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 }

Men in White 2

30 June 2012

One hundred years ago every city and town had a band, but not every band could afford fancy uniforms. Here are two small town bands that decided that men in white look pretty nice.

The first photo was an anonymous band for a long time. The real photo postcard still had bits of the black album paper stuck to the back, and the only identification was a penciled "Grandma & Grandpa". But sometime later I recognized the same photo in another sale and purchased it as well. This card had a soiled image but a clear identification on the back. The Niagara Wisconsin Band.

Brother Frank added just the right note to preserve a bit of forgotten history. Niagara, Wisconsin was established in 1900 on the Menominee River, which separates northern Wisconsin from the upper peninsula of Michigan. The population today is 1,880 but there may have been a larger community there in 1910 or so when this photo was taken.

The band is actually a typical 12 piece brass band with a young bandleader in the front. Can you spot his sister? The real band director is the man behind him in the dark coat holding a cornet.

The casual soft hats are a nice touch and one can almost hear them playing a concert on the Niagara town bandstand. The flags remain a mystery as I could not find a similar example with the M (or maybe W), but Niagara is in Marinette County, Wisconsin so perhaps it is a county flag.

This second band in white is from 800 miles to the southwest, the Clyde Concert Band of Clyde, Kansas. This is a larger band of 21 musicians including some clarinets, and it also has a young bandleader, not much taller than his drum major baton. This band does wear proper uniforms with white military style caps, but I imagine it was a constant struggle to keep them clean in the dusty streets of Kansas.

This is technically not a photo postcard as it is a halftone image that was printed in Germany, though published by Knapp & Hammond of Clyde, Kansas. When I scan such cards, my photo software will correct the halftone dots into a more photo-like image and that is how I typically reproduce my collection on this website. 

Clyde is in Cloud County in north central Kansas, and now has a population of 740 citizens, but in 1910 the population of the county was twice what is today, so the town probably was a comparable size to Niagara, Wisconsin.

The back has a postmark of 190? perhaps 1908, and addressed to Miss Anna Frederickson of Clyde, KS.

Dear Friend - I have decided for sure to get that goods & that I will have it made like yours. So if you should happen to go by some time, please bring that pattern if you'll lend it to me 
ta ta Edith
& ____ be sure & get that postal for me Ha! Ha!

I wounder if Edith knew some of these fellows.

On a July 4th evening when there are fireworks everywhere, I like to imagine that there are hundreds if not thousands of bands and orchestras simultaneously playing Sousa's Stars and Stripes all across the country. In 1910 or so, with so many small town bands, I think there might have been a bigger noise.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday.
Click the link to find more people in tennis white
or with Raindrops Falling on their Head.

Family Duos

22 June 2012

The photo postcard was a revolution in advertising, especially for musicians and vaudeville artists. Cheap and easy to produce, they let a picture tell the story better (sometimes) than dozens of paragraphs of hyperbole.

And while I often find family bands that produced these promotional items, I don't find many father and son duos. This one is my favorite.

Fr. Witkowsky + Son
First Class Music for Weddings, Banquets, Parties, Etc., -.

Father plays an accordion or more particular a Banyan which is a Russian and Eastern European button accordion.  Son plays a violin. Once a popular combination but perhaps less so now in the 21st century.

The photographer is Geo. Stoller of 200 East 83rd St. in New York City. A place where music and especially music for the many immigrant communities was always in demand.  Much of what we now think of as American music was in fact the result of enterprising foreign musicians who immigrated through the great gateway of New York.

The back of the card gives the important contact information in a fine Gothic font:
Fr. Witkowski 1406 Ave A N.Y.C. 3. Floor front bel. 74-75 St. 
There is also an added pencil note in Polish that I believe indicates that the photo was taken in 1917. As with many Eastern European names, Witkowki(y) can be spelled in many ways, so trying to track down a name like this is near impossible, as so many immigrants changed their names to suit American culture, or often the officials at Ellis Island just invented a new name altogether.

But the added address was an important clue, and father and son Witkowski were found in the 1916 New York City directory.

Franz and Ludwig Witkowski with the same address on Ave A, and for an added confirmation, their occupations — musician.

Did Franz and Ludwig play dance tunes from the old country? Show tunes from Broadway and Tin Pan alley? We will never know.

