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 }

Four Plus Three

26 June 2015

They look like an optical illusion or a trick photo. Four young women. Three guitars. Six hands?
How does that work?    Take your time.     Did you spot the concealed fingertips?

The guitarist on the left is a girl of perhaps age 12, while the other three are older women in their 20s. They all wear similar long dresses except for the girl who has a short dress with white stockings and neat ballet style slippers on her feet.

This small carte de visite has no photographer's mark and the print quality is very poor with the image badly faded as well.  Fortunately digital software can correct and enlarge this photograph of four young guitarists. They appear to be in a photographer's studio with a light reflector tilted on the right. On the left we can just see a bit of the arm and fringed upholstery of the ubiquitous photographer's chair. 

Unlike the photos in last week's story of Master Wilbur, the Boy Wonder Violinist this photo has a very faint penciled annotation on the back. I believe it reads:

To Hawley
Miss Adie Simms

It's not much to go on, but enough.


Sedalia, MO Weekly Bazoo
February 20, 1883

In February 1883 the wonderfully named Weekly Bazoo of Sedalia, Missouri ran a notice of an impending entertainment.

The Simms sisters of Virginia, violinists, guitarists, vocalists, elocutionists and child danseuse, having met with delighted audiences in the east and west, will give one of their novel and delightful concerts at Germania Hall, Feb. 20th. They are splendid violinists and the finest living guitarists, and Miss Lulu will whistle the Carnival of Venice, accompanied by two guitars. They will appear on the principal streets, February 20th. in an open hack, with violins and guitars. Group photographs of the four sisters at the principal stores. 

The Simm Sisters certainly had the right number of sisters and at least more than one guitar. But the  fact that they were promoting their act with photographs made this a very promising lead to identify the girls in the photo.

Charlotte, NC Daily Observer
June 9, 1885

Two years later in June 1885, the Charlotte, NC Daily Observer printed a review of a concert given by the Simms Maidens at the Charlotte opera house.

At the opera house last night, a combination known as the Simms Sisters, gave a musical entertainment that was something out of the usual order of things. The company consists of father, four daughters and son, and they came unheralded, but billed the town yesterday themselves. The result was a pretty good sized audience to see the novel show. The Young ladies are skilled principally in the guitar and violin art, and aspire to song. 

One of the sisters, a bright vivacious child of 12, sang moderately well, danced a good deal and was applauded enthusiastically time and again. The three large sisters are experts on violin and guitar, were good looking, prettily dressed, modest and retiring. The combination playing of the four sisters on three guitars, or two violins and one guitar, was one of the successes of the show. For a novelty, the Simms Sisters are a success, but otherwise, the show is not more than ordinary.
 * * *

A review of very faint praise, but one could not ask for a better confirmation of the four guitarists' identity.

Sumter, SC Watchman and Southron
June 2, 1885
Only a few days before, the Simms Sisters played in Sumter, SC where their show was even less well recieved.

The Simms Sisters gave an entertainment in Music Hall, last Wednesday evening, and had a full house. The audience was disappointed, however, in the evening's amusement. The young ladies we think do their best, and really show considerable skill in playing both the violin and guitar under somewhat difficult circumstances, but they have no voices for singing, and their efforts in that line were flat failures. Little Flora was the only redeeming feature in the two hours of dreary flatness through which the entertainment dragged.

* * *

It is actually rare to find critical reviews as direct as that. Most newspapers promoted traveling artists using a good review from their recent performance in another town. If the show had merit they might offer additional praise, but it was uncommon to make such disparaging comments. The summer of 1885 must have troubled the Simms troupe as I found other reviews that were similarly critical. The Abbeville, SC Messenger: There was nothing remarkable about the performance, and the only one of the crowd that deserves especial mention was little Flora, who proved to be the life of the party. From the Carrollton, GA Carroll Free Press: ... people would not loose anything by letting them pass by unnoticed.

With the addition of another sister's name and a general description of the family from Virginia, I found Flora and Ada in the 1880 Census for Rapidan, Virginia , a small town in north central Virginia. Their father was George N. M. Simms, age 46, widowed, occupation Lawyer.   The oldest daughter was Lula Simms, age 18; followed by Ada, 16;  Nammie, 14; a son, Montgomery, age 9; and the youngest daughter, Flora, age 7.

1880 Census, Rapidan, VA

Judging from notices found in newspaper from Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, the Simms Sisters performed as a traveling musical act from about 1883 to 1886. Reports stopped after that year. To extrapolate from the brief reviews, the four Simm Sisters, not withstanding the novelty of playing three guitars, were just too ordinary.

My guess is that their musical program focused on chaste renditions of hymn tunes,  country dances, and popular sentimental songs. Acoustic guitars and violins are not loud instruments even in the best small town "opera house", so they must have struggled to make a noise that could compete with a brass band. It's unclear what instruments father or brother played. The public attraction seemed to be with little Flora, who as a child star would have limited years on the stage. Sadly the Simms Sisters were never destined to make the big time.

Assuming that the girls are arranged left to right according to age, the members of the Simms Sisters guitar trio quartet are Flora Simms, Nammie Simms, Ada Simms, and Lula Simms. There is a hint that some of the sisters joined the Salvation Army as I found two 1898 notices of events in Washington, D.C. where sisters by that name played guitar. But it is only a hint.

According to her certificate of death found on, Adie's full name was Aida Lester Simms  She was born February, 21, 1864 and died in Charlottesville, Virginia on January 3, 1960 at age 95.

She never married.
What ever happened to Hawley?

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone is checking out fine hotels this weekend.

Master Wilbur, the Boy Wonder Violinist

19 June 2015

It was the sequins in his satin shirt and breeches that first caught my attention. No ordinary young boy would willingly dress like that. No farm kid would wear those slipper-like-shoes either. This boy violinist was surely a professional entertainer of the music hall stage.

But guesswork only goes so far. This cabinet photo was probably American but impossible to prove. The photo had no marks, not even a photographer's imprint, so the young violinist, who looks about age six, could be from any time and any place.

But one thing I knew. His mother loved sequins.

* * *

He is older in this next photo. Maybe now seven years old. Unlike his first pose where he held his violin in a confident playing position, his direct gaze looks relaxed but self-conscious. His satin costume has a lighter color, maybe blue, and his mother needs to let out the sleeves and cuffs again. His two-tone shoes are too shiny to be typical street footwear for even a city boy. He is surely a theatrical performer.

But yet again the cabinet photo has no identification. The embossed mat board style suggests 1900 to 1920 but that is just conjecture.

Is it possible he played in a larger musical family group?

* * *

Quite possible, as the boy now appears about eight years old in this photo. He has no violin but he is not alone, as two young women wearing satiny dresses are with him. Mother and sister? Two sisters? Cousins? 

Mother has been more restrained on the girl's ornaments but the boy is positively gleaming in sequins. I imagine his costume is a red color this time.

Again there are no markings on this photograph.

Did the girls play instruments too?

* * *

They most certainly did!

The trio have reversed and the younger girl now holds a clarinet, while the other girl has a cornet. The boy has a trombone and is almost unrecognizable because he is in black-face makeup. Arrayed on a stand in front are a violin and viola and numerous crude metal hand bells. Several of the cow bells have a pitch note written on them. The funnel shaped bells may be kazoos instead of bells. There is also a curious folding hat rack with several shiny paper sunbursts attached.

The girls have changed dresses and the boy wears rustic farm clothes which are no doubt part of his minstrel makeup. 

This photo has the same backdrop as the other photo and was likely made in the same unknown photographer's studio.

* * *

Some years have gone by with this last photo of a musical duo. Our boy violinist has matured, perhaps now age 14 or 15, and we might not know him except for his satin costume which is a lighter color, white or yellow, but still resplendent in sequins. However the girl is easily recognizable as she has the same facial features as in the other photos even with her elegantly styled hair. Both musicians hold violins as if ready to give a bow to the audience.

They would remain unknown but for one clue not found on the other photos. The photographer's name and location is embossed in the lower right corner.
Las Vegas, N. Mex.

A name and place offers a direction to search. How many boy violinists ever played in New Mexico?

The answer is surprisingly quite a few. But only one shared the stage with two sisters.

Master Wilbur
the Greatest Child Violinist
in the Known World.

x x x

Albuquerque NM Citizen
March 6, 1908

In March 1908, the Crystal Theatre of Albuquerque, New Mexico presented a variety show led by Hall's Musical Comedy Company. It featured Master Wilbur, the Greatest Child Violinist in the Known World, and presented The Famous Hall Family, each a Refined and Talented Musician. There were also the Minstrel Wingates, Banjo and Bone  soloists, and Grant Watkins & Co., with Sketches and Singing and Dancing.   Two shows daily with a matinee at 3:00.

Albuquerque NM Citizen
March 6, 1908

The Hall Family were one example of the thousands of variety acts who traveled on the American theater circuit in the grand era of Vaudeville entertainment. Countless troupes of actors, acrobats, comics, jugglers, and musicians played shows in towns big and small. Show biz was hard work and competition for the best engagements was stiff.

Laughter was a specialty of the Hall Musical Comedy Company which numbered twelve performers doing comedy sketches, singing and dancing, novelty work, bone solos, banjo solos, black face comedy, and all manner of musical instrumental work. A number of talented children in the company are said to attract and delight everyone.  

The dancers were the Misses Myrtle and Velma Hall, in buck and wing and sand jig dancing.
But every act needed a distinctive hook and Master Wilbur was the Hall family's headline talent. The Albuquerque Citizen newspaper described him as but 7 years old, and the greatest child violinist on earth, and

* * *

Albuquerque NM Citizen
March 10, 1908

A few days later the newspaper printed a review of their show.

Master Wilbur, a youngster of tender years, is a wonder. He seems to be endowed with every stage talent known and is clever at all. He dances nimbly, is a good comedian, and plays upon every musical instrument put before him. 

Before the show the Hall trio played for free in front of the Crystal theater.

One must hear big sister lead with the cornet and little sister fill in with the alto, while little Johnny plays the slide trombone and mammy wields the bass drum. 

* * *

Albuquerque NM Citizen
March 11, 1908

The following evening, the Albuquerque newspaper printed a longer article just on Master Wilbur, the boy wonder and included a photo. Unfortunately the grainy quality of the newsprint makes it difficult to see the instrument Wilbur is holding. It might be a violin or a trombone.

A clever child is always a drawing attraction in this city and this youngster us a genuine wonder. While but an infant in other things little Wilbur seems a veteran in stage talents of various kinds. He sings, dances, impersonates characters and plays every musical instrument known. Upon the violin he plays everything from sweet simple ballads to Ole Bull solos, and possesses a touch and tone that is all his own.

One of his pieces de resitance is the intermezzi from "Cavalieria Rusticana." Upon this, as well as upon "The Suwanee River" and others, he receives eight and ten encores at each performance. He plays upon a genuine "Stradi.," valued at $1,300, a gift from a great uncle in Germany, who was also a genius in his day, and whose rare talent as a violinist little Wilbur is said to have inherited. 

Show business invented the art of hyperbole.

It seems most unlikely that the greatest child violinist on earth would play a Stradivarius violin for ticket prices at 10¢, 20¢, 30¢. And Master Wilbur was not seven years old in 1908, but actually age 12.

* * *

The Hall Musical Comedy Company never played the major vaudeville circuits as far as I can determine. Mostly they performed in small towns in the Western and Mid-West states beginning in around 1904. The father was Mark D. Hall, a blacksmith in Denver, Colorado in the 1900 census. Master Wilbur F. Hall was then only 5 listing his birth as November 1896. Census records never reveal much about the reasons behind a family's situation, but a lot changed with this family over the next decade.

The 1910 census for Stafford, Kansas listed the family of Mark B. (sic) Hall, age 50; his wife Etta Hall, 51; Velma Hall, 19; Wilbur Hall, 16; Myrtle (Hall) Soper, 23; and her husband Daniel Soper, 29. With the exception of Myrtle's husband, an operator of a moving picture ma(chine), every member of the Hall family listed their occupation as Musician, Traveling.

At this point I digress from Master Wilbur's story to add a romantic anecdote of his eldest sister, Myrtle Hall.

Tucumcari NM News and Times
March 27, 1909

It happened during a show in Tucumcari, New Mexico (one of the best town names in America) on March 26, 1909.  Myrtle Hall and Thomas Dan Soper skipped the overture to run over to the town's courthouse and have a judge perform the briefest of marriage ceremonies. The two newlyweds quickly ran back to the theater so that Myrtle could finish her parts in the remaining acts. Father was not amused, but soon capitulated to the power of true love.

Myrtle and Dan first met three years earlier when Dan was employed as a ticket taker by the Hall Comedy Company. Mr. Hall took exception to a developing youthful affection and dismissed the young man. Sometime later when the troupe was scheduled to play Tucumcari, Dan Soper's home town, the lovers arranged to elope.

Their story could be the plot line for a Broadway musical.

* * *

These five photos of a boy violinist and his two sisters were a mystery that I had nearly given up solving. I acquired them from different dealers a few years ago and had no leads other than a photographer's mark to search for their identity. So when I made the discovery that the Hall Musical Comedy Company included a family trio of two girls and a boy, it seemed a good bet that the boy violinist in these photos was Master Wilbur. 

Suddenly a light bulb flickered brightly in my brain.
I knew Wilbur Hall because I had already told his story back in June 2012 !!!

Rene and Wilbur Hall

The photos in Wilbur Hall and Rene are also of a novelty music act, though without sequins. Wilbur Hall (1894-1983) was a violinist who wore comic over-sized clown shoes and toured with the Paul Whiteman Band as a bass trombonist and violinist in the 1920s and 30s. His wife Rene played trumpet and together they formed a popular night club act in the 1940s and 50s after Whiteman's band folded.

Wilbur also appeared with another musical comic genius, Spike Jones, who had a popular television show in the 50s with his band the City Slickers. 

Click the link to see a second promotional photo of the couple and more of their full history.

* * *

In March 2012 the website for the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors ran an article on a correspondence in the late 60s and 70s between Dr. Ian Crosbie and some sidemen musicians of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. One of those musicians was Wilbur Hall. This information was provided by Wilbur for Dr. Crosbie.

If I told you how I joined Whiteman I would have to start after World War One. I joined the Marine Corps about April 1918. I was in boot camp when I was told to report to the Barrack Detachment. Rudy Weidoff was looking for talent for his show for the boys. I did a Buck and Wing dance with my buddy. After we did our routine Rudy asked me what else I could do. I told him I play instruments. He said "What instrument?" I told him I played any instrument. This he couldn't understand. He asked me if I had an instrument in camp. I brought my trombone up. He thought he was going to have a big laugh on me. I played Darktown Strutters Ball. I played so many notes on it he was flabbergasted. I had been playing with an accordion and drummer up around Santa Rosa Calif, my home. Rudy took his wallet out and removed his watch and put them on the floor. He said "I have never heard anything like it before." I was transferred to the Marine Band the next day. Band consisted of 88 men. I guess I was a natural musician. My father and mother were good musicians. Mother played guitar. Father played violin as a fiddler, but a real good one.


Born: 1894, Shawnee Mound, Missouri. Left at age of two in covered wagon for Colorado, traveling with father, mother, and two sisters, also a friend (musician) named Grant Watkins. Father was a musician and blacksmith. Settled near Denver Colorado on the outskirts. About 8 miles from town. Name of town Petersburg. Now called Ingelwood.

At age of 3 whistled tune accompanied by my mother on guitar at local school house. Took up violin at age of 4 and studied from a Doctor Rice. Did first concert at 5 years on violin, Ladies Aid Society. At 6 yrs. started out on road with family act. Played every state west of the Mississippi river. Around 20 yrs, family act retired. I worked with accordion player and drummer around Santa Rosa Calif. Refer to letter for rest of details concerning my joining [Whiteman] band, etc. I was in the Whiteman band for the Aeolian Hall concert in February 1924. In those days they did not have microphones but large horns to amplify the sound by each important instrument. As you know this was a new thing in Jazz. Concert was a sensation at the time.

* * *

I have a large collection of photographs of child musicians. Master Wilbur Hall is the first young musician where I've also found photos of their later career in music. Even more rare is to complete a life story from back to front. The vaudeville stage was tough training. Few entertainers managed to survive all the dramatic changes brought on by recorded music, film, radio, and television as Wilbur did. There's no business like show business!  

It's an exaggeration to say Wilbur Hall was the greatest violinist in the known world. But he truly was a wonder musician and a comic genius.

Could Jascha Heifetz do this?

* * *

* * *

Maybe. But not on a bicycle pump!

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where old photos always have a story to tell.

Mister Jeff

13 June 2015

Music and humor are all about timing. Play a note at just the right moment, or hold a punchline for an extra pause, and the audience is yours. Mister Jeff was a master at it. With only a pair of finger cymbals, the simplest of musical instruments, he could divert attention away from the tune and get everyone to watch the big man with the nimble fingers. It was by no means his only talent but it was his genius to make you smile that made him most memorable. Sadly three weeks ago on May 20th, 2015, Jeffrey S. Shepard passed away in Virginia Beach, Virginia at age 62.

He was my friend.

We first met in youth orchestra where he played bassoon and I sat in the horn section just behind him. Fortune led us to the same college in Virginia where we learned just enough from our music professors to advance together from students to professional musicians in the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra. For several years we shared the same perspective on stage performing great music with extraordinary soloists, aggravating conductors, and inspiring colleagues. After a few years, though I continued to struggle along as an underpaid itinerant orchestra musician, Jeff sensibly gave up whittling thousands of bassoon reeds to take up a more profitable career as a real estate broker.

It was while Jeff and I were at university that we discovered our mutual enthusiasm for the centuries of music that predates the counterpoint of Johann Sebastian Bach. We formed a recorder ensemble and taught ourselves to play obsolete Renaissance and Medieval instruments like this duo of 16th century crumhorns. What we didn't know did not stop us from inventing the Locrian Early Music Consort with two other foolhardy friends. Over many decades, long after I had left for other adventures, this early music group evolved using an assortment of brilliant players, but at its center was always Mister Jeff with his plastic recorders, buzzy reedpipes, and novelty percussion. He had a gift, an innate ability to delight, that marked him as a genuine entertainer. And a real wise guy.  Those of us who experienced his artful musicianship and were the target of his endless jests are all the richer for knowing him. 

Telling tall tales is what friends do best, and Jeff inspired many good ones about music. But he also loved the marketplace world of real estate, which introduced me to his exceptional talents in matching people to properties. In my younger days, Jeff found a willing minion, if not a barely competent worker, who would tackle any job for pizza money. It inspired the following story about our relationship which, I am proud to say, appeared in a national magazine many years ago. Without realizing it at the time, my writing of it also inspired this blog.

*** *** ***

Fire in the Hole

By Mike Brubaker

    Among the many skills that must be mastered by a jack-of-all-trades, digging a hole would seem to pose the fewest problems. But life's challenges are not always found in difficult jobs. As I have learned, they will sometimes spring up in the most innocent of tasks.

    A few years ago I fashioned my career as a musician around various odd jobs, many of which were offered to me by my friend Jeff, a real-estate broker. Jeff always seemed to have the kind of small job that fit both my schedule and his desire for cheap and quick labor.

    Some of these memorable jobs required inventiveness, like the time I painted the inside of one of his houses where the tenants had moved, but their dog's fleas remained. Plastic garbage bags slipped over my feet and taped above my knees worked reasonably well as a defense against the fleas, given the limited leaping ability of the tiny critters. But I ran out of ideas when confronted with painting the baseboards, and I had to resort to chemical weapons. New rule: Always ask about animals when taking a job, no matter how small.

    One time I delivered a new refrigerator to one of Jeff's rental houses, and I introduced a new rule for my truck: Always tie things down, no matter how big. This rule I instituted halfway in the delivery trip when in my rear-view mirror I watched a full size fridge execute a perfect back-flip dive out of the truck bed onto the street. No doubt the driver behind me instituted a new rule about following trucks. In any case it was a testimony to the superior construction of Sears cardboard boxes that the only injury sustained was a small ding in the top corner of the freezer compartment door.

    But perhaps the biggest challenge I ever encountered came from digging holes for a fence at Jeff's home. He had tired of tracking down his dog Serge, a Samoyed of great wanderlust, so he asked me to build a simple wooden, dog-proof fence around his waterfront house. The project seemed well suited to my tools and abilities at the time, so I agreed to start the next day. My survey and construction progressed smoothly enough, though the sandy soil slipping through the post-hole digger presented a small challenge. Soon I had all of the posts planted and rails connected. Next came the gatepost, which I planned to put next to the house.

    I began to dig, but after I had got down to a 2 ft. depth, I was startled by a sudden loud pop as a small flame sparked from the bottom of the hole. Having already dug two dozen holes that day, I recognized this as being abnormal hole activity. Seeing nothing in the hole, I continued and plunged the digger once more into the hole. Again there was a loud pop with smoke and flame. This my poor brain was unable to digest, so I decided a second opinion was needed.

    My friend Kim, another musician-cum-handyman, was at the house that day doing some interior painting. So I went inside to fetch him to witness this strange anomaly. I directed him to stand over the hole as I thrust the digger down. Again the hole spit fire and smoke. "I don't know what it is, Mike," he said as he jumped back, "but I sure wouldn't dig a hole there if were you." As I stood scratching my head wondering how to move a hole, Kim went back inside. He returned a moment later to tell me his power tools and the household appliances no longer worked, which meant I had probably found...

    Electricity, at least in my experience to that date, had always entered a house from overhead. Buried lines seemed somehow unsafe. Suppose it rained and the roads flooded? Kim and I went inside to scan the phone directory under Electricians, Goofball Repairs A Specialty, where we discovered a free service for locating buried lines, called oddly enough, Mis Quik. So, good construction engineer that I was, I made a belated phone call to them and then knocked off for the day, leaving my friend Jeff to cope with the leaking electricity.

    Jeff called the electric company that afternoon, but the repair crew did not arrive until 1:00 AM. As Jeff showed the linemen the hole and explained my problem with the gatepost, they obliged by putting a neat loop in the service wire around where the post should go and then filled in the hole. But they asked, “What happened to the fellow that dug this? He severed a 220 volt service entrance line, and the humidity should have been just enough to make a good connection. Did he survive?”

    All this Jeff explained to me the next morning on the phone, but by the time I arrived at the house the Mis Quik buried line service had come and gone too, having marked a neat green line on the lawn that went straight across where the hole should go. Only after Jeff had personally shown me where the new line took a loop, and assured me that he had seen the men do it, did I start the hole again.

    I still have the post-hole digger with three very neat quarter-sized bites taken off one blade. But the real shock that day wasn't where I was digging, but how. You see, in order to bind the loose, sandy soil as I dug, I had used the garden hose to water down the dirt in the holes. But at least I knew enough that when standing in soggy mud, if something strange spits fire at you from a hole in the ground, you don't reach in with a hand but poke it with a sharp stick instead.

This story was featured in the February 1993 edition of Fine Homebuilding.
By coincidence the accompanying cartoon was
a remarkably accurate caricature except for the backward cap.

Collaborator, confidant, comrade, even co-conspirator. Jeff Shepard was all of these to me and more. His role as friend, colleague, boss, and of course as brother, father, and husband will leave more memories and love than anyone could count. 

It feels very strange that he now joins my antique photo collection of vintage musicians. Even stranger is that these sepia tone photos were taken by my late father many years ago when my dad attended one of our performances. I owe more to our friendship than I can possibly write about here. Suffice it to say that I would exist in an alternate universe without his influence on my life.

Thanks Jeffrey. I'll miss you.

* * *

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This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the link for more stories of vintage people.


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