Gus Haenschen: The St. Louis Years — Part 1 (The James A. Drake Interviews)

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The St. Louis Years — Part 1

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Gus Haenschen (a.k.a. Carl Fenton) served as director of popular music for Brunswick records from 1919 until he resigned in 1927 to pursue a career in commercial broadcasting. His interviews with Jim Drake covering The Brunswick Years and The Radio Years have been posted previously. Beginning with this installment, Haenschen backtracks to recall his formative years in and around St. Louis..

 

As you mentioned, Frank Hummert* was also from St. Louis. Do you recall when you met him, and what he was doing in St. Louis at the time?

Frank got into the exporting business with a partner named Hatfield and their company, Hummert Hatfield, did very well. Being a river city, St. Louis was a natural for importing and exporting. Around the time of the St. Louis Exposition in 1904, when the city was growing rapidly, Frank got a real-estate license and soon had his own company. That’s how I met him.

My family was looking for a home, and my sister Alice, who was a telephone operator at the time, saw one of Frank’s ads in the newspaper. He arranged for us to rent a house on Russell Avenue until we could buy one. We had been living in a house my father had bought in Fenton, one of the suburbs, but we had a crisis in our family and had to sell that house and go into a rental until we could get back on our feet.

 

Is it difficult for you to talk about that period in your life?

No, not at all. The problem was my father. I never got along with him. He was a drinker—which is the main reason I don’t drink—and drunk or sober he was a womanizer, so he was rarely home. When he did show up, he was drinking most of the time, and he was disrespectful not only to my mother but to also my grandmother, who was living with us.

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Gus Haenschen at Washington University, St. Louis (from The Hatchet, 1912)

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Your birth name is Walter Gustave Haenschen. Are you named for your father?

His first name was Walter, but his middle name was Rudolf, or “Rudolph” as he anglicized it. All through my years in St. Louis, and in fact in my early years in New York, I was “Walter G. Haenschen.” My middle name, Gustave, came from my paternal grandfather, whose name was Gustavus but shortened it to “Gustav” without the “e.” He had been a very successful partner in a grain company, Haenschen & Orthwein, and that company helped make St. Louis a major player in the grain market. Before then, Chicago was the grain capital in the northern Midwest, and New Orleans was the grain capital in the south.

My grandfather and his partner, Charlie Orthwein, had become friends when they were working for a wholesale grocery company in St. Louis. The grain business was the fastest-growing part of the grocery industry, so my grandfather and Charlie Orthwein managed to get contracts with some of the big graineries in Chicago and New Orleans. So they created Haenschen & Orthwein and did very, very well. My grandfather’s territory was northern Missouri, and Orthwein’s was the southern part of the state. Eventually, my grandfather sold his share of the business to Orthwein and retired. I was very proud of my grandfather, so eventually I adopted his name, although legally I’m still Walter G. Haenschen.

 

What was your mother’s maiden name?

Freida Gessler—she was named after her mother, who lived with us in the Fenton house. My father left her for another woman when I was nine years old, and he divorced her a year later [in 1899]. That’s why we had to sell the house in Fenton and find a rental until we could get back on our feet as a family.

 

You and your sister were too young to go to work when your father left, so how did the family manage until you and she were old enough to be employed?

When we sold the house, we had enough cash to live on, so that wasn’t a problem at first. My mother was a very fine seamstress, so she became a dressmaker and that gave us some steady cash. We also took in a German girl as a boarder, so the rent she paid for her room and the use of one of our bathrooms added to the coffers. My sister Alice, who is four years younger than I, took night classes at a business college and became a bookkeeper. She got a job as a clerk with a very large bank, so she was bringing in steady money too.

By the time I turned thirteen, I was playing the piano in dime stores, demonstrating sheet music to customers, and playing in movie theaters accompanying [silent] films. In the summer months I was a lifeguard and a stunt diver at the Olympic-size pool that was built for the St. Louis Exposition. I also taught swimming and diving in the summertime, and all year long I was playing the piano anywhere I could get work.

 

How did you meet Gene Rodemich?

Gene was a year younger than I but was already well known in St. Louis as a pianist, bandleader, and the head of an orchestra exchange. We hit it off right away, and we were a good complement to one another. Gene was a good all-around pianist, but he played entirely by ear. Because I was a good sight-reader, he hired me as an arranger and also had me “sub” for him when he was over-booked. He had started writing songs, but because he couldn’t read music and couldn’t score them, he had me do them and also had me write the orchestrations for his band.

