public in performances that would educate as well as entertain. But many of these groups played the regular vaudeville theaters too. Could Florida have been a horn player in the Spanish Orchestra?

My contribution to Sepia Saturday.
Follow the link for more enthusiasts of vintage photographs.


Postcardy said...

Great post! Florida looks like a happy fun-loving woman.

Little Nell said...

Well, good for Florida! She was obviously a pioneer. I think I would have liked a visist to that theatre too.

Unknown said...

I love Lucy! Even though it should not have been, girls were not allowed to participate in the HS's Big Band. Ultimately the girls prevailed and the first to play was a saxophonist.

My own pleas to be allowed to switch from violin to sax were not well received. I'm ever thankful to Claude Bolling and his Suite for Violin and Jazz Piano!

21 Wits said...

How do you ever come up with so many of these great finds!

Brett Payne said...

Another fascinating series of portraits, each with their own mysteries. Your posts are as intriguing, and informative, as ever.

Poetry24 said...

This evokes so many possible storylines. My favourite is Florida, she looks like a lot of fun.

Sheila @ A Postcard a Day said...

I love all the ladies but I wish someone had whispered in Carolina's ear regarding her hairstyle. They were all pioneers in their way.

Chef Burnett said...

I have a few very sinful aunts whi I have been told they were in the ziegfreld follies late 20s and early 30s. They were chorus girls and lived in the Bronx. All of the pictures have Bert K.S on them, I wonder he travelled to NYC? To take pics. Or did they go to Kansas to perform, anyway, hos pictures are very realistic. My aunts look alot like my brother!


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