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 Great Luigi D'Urbano and his Royal Italian Band

28 March 2013

One could almost say that music was invented in Italy, since so much of the language of music is in Italian. It's in the words for tempo - Largo, Andante, Allegro, Presto; for dynamics - Forte, Piano; and for emotions - Bravura, Dolce, Espressivo. But more than the vocabulary, the most important Italian contribution to music has always been its musicians, like
The Great Luigi D'Urbano and his famous Royal Italian Band of Artists.
This band was one of many professional Italian bands that toured America at the turn of the 20th century and became musical ambassadors for the culture of the new Kingdom of Italy.

The postcard was sent to Oscar Morrow of Spokane, WA on April 9, 1912.

Hello Oscar
I am here againe  Say old pall Why in H. dont you write  are you sick 
I hope not  How is Irish  I had my Dinner here tonight  Write soon.

C.F. Schulz
74 Turk Street, San Francisco   (on front)

Oscar's friend heard the band over his steak and potatoes at the Odeon Cafe in San Francisco, CA, a city where the band had made its first appearance in 1904. D'Urbano then led them on a tour of the country, playing in New York, Chicago, Portland, and almost everywhere in between.

Originally the 24 musicians of the Royal Italian Band were a much larger ensemble of over 50 men. They used instruments like rotary valve trumpets, horns, and valve trombones that were different from the typical American military bands. This excerpt from the British Columbia newspaper, The Victoria Daily Colonist of April 16, 1905, offered a detailed musical review of D'Urbano and his Royal Italian Band.

In the arrangement of the band the old Italian method is observable, the trombones being of a type unfamiliar to American audiences, trumpets taking the usual place of the cornets, and the French horn being largely depended upon for certain of the cllmaterlc effects . The band plays all grades and classes of music , but preference is evident for the Italian school with its intermingled melody, passion and crashing tumultuous effects.

Changing the programmes each afternoon and evening , the conductor has covered a wide range of good composers, while almost every programme has contained something of D'Urbano's own, the artistic young conductor making a specialty of marches that are almost Souseque in their inspirational quality. Besides, the band last week offered an artist on the accordion, Sig. Frosini , who proved himself a truly remarkable performer upon this humble instrument.

The Sunday Oregonian, July 15, 1906

In the summer of 1906, the band played at The Oaks, an amusement park built to accompany the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon.

Among the many attractions such as a Skating Rink,  Mystic Maze, Temple of Mirth, Carousel, Balloon Ascensions, and Japanese Figure Exhibit, was music. Every day you could hear Del Hoyo's Famous Mexican Orchestra, and Wednesday was Prize Waltz night. But the top draw was D'Urbano's Royal Italian Band which gave a concert of French composers on Tuesday and a  Wagnerian Program on Friday.

The park motto sounds like an inspiration for Walt Disney.

Everything that Mortal Man Could Wish for to Prolong Life and Create Happiness.

The Sunday Oregonian, Dec. 10, 1911

The bandleader was Luigi D'Urbano, a showman of a new style. He was passionate, forceful, and above all egocentric. The Rockford, IL Republic gave this description of the Maestro in December 1909.

D'Urbano affects a most remarkable series of absurd mannerisms, shaking his massive head with its great shock of hair; waving his arms and throwing his body this way and that as though by the very force of example to throw his men into a frenzy of tuneful excitement, then again standing almost on tip-toe and making the daintiest movements with his baton as a painter putting the last touches to a masterpiece.

In spite of his peculiarities, D'Urbano has his men well in hand. He delights in turning from reeds to brass and back again, some times with the velocity of a weathervane in a cyclone, and occasionally he addresses a sharp command to some player loud enough to be heard by the audience. Nevertheless he won favor with those who were present in spite of his idiosyncrasies.

The Daily Press
Sheboygan, WI
May 20, 1910

Luigi was born in central Italy in 1877 and studied music first in Naples and then Rome. His conducting technique was very unlike the German and English conductors of this era, who avoided  extravagant gestures and overt choreography on the podium. For the American audiences this bandleader was a novelty that let them watch the music as well as listen to it.

His music repertoire was not just Italian opera favorites, but included French, German, and even American composers. However D'Urbano did not like "ragtime or popular airs". In 1907 he became entangled in a breach-of-contract lawsuit with a skating rink for refusing to play such "humiliating" music.

In this era, the bandleader was a king who often mistreated his fellow musicians as inferior subjects. In May of 1910, his bandsmen had taken enough abuse. They were playing in Sheboygan, WI and when D'Urbano's fiery temper got the better of him during a rehearsal, he shouted harsh criticism to some of the players. In protest, they all walked out and quit.

Later the band would be reassembled but it would never be as large.

The band was often involved in lawsuits. American musicians felt their jobs were threatened by the increasing numbers of foreign musicians. In 1907, the Chicago musicians' union alleged that the Royal Italians were undercutting their union wages and fees, and tried to fine D'Urbano $1,000 and each of his musicians $100.

To call the Odeon a Cafe was a bit of understatement. This advertisement for the restaurant from 1915 shows an opulent interior that could seat hundreds of diners. At the back of the huge room is a stage for bands and vaudeville acts.