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Gene Rodemich, from a November 1916 feature
in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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Actually, I knew Gene’s father before I knew Gene. When I was doing stunt-diving during the summers, I got a pretty good reputation as a high-diver. But one afternoon, I mistimed a dive and hit the edge of the diving board with my upper teeth. I lost all four upper front teeth and had to wait for the swelling to go down enough for a dentist to make me a bridge that matched my natural teeth. That dentist was Gene Rodemich’s father.

At that time, Gene was not only holding down a full-time engagement as the pianist at the Grand Central Theater in St. Louis, but was also writing songs and running this orchestra exchange which put together orchestras of freelance musicians for various events. Two of his songs were local hits—one was called “Easy Melody,” which was essentially a ragtime piece, and the other was a ballad, “Dreams Come True.” I did the arrangements for almost all of the songs his band played.

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A Rodemich-Haenschen collaboration, 1913

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Being a dentist with a very large practice, Gene’s father was very successful, so the family lived well—they had a couple servants, I remember, and Gene had a nice car. Because he came from money, he could afford to take risks, and the orchestra exchange he created would have been a big risk if he didn’t have money to pay the musicians he put together for dance bands. But the orchestra exchange became a good money-maker, and eventually I bought it from him.

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Haenschen takes over Gene Rodemich’s orchestra exchange (top, April 1914). The teaser ad (bottom) is from January 1917.

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The orchestra exchange supplied the musicians for weddings, and I played at a lot of them, including Frank Hummert’s wedding to his first wife [Adeline Woodlock Hummert]. It was through one of those wedding engagements that I got an invitation to play at a big party that the brewery owner Augustus Stroh gave at his mansion. That event, which happened when I was working for Gene Rodemich’s exchange, was a turning point in my career.

 

In what way was it a turning point?

I wanted to go to college and become an engineer, but I couldn’t afford the tuition. Augustus Busch, who was on the board of trustees and was a big donor to Washington University, took a liking to me and got me admitted to the University’s school of engineering. He was a founding member of a very wealthy country club, the Sunset [Hill] Country Club, so he made sure that I played piano at a lot of the events there.

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Haenschen at the Sunset Hill Country Club, as orchestra leader (top, June 1914) and swimming star (bottom, June 1918).

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He was also an investor in the St. Louis Cardinals, so I got the idea that if I could put together a band, I could play between innings at the games. Mr. Stroh thought it was a good idea, so he told me that if I had a band, he would help me with the management so I could play between innings. I had a friend named Tom Schiffer, who played traps [trap drums], and he and I began putting together a band from the roster in the Rodemich orchestra exchange.

 

He’s identified as “Theodore Thomas Schiffer” in most sources that I have been able to locate—but he was called “Tom”?

Those were the days of Theodore Roosevelt, who was famously known as “Teddy,” although nobody called him that to his face from what I was told. Because of “T.R.,” any boy named Theodore was bound to be called “Teddy,” which Schiffer didn’t like. So he decided to be called “Tom” instead.

 

Did it take you long to put together a band?

No, because I had the pick of the roster of the orchestra exchange. Tom [Schiffer] was my full-time partner so he played in every gig I could get, but the other guys I hired would vary according to which ones were available on any given date. But the instruments were pretty much the same: a banjo or a mandolin, a trumpet, a trombone, two saxes, one clarinet, a Sousaphone, Tom Schiffer on the trap drums, and me leading the group.

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 How did you get the band on the field between innings?

The whole band was seated on a wooden platform, a large pallet, that had four small-diameter wheels and tires, and a hitch to pull it onto the field with a Model T Ford. We might do just two numbers between innings. Naturally, we began with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and then we’d play a rag or some other up-tempo tune. Whatever we played, we played loud!

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Between your classes at Washington University, your engagements at the Sunset Country Club, and the many others you were booking in and around St. Louis, how did you manage to get where you were going on time?

On a motorcycle. I had two of them at different times. Both were used, and I bought them from the Mound City Cycle Company. The first was a one-cylinder Royal, which was okay, but then I “upgraded” to a twin-cylinder Indian cycle with what used to be called “touch tires.” These were very durable tube tires that would take fast cornering very well and were good on any road surface.

When I rode I had to wear a cap, goggles, and what was called a “rain suit,” which was sort of a jumpsuit made out of tweed that was coated to make it waterproof. You had to have it recoated about once a year. It had a big zipper around the middle of this one-piece suit, so I could get in and out of it quickly.

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Haenschen takes a motorcycle trip, July 1912

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I always slipped on rubber galoshes to keep my shoes clean, and the legs of the rain suit were bell-bottomed so they would cover the tops of the galoshes. That rain suit helped keep my dress suit and shirt and tie clean. If it wasn’t for that twin-cylinder Indian, I wouldn’t have been able to make it from the University to wherever I was playing. But I made it on time every time, so I got a reputation for being very dependable.

 

We know from your collection that you made several trips to Sedalia, Missouri. Did you ride your motorcycle there? And what took you to Sedalia?

No, I took the interurban [train] to Sedalia. I went there because Scott Joplin, who was the “father of ragtime” and whose “Maple Leaf Rag” was a big hit, had agreed to let me meet him to talk about taking some lessons from him. I arranged to meet him at the Maple Leaf Café, where was playing. He named the rag after the café. I had seen him from a distance in St. Louis during the 1904 World’s Fair. He had written a rag called “[The] Cascades,” and during the first week of the fair [April 30–May 6, 1904], he had played it several times, and had made an arrangement for John Philip Sousa to conduct.

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Festival Hall at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Scott Joplin, who Haenschen recalled having seen at the fair, named his classic rag for the Cascade Gardens that fronted the hall.

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You were a teenager during the World’s Fair. Are there particular memories that you have of that event?

Oh, yes. I was fifteen at the time, and I have all sorts of memories of the fair. I went several times, and took my mother, grandmother, and my sister with me one of those times. One of the “wonders” we rode in was an electric streetcar, in front of the Palace of Electricity. Streetcars were pulled by horses in those days, so seeing this large, shiny electric streetcar was really something. The tracks were almost 2,000 feet long, if my memory is right, and you could ride the streetcar as often as there was an open seat in it. What seemed so amazing was that it would accelerate really fast but there was no noise, just the barely audible whine of the motor.

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Night-time illumination at the Palace of Electricity

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Electricity was a major draw at the fair. There was a Palace of Electricity, and Edison had helped raise a lot of funds for that exhibit. Westinghouse had his own building, and he had donated funds for the construction of an observation tower that was actually a radio tower. [Alexander Graham] Bell had invented a wireless telephone, and the generator for the wireless signal was inside the Palace of Electricity. Outside the building, there was a row of telephone receivers that didn’t have any wires. Workers from the Bell Company acted as guides, handing people a receiver so they could hear music or conversations that were being transmitted without wires.

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The fair’s pipe organ

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Another memory I have is the enormous pipe organ that was built specially for the fair. It was built in Los Angeles, and had six manuals, twenty-two rows of stops, and the largest and most numerous pipes of any organ in the nation at that time. The fair was supposed to open with a concert on that organ played by Charles Galloway, a famous Missouri organist. Unfortunately, there were problems with the organ and the concert had to be delayed for about six weeks. But when Galloway gave that concert, it was one of the great events of the fair.

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A New York-to-St. Louis auto caravan arrives at the fair.

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Weren’t automobiles and even airplanes a major attraction at the fair?

There were over one hundred cars on display—steam cars, electric cars, and gasoline cars. Most of the heads of the manufacturing companies came at different times during the fair—Henry Ford came, and I heard that [Walter] Baker, the inventor of the Baker Electric, was also there to demonstrate his cars. I don’t remember seeing but one airplane, which was on display rather than in the air. It was a Wright Brothers machine like the one they flew at Kitty Hawk.

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Haenschen recalled having seen a Wright Brothers plane at the 1904 exposition. Baldwin’s Airship was also there, as part of the St. Louis Department of Transportation’s display (bottom).

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Most of the buildings at world fairs were built to be temporary. Was that true of the ones at the St. Louis Fair?

Yes—many of them were made of plaster and hemp, but they were beautifully sculpted and painted and most of them still looked new at the end of the fair. They were constantly touched up. Now, Festival Hall, where Joplin introduced “Cascades,” was one of the permanent buildings, and it became part of the Washington University campus.

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The fair’s buildings were acquired in 1906 by the Chicago House Wrecking Company, which resold the more-permanent buildings and scrapped the remaining structures.

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.After the fair, the permanent buildings and the cascades and the pool where the Olympic swimming events were held were renamed the Exhibition Pavilion, which was later changed to the Forest Park Pavilion. It was still a draw when I was at Washington University. That pool was where I did most of my stunt diving, and it’s what got me an emergency appointment with Gene Rodemich’s dentist father.

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* Frank and Anne Hummert later founded Air Features, a broadcast production company with which Haenschen worked; see The Radio Years — Part 3.

 

For More:

Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years

Gus Haenschen: The Radio Years

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© 2020 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.