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 }

A Theater Orchestra

28 January 2012

We live in a magical age. At 3:00 in the morning, we can read the morning news from a virtual newspaper somewhere across the ocean. We can can slip a small disc into a box and from our easy chair watch a movie displayed in more vivid colors than we can count. Taking our coffee with us, we can get into the car and listen to music, broadcast from across the continent on satellite radio, all while traveling at 70 mph in a sound environment that is equal to being in the best seat of a grand concert hall. 

One hundred years ago, people lived in a magical age too, but their entertainment was not a solitary experience. You had to go downtown to hear live music.

In 1912 it would be a rare city in America that did not have at least one theater. You could see a play, a melodrama or a comedy with musical interludes. You might take in a variety show, a musical or even operetta. In some theaters there was a new novelty called a motion picture. The images projected were in sepia tones, and the actors had no voice, but there was great music to carry the story along. It was played by live musicians in an orchestra much like the one shown above.

The German Orchester has a sign that says  Wien ~ Berlin 1916, but the advertisements on the backdrops show that they are on a stage somewhere in America. This vintage photograph has no markings to show exactly where or when these musicians are from, but they are typical of a small theater orchestra of the early 20th century. The leader stands in front with his violin, surrounded by an ensemble of cello and bass for strings; flute and clarinet for woodwinds, cornet and trombone for brass; and piano and accordion for keyboard accompaniment. Oddly there is no percussionist.

To judge by the size of the group, their stage was probably quite modest. Larger theaters could boast of bands and orchestras that rivaled the numbers in an opera or symphony orchestra.

The Empress Theater of Kansas City, Missouri, pictured here on a 1912 postcard, was thought to be one of the most modern vaudeville theaters in Amerca when it opened in 1910. It had 1,902 seats and ran 3 shows daily.

Miss Bessie Pyatt of Rosedale, KS had a friend Mabel who wrote:

Dear Bess,
I would like to go Thurs. but as I have quarreled with my friend I don't see how I can. Are you still working? Do you remember this place here? Ans.

Regrettably, this theater is all memories now, as few of these extravagant art houses have survived into the 21st century.  A terrific resource for the history of old theaters is

Some theaters were part of other extravagant civic buildings like the Palace Theater in Chicago, IL which was on the ground floor of the City Hall Square building. It was built in 1912 but taken down in 1965 for the Richard J. Daley Center. Next to it was the Geo. M. Cohan's Grand Opera House.

The postcard is a colorized photo, but the pedestrians along the sidewalks are all crudely drawn figures.

Mr. Hans Hansen of  Ludington, Michigan got this card from his daughter in 1914.

Dear Father,
Well how is the weather in Ludington It has been awful cold here for the last week, I think it will rain tonight. From your Loving Daughter, Lillie 
Write soon.

The New Princess Theater , also in Chicago, was built in 1906 for traditional stage productions with seating for 900. But it soon evolved into a hall for vaudeville acts and then movies. It closed in 1937.

The card is postmarked 1909 from Chicago to Miss Louise Amish of Rochester, NY.

Someone named Luecta (?Luetta writes,
This is certainly a large city.

And now a postcard view of Fifth and Edmond Streets in St. Joseph, Missouri of 1913, where
All cars in the city pass this point.

The Orpheum theater, with 1000 seats, is on the corner. I think the vehicle on the left of the streetcar is an electric automobile.

It closed in 1957. Sadly here is what the corner of 5th and Edmond in St. Joseph looks like today. I don't think all the cars in St. Joseph pass by anymore.

UPDATE:   I took a virtual walking tour around St. Joseph and made an interesting discovery.
If you use the Google Street View controls to turn around and "walk" back up Edmond St. to the 700 Block you will see another vintage theater, The Missouri, that has survived. A fine example of what looks like Oriental Art Deco,  it was built in 1927 with 1200 seats, and in the late 70's was turned into a performing arts center for the city.  

View Larger Map

George Crooks of Brantford, Ont. got this succinct note on the back of the postcard in April 1913.
Hello Tom

The website has this great image of the interior of the Orpheum Theater. Note the orchestra on right side of the movie screen.

interior Orpheum Theater, St. Joseph, MO

Perhaps they were showing this. An excerpt page from a wonderful Google eBook, The Moving Picture World from 1913. Another great resource on the history of early theaters and cinema. 

