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 Verdi Sextette

17 February 2012

One of the first commercial uses of photography was in making promotional photos of theatrical and musical groups. They were primarily sent out to agents and theater managers, since a picture, then as now, was often the best way of conveying charisma and talent in the show business world.

This set of three 8" x 10" photographs were taken at the DeHaven Studios in Chicago, also known as David Hyman Bloom and younger brother Samuel Bloom, the same photographers that took the first photo in my October post on A Vaudeville Girl. This musical ensemble of three men and three women, performing on two mandolins, guitar, cello, piano, and a single rose are clearly a professional group. They have similar theatrical dress with wide bow ties around their collars and neat stage slippers.

The only clue as to the name or  year for these musicians was penciled onto the back of just one photo.

Verdi Sextette
Imperial May 1-2-3

Not very much to go on, but interesting keywords for a search. Unfortunately it meant sifting through an enormous number of hits on concert programs that always seemed to include an opera excerpt by Verdi followed by the Sextette from Lucia di Lammermor by Donizetti. That made for hundreds of mistaken combinations of Verdi - Sextette.

On June 29, 1916, there was a notice in the Omaha World Herald of various amusements available that week to Nebraska citizens. Playing at the Empress, with continuous Vaudeville and Photoplays was the "Verdi Sextette" - High Class Vocalists and Instrumentalists.

The Empress was only one of 8 theaters in Omaha advertising their features, like the Gayety, "Where Everybody Goes", and the Monroe, "The Comfy Theater, Where Your Dime Works Overtime". Show business was all about real competition in a  time when entertainment was always a public event, unlike today's solitary activities of radio, television and internet.

The Verdi Sextette probably played a mix of operatic excerpts, no doubt from Italian operas along with traditional Italian popular songs. In the early 20th century, the mandolin enjoyed a popularity that rivaled the banjo, with many groups using the instrument for accompaniment. This was an age of immigrants and voices of the old country had a strong appeal. Though I expected to find their name linked to the Chautauqua movement which emphasized classical and educational music, this sextet seems to have found work on the vaudeville circuits.

The next month in 1916 there was an ad in the Hutchinson, Kansas News for a performance at the Riverside Park on July 21st. The program listed:
Whitney's Dolls (4 people)
Three Genettes (Dog Act)
Verdi Sextette (6 people)
Bell & Haywood (Double)

This was a big transition period for theaters. The cinema was still a novelty and films, besides being silent, were short. To make a full entertainment value for patrons, most theaters combined live performances of vaudeville acts with films or photoplays as they were sometimes called. The public was also just beginning to create a demand for national celebrities, like in the ad for the latest Charlie Chaplin movie, "The Fireman."

Another search turned up the mention of the Verdi Sextette in a trade newspaper review in the New York Dramatic Mirror of the latest acts touring Kansas City theaters in July 1916.
UPDATE:   I've added a postcard view of the Empress Theater from 1912 which was part of my post last month on A Theater Orchestra

The terse writing style in the descriptions of the variety acts would give a theater manager a good idea of whether it was profitable to engage a group. You can almost hear performers groaning after reading the adjective attached to their names.

New York Dramatic Mirror
1916 JUL 15


KANSAS CITY (Special) — Kansas City is experiencing the hottest weather (July 3) It has been called on to endure in the past two years and, though holding up fairly well, the few theaters remaining open are showing the effects of the extreme temperature.

Globe (Cyrus Jacobs, manager) : Julia Glfford still clinging to " the former Mrs. Bob Fitsslmmons," headlined last week at this theater and revealed a rather pleasing voice and some pretty gowns. A police sketch. " The Cop," last seen here at the Orpheum, was also shown with much merit on the same bill, which also included Mondanne Phillips and Willson and Sherwood. Otto and Olivia were painful, but the Camille Trio were very funny in a knockabout aerial act. The bill opening Sunday at 2, pleased immensely. Powder and Capman, two good-looking chaps with nimble feet, Gaylord and Langston, girl blackface comediennes, and Judson Cole, card manipulator, presented acts of merit. Olivette, Moffet and Claire offered Hawaiian music and some fast society dancing—their Castllllane dance being especially good. The Curtis Trio and Ed. Price completed the bill.
Empress (Daniel McCoy, manager): Topping the bill at this theater last week was one of the best magic and juggling novelty acts ever seen here, being presented by the Choy Heg Wa Troupe. Astane, in a table and chair act, and Florence and  Briggs. in a comedy sketch, both pleased. Bryan and Parker and the Penn City Trio were also on the bill. " The Beauty Doctors," a miniature musical comedy teeming with songs, pretty gowns, and handsome girls, and numbering several well-known musical comedy people, occupy first place on the current bill. The Verdi Sextette, " A Day in Dogville," and the Novelty Trio  secure results in their efforts to please. Taylor and Howard are the original nuts from Brazil, and are full of laughs. Electric and Fairmount Parks continue to draw enormous crowds.  JACK MCCLEE

