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 Darling Saxophone Four

26 November 2022

 
 It's attention to details that makes a great photographer.
To begin, your subjects always need to fit
into a camera's view frame
that's neither too close nor too faraway.
Sometimes shoes are just as important as hairstyles.


 

 
 

 If a photo shoot is indoors then good lighting is crucial.
Making subtle adjustment to lamps and screens
will balance shadows and highlights for best effect.
Too much glare will make whites too bright.

 
 

 
 

 But a true artist of photography
knows how to use a personal touch
to invite subjects to show off their finest features.

Smile for the camera, please.
 
 
 Today I present five superb portraits of
the Darling Saxophone Four.


They played the Palace Theatre on Sept 20th
in a dainty musical novelty.

 
 
 

 
The four young women pictured in the previous three photos were surely very pleased with their photographer's work. Even without their instruments the 8" x 10" photos could still be considered good examples of studio photography. But these young women were not bridesmaids or debutantes seeking a memento of a gala event. They were professional entertainers who needed a specialized business card, a publicity photo that showed off their act—a saxophone quartet. In a time not so long ago, before the invention of magical electronic devices that instantly record audio and video, any entertainer with ambition to make it big on America's vaudeville theater circuits had to have a good publicity photo. The Darling ladies knew a great picture wouldn't need a thousand words to describe their talent and what stands out on these three photos is classy saxophones.

The saxophone was a relatively new band instrument that was invented by the Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax in the early 1840s. He combined features from both woodwind and brass instruments and designed it in 9 different sizes, though only 5 are now commonly played. The four women in these photos are holding B♭ soprano, E♭ alto, B♭ tenor, and B♭ bass saxophones. Today the E♭ baritone sax, which is shorter and more agile than the B♭ bass, is the more common bass instrument in a modern sax section.
 
The first two photos are unmarked except for the photographer's signature logo, Celebrity, Chicago which was called Celebrity Photo Shop, located on the 7th floor of 25 W Madison St. in downtown Chicago. The third photo was taken by a different photographer, Hartsook of Tacoma, Washington, a studio located at 901 Commerce St., at or near the Pantages theatre. Fortunately the back of this one is marked with the name of the group—the Darling Saxaphone(sic) Four and a faded rubber stamp imprint: The pro[perty?] of Darling Saxophone Quartet. Also added was "Palace Sept. 20" and "In a dainty novelty."

That was just enough to give me something to search for and I quickly found them. On 3 September 1916 the Tulsa World printed a picture of the Charming Melody Maids, Darling Saxophone Girls in a musical interlude appearing at the Empress Theatre. It's a different publicity photo that shows four younger girls, possibly not all the same musicians as in my photos.

 
 
Tulsa OK World
3 September 1916

 
The word saxophone was frequently misspelled in newspapers as saxaphone since the instrument was still relatively unfamiliar to the public. The group also chose to call their group a saxophone four more often than as a quartet (or even  quartette). This made research challenging to track down all the variations but I found them again in an August 1915 theater review from the Seattle, Washington Daily Times. "Too Many Burglars,: a jolly little farce, has caused much merriment and the four Tacoma girls, calling themselves the "Darling Saxophone Quartette," have made a decided hit.

 
Seattle Daily Times
20 August 1915

Using this clue to their origin I was able to find a very brief report from the 19 June 1914 Tacoma News-Tribune that said "the Tacoma Girls Saxophone quartet played at the Sunday evening service of Trinity Methodist church." From these few, seemingly trivial, single-sentence newspaper references I conclude that in the summer of 1915, four ambitious Tacoma girls set off to take their saxophones onto the vaudeville stage. They (or their agent) changed the group's name to the Darling Saxophone Four probably to give themselves a more cosmopolitan style more like a refined Chautauqua ensemble. 

None of the advertisements or notices of the Darling Saxophone Four ever listed a program. America wouldn't discover jazz music until 1918 so the few adjectives applied to the music that they played was just "classical", "ragtime, and "popular".  They probably adapted the wide range of saxophone voicing to vocal arrangements of popular songs.

The four young women certainly offered a sophisticated fashion that was unlike any group of chorus girls in a burlesque act. But high class vaudeville entertainers needed more than fancy costumes, they had to have talent to sell tickets. Beginning in August 1915, the Darling Saxophone Four played in theaters around the Pacific Northwest like Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver. In the following year they appeared on playbills in Denver, Tulsa, Chicago, Duluth, and St. Paul.

Their act rarely got more than a short notice in newspapers, and never any critical review. One comment from the 29 September 1916 La Crosse WI Tribune was typical, saying, "Four happy young ladies in pretty costumes and with pretty faces, calling themselves "The Darling Saxophone Four," gave fifteen minutes or so of entertainment that seems to strike La Crosse theater audiences just right." Since their act was just one of a string of variety artists that a theater would book for a week's run, they regularly shared the stage with other entertainers like Japanese acrobats, Italian jugglers, Irish comedians, mysterious magicians, champion Australian whip crackers, and countless vocalists, dancers, and trained animal acts. Shows twice a day, matinees and evenings, and often interspersed with the latest silent film. 


Muncie IN Star-Press
10 December 1916

By December 1916 the Darling Saxophone Four were in Muncie, Indiana appearing at the Star Theater in the "last half", i.e. the second half, of a vaudeville show. The local newspaper ran their picture to promote the show that looks similar to my first photo. A photographer's mark is barely visible and I think it is also by Celebrity of Chicago. The saxophones and long white gowns are all there, but I'm unsure if all the players are the same as the tenor sax player looks different.

The big feature of the group was obviously the gigantic bass saxophone, an ungainly but imposing instrument that is rarely played in modern bands. It's pitched an octave below the B♭ tenor and its lowest note is a rumbling A♭1. Due to its size and complexity to make, Adolphe Sax made very few of them in the 1840s and by the 1850s bands and orchestras had better and louder bass instruments like the tuba and helicon. But in the 1890s the American band instrument manufacturers, like the C. G. Conn company, began turning out thousands of saxophones in response to a new enthusiasm for the instrument. Many of the first saxophone ensembles included the bass sax just because of its impressive size. So it was only natural that the Darling all-girl saxophone quartet would want to feature a bass sax and get a portrait of its player too.




This photo, also by the Celebrity photo shop of Chicago, shows the bass saxophonist with her instrument resting upright on the floor. The bass stands about 4½ feet tall but is actually closer to 9 feet long if  it was straightened out. The young woman wears a different satin gown which matches the style of the two women in the first duo photo.

In February 1920 she appeared in another newspaper picture promoting the Darling Saxophone Quartette show at the Gem Theatre in Twin Falls, Idaho. The advert adds, "One of the Best in the West if you are Critical. Don't Hesitate, It's a Musical Treat." The alto and tenor sax players in the center are the same women as in my second duo photo, and in the lower right corner is a faint signature that matches the same Hartsook photography studio of Tacoma, Washington.


Twin Falls ID News
27 February 1920

On the back of the bass saxophonist's photo is a penciled note:
4 Harmony Maids.




 
 
Tacoma WA Daily Ledger
20 January 1920
 
The early vaudeville career of the Darling Saxophone Four seems to be have been cut short, as the group's name only came up in newspapers for two seasons from August 1915 to November 1917. However after time off they returned to touring in the winter of 1920 and in January a Tacoma newspaper reported that, "Residents at the Masonic Home were delightfully surprised with two concerts Sunday afternoon by the Saxophone quartet of Tacoma composed of the Darling sisters, Seze, Lois, Medora, and Phyllis Darling."

This is the only reference I could find that identifies the four women as the Darling sisters and gives their individual names. But what is peculiar is that despite my best efforts I can not find any of those names in the usual official records of Tacoma, and not even in the state of Washington either. Though they look like they could be sisters, their unusual combination of names does not show up in any 1910 or 1900 census. It's a puzzle that will need more investigation to solve. 

The Darling Saxophone Four left Washington and were in Idaho in February/March; Buffalo, New York in May; Topeka, Kansas in July; Omaha, Nebraska in August; and finally Des Moines, Iowa on 4 December 1920 playing at the Empress Theatre, 2:00, 3:30, 6:30, 8:00 and 9:30. After that date the Darlings changed their name to the Four Harmony Maids.



Bemidji MN Pioneer
20 December 1920


This name change still retained "The Saxaphone (or Saxophone) Four" in their subtitle, but the number sometimes changed. Some theaters listed "Three Harmony Maids" or even "Five Harmony Maids" in their notices. Besides playing saxophones the group also sang, though programs were not given. In March/April 1921 the Four Harmony Maids were now in California. A short notice in the San Luis Obispo newspaper identified them as the "four Darling girls, and they are darling girls, are known to the theatrical profession as the Four Harmony Maids and they play saxaphones (sic) with a master hand and some lip. If you doubt it , drop into the Elmo Theater tomorrow and note their attractive appearance and worthy offering."

San Luis Obispo CA Daily Telegram
23 April 1921

By the summer of 1921, both the Four Harmony Maids and the Darling Saxophone Four disappear from theater notices.

 

This last portrait of one of the Darling saxophonists was also taken at the Celebrity studio in Chicago. Seated on a wide claw-foot settee, a woman holds in her lap a small soprano saxophone. She's the same woman second from right in the quartet photo. Here she is dressed in a slightly shorter satin gown and her hair curls have a different twist with maybe a different color too, though her shoes are the same. It's unusual to see a small soprano sax with sinuous curves like the larger saxophones as in its modern form it is usually straight like a clarinet.
 
Her stage costume matches that of her colleagues in the first duo photo and the bass saxophonist portrait. Her smile and dimples gives her an engaging, even elegant, poise that surely appealed to anyone who saw her perform.
 
However the back of this portrait adds a new layer of confusion to the group.
 
 

Two printed stamps read:

Property of
Mel-O-Dee
Saxaphone Four

Eva Darling, Manager

FROM
Bert LEVEY CIRCUIT
Publicity Department


The Bert Levey Circuit was connected to an association called the Independent Vaudeville Theatres, and Bert Levey (1885-1972) was one of the theater owners and promoters who ran an agency for vaudeville artists from the Alcazar Theatre in San Francisco. 
 
The Mel-O-Dee Saxaphone (sic) Four was a group that first appeared in a Moscow, Idaho theater notice in November 1923. They were part of a set of acts that toured together in western states that winter. One newspaper described them as "a  quartette of talented and expert musicians, two males and two females. They are accomplished artists who present an offering under the title of "Music De Luxe," a musical program that unquestionably pleases every patron. Their act is presented in a most interesting manner and is charmingly costumed. This quartette of musicians furnishes its entertanment via the saxophone and piano route on which instruments they are experts. Their repertoire is composed of classical, popular, and jazz numbers."
 
The Mel-O-Dee Saxophone Four played shows in Oregon in December 1923 and then from January to March 1924 were in southern California. They appeared at the Hippodrome Theater in Los Angeles in February and the newspaper listing came with a map of the LA theater district showing the location of 23 theaters in the city's center. The last notice I could find of the Mel-O-Dee saxophone quartet was from 10 March 1924 in Bakersfield, California. After that all is silent.
 

Los Angeles Evening Post-Record
2 February 1924

The iconic Hollywood sign, originally Hollywoodland, had been erected just the previous year. For anyone visiting Los Angeles is must have been obvious that the great age of motion pictures, first silent and soon talking, was about to take over America as the principal medium of entertainment. The age of vaudeville was closing. 


 
 
 
I suspect, but can't really prove, that this last portrait of the soprano saxophonist of the Darling/Harmony Maids/Mel-O-Dee Saxophone Four is its manager, Eva Darling. But whether it is her maiden name, her married name, or just a stage name I can not say. It's a puzzle piece that does not fit into the expected picture. And the names of the other women are still not confirmed. I don't know which one is Seze, Medora, Lois, or Phyllis, much less Eva.
 
Like the previous names of the Darling sisters, Eva Darling is not found in Tacoma directories. In the 1910 US census there was a Mary E. Darling, age 18, single, living with her mother, Addie L. Darling, age 45, widow, with an older sister Addie Crane, age 27, divorced. Mary listed her occupation as musician, Music Hall, and I discovered in other reports that she  played the organ and piano at a Tacoma cinema. It may be a close connection but there's no mention of saxophones or of other sisters. It's odd that in a city like Tacoma there is no record of a family of musical sisters who became a successful saxophone quartet.
 
Based on the few clues I could confirm the first photo the quartet was likely taken in Chicago in 1916. The three photos of the first duo, the bass,and soprano sax portraits were taken soon after, maybe 1917 or 1918. Since the women in the second duo photo look very like the women in the picture run in the February 1920 Twin Falls newspaper, also taken by the same Tacoma photographer, I think the dates from 1920 or late 1919. But it's an old show business rule that publicity photos never reveal an artist's true age.  
 
Their photos resemble those of The Three Weston Sisters, a story of another female musical ensemble that I wrote about in January 2019. The Weston sisters also used a Chicago photographer and their career spanned over 20 years. They made good use of the sibling ticket to promote their trio.
 
Another similar group was The Verdi Sextette, whose set of publicity photos from a Chicago studio I presented in February 2012. This mixed ensemble of men and women likely followed the the same theater circuits that the Darling Saxophone Four traveled.
 
Finally there is the photo of the Cadet Sextette, the "Monarchs of the Saxophone," who were featured in my story from July 2016, Sax Appeal. They had six saxophones of all sizes, including a huge contra-bass saxophone,  and were engaged by the Pantages theater circuit in the 1920s. 
 
It's frustrating that I can't add much more background to the beautiful portraits of the Darling Saxophone Four. Unfortunately this is a puzzle that will have to stay unfinished. But these four women were remarkable to be working as professional musicians at a time when American society placed too many restrictions on women. Vaudeville theaters in the pre-Hollywood cinema age employed thousands of entertainers and it was one vocation open to anyone with drive and talent. I think the four Darling saxophonists had that kind of moxie and we can see it in their photographs.

 

 
Sadly, we can only imagine the music that the Darling Saxophone Four played.
Fortunately however, YouTube offers a modern female saxophone quartet
that can demonstrate what their music might have sounded like.
Here is the Sistergold saxophone quartet from Germany
playing Gershwin's "I got rhythm"
at a concert at the Vöhl, Germany synagogue in 2013.

 


 
 
 
They are so good that I can't resist adding another of their videos.
Here are the Sistergold Saxophone Quartet from April 2018
playing "Carlos Ferdinand"
an original composition by Elisabeth Flämig.
 
 

 
 




 
 The Darling Saxophone Four would have been impressed!

 
 

 
 
This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where every photo brings out the best in people.




4 comments:

Barbara R. said...

I'm always amazed at the amount of research you do when showing some photos of musicians of yore! These women certainly were photographed well, though by the time a newspaper copied the photos they didn't look all that grand! Interesting to have bits that can't be answered, like who were they really, and why didn't they appear in any census? I always enjoy reading your posts here!

Kristin said...

Such a mysterious family of sax players. You are so right about the way a good photographer considers the whole photograph. So many of my family snaps were taken by someone who seemingly considered none of those things.

Fancy footwork by the woman on the right as she plays "Ain't She Sweet". It made me wonder what routines the Darlings did as they played in their long fancy dresses. Did they step out and around too?

Kathy said...

So much to like and wonder about in this post. The studio portraits were very well done. The "sisters" are a mystery. And the videos you posted made me smile with enjoyment. Dancing saxophone players! Wonderful.

ScotSue said...

What a wonderful selection of photographs of the quartet. I wondered what that large instrument was in the first photograph, but you answered my query later on with your customary detailed information. I enjoyed seeing the contrast in the dresses in the later quartets.

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