The back of the card promoted the World's Fair of 1915 which was actually called the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which you may have noticed in the postmark on the band's postcard. This World's Fair was set to run between February and December 1915 in celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal, but it's real purpose was to showcase the city's recovery from the earthquake of 1906. Note the logo's resemblance to Japan's Rising Sun motif.

This second promotional card for San Francisco's Leading Restaurant, Odeon Cafe, Corner of Market and Eddy Sts. has patrons patiently awaiting their order as they listen to a musical group (which unfortunately is too small to be the Royal Italian Band)

The postcard was sent to Mrs. Kate Darfler of Blue Island, IL in November 1910.

Will Kate
it has been a long time since I seen you 
I hope I will see you all in 1915
when we have ower big Fair 
Guss & Myself ower Best Reard to you all
J W Leathers

>>> <<<

At this point I was going to finish my short history of Luigi D'Urbano and his Royal Italian Band, but an amazing coincidence pulled the story into a deeper level.

Did you look closely at the ads in the excerpt from the July 1906 Portland newspaper?

The Sunday Oregonian, July 15, 1906

On about April 14, 1906 the Famous Miles Brothers made one of the most astounding film records in history. That spring in San Francisco they but a film camera on the front of a streetcar and recorded a trip down Market St. beginning near their studio and finishing at the port entrance of the Embarcadero.

Days later on  April 18, 1906 the city of San Francisco was devastated in a great earthquake and fire. 



I could not find any records for the Odeon Cafe from before 1906, and like many restaurants its history is very ephemeral. But using the detailed description for the film on the webpage at the Library of Congress, we can see where it will be in 1912. The film begins about 8th Street, and at about 1:25 there is a stone column on the left which was at the intersection to Mason & Turk Streets. It is the Native Sons Monument, built in 1897 to honor California's admission into the Union in 1850. At about the 2:10 mark the street car is very near the intersection on the left of Eddy St. and Market St., which would become the address for the Odeon Cafe.

This remarkable film was fortuitously sent to New York for processing on April 17, 1906 and its value was quickly recognized. It toured the country as part of the popular Hale's Tours of the World film series, and played in Portland in July 1906 when D'Urbano's Royal Italian Band was performing at The Oaks amusement park.

The background to this film is a terrific story. There is a good presentation from the CBS show, 60 minutes on YouTube which describes how the history detectives came up with the truth to a mystery.


This second film shows the tragic aftermath of the earthquake that killed so many people and destroyed a city. I don't know if the Miles Brothers made this film too, nor how much of the film shows San Francisco's Market Street, but viewing the two films together will demonstrate what an incredible change D'urbano and his musicians experienced when they performed there again in 1912.

In the December 12, 1909, edition of the Rockford IL Morning Star there was a lengthy interview with Luigi D'Urbano.

"I like your America." he said. "Me no like Europe so well. O yes me like my Italy, the land of music and song. How could I forget it. I like America first because it is so bright and cheery. Everybody smiles and gives you what is called here the 'glad hand'. Is that right? And then the American women? I am in love with them all. I am going to marry an American some day, well dat is if she wants me. I have met many nice American girls who I like but I wait a few years before getting married. I travel merely to see the great America of which everybody in Italy talks of.

"I could play in Chicago or New York all winter, but no, I want to see the different people. A few weeks ago my band was playing in Calumet, Mich., and after one of the evening performances my men and myself were given a banquet by the Italian consul of that city. That is what I like. To make friends. When I get to a new city I make my manager take me to see all the things in the town and I am not satisfied until I have seen everything worth while. Then I make notes in my book and I have a book full of things I have seen in all the cities."

The Italians that immigrated to America at the start of the 20th century brought a special vitality and spirit that became an important influence on American musical culture. Luigi D'Urbano married a girl named Anna, but I could not find any records to know if she was an American girl. According to his 1940 draft card, he continued as a musician through the 1940s. He died in Springfield, PA in 1956.

How many times do you think he and his bandsmen went to see the Miles Brother's films in Portland? Did Luigi ever consider what music should accompany these silent films?

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday.
Would you like an espresso or a caffè latte?


Barbara Rogers said...

Thanks for the movies of 1906 San Francisco both before and after the earthquake and fire. I was amazed. They might not have had that much to do with your Royal Italian Band, but I was very impressed with seeing the environment.

Howard said...

Oh how I'd have loved to have dined at the Odeon Café and listened to Luigi and his Royal Italian Band!

Brett Payne said...

That's the most extraordinary film record - I was riveted until the very end. I'm surprised we didn't see any accidents, there certainly appeared to be a few close shaves. I think we have spare bandwidth, so I'll watch the 60 minute YouTube video later.

D'Urbano seems like the archetypal wildly passionate conductor, that staple of the movies. When you first mentioned the Odeon Cafe, I was wondering how on earth a cafe could accomodate a band of that size, but when I saw the postcard I realized ... indeed, not your usual cafe, but I suppose the name Odeon should have given the game away.