My contribution to Sepia Saturday
Click the link to find more photos of this week's theme of Majestic Theaters.


A Child Violinist from Raleigh

21 January 2012

What turns an ordinary photo into a great photograph? The age or location of the photo often determines how uncommon it is. The subject or the occupation that is depicted has a major influence on its rarity. And a name and date will always add value. But I think it is the story, the narrative of what we see in the image, that can really transform a photograph. Some photos, like the Missouri violinist last week, invite a fictional story. But others, like this cabinet card of a little girl with her violin, offer a true story.

A typical photograph of this era might have a child holding a cherished doll, but this young girl confidently holds a violin under her chin, the bow placed correctly on the strings. It is a challenging pose for the photographer, as we can see the special stand behind her feet to keep her still. The violin takes many years of disciplined practice to acquire the necessary musical skills, so it was often started at an early age. Today the violin is associated with small children because of the teaching methods of Shin'ichi Suzuki (1898-1998) who, just after WWII, developed a music program of violin instruction in Japan that is now used around the world. It uses violins reduced to ½ and ¼ sizes to aid little fingers, but this girl holds a full size instrument.

The age of this photo, which dates to mid-1890s, is not at all uncommon, but the place, Raleigh, North Carolina, certainly is. Even during this post-Civil War era, photographs from Southern states are much less common than those from Northern or Mid-Western states. As an example, during this week on eBay, a search of "North Carolina, cabinet" in the antique photograph sales produced 14 listings. A search for "South Carolina, cabinet" showed only 23 items. But Michigan had 474 listings, Pennsylvania 664, Ohio 902, and New York 1,160. The photographer is Benjamin S. Mattocks, who was born 1855 in North Carolina.  But he seems to have left Raleigh sometime before the turn of the century, as his name is listed in the 1897 City Directory for Houston, Texas, along with 13 other photographers. 

But this interesting trivia
is not the story, which actually begins on the photo's back.  There, written in pencil, is the girl's name Fanny Hines Johnson, and her age 6 yrs - 5 mos old in 1894.

Such a simple addition to a photo and yet how rewarding. The name and date are the key to the archives and gives the photo a name for its principal character.

But Fanny or Fannie turns out to be a very poplar name in the 19th century. And as I discovered, there certainly were a lot of Johnson families that liked the name. So the writer who gave the middle name Hines, gets special thanks, as this usefully narrowed the search even more.

1900 US Census for Raleigh, NC
Her father, (found at the bottom of the previous census page) was Charles E. Johnson, a cotton broker in 1900. He and his wife Margaret (or possibly Mary) along with Fannie, age 12,  and Mary and Charles, her older sister and brother, lived on 120 Hillsboro Street, now spelled Hillsborough St in Raleigh. Their house, though now gone, was only one block from the NC State Capital and the Confederate War Memorial monument. Undoubtedly Charles must have been a prosperous businessman to have the resources to photograph his daughter displaying her musical talent. According to the 1900 census records, there was a George Mears, occupation: Music Teacher who lived very close. Perhaps he was Fannie's violin teacher.

View Larger Map

By the next census in 1910, Charles E. Johnson has become a bank president. Fannie, now 22, is still at home. Perhaps she continued to play violin in a church orchestra or a local society chamber group. But one imagines that at this age, a young woman has more on her mind than music.

Unfortunately, this is when most stories unravel. The thread of a woman's name changes with marriage and unless there is an official notice recorded, the trail will go cold. The name Fannie was just as popular with Williams and Smiths. Where will she be in 1920? At first there was nothing, but then I found her. And at the same address.

1919 NC Death Certificate for Fannie Hines (Johnson) Harriss

Fannie was now Mrs. Fannie Hines Harriss, house-wife, and 93 years ago this week, on January 15, 1919 at the age of 31, she died of pneumonia arising from influenza, a victim of the terrible pandemic that flashed across the globe during the final months of the Great War of 1914-18. The erroneously named Spanish Flu , claimed far more lives than the war, with estimates between 50 and 100 million deaths worldwide. In Raleigh, Fannie was one of thousands across the state of North Carolina who died.

