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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Maurice Levi and his Star Band

07 June 2013

There is one musical instrument that makes no sound. It has no complicated strings or keys or valves to press. It is always in tune and can easily play in any key. Even though it can't be heard, it's always the first and the last instrument performing in any concert. Amazingly simple to learn and yet still the most difficult instrument to play well, it has unlimited capacity for the loudest forte or softest pianissimo; the highest treble or the lowest bass; and the slowest Lento or the fastest Presto all at once.

It is a conductor's baton.

This conductor knew all about playing the baton. His name is Maurice Levi and he is pictured in this unused postcard wearing a white band uniform and black cap, and surrounded by eight images of himself in various conductor action poses.

He made an appearance on my blog in August 2010 when he was featured in The Music at "Churchill's" Broadway and 49th Street.  

It is one of my more popular stories (judging by the blog's statistics) and also one of my personal favorites for depicting the golden age of American Showbiz. When Maurice Levi and his orchestra performed nightly at Churchill's restaurant in the 1900s, they enjoyed a celebrity that was riding atop a titanic wave of new American culture. Hundreds of new theaters were being built in every city. Music publishers contested to sell the latest hit songs. Music instrument companies wanted every child to have a cornet and every parlor to have a piano. Concert promoters demanded the best bands and performers on their stages. Music was an industry and it made a profit on glamor and fame.

Maurice Levi is a great example of the celebrated band leader who once had it all. Recognized in his era as a performer, a composer, and above all, an entertainer, his music is now forgotten. But once upon a time, he was the model of what people considered an orchestra conductor.

To read his story about Churchill's restaurant on Broadway and 49th St., click this link but meanwhile here is a rerun of the postcard that inspired that post.

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Maurice had a good publicist as I've found several good newspaper accounts reporting on his appeal and praising his musicianship. One review in the Baltimore Sun of March 27, 1905 noted that Levi was a native of Baltimore, Maryland and got his start in show business around 1890 by playing piano in Baltimore theaters. He quickly took over the leadership position in the pit and directed several musical shows in Philadelphia and New York. The 1905 article has a detailed description of his conducting style.

Sometimes Mr. Levi whistles, and when the queenly leaders of the chorus are holding the front of the stage he smiles on them and tells them he has a high opinion  of them or vice versa if they do not attend to "the stick." It is Mr. Levi's thorough knowledge of music, his pleasant manner of directing, his energy and, above all, his ability to keep things moving along that has won for him such high repute.

When in action he has more motions than John Philip Sousa. He beats time with both hands, turns to all points of the compass, talks to the musicians and never takes his mind off his work. When he wants the drum beaten he saws the air with his baton. When he wants a loud blast from the horn he reaches for the horn player with his left hand and literally drags out the desired sound. No one can shirk under the eagle eye of this director, and he is the hardest worker in either orchestra pit or company. In spite of his good nature Mr. Levi insists on having good order on the stage, and the most serious business of his life is running a rehearsal and conducting the piece. If he gets a new musician who does not grasp the spirit of the music, Mr. Levi will, if necessary, devote an entire morning to coaching this one man until he plays to the satisfaction of the master.

Besides his ability as a musical director, Mr. Levi is a composer of first class music. He wrote all the music of "Higgledy Piggledy" and "The College Widower," and there is nothing else so popular this year. Go into any of the best restuarants in New York or, in fact, in Baltimore, for it has preceded the attraction, and you will hear the orchestra playing "The Game of Love," "Nancy Clancy," "Honey, for You," "Mr. Socrates Jackson" and the rest of Mr. Levi's compositions.

Several of his popular songs were recorded by other performers onto that modern technology called the phonograph. These antique cylinders have been preserved by the Library of Congress which has this recording from 1902 of one of Maurice Levi's more successful songs, The Wedding of the Reuben and the Maid. It is played by Sousa's Band and conducted by Arthur Pryor. 

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A baton may make no noise, but Levi certainly knew more than just how to beat time. He made it the focal point for amusing entertainment.  This description of his comic antics is from a theatrical magazine, the New York Star, October 24, 1908.


Al Aarons does not seem to have made a mistake in signing that five year contract with Maurice Levi and his band: that is, judging by the manner in which music and fun-lovers have shown their appreciation of Mr. Levi's efforts to entertain and amuse them.

For Mr. Levi amuses as much as he entertains. There is nothing of the academic about his methods. From the day we first knew him well on Broadway as the conductor with the Rogers Brothers, when he made the gallery join in his choruses and the orchestra give recognition in foot-stamping and head swaying, up to the present moment, when he is funnier than ever as conductor, he has been able to make his audience join in the thought that music need not be sad and serious in order to be either edifying or amusing.

Not that Mr Levi cannot be legitimate in the old-fashioned manner; often he is. For instance, at the evening concert at the New York Theater last Sunday his band gave the overture to Von Suppe's "Poet and Peasant" with grace, swing, and close adherence to literal reading. To be sure your Wagnerite may sneer and say that it really doesn't matter how such a trifle as "Poet and Peasant" is given, but Mr Levi's audiences are not made up of the highbrows who prowl around on Wagnerian concert nights, but mostly of folks who like music, even if it happens to be melodious, sprightly, and on the opera comique order.

The way Mr. Levi conducts for, say his burlesque of that classic ditty of the sidewalk, "I'm Afraid to Go Home in the Dark," is side-splitting. Not only is the band arrangement full of actual melodic comedy, but the conductor conducts himself in a protean way that becomes no small part of the rendition. He is at times a comedian, while never for a moment losing control of his excellently trained band. Absolutely the only fault I have to find with Mr. Levi is that he is too willing to respond to encores. This is a fault so easily remedied, and at the same time not a fault to so many who want a large measure of value for a small measure of investment, that it ends perhaps by not being a fault at all.

Mr. Levi is bound to strike the popular fancy when he goes on his road tour. They have never seen anything like Maurice Levi in the cities he is to visit and he will be a revelation to them.

If you are slightly pessimistic and think that fun cannot possibly go with music, then go and hear Mr. Levi and be cured of your hallucination. You will discover that while this conductor does not run in the ruts worn smooth by years of following the traditions of band-leading, he has a firm grip on his band and is so a master of the situation while he on the stand that he permits neither the beauties of a score nor the very finest qualities of a composition to be lost in the slightest degree. Maurice Levi is a scream, but also is he a conductor who knows his business from the classic to the most maudlin of popular musical maunderings.

The review suggests that Levi was about to go on tour, and I found several references of his appearance around the country from 1908 to 1910. So a postcard promoting his comedic conducting style would likely be from this period.

I was able to find only one certain genealogy record for Maurice Levi, and that was in the New York census of 1915 where he is listed as a Bandmaster.  He was 48 at the time, so his birth year was around 1867. He and his wife Beatrice Levi, age 32 and born in England, lived in apartments at Broadway and 104th St. No children were recorded. The first newspaper accounts and advertisements with his name date from 1894 and the last are around 1916.

Perhaps one day I will discover more of Maurice Levi's history, but let's watch one of his musical descendants, the great pianist, humorist, and sometime conductor - Victor Borge. It's a perfect demonstration of how a conductor's baton can blend music and comedy together. Maurice would have laughed too. 

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This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the link for more people dressed in white uniforms.


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