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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


Little Nell said...

A hugely enjoyable post Mike. I’m sure I’m not thefirst to comment that there was something of the Chaplin in that performance. It’s a shame that the old vaudeville traditions died out, and as for an audience ‘siting on their hands’ - how mean-spirited of them.

Bob Scotney said...

Very entertaining, Mike. I hadn't heard of this pair before but they must have been real troupers. It's years since I've heard "Pop goes the weasel."

North County Film Club said...

I loved this post. That Paul Whiteman video was classic. I loved the overhead Busby Berkeley effect of the violinists.
Wilbur and Rene were real troopers. I wonder how many pairs of those shoes he went through in his "shoe" business career.

Wendy said...

I have to wonder how people come up with a unique act. "I can play a mean violin -- if only I had some long shoes."

Postcardy said...

They were very entertaining. I didn't know that violins were ever used in comedy acts, and I wouldn't expect a British woman to be a jazz trumpeter.

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Hi Mike ... this is wonderful! I didn't know anything about them prior to this post. He was funny with those huge shoes and his facial expressions.

Thank you for all your hard work and for sharing them with us.

Kathy M.

Bruno Laliberté said...

We have a large tradition of vaudeville here in Montreal, which endured 'till the '70s.
Much enjoyed the video.

Tattered and Lost said...

I didn't know Rhapsody in Blue was a commissioned piece. And by Whiteman. Fascinating.

Rob From Amersfoort said...

Great videos, thank you. His skills were amazing.

tony said...

A Lifetime In Showbiz Yet Your Still At The Mercy Of The Critics Each Night.......


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