A report in 1919 from the North Carolina State Board of Health, stated that 13,703 citizens died of influenza between October 1918 and March 1919. Physicians, and medical facilities all across the nation were overwhelmed. Cities in North Carolina closed theaters and schools, and prohibited public meetings and events. But to no avail, as thousand of seemingly healthy people were suddenly struck down by this deadly virus, which could bring death within days, and sometimes hours. Mortality rates of those afflicted with this virulent influenza reached 20% compared to 0.1% with ordinary flu, and the highest rate of deaths were among young adults like Fannie.

At the time this disease was little understood, and it was only after the determined and  heroic effort of many scientists and doctors that a vaccine was created that could stall the advance of this epidemic. I highly recommend a book entitled The Great Influenza by John M. Barry, which describes the epic history of this plague which killed so many people.

Fannie had moved to Wilmington, NC with her husband Meares Harriss, a real estate broker. They had two children, and as far as I know, they survived along with her mother and father.

All of the people in my photograph collection have died of course, many many years ago. Most remain anonymous and only a few photos provide some clues to discover their lives behind the image. While it is surprisingly easy to find the beginning and middle stories to these people, as births, families, and locations are so carefully recorded every 10 years for the census, the death records are extremely difficult to find. So it is very rare for an amateur historian like myself to get a complete timeline for a person in a 100 year old photograph. This picture of a pretty little girl with her violin, born on Christmas Day in 1887, who tragically perished in one of the great plagues of world history is hardly a complete picture of the person, but it shows us a rare arc of time that makes her image all the more precious.

For more photos and stories of other little girls, click the link to Sepia Saturday

A Missouri Sweetheart

13 January 2012

A short half-fiction 
invented from an old postcard.

The screen door gave a loud crack as father came into the kitchen. "The postman came early today, Joe. Got a letter from my cousin in Slater and there's something in it for you too." He handed a card to his son.

The boy looked up from his oatmeal and frowned. He took the card and gave it a glance. "Oh geez," he groaned. "Why'd she go and send me this." He tossed the photo onto the table. 

Tip smiled as he set down his coffee and reached over to rub the boy's hair. "Maybe she's sweet on you." The boy was 17 and had grown so tall this past year that he now towered over his four sisters. But they all shared their mother's blue eyes and auburn hair. "Well, I guess I got to get down to the shop now. Mr. Olson wants those two wagons finished by Saturday. He's sending them down the river to St. Louis and he might need some help. You want me to ask if he'll take you on? You'd be back Sunday night."

Joe stirred his oatmeal like he had found a fly swimming in it. "Naw, I got something else to do Pa." He watched as his father picked up his lunch pail and went out the door. As soon as he heard the side gate close, he picked up the postcard. Dumb photograph. Who did she think she was? Mary Pickford? He turned it over.

The florid handwriting made him shiver. Was she coming to Hannibal again? He wasn't exactly sure where Slater, Missouri was. He knew Pa had said it was out west, maybe 100 miles or so on toward Kansas City. His cousins ran a boarding house there. He'd seen it once when they'd gone for a visit. He remembered the house dining room filled with the bluster and clatter that came from the rowdy brakemen and firemen who lived there while waiting for their next train assignment. Lots of men sitting around, smoking, chewing, and spitting. A bit like the coarse river boatmen who stayed in the rooming houses here in Hannibal, down the next block on Broadway toward the wharfs on the Mississippi. 

Here it was almost April, 1912 and last summer seemed a world away. Most of her time here, she had stayed with his sisters Gertrude, Margaret, and Juliet, their constant chatter like the chickens out back. Pa understood and found him extra work to do down at the wagon shop.

He traced the little pigtails on the initials L.S. that twisted around like the scroll of her violin. But she surely played a good fiddle though. That day when she took a turn playing for the church social, that caught his attention. Later he had taken out his cornet for her and she taught him some swell dance tunes. 

But now there was Becky. He wasn't sure how he would explain this to her. She lived across the street and talked to his sisters all the time. He sure didn't want them to see this photo and start telling. He could hear them moving about upstairs. They'd be down any moment. He paced around the kitchen table. 

Two hearts. Why did he ever get two? The county fair was the big feature last August, and his older sister Alice had got them tickets for near every day. They'd heard the bands, seen the animals, and went to the carnival twice. Stupid luck. His long arms could throw a ball so well and so hard, that the carnival barker said it was the best of the day. So of course he went a second time.  Choose any two he said. Any two. So he picked out the little heart-shaped lockets. 

He heard Gertrude's and Juliet's voices coming down the steps. He quickly went into the sitting room and over to the family bookshelf. He spotted the biggest book and flipped through the pages. He looked at the girl in the photo one last time. It was so hidden, you'd hardly notice it.

Two hearts, he had to get two. Stupid. He slipped the card in between Remiss and Reply, and closed the dictionary, putting it back on the shelf. No one will ever find it there, he thought. He wouldn't ever want Becky to see where the second heart went. 

This postcard photo was sent to Joseph M.Marshall of Hannibal, Missouri. Here is an excerpt from the 1910 US Census showing his father Tip and Margaret Marshal, and three of his 4 sisters. (Alice Marshall was the oldest and is listed in the 1900 census)

 In 1917, Joe filled in his draft registration and provided us with a description of the boy to whom L.S. writes. He is married now but doesn't list his wife's name. Are her initials L.S. or something different? History keeps quiet on this point.

My contribution to Sepia Saturday.
Click the link for more enthusiasts of vintage photos and fancy hats.

Two Cincinnati Top Hats

06 January 2012

Once upon a time in Cincinnati, Ohio there was a fancy dress ball. In a society season of the 1890's, a young lady and her dressmaker created a most elaborate and beautiful outfit celebrating the horn, or specifically the post horn. The lady was so delighted with the effect that she had her photo taken to commemorate the occasion. She wears a wonderful coat and dress embroidered with horns, along with a silk top hat, and expertly holds a small post horn to her lips.


The Post Horn was once a very common instrument. Played by the postillion, a man mounted on one of the coach horses, its call announced the approach of the fast mail coach, signaled a command to clear the roadway, or gave advance notice to the post station for fresh horses. Like the sound of the bugle and the coach horn, it was a music of utility and practical purpose that is now lost.


The design of the post horn is now the universal symbol for a Postal Service, and nearly every nation has used it at one time or another on their stamps. This is a German stamp series from the 1950's.

Deutsche Bundespost from Wikimedia Commons

The young lady's purpose for her dress is really only a guess. However Cincinnati was a very important place for culture and society in 19th century America. Located on the Ohio River, it was a center of industry and commerce and attracted many European immigrants, notably Germans. So a dress with a Post Horn theme would not be an odd fashion for a young woman from a German heritage to choose for a Fasching or carnival ball. Alas her name is unknown, and though I know this cabinet card was taken in Cincinnati, the photographer's name must remain unknown for now, as I gave the original to a good friend as a gift and failed to save the original full scan of the photo.

The second Cincinnati top hat is in a cabinet photograph of an unknown gentleman with his violin, standing ready for a conductor's downbeat. His violin case lays open showing an extra bow, and on a fern stand at his side are his top hat and gold capped cane. Surely this is a professional musician, perhaps even a concertmaster of a Cincinnati orchestra. I think he has a very Germanic look about him, which would be the typical nationality for most orchestral musicians in the major American cities of this era.

The photographer is Herman Mueller of 607 Central Ave. Cincinnati, O. and despite the 5 or 6 pages of Muellers, I found his name easily in the city directories, as Herman Mueller was the only photographer. Born in Germany in 1833, Herman started his photography studio in Cincinnati around 1885, but only the 1888 directory lists the address as Central Ave. as in later years he continued on Vine St. until just after 1910. Interestingly, Herman's two daughters Maria and Alfrieda Mueller were listed in the census as a photographers too. Did they hear this gentleman play his violin that day?

My contribution to Sepia Saturday
Click the link for more enthusiasts of vintage photographs and rabbits.


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