Another fascinating post, Mike, this time in two very different halves which fit together perfectly.

Liz Needle said...

Thanks for the fabulous history lesson. I would loved to have seen the Odeon and been able to dine here. The first film is quite scary. Can you imagine modern cars driving like that. I wonder what the accident rate was.

How fortuitous that the first fim was taken so there is a pictorial record ao San Francisco before the earthquake. Thanks for making it possible to see all this.

21 Wits said...

Oh my gosh what wonderful videos, of course the 2nd one what a tragic experience that was. I am happy that I never saw San Francisco like that, I truly enjoy that city very much. I am so very impressed in how you matched our theme and kept your sense of you in your post! You pulled off another great one! I shall post mine on Saturday, but trying something different by catching up early on all the other posts!

North County Film Club said...

The description of D'urbano reminded me of how Dudamel (the Venezuelan conductor who now leads the L.A. Philharmonic) conducts "shaking his massive head with its great shock of hair", etc. Times don't change much, do they?
I too wish I could have dined at the Odean while listening to this fabulous band - especially with the accordian playing along.
What a wonderful post. Oh the films of S.F. - I had seen both of them before but not together. I'm pretty sure Miles must have done the after the earthquake film. The technique is so similar to the Market St. film.

Nigel Aspdin (Derby, UK) said... gripped by those two Youtubes I did not have time to read your writings !!!

Postcardy said...

I didn't know that there were Italian bands touring in the U.S. That D'Urbano was a real character.

Alan Burnett said...

Another fabulous post. The thing which is so delightful about all your posts is that whilst the subject is always music related and there is a predominant theme - like the Odeon in this post - it encompasses so much more fascinating information. A perfect meal of a post, perfect for the Odeon Cafe.

Bob Scotney said...

Pantastic, Mike for the videos alone. The Odeon looked a great place to go; and if D'urbano was there as well what am=n event it would have been.

Little Nell said...

Absolutely riveted by the films Mike. I too was amazed at the way people had to weave between the vehicles to cross the road, and the casual way they seemd to hop from one cart to another.

The whole post was fascinating as usual and full of detail and information.

Wendy said...

What was it with directors and their tempers?

As I watched the films, I calculated my grandparents' ages. They did not live in San Francisco, but I guess their world looked similar. Driving in 1906 must have been like driving bumper cars in a theme park.

Sharon said...

Thank you. I love looking at old films.

Peter said...

Great post, Mike. Traffic in SFO in 1906 resembles Italy too, just a bit unorganized :)

Boobook said...

Wow, that Odeon was huge!
It must have been fun.

Bruno Laliberté said...

A beautiful post you've assembled here. That video is quite remarkable, and that Odeon Cafe, I would have loved to dine there.

Unknown said...

Good morning, great job. I want to know in which country Luigi D'Urbano was born. Central Italy,Abruzzo, He was born in Giuliano Teatino?
Thank you

Mike Brubaker said...

@Giuliano Teatino. Luigi D'Urbano was born in Naples according to an December 12, 1909 interview published in the Morning Star newspaper of Rockford Illinois. Here is an excerpt with his personal history.

"D'Urbano was born in Naples, Italy, October 22, 1878, and was educated at a school for priests. After graduating there he went to the school of St. Peter Mariello, a noted school of music and studied there until he was 18 years old. He graduated then and took the highest honors ever given to a pupil. He won the Class No. 1 diploma which entitled him to a course of music in the school of music founded by Pope Leo XI, (in) Rome. He attended the school for some time and during his time there organized a band of 15 pieces among whom were some of those who had graduated with him. He then left the school and stayed in Italy for three years during which time he gave concerts in all parts of the country. After that he made a tour of the European cities and in 1904 came to the United States. His first engagement was in a SanFrancisco theatre at the Alhambra theatre where the band played for six months. Then he came East and played in all the cities of the East, from New York to Ohio. In the spring of 1907 he made his first appearance in Chicago at the Coliseum and after playing Chicago for almost one whole year made atour of the middle west. Last summer he played at the International theatre, Riverview park, and the Coliseum in Chicago and on September 1 started his tour of America which will end next July.

"D'Urbano comes from a musical family. His father is a tutor in the school he graduated from and his two brothers are leaders of bands in Rome and Milan. His uncles were noted writers of music and were more erratic than the young band leader. He himself is an author of renown. Some of his works are "The Dance Gavotte," and an original prelude, numerous marches, and a number of solo numbers. He has many medals given him by societies and has one that was given by the college from which he graduated and which was bought from a fund instituted by King Edward of England. Among the medals is one given by the directors of the Portland, Oregon World's Fair; one by the grand lodge of the Elks, and one by the Riverview Park of Chicago. D'urbano has not been in Italy since 1904 and as his tour and other engagements will not terminate until 1911 he will not go back until then. He will then return for a visit and take in the exposition to be held in Rome during the summer of 1911."

Unknown said...

Buongirono io so che Luigi D'Urbano è nato a Giuliano Teatino, in Abruzzo. Ha studiato presso il conservatorio di San Pietro a Maiella di Napoli.


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