After 1916 the Verdi Sextette seems to have disappeared. The Great War in Europe  expanded to America in 1917 and the public's tastes in music changed dramatically. Musicians changed their names, pulled politically incorrect music from their repertoire, and added patriotic songs to their act. And of course the cinema - the movies became a bigger business that forced all the theaters to change. The stage no longer had room for small ensembles like the Verdi Sextette.

They were such a handsome bunch, I like to think they might have moved to the west coast anyway and found work in the first era of Hollywood films. But then they would have lost their voices, so perhaps not.

This is my second contribution to  Sepia Saturday
where the theme this weekend is a picture of Claude Raines from 1912.

My first contribution is from an earlier post on Werner Fuetterer
which is about a rare portrayal of a horn player on screen.

Click the next link for more photos and stories about stage and screen.


Wendy said...

Bravo! Another fascinating post. I'm glad you said "stage slippers" because my first thought was "Why are they wearing girlie shoes?" And I'm also wondering why the pianist dressed different from the other girls whose garb doesn't appear to be too restricting for playing the piano.

Bob Scotney said...

I learn something every time you post a musical theme.

Postcardy said...

Nice photos, and great research. I am confused by the rose.

Mike Brubaker said...

The young girl's rose is her symbol that she is the singer - the soprano. My guess is that she is the daughter of the handsome cellist and the woman guitarist. The older mandolinist is the cellist's brother and husband to the pianist. The other mandolinist is either a third brother, or maybe brother to the guitarist? It's a family ensemble for sure though.

Little Nell said...

That cleared up the question I was going to ask too. The young lady with the rose looks terribly sad in all the pictures though doesn’t she?

Howard said...

Fascinating. Two mandolins, cello, guitar, piano and singer. surprisingly modern. A bluegrass band from a couple of decades later wouldn't be uncomfortable with these instruments. In the first photo they're just posing, but in the second they're pretending to be actually playing. The guitarist appears to be fretting the 1st string with two left fingers and thumbing the 6th string, ie a fingerpicking style. The 6th string is just about to go 'twang'. I would have assumed for this time she would just be playing chords. Interesting guitar - very narrow waist but deep body. It has a tailpiece so possibly steel strings. Looks like what we'd call a parlour guitar now, but the body is deeper than I'd expect. I can't determine if the mandolinists are using plectrums (plectra?) but I think they are. The mandolins are flat tops (and backs). They certainly are a good looking bunch of musicians.

Wibbo said...

Wonderful photographs!

Kristin said...

Happy to see my theory that the rose was for the singer was correct.

Joy said...

I love the last photo's arrangement AND it shows the cello players luxuriant hair to perfection. A fascinating insight into the travelling players, great newspaper cuttings.

21 Wits said...

I really enjoyed all their views! Cool post, thanks!

Christine H. said...

If I had known I could join a musical group as a rose player, I would have done it long ago, especially if it meant I could wear a crisp linen sailor dress with a blue sating tie.

Linda said...

Excellent digging for the story behind the picture. Interesting how that ad for Chaplin invokes his popularity and his salary.

Bruno Laliberté said...

The only thing bugging me here are those stage slippers. They look like old ladies shoes...
This said, they look a handsome bunch, and perhaps some moved on tho play those movie soundtracks live at the theater? Or maybe some resurfaced later on the radio? It is hard/sad to imagine that so many musical careers came crashing down where people had to settle for less creative jobs, out of necessity.

Great post!!
I even started wandering around that Ad. Loved seeing Chaplin, but I was drawn to "the tales of today", written too finely for me to read, and just above the Verdi Sextette Ad, this alpine drama... what is an alpine drama, a drama in the mountains, right? I find the linguo in those Ads rather amusing.


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