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 }

The Side Show Altohorn

06 November 2021


The poor E-flat alto horn never gets much respect.
It probably doesn't help that it is called
a tenor horn in Britain and an alto horn in America,
where it was once a common instrument in traditional brass bands.
Even though an alto horn is perfectly capable of playing a melody
its place is always in the brass chorus
rather than up front as a solo voice.
Today, with the exception of British brass bands,
it has been displaced in modern school and concert bands
by bigger and more versatile brass instruments.

In times past, alto horns show up regularly
in antique photographs of brass and wind bands,
but portrait photos of individual alto horn players are not common.
The few that I've found are postcards like this one,
taken at a studio and purchased to send as
a souvenir picture to a sweetheart or to the folks back home.
 However what makes this simple portrait unique
is that this handsome bandsman with his alto horn
is a young African-American man
wearing a very fancy uniform
decorated with toggle buttons and braid, a cape,
a shako with tall plume, jodhpurs, and faux high boots. 

It's not the typical outfit for a musician in a town band.
This the uniform of a professional entertainer.

His name was George Lekord.


George's uniform may seem unusual today, but a century ago it was recognized as a kind of Hungarian or British military fashion for a Hussar or light cavalryman. In November 1916 there was a proposal to change the dress uniform of the District of Columbia's National Guard, the "President's Own", to a European hussar style. I don't know if it was ever adopted, but President Wilson probably had a lot more on his agenda in 1917 than military accouterments.

Little Rock AR Democrat
27 November 1916

In one of my first stories on this blog, A Bandsman from Harrisburg, PA, I featured a postcard of a trombonist dressed in a hussar uniform very like George's, as well as a large photograph of the Municipal Band of Harrisburg with 36 musicians all wearing hussar uniforms, that dates from April 1917.  
A Bandsman from Harrisburg, PA

Hussars in the Rain

In July 2013, I posted a story about hussars featuring a 1905 postcard of a military parade in York, England, Hussars in the Rain. That story included a postcard of another well-dressed trombonist who was a member of the band of the 10th (Prince of Wales's Own) Hussars. The proper term for their distinctive fur headgear is a Busby, and before World War One, variations on hussar apparel were worn not only by British soldiers, but many units of cavalry and artillery in German, Russian, Dutch, Belgian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Austro-Hungarian, Serbian, Spanish, and Italian armies.

However George Lekord's Busby was not military issue.
Just above the ubiquitous musical lyre on his hat badge
is a name embroidered into the lambskin.
 The uniform was curious enough,
but the name of an Italian bandmaster
made George's photo a real mystery that I had to solve.

Stanford KY Interior Journal
8 September 1916

Beginning in the first decade of the 20th century America's amusement parks, fair grounds, and theatres seemed overrun by a throng of Italian concert bands touring the country, each led by a flamboyant leader. Signor Ernesto Natiello was one of these talented Italian conductors who helped made a mark on America's musical culture. Born in Italy in 1878, Ernesto was trained on cornet by his father, a musician who immigrated to the United States in 1884 to become bandmaster on a U.S. Navy battleship. When Ernesto was eleven he was sent back to Naples to finish his musical training. After obligatory service in an Italian army band he returned to America where he started his own concert band. By 1916 Natiello's Royal Hussar Band was featured at the Kentucky State Fair. According to the Stanford, KY newspaper, all 35 men would be attired in white hussar uniforms. Ernesto is pictured in one, that otherwise looks identical to George Lekord's. 
The report says Maestro Natiello's motto was "Give the people the music they want.", so his programs were a mix of popular and classical pieces that, like his Italian bandleader compatriots, introduced American audiences to the great music of Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini. His band also included an unusual instrument called the Una-Fon, said to have a rich tone that could be heard a great distance. This was actually a glockenspiel-like metallophone made in Chicago that used actuator mallets controlled by an electric keyboard. 

Natiello's conducting style was described as free of the wild gymnastic motions used by the other Italian bandmasters. But I noticed that he also distinguished himself by being clean shaven without the typical grand Italian mustachio. To check out the other Italian bandleaders' impressive hair styles and uniforms, see my August 2019 post, An Atlantic City Love Story, part 2
In this next photo, dated September 1909, Ernesto Natiello and his band pose on wide stone steps and wear modest cadet style uniforms, not unlike the kind worn by other professional bands. Ernesto's uniform is all-white, which was a popular fashion in this era for most bandleaders. The band's hussar uniform may have come later, perhaps a design offered by one of the big tailoring companies that supplied costumes for the hundreds of bands and theatrical companies that traveled on the concert circuits every season. Evidently by 1910 Natiello ran an entertainment enterprise with a business partner which presented four different bands, each of which may have used a variety of wardrobes to clothe its musicians. 
Ernesto Natiello and his Band, September 1909
Source: Indiana Historical Society

But as we can see in this photo, the musicians in Natiello's band are all white men. During this hateful period in American history, discrimination, racism, and segregation permeated every part of society. George Lekord never played in this ensemble. But he is clearly wearing one of Natiello's hussar band uniforms. Why?

Part of the answer may lie in the tragic fate of Ernesto Natiello.
A victim of a terrible disaster
at the Knickerbocker Theatre
in Washington, D.C.
in January 1922.

Philadelphia Inquirer
30 January 1922

Crandall's Knickerbocker Theatre in Washington was a popular place on a Saturday night, even in January. Despite a record winter storm that had already dropped over two feet of snow on the city two days before, hundreds of people bought tickets to see the latest movie. Earlier in the week the headliner was Harold Llyod's new comedy, "A Sailor-made Man". On Saturday the feature was "Get-Rich Quick Wallingford" starring Sam Hardy and Doris Kenyon.   

Washington D.C. Times
21 January 1922

The films, of course, were all silent and the Knickerbocker maintained an orchestra to accompany them. For the 1922 winter season it hired the famous Italian bandleader, Ernesto Natiello to conduct it. Completed in 1917, the Knickerbocker Theatre was one of Washington's new lavish cinemas with all the modern amenities. On 28 January 1922, just after 9:00 as the feature was about to begin, the ceiling of the theater suddenly collapsed onto the people seated below. The immense weight of snow on the theater's flat roof was too much load for the roof supports to bear, fracturing the metal beams. 

According to contemporary reports 109 people perished in the catastrophe and 134 were injured, though the Wikipedia entry has different numbers, listing 98 people killed and 133 injured. Among the victims was Ernesto Natiello, the orchestra's conductor, along with three other musicians. Ernesto's brother, Oreste Natiello, a violinist and French horn player, survived, but lost his right arm, severed by a falling girder.

Interior of the Knickerbocker Theatre, Washington D.C.
after the collapse of the roof on 28 January 1922
Source: Wikipedia

Rescuers were hindered by the freezing cold and deep snowfall that blocked Washington's streets. The military was called out to assist, but it took many hours to recover people trapped beneath the snow and rubble. Area hospitals were overwhelmed, and nearby churches were turned into emergency medical sites. Since many patrons at the Knickerbocker that night were there with family members, the newspapers were filled with terrible news of children, couples and spouses killed in the collapse.

On Monday, the newspapers ran long lists of names of the casualties along with their addresses, relations, jobs, and sometimes even the nature of a victim's horrible mutilations. A number of prominent persons who worked in the federal government or military were killed or injured. Initially Ernesto and his brother were reported under a wrong name, but after it was corrected the Natiello name became forever linked with this tragedy.

Washington D.C. Herald
31 January 1922

One of the Washington papers reported that the Knickerbocker Theatre orchestra was softly playing "Sweet and Low" at the moment the roof collapsed. Ernest Natiello was just 43 years old. He is buried at the Saint Louis Cemetery, in Louisville, Kentucky.

Washington D.C. Times
30 January 1922

Several investigations were undertaken after the tragedy to find a cause for the theater's collapse. Some 
witnesses gave accounts that the theater's employees had considered removing accumulated snow from the theater's roof but then decided that it was unnecessary. The primary conclusion was that the building suffered from a faulty design in its roof construction. Despite a number of lawsuits, the courts did not find anyone liable for the collapse. In 1927 Reginald Geare, the architect of the Knickerbocker, whose career was ruined by the disaster, took his own life. Ten years later in 1937 the theater's owner, Harry Crandall, also died by suicide. 

In the postwar era of the 1920s, many bandleaders like Ernesto Natiello were finding good work conducting theater orchestras. Of course at the time they could not anticipate how the introduction of sound films would eventually eliminate live music in cinemas, but compared to amusement park and fairground bandstands, or weeks touring with a circus, a theater made a much better concert environment. I think just prior to his death, Ernesto may have started a career change in favor of more orchestra conducting, possibly with developing a bigger musical connection to the film industry. 

My suspicion is that after the end of WW1 in 1918, the American fad for European hussar uniforms greatly diminished, so that in 1919 or 1920 Natiello's agency decided to off load its surplus costume wardrobe. If his bandsmen's busby hats had been unmarked I might never have found George's band. 

But fortunately Natiello's Italian name on the hat
was a small detail included in the description of a photo
kept in the digital archives of the University of Texas at Arlington Library. 

Source: Basil Clemons Photograph Collection, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.
Natiello African American band, Breckenridge, Texas, 1921

It's a wonderful photo of 10 African-American musicians standing outside the entrance of a traveling carnival and wild west show in Breckenridge, Texas. All the men in this small brass band wear dark hussar uniforms that are identical to George Lekord's, from the fur busby with Natiello's name, down to the cape over one shoulder and the fake high cavalry boots. The photo is identified by the photographer, Basil Clemons, on the negative as H. W. Campbell's United Shows, Breckenridge, Texas, Season 1921

There is a battered brass instrument, front left, resting on the dirt, but I think it is a B-flat baritone and not an alto horn. It looks connected to the short man second on left, but he doesn't look like George Lekord. Instead, though I can't be certain, I think the trombonist standing center at the back has a strong resemblance to the man in my postcard portrait. Yet even if George is not in this photo, it seems very certain that he was once a member of this side show band. 
The Billboard
24 January 1920

In the 24 January 1920 issue of The Billboard, the weekly trade magazine for the entertainment industry, H. W. Campbell of Augusta, Georgia ran an advert seeking performers for the upcoming season of his United Shows. 

Can Use Colored Band and Performers, offering them best of car accommodations; White musicians, Menage Horse Riders, Boss Hostler, Electrician, Trainmaster, Teamsters, Polers, Workingmen, Door Talkers and Grinders, Lot Superintendent. Will furnish best Wild West outfit en tour to reliable party. This outfit consists of double wagon front, hand carved, and new canvas throughout. Will also furnish new wagon fronts and complete outfits for any money-getting Shows, particularly good Athletic Show. Have flashy, hand-carved front and wagon platform for good Platform Show. Want to buy Bears or Bear Act, Bucking Horses, Black Top. Have some Canvas for sale. Will book Pit Show, Platform Show or any good, strong Ballyhoo Show. Can place Concessions. Want Laugh Shows or Thru the Falls. Have Dining Car for sale. Our Territory is the best and we offer a season of forty weeks with a thirty-car show. Best of equipment throughout. Will feature parades as heretofore.
Considering that Mr. H. W. Campbell lived in Augusta, Georgia, it's intriguing to see that the first group of entertainers he wanted was a "colored band and performers." The offer of "best of [train] car accommodations" was a silent acknowledgment to the difficulties African-American entertainers endured when traveling through the southern states where strict segregation rules made hotel rooms unavailable to them.
Source: Basil Clemons Photograph Collection, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.
H. W. Campbells United Shows, Breckenridge, Texas, Season 1921.

The Breckenridge photographer Basil Clemons had a good camera and even better eye for capturing a great photograph. A second image of H. W. Campbell's United Shows from 1921 shows six musicians of the Natiello brass band riding in one of those "flashy, hand-carved wagons." The trombonist who looks like George Lekord sits on the left. The wagon is pulled by a team of six black horses, beautifully combed and sporting white plumes. In the background on the other side of the dirt street is a Ferris Wheel, and a wooden tower that I will explain later. 
Source: Basil Clemons Photograph Collection, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.
H. W. Campbell's United Wild West show. 1921

Here the Natiello brass band is standing on a flat bed wagon in front of a different entrance where a large crowd has gathered. The center banner behind the band reads: South American Kid's Wild West, while other banners have painted pictures of horses and cowboys. It looks like the cowboy stars are being introduced as a few of them wave their ten-gallon hats in the air.
One of them, just in front of the small tent on left, has a black complexion, and I think he is the African-American cowboy in this next photo, named in the caption as Willie McGee of the NoWata Slim's Wild West with H. W. Campbell's United Shows, again from the 1921 season. Nowata is a small town in northeast Oklahoma where folks tend to be slender. 

