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 }

On Tour with the Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra - part 1

07 March 2020

Do you remember that delightful afternoon?

That magical summer when you made new friends,

experienced new joy you'd never imagined before,

and went on a wondrous adventure of a lifetime?
 How could you ever forget?

Happily someone had a camera to record it.

This is a story of one such musical adventure
recounted through a series of photographs.
Unlike most of the photos of musicians in my collection,
which are often formal poses and only rarely identified,
these are 15 amateur snapshots of a small music ensemble
that cover a period of about nine months
from June 1912 to February 1913.

Individually they might seem trivial, even insignificant,
but what makes these photos truly exceptional
is that there is a faint whisper of a narrator,
the personal voice of one of the musicians.
Altogether the photos illustrate an important art form
of early 20th century American culture —
the music of the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits.

Besides being a musical story
it is also a kind of travelogue
that divides neatly into two chapters,
spring/summer and fall/winter.

We begin with part one.
Somewhere in the American Midwest
it is late spring, maybe early summer. 

 Seven young people, six women and one man,
pose outside in the sunshine for a group photo.

The man and four women in the middle of the lineup smile direct at the camera, while the two women on either side calculatingly show off their profiles. They wear sensible clothes but are not in formal dress. All appear to be in their 20s. We would not know they are musicians except for the note on the back. Sadly all of the photo were cropped to fix into an album with the result that the penciled note is clipped. I have completed some words by taking a guess based on the context of all the notes.

(This) is the Co. taken when at rehearsals
_ri. From left to right – the clarinet
_e Langton of Ohio, my roommate – M_
_chen Cox of Evanston first violinist –
_abeth Harting, second violinist Chica(go)
Conrad manager – Cellist – Soph(ie)
_hart drummer of New York & Ione
_t Chicago pianist & reader

* * *

The writer refers to rehearsals of the Company.  This would be The Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra, a professional ensemble that was part of the Redpath Lyceum Bureau. This booking agency managed hundreds of entertainers, lecturers, and performing groups for America's Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits from 1904 to 1932. The Metropolitan Lades Orchestra was a typical Redpath ensemble that was promoted in a stylish brochure with photos and florid descriptions of the kind of music they played. The full ensemble had seven musicians, all women except for the cornet player. Of the group in my photo, only the short woman on the right, Ione, the pianist, and the manager, Conrad, are recognizable in the brochure's photo.

The Metropolitan Ladies Orchestra
Source: Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century
The group boastfully captioned itself as a Full Orchestra, String Quartet, Violin, Cornet, Xylophone, and Vocal Solos, and Pianologues. It was the second ensemble organized by an enterprising trombonist named Louis O. Runner. His first group was called the Chicago Ladies' Orchestra which he led on trombone. Both of Runner's groups borrowed their names from earlier performing ensembles that had already toured the country. From about 1896 to 1907, the Chicago Ladies' Orchestra, a troupe of 25 performers headed by a pair of comedians advertising a vaudeville show. In 1908-10 a a Boston group called the Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra accompanied the so-called English Grand Opera Co. It was led by a woman named Nellie Chandler and for a season or two toured the circuit of civic "opera houses" in the southern states.

But Runner's ensembles were much smaller and not the gaudy minstrel show bands of big city vaudeville theaters. He programed specifically for the popular new Chautauquas  hosted by small towns and cities. Beginning in 1904, these festival-like events were held in temporary locations using large canvas tents. Over several days, starting in the morning and continuing through the evening, a Chautauqua platform would present lectures from noted academics; sermons by eminent theologians; orations by prominent politicians; dramatic readings from famous actors; recitals by renowned opera singers; picture shows of exotic places narrated by well known world travelers. And the throughout the  day there was music. Bands, solo recitals, instrumental duos, piano trios, string quartets, and ensembles like the Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra. Patrons bought subscription tickets to hear all the events. A Chautauqua combined enlightening speakers with appealing entertainment.

In August 1911, the town of Windsor, Missouri brought the Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra to perform for three days at their 9 day Chautauqua. The local newspaper used the same photo as in their brochure. Two other groups appeared, Schildkret's Orchestra, a six piece string ensemble, and "Musical Favorites", a quartet of two men and two women who played on a variety of instruments including xylophone and banjos.