Here is another postcard of a similar violin and accordion duo. This one from the same period, but unfortunately without a useful address.

Noted on the back of the card is Adolph and Louis Tutuliere, but this time without a useful address. And like Witkowski, Tutuliere is a very elusive name. I think it may be French or Belgian in origin, perhaps from Quebec, but though it is unusual, I can find no record of where these two brothers are from. I believe the photo is American but it could equally be Canadian. I like the photographer's rather primitive back drop stitched to a floor cloth and how he used natural side lighting.

If we assume Adolph is on the left with the violin, Louis is holding a more familiar keyboard accordion. Note that both his instrument and Franz's banyan are very ornately decorated. Did they have the same repertoire as the Witkowski duo?

It seems appropriate to add a special musical performance from YouTube. There are many videos for accordion that I could chose and probably some for accordion and violin duos too. But there is nothing like this one.

It is the third movement from Tchaikovsky's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, played on the accordion, with both the solo and the orchestral accompaniment played by one young man. This may be the most extraordinary playing of any instrument you will likely hear on YouTube. The tempo is faster than what many great violinists will typically play. The fact that it is on an banyan/accordion is all the more amazing.

The performer is Alexander Hrustevich and he seems to be about 16-18 years old when he gave this concert. I can't tell much from the setting but it could easily be a wedding or a banquet or a party, and I would think Franz, Ludwig, Adolph and Louis would be very impressed, as it is definitely First Class Music. 

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday.
Click the link to discover more vintage photos and stories.

Wilbur Hall and Rene

14 June 2012

My first glance saw two musicians in formal wear, an elegant lady holding a trumpet and a gentleman playing a violin. A bit unusual perhaps, (click the photo to enlarge) but how could the man be tilted at such an improbable angle? And was he actually standing on the hem of her gown? Was this some kind of trick photo?   No, it wasn't. Because I recognized them from another photo that I have, and I knew his secret to defying gravity.

This is a publicity photo for Wilbur Hall and Rene, a comedic musical duo of the vaudeville stage. The photography studio left an embossed mark on the lower corner and an address on the back. DEBRON 95, Market St. Birkenhead. An English photo but only half of this pair came from British music halls.

Wilbur was Wilbur Francis Hall, born 1894 in Shawnee Mound, Missouri. He started his  career playing a novelty music act in American vaudeville, but reached the big stage when he joined the celebrated jazz orchestra of Paul Whiteman in 1924. Whiteman was one of the first bandleaders to make "jazz" popular, and his musicians included  Bix Beiderbecke, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Jack Teagarden, and Bing Crosby. Whiteman is most celebrated for commissioning George Gershwin's epic piano piece Rhapsody in Blue in 1924. 

Wilbur Hall, who was billed by Whiteman as Willie Hall, played trombone. You can see him performing in Paul Whiteman's orchestra in the next video, called King of Jazz, made in 1930. Wilbur comes in at 2:40 with his trombone solo in Nola.

* * *

* * *

The lady in the photo - Rene, was Wilbur's wife Irene Hall. She was born in London in 1904. It was difficult to find anything about her until I discovered a 1947 ship manifest for Honolulu which included their names and birthplaces. She seems to have been a talented jazz trumpet player, but where she picked this up in England I don't know, and I don't know when they were married either, but I believe that this photo dates from the late 1930's.

Wilbur left the Whiteman orchestra around 1930, and he and Rene seem to have traveled a great deal as well as playing in Britain before the war. I found this review of their show at the Copacabana night club in Rio de Janeiro from Vaudeville Notes in the September 12, 1942 edition of The Billboard:

    Pat Miller, with the Claude Austin band furnishing accompaniment, got the show off to a great start. Singer has looks, neat delivery, and sells well. Encored with Maria Elena and I Said No. Wilbur Hall and Rene play a variety of musical instruments. Rene starts with some hot licks on the trumpet, followed by Hall's slip-horn rendition of Nola, which set solidly with crowd. Hall's antics while playing the fiddle drew laughs. Ditto for his Stars and Stripes number on the bicycle pump. Closed by playing two horns simultaneously as Rene pumped out hot licks on the trumpet.  Registered nicely.                                                                    

Wilbur was also a skilled violinist as well as a trombonist. About the same time as the other Paul Whiteman film, the studio put out a short of Willie Hall and his eccentric rendition of Pop Goes The Weasel. You will never see a more virtuosic performance on the fiddle. And this film will also explain Wilbur's ability to circumvent the laws of physics.