Source: Basil Clemons Photograph Collection, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.
Wild West show, Breckenridge, Texas, 1921

The town of Breckenridge is about 100 miles west of Fort Worth. It was originally named Picketville when it was founded in 1854. But when Stephens County was established in 1876 the new county included Picketville and the town was renamed Breckenridge (though using an alternate spelling) in honor of former U.S. Vice President and former Confederate Army General John C. Breckinridge. The population of Breckenridge then was probably less than 400 citizens, but in the 1920s it became a center for the Texas oil boom. This jumpstarted its population to 1,846, and by the next census in 1930 it reached a peak of 7,569. Today Breckenridge, TX has a modest 5,423 residents. 
The wooden tower near the bandwagon was an oil derrick. In 1920 they were everywhere you'd turn in Breckenridge. It's possible that Basil Clemons climbed to the top of one to take this next photo of a improvised rodeo arena. The town's wooden buildings cover the flat plain out to the horizon and looking like church steeples, hundreds of oil derricks point to the sky. 

Source: Basil Clemons Photograph Collection, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.
A Wild West show, Breckenridge, Texas. 

It's not clear if this photo was taken at the same time as H. W. Campbell's United Shows, but it is dated 1921 and better shows Breckenridge's gritty boomtown appearance. I imagine the folks there preferred cowboys over fancy hussars. 

The digital archives at the University of Texas at Arlington Library have an amazing collection of thousands upon thousands of images. And unlike some archives, these images have no restriction for fair use, so I was able to include several more to better illustrate this story of a black professional musician in the early 20th century. I recommend taking an hour (or two) browsing the Texas history that Basil Clemons recorded with his camera.

The Billboard
22 January 1921

Despite my usual due diligence searching for a proper identification, I have been unable to find a record on any George Lekord in official state and federal archives. It's possible that the name on the postcard is misspelled, perhaps written by someone other than George himself. But Natiello's name was correct and that clue opened up two very different stories tied together by George's uniform.

He probably joined the side show band of H. W. Campbell's United Shows sometime around 1920-21. The shows were an eccentric combination of carnival rides, rodeo displays, minstrel shows, and circus acts. It was tough work, traveling together in 30 train cars for 40 weeks, setting up the tents and performance spaces every day in a new place. But as these pictures show, working in the crazy world of a carnival show offered a young black man in this era maybe a bit more accepting situation than a job on a farm or in a factory. At least you got a nice uniform.

Portraits are special mirrors into a moment of a person's life. This young man likely wanted his photo to make the best impression, so he showed up at the photographer's studio dressed in his hussar band uniform and with his instrument. I imagine he thought he looked pretty dapper. He wanted his mom and dad, his old classmate, his favorite girl to exclaim with pride, "Well, would you look at old George. Doesn't he look fine. I sure wish I could hear his band play." 

I think the photographer got it just right.


This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where donkey rides are free all weekend.  


And for a special Sepia Saturday treat
here is a photo of my wife Charlotte
with a special friend she met 
at the seaside in Worthing in 1953.


Monica T. said...

Great match for the prompt there at the end :)

smkelly8 said...

Facinating. Keep the detective work coming.

Barbara Rogers said...

Very interesting reading today and a nice surprise at the end! Thanks.

Molly's Canopy said...

A fascinating post -- and you managed to work horses in to the narrative and the last photo! I am endlessly amazed at the background material you turn up in your investigations of photo subjects -- such as the side show ads and Texas photos shown here. I believe you are correct about George's motivation. What a handsome portrait of him in the band uniform with his horn at his side. One hope's his descendants also have a copy of this photo. And thank you for the tip about the U. Texas Arlington Library digital archive. I am adding it to my resource list.

kathy said...

Too bad that there is no studio name that might have helped you somehow... If it is George in the different photos, he looks younger and more fresh-faced in the studio portrait. In any case, maybe he got his photo taken soon after being added to the band and issued his uniform. An interesting and entertaining post, as usual, and I really enjoyed the added bonus at the end!

La Nightingail said...

As always - excellent sleuthing with lots of discoveries, and the last picture of young wife with a burro is a gem! :)


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