Windsor MO Review
27 July 1911
Season tickets to the Windsor Chautauqua cost $2.00, with special excursion fares on the trains. Over the course of nine days the event scheduled 11 speakers, the most notable being William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) an acclaimed orator and perennial politician from Nebraska. Bryan ran for President of the United State three times on the Democratic ticket, in the elections of 1896, 1900, and 1908. In 1912 he stepped aside for Woodrow Wilson, and was rewarded with an appointment to the office of Secretary of State from 1913 t0 1915.

 * * *

The photo taken after the Metropolitans' rehearsal was a bit unfocused to appreciate their faces. This beautifully arranged photo has the musicians relaxing on the grass in front of a large house. From left to right we start with Miss Elizabeth Harting, the 2nd violin. Next is the clarinetist, Miss Langton of Ohio, and Miss Sophie the drummer from New York. In the center is Mr. J. Albert Conrad, the cornetist and manager of the Metropolitans. A reflection makes it seem he sports a monocle, but he is actually wearing rimless glasses. Next is Miss Gretchen Cox, the 1st violin. Behind her is the cellist, and finally on the right, the pianist and "reader", Miss Ione Leonore Hart.

Both Mr. Conrad and Miss Hart were members of the Metropolitans in 1911, so their names appear in the group's brochure. But everyone else is a new substitute whose face doesn't appear in the brochure photos. The clarinetist replaced a flutist, and the percussionist, the two violins, and the cello were never listed by name. Who are they?

This identification required some detective work,
especially to figure out which musician
was the author of the photos' annotations.

(tho)ught I’d get another
taken at Mechanicsburg O. Guess
Edith has the other and
this is for my book if I ever get to
make it.

* * *

Mechanicsburg was a small town in central Ohio. The Redpath agents for the Chautauqua circuit could offer a variety of performers for a town sponsor to chose from. But the nature of transportation in this era meant that bookings had to be cleverly arranged for efficient use of time and distance. The Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra was probably created to solve their producer's logistic problems by providing a second musical ensemble that could accept a date that his first ladies' orchestra would otherwise be unable to reach.

The next snapshot was taken during a performance of the Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra. The cellist and the clarinettist sit on the left. The two violinists, cornet player, and percussionist are at center. And to the right is Miss Hart playing an upright piano. They are on a small stage inside a bright canvas tent. An American flag is suspended above the musicians. An audience of two dozen and more are seated on benches.  The photographer thoughtfully captioned the negative to read:
Chautauqua, July 22 1912 
Wright Photo No. 22

This was taken at Racine Wis.  Ther_
et Covington were the only tents we
played in.  We met G(ov)
Yates here and two of the girls had t(heir)
(p)ictures taken with him.  The rest of u(s)
didn’t happen to be around.  W_
yesterday we saw him on the train
he invited us into the diner for (a)
(t)reat.  He is a very interesting talk(er)
& we all enjoyed it very much. He_
_s the picture of his home at Springfield
said if we were ever there to be su(re)

* * *

Richard Yates Jr. (1860–1936)
22nd Governor of Illinois

The man who charms the girls is Richard Yates Jr. (1860–1936), the 22nd Governor of Illinois from 1901 to 1905. He lived in Springfield, the state capital, where his father and namesake had been governor from 1861 to 1865. The most significant legislation Yates Jr. signed during his single term was a new child labor law for Illinois, actually the first of its kind for any state, that restricted the work week for children to no more than 48 hours. After losing a bid to run for a second term, Gov. Yates, a Republican, became a frequent speaker on the Chautauqua circuit. After the war he was a U.S. Congressman for Illinois from 1919 to 1933.  

 _ _ _

Like many professions, the entertainers and speakers on the Chautauqua circuit had a couple of trade magazines. In August 1912, The Lyceumite and Talent, published a report on the Chautauqua in Racine, Wisconsin. It used Mr. Wright's photo No. 23 to illustrate the review.

The Lyceumite and Talent
August 1912
Source: Google Books
That chautauqua audiences demand and appreciate the best things in music is evidenced by the encouragement given the Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra on their appearance at Racine, Wis.  L. O. Runner, the manager and trainer of this musical company, has shown his real appreciation of the wants and needs of the chautauqua managers in building musical companies. He has kept his determination to offer music of a character that would appeal to the genuine musicians in every community as well as please the general crowd. The programs of the Metropolitans cover a wide range of music. The classical numbers which they offer have been selected because of their appeal to the uneducated in music in the audiences as well as the musicians. The success of this company proves the fallacy of the argument that some in the lyceum have set forth, that chautauquas want mostly common or ragtime music with ordinary sentiment.
Each artist is well trained for his part.  Miss Cox, solo violinist, is wonderfully effective in her portions of the programs; in fact, this little woman has proved herself to be one of the best violinists of the lyceum. The illustration taken at Racine, while the company was given a prelude for the afternoon program, shows the company ready for work, with Miss Cox in the center, Miss Hart, reader, at the piano, and Mr Conrad, road manager, at the back.

* * *

Trains connected much of the towns in America's Midwest. But they were slow and usually required a number of changes to get where you were going. Racine, Wisconsin is on the shores of Lake Michigan just below Milwaukee, It easily 350 miles from Mechanicburg, Ohio. Of course a traveling band would need to stay at hotels along the way, which is what we notice in the background of this next photo of the Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra.

Once again the six young ladies arrange themselves around Mr. Conrad in the center. The women are dressed all in white, and even Mr. Conrad has white shoes, the concert fashion for a Chautauqua musician. They sit on a edge of a hotel porch. Behind them is an older woman, perhaps the hotel proprietor, perched on a hammock in front of a window sign that reads HOTEL.  Left to right is Miss Sophie, the percussionist; the cellist; Miss Hart, the pianist; Miss Cox, 1st violin; Miss Harting, 2nd violin; and Miss Langton, clarinet.

_st taken in Green Springs O.
_momer by a Mr. Battenberg
_magoo. (?)  Mr. just get
_n from them sending us each a
I send another one like that I left
_the’s and some others we had taken
(Me)chanicsburg  he hasn’t enough de
_d yet.

* * *

In August 1912, the Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra was on the bill for the Hillsboro Chautauqua in Ohio. It was an 8 day affair, but the Metropolitans only played on Saturday, the next to last day. At 2:00 in the afternoon they gave a "Grand Concert" and then at 7:30 a "Prelude" before Father John Daly's lecture on "The Homeless Child at 8:00. The other musical groups performing that week were the Chicago Glee Club, a male quartet of singers; The Hearons Sisters Concert Company, a quartet of women playing a variety of instruments including cornet, violin, and guitar; and the Syrian Temple Shrine Band of Cincinnati, a very large wind band dressed in fancy "Turkish" uniforms with fez hats. Two local bands also played, the Hillsboro Military Band and the Ladies' Aristo Band.

The highlight was on Thursday when William Jennings Bryan would address the attendees. An adult season ticket cost $1.75. The price of admission to single programs was 25¢. except for the top speakers like Bryan which cost 35¢.

* * *

This next photo shows the Metropolitans with a few friends enjoying a summer day at a park. Even without the context, this would be a prize example of an accidental art photograph. The arrangement of the young people, three men and seven women, reclining on the grass high above a pastoral river could easily pass as a painting. Mr. Conrad is third from the left, but the other two men are unknown, as is the woman on far left. The photographer used a type of camera which had a special door on the backside and a stylus that let him record the date and time directly onto the film negative.
8/2-12 1.08

Another picture of the picnic party
at Dixon, Ill.  We were on
a high bank & the background
shows the rock river.  Was
certainly beautiful scenery
around there.

* * *

Racine WS Journal Times
17 July 1912

The Racine Chautauqua in July was a successful engagement for the Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra. The local newspaper praised their attractive program that their audience thought very appealing.

The lecturer that day was a humorist named Bob Seeds, whose subject was "Mistakes of a Lifetime."

"Laugh and the world laughs with you; snore and you sleep alone." ... the audience laughed–then they laughed some more–for more than an hour and a half they laughed–one continuous rollicking round of rhapsodical hilarity. Every time Seeds opened his mouth the audience laughed; they laughed even when he was serious; they laughed when he was gay; the laughed when he spoke; they laughed when he was silent. It was one long continued laughfest–and many of the laughers are laughing yet as they see new angles and new points in the jokes and witticisms of this king of humorists... 

He argued that everything has its humorous side; he urged recognition of the fitness of things and appealed to his hearers to add to the world's sunshine, not to its shadows; to increase its joys, not its sorrows–by wholesome optimism and humor.

Governor Yates was on the bill the next evening. The Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra played a "prelude" concert before his speech.

_ _ _

A few weeks later the Metropolitans were in Dixon, Illinois for the Rock River Assembly which ran from July 27 to August 17. This event was held in a purpose built park, an "assembly," and drew thousands of patrons. In between the Metropolitans likely played a few one night concerts at small town YMCAs or churches along the route. Dixon is about 150 miles from Racine, about halfway between Chicago and Davenport, Iowa. But their next big engagement in Hillsboro, Ohio was another 450 miles east by train.

* * *

Here in the 21st century, a few regions in the country still have regular train service, but today's rail transportation hardly compares to the vast network of railroad timetables that once connected America's communities to each other. In this next photo the six young women of the Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra sit outside on a platform next to a rail passenger car. Lettering on the caboose reads Duluth.

Taken during one of the num(ber of)
stops that freight train made
way from Hibbing to Ft Frances
see we had a regular coach t_
were outside most the time.

* * *

Duluth, Minnesota is about 480 miles north of Chicago on the western end of Lake Superior. Hibbing, MN is 80 miles beyond that, and Ft. Frances is in Ontario another 100 miles north. It's just across the border from International Falls, MN, on the other side of the Rainy River. International Falls is the town most of us recognize as often enduring the coldest wintertime temperatures in the lower 48.

This next photo shows the six women of the Metropolitans standing outside the back of the same caboose. The sun is shining but most are wearing long wool coats.

(W)as taken on the kaboose going
Hibbing Minn. To Ft Frances, Ont.
(h)ad a regular observation plate.

* * *

They were a long way from where they started in Ohio that summer of 1912. It was now fall and there were more concerts booked for the Metropolitans. Some of them have been identified. A few not so much. But there are some clues as to who took the photos and who saved them into an album. Can you figure out who wrote the annotations? 

The answer will be revealed next weekend.

Stay Tuned
for Part 2
of the adventures of
the Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra.
< click here >

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where picnics are always a popular pastime.


La Nightingail said...

A most interesting and entertaining post as always! I look forward to the second installment next week!! For several reasons, I think Miss Hart is the narrator/journalist. At first I thought maybe it was the poor cellist who is never identified, but that didn't really make sense. If I were identifying those in the pictures, I certainly wouldn't leave my own name out? But - who knows? :)

Barbara Rogers said...

What I see is a group of women with a very adept and artistic photographer...they are arranged in each of these vignettes to provide interesting groupings. Your background information brings the story together about their travels and performances. Can't wait to see next week's entry.

ScotSue said...

What a wonderful photo collection of a man, surrounded by a group of women - excellent matches to the prompt photograph and with your usual thorough research.

Sandra Williamson said...

Were all-girl groups such as "Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra" unusual for this time period?
do you know how long they were together before they disbanded?

Mike Brubaker said...

Sandra - There were a few all-female groups that toured America from the 1870s to even the 1940s. Most were "ladies' bands" and "ladies orchestras" were much less common, as string instruments being quieter, confined orchestras to indoor venues like theaters, large restaurants, and civic halls. The Chautauquas were a different kind of refined musical event that offered opportunities for women performers that were not available in the vaudeville theaters. I'll have more to say about this topic next weekend.

Molly of Molly's Canopy said...

Glad to see you doing another series. This is an excellent collection of post cards. A shame they were cut off so the text on the back is incomplete. Yet you have done some excellent sleuthing to piece together the various identities. Nice to see a women's orchestra, especially a touring one. And the card showing them performing onstage seems to be unique, as are the train photos. Look forward to your "reveal post" next week!


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