* * * 

* * *

The first photo that I acquired of Wilbur Hall and Renee, as she was sometime called, is a more modern publicity photo dating from the 1950's. Wilbur is simultaneously playing a small "pocket" cornet and a valve trombone as described in the review. This is a very special talent that is extraordinarily difficult, as it requires a brass player's lips to vibrate two different tones, not to mention doing so while wearing 30 inch long shoes.

Wilbur and Rene continued to play night clubs and vaudeville revues into the mid-1950's but it was not the same as the earlier decades. I found their act playing fairs and conventions booked in Lethbridge, Canada; Greensboro, North Carolina; even Alaska. Show biz can be a tough life and with the cultural shifts after the war, demand for variety shows declined. Movies and television were taking over the attention of the public.

Wilbur and Rene's act was listed again in Vaudeville Review from the March 11, 1950 edition of The Billboard. This review is such a wonderful account of a vaudeville show, I've kept it as a complete excerpt in order to describe the real working life of a entertainer. For best effect, read it aloud in your best Brooklyn accent.

Palace, New York
(Thursday, March 2)

Capacity 1,700. Price, 50 cents  - $1.20. Number of shows, four daily; five, Saturdays,
RKO chain booker, Dan Friendly. Show cut by Don Albert's house ork.

   It must be murder to work to a dead pan house sitting on its hands. It was that way on the show caught  (6:51 p.m.). The acts worked well and looked good, but it wasn't until almost the end of the bill that anything happened out front.
   The opener was the Barrets, June and Martin, a good looking pair of young hoofers recently caught at the Strand. The kids worked hard, did a good job and made a fast opener. In No. 2 came Fayne and Foster. They began with a musical glass routine, switched to rubber-headed dolls and wound up with a Swiss bell-ringing act with slight bits of comedy which got titters. The couple has one of the best novelties around, tho comedy selling needs a shot in the arm.
   Danny Shaw, a sight comic, came next. The short, good looking lad almost killed himself with pratfalls and comedy acros. But he didn't register until he did a bus-ride-bouncing bit. The last one got him off in good style.
    Mello-Larks Solid
   The Mello-Larks (three boys; one girl) gave it a lift with their close harmony warbling and fresh good looks. They opened with a bright Hallelujah, switched to a moody Wiffenpoof Song, jumped to Dear Old Donegal and wound it up with a spirited medley built around a square dance. The kids punched, sold and registered in fine style, getting the first big hands of the show. Their line about Sam Shapiro, used in the Irish novelty, meant nothing and was in poor taste. Equally poor taste was shown in the use of the word schmo. The kids don't need that kind of material.
   Wilbur Hall and Rene started off okay, hit a snag in the middle and finally finished ahead. The gal's opening trumpet was full of clinkers but good enough to bring on her partner. His entrance brought giggles, particularly the props, but when he went into a legit piece of music, a fast paced Nola on the trombone, the laughs disappeared. It wasn't until the trombone-fiddle bit that the laughs came. The end of the act, a coin ringing bit, seemed to conflict with the No. 2 act on the bill.
    Apache and Dolls
   The Appeltons got good hands for their standard Apache act. It was fast and full of the usual excitement. Chris Cross, working with a series of dummies, did an excellent ventriloquist act. The black light doll was good, and the life-sized fem doll was good for extra laughs.
   The cycling act of Bobby Whaling and Yvette got the biggest laughs on the show. The breakaway bike bits and topples got real yocks.
   Pic, Dakota Lil.                                                               Bill Smith

Always a trouper, Wilbur still brought in the laughs when he occasionally appeared on television variety shows in the late 1950s. Through the magic of YouTube we can see a later version of his comic violin act in the following excerpt from the Spike Jones show. Spike Jones and his City Slickers of course, were themselves great virtuosos in musical humor.

* * *

* * *

Wilbur Hall and Rene are a classic example of the vaudeville traditions that have sadly disappeared from both American and British culture. Shoe business is not what it once was. Any musician who could do this - four shows daily, five on Saturday - and get the laughs to register was a great artist in my book.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you can find more stories and photos of hoofers and cats
if you click the link.


  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP