Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen: The St. Louis Years — Part 3 • The James A. Drake Interviews

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The St. Louis Years — Part 3

 

In Part 2, Gus Haenschen recalled his early years in St. Louis — most notably, his piano lessons with Scott Joplin and music-publishing venture with Gene Rodemich.

In Part 3, Haenschen is now attending Washington University and first attracts national attention after a song he’s composed for a college musical is picked up for the 1914 edition of Ziegfeld’s Follies.

Read Previous Installments

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In “The Hatchet,” the official student publication [of Washington University], you’re listed as being in the School of Arts and Sciences, as well as in the School of Engineering and Architecture.

That was because I was taking music composition in Arts and Sciences while taking all my requirements for the Mechanical Engineering degree in the School of Engineering.

 

How were you able to write an operetta while meeting all the course requirements for the Mechanical Engineering degree?

I wrote it on my own — it was called “The Love Star,” and I had written it as a member of one of the popular clubs the University had. You see, I was taking music courses while I was studying engineering. I took two courses in composition and was a member of the Quadrangle Club. The University had a lot of student clubs, and many of them were performing-arts clubs.

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The Quadrangle was one of the two most popular clubs on campus. It was named after the design of part of the campus — the first series of buildings, the first four or five, were designed as Gothic quadrangles by the same architects who did similar buildings for the University of Pennsylvania. The first building, by the way, was named for Adolphus Busch, Busch Hall, which was completed in 1903, but it didn’t open until 1905 because of the 1904 Exposition.

 

Did you join the Quadrangle Club as a freshman, or were first-year students allowed to participate in student clubs?

Well, that club didn’t exist until I was a first-term junior [in 1910]. It was by invitation only, and because I was pretty well known in St. Louis due to my band and my partnership with Gene Rodemich, I was invited to join. I wrote “The Love Star” during the spring and summer of my junior year, and it was produced by the Quadrangle Club about two years, as I recall, after I had graduated. I was invited back to oversee it.

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The Washington University Quadrangle, c. early 1920s

 

Were there other student clubs that produced musicals and plays?

Oh, yes — the other popular one was the Thyrsus Club, which Fannie Hurst belonged to and I think was either president or vice-president of during her senior year. She was in the Class of 1909, and I got to know her then and, of course, much later in New York. She was cast in several of the plays during her senior year, and she wrote a very popular musical comedy [“The Official Chaperone”] that was produced by the Thyrsus Club during her senior year.

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Fannie Hurst

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From its history, I know that Washington University was co-educational after 1900, but was the undergraduate student body primarily male during your years there?

Not primarily, no. When I was a freshman, the male-student population was about 60% and the female population was 40%. When I came back in 1914 for the production of “The Love Star,” the female-student percentage had grown to almost 50%, so the enrollment of men and women students was just about equal by then.

 

Was the University integrated when you were a student?

No, unfortunately. I say “unfortunately” for two reasons. The first is that we’ll never know how many George Washington Carvers might have gone there or become researchers there. Washington University has been a research university for most of its history, especially since World War II, and we’ll never know how many more patents and how many more Nobel Prize winners we would have had if the University had not been segregated. And just imagine what the fine arts and the performing arts might have been like if we had had black students and white students in the same classes.

 

You said that segregation was unfortunate for two reasons. What is the second reason?

Well, the University was not only coeducational by policy, but also the staff that handled the admissions operations when I was a student really went after the brightest young women in high-school classes throughout the state. During my third year, the University started building a medical center. It wasn’t just a medical school, but a medical research center. It was finished just a couple years after I graduated, and within two or three years the medical school admitted its first women students. If the same push had been made for admitting black students — not just to the medical school and the law school but to all the schools and their programs — the University would have been a different place. But that didn’t happen till after World War II.

 

Your mention of the law school prompts me to mention that in your archives there are letters from another famous graduate of Washington University who credits you with getting him admitted: Clark Clifford. Was he also from St. Louis?

No, he was from Kansas but his ambition was to become a lawyer in St. Louis, so when it came time for him to go to college, he wanted to go to Washington University. He was a top student in high school and probably would have gotten into Washington University anyway, but he needed an alumni sponsor so he wrote to me and asked if I would meet with him. I did and was very impressed with him, so I made some calls on his behalf and also wrote a formal letter of recommendation for him. He got his bachelor’s degree there, and also graduated from the Washington University Law School.

 

You and he are probably the last ones to see it, but the two of you could almost pass for brothers.

Both of us have been told that, but I think it’s because we’re almost the same height and weight, we have the same hairline, and the same crop of wavy hair. But I have a bigger nose and he has a smaller one, so maybe that’s why I don’t see the similarity that others say they see.

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Look-alikes: Haenschen (left) and Clark Clifford

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You have another thing in common: Both of you are Navy veterans.

Yes, but in different wars. Clark is about fifteen years younger than I, and he was an officer during the last year of World War II. But it was because of his connection with Missouri, the home state of President Truman, that he became an advisor to Truman after he [Clifford] got out of the Navy. He planned Truman’s campaign for the presidency [in 1948] and I think was the one who convinced Truman that an old-style “whistle-stop campaign” would give him the edge over [candidate Thomas E.] Dewey.

 

In one of his letters to you, Clifford urges you to “make up something outrageous” when talking to reporters. What “reporters” is he referring to?

When I would take one of my radio shows to Washington, D.C., on tour, if I was in a restaurant or sometimes just walking down a street, some reporter would mistake me for Clark Clifford and would ask me a question about a policy or some pending legislation or whatever. I didn’t do it very often, but Clark was always goading me to give some outrageous statement just so that the reporter would have to tell his editor, and the editor would have to call Clark’s office to confirm or deny what he said. Then Clark would tell the editor that he had never talked to any such reporter. I wasn’t a good enough actor to pull that off more than once or maybe twice.

 

Returning to the Ziegfeld Follies, one song from “The Love Star” not only became popular but became the gateway to your career.

Yes, it did. My original title for it was “The Moorish Glide,” and somehow it got to New York where Max Dreyfus, the head of the T. B. Harms Company, wired me to come to New York to talk with him about turning it into a production number in the Ziegfeld Follies.

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Haenschen’s original self-published edition of “The Moorish Glide” (top); and the better-known T. B. Harms version, with addition of the new title

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Max liked the melody, so he bought it. At first he gave the tune to a very popular dance team on the Keith [vaudeville] Circuit called “Maurice and Walton.” Walton was the name of the female partner, Florence Walton, and most people thought her partner, Maurice, was also named Walton, but his real name was Maurice Mouvet. They used the tune in part of their act, so at first it was called “The Maurice Glide.” The tango was really popular at that time, so the title was changed from “The Maurice Glide” to “The Maurice Tango.” [1]

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Maurice Mouvet and Florence Walton

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When did the song become “Underneath the Japanese Moon” in the Follies?

 That happened when Max decided that it would be a good tune to use as a filler between scenes in the Follies. Because the tune itself was so short, he told me that it would need a good verse and, of course, good lyrics for the verse and the refrain. Max assigned Gene Buck to give it a title, write the lyrics, and work with me on a verse. Gene told me that the tune would be interpolated — in other words, not part of a production number — and that it would be sung by a boy and girl whose characters wouldn’t have names per se. One would be called “The Lone Boy,” and he would sing it to “The Lone Girl.”

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Song portfolio from the Ziegfeld’s 1914 Follies, including “Underneath the Japanese Moon”

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Because of the popularity of Madame Butterfly, the trend at that time was to use Japanese themes, so Gene [Buck] gave it the title “Underneath the Japanese Moon,” although it appeared in the first program as “Underneath a Japanese Moon.” When the “a” was changed to “the” I don’t really know, but the sheet music version that T. B. Harms published had the title “Underneath the Japanese Moon.”

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Victor’s versions of  “The Moorish (Maurice) Glide” and “Underneath the Japanese Moon” were both issued in August 1914.

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To have a song whose music you wrote in the Ziegfeld Follies must have been one of the highlights of your career. What do you remember about the opening night?

I was in an upper box as a guest of Gene Buck, and like every other edition of the Follies, this one was chock full of girls. Most were already famous from prior Follies — Ann [billed as “Anna”] Pennington and Kay Laurell were among the glamor girls that Ziegfeld was known for — and Leon Errol was not only in the cast but also produced that edition of the Follies. As for my little contribution, Cyril [Morton] Horne sang Gene Buck’s lyrics and my tune to Louise Meyers. That was a thrill for me, as you can imagine — but an even bigger thrill was that Bert Williams performed one of his songs right before my little tune was sung. Bert Williams was one of the biggest stars of the Follies — one of the biggest stars of that era, really, almost on a par with Jolson.

 

Did you get to meet Bert Williams?

I never got to meet him but wish I had because to me he was a comic genius. When you look at how many famous comedians Ziegfeld had in those years — Leon Errol, W. C. Fields, Ed Wynn, and then Will Rogers — it was Bert Williams who topped them all. Gene Buck, who worked with all of them, used to say that Bert Williams was the greatest comic who ever lived. Think about that: not the greatest comic the Follies ever had, or the greatest comic of that time, but the greatest comic who ever lived.

 

I’ve wondered whether you or Walter Rogers tried to persuade Bert Williams to record for Brunswick.

Around the time we started making recordings at Brunswick, he left the Follies so he could go on his own. [2] The shows he starred in got good reviews when they opened, but they didn’t have very long runs and his popularity started to slip. He was also having health problems, and he contracted either pneumonia or the Spanish flu and died from it [in 1922].

 

Returning to your Follies song, didn’t Max Dreyfus not only buy it from you but also put you on a retainer with T. B. Harms?

Yes, he put me on a retainer as an arranger. Max, you see, was an arranger himself. He had written some songs early in his career but none of them became popular, and he had much more success as an arranger. He and his brother Louis bought the T. B. Harms Company, which was an old publishing firm when he and Louis acquired it. What Max was the best — and I mean the best in the entire publishing business — at spotting raw talent. He had discovered Jerome Kern, and about ten years later he did the same with George Gershwin.

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Max Dreyfus as composer (top) and arranger

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You had a music-publishing company in St. Louis, am I correct?

Well, briefly, but it didn’t amount to much. The big publishing house in St. Louis was the Stark Music Company, which was founded by John Stark. He was the one who published Scott Joplin’s music. Mr. Stark had heard Joplin in Sedalia, where both of them were living, and from what his [Stark’s] son, E. J. [Stark] told me, Mr. Stark had persuaded Joplin to become a full-time songwriter. By the time both of them had moved to St. Louis, the Stark company was the biggest publisher of ragtime songs.

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“September Love,” from Haenschen’s music-publishing venture with Gene Rodemich, and a rare John Stark edition of an early Haenschen collaboration

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I demonstrated songs for Mr. Stark in and around St. Louis, and he published a couple of the songs I had written. They didn’t go anywhere — didn’t sell many copies — so I tried my hand and starting a little publishing company. I went to Mr. Stark and he offered to [print] copies of songs under my own imprint. I didn’t have enough money to make a go of starting a publishing company, so I talked to Gene Rodemich about it and he got his father put money in it. We put out a few songs we had written, but as I say, it didn’t amount to much.

 

Back to “Underneath the Japanese Moon,” when you received the retainer from Max Dreyfus did you move to New York City?

I couldn’t because I had my band in St. Louis, I had the orchestra exchange, and I also had my family to support, so I went back and forth to New York and would stay a week, sometimes two weeks if I could manage it. Even though I wasn’t full-time with T. B. Harms, I was a part of a stable of young arrangers and songwriters including [George] Gershwin, whose career had not really begun yet. I worked with George on his first Broadway musical, “La, La Lucille.” George had written songs before then, but this was his first full score for a musical. Max worked with him to make slight changes in the melodies of a few of the songs, and he had several of us — including Robert Russell Bennett, whom Max had just hired — work with George on the arrangements.

 

How much involvement did you as an arranger have in the lyrics of the songs in “La, La Lucille”?

None at all. Max had a different group for the lyrics. Buddy DeSylva and Arthur Jackson wrote the lyrics for most of them, and Irving Caesar, whom Max had hired around the time he put me on a retainer, wrote the lyrics for one of the songs, “There’s More to the Kiss.” He and George collaborated on the biggest hit of their early partnership, “Swanee,” which I was fortunate to have Al Jolson record when I was hired at Brunswick. [3]

 

Do you recall recording a medley from “La, La Lucille” at Brunswick, under your “Carl Fenton” name?

A record that I made? Do you mean that I directed at Brunswick?

 

This was a recording session that you played in, a piano-duet medley of songs from “La, La Lucille.”

Yes, now that you mention it, I do remember that one. I did the arrangement, and Frank Banta and I played the duet. [4] By the way, that’s Frank Banta, Jr. [Frank E.], I’m talking about. His father [Frank P.] was also a pianist and had made early recordings. Frank, Jr., was an excellent pianist and worked not only for us at Brunswick but for Victor and Columbia, and probably Edison too.

 

So much has been written about George Gershwin’s composing, arranging, and piano style. Did you work with him enough to see how he wrote? And what did you think of him as a pianist, being a very fine one yourself?

It’s hard to compare him with any other pianist of that time because he had a style that was unique. He wasn’t a stride pianist, although he could play in that style. He didn’t have the biggest hands or the longest reach — he wasn’t in the same league as James P. Johnson or Luckey Roberts, who had the longest reach of any pianist I ever saw — but his ability with chords is what made him stand out. His melodies came from chords. You can hear it in his “Preludes.” If you listen to them closely, you’ll hear how he finds melodic lines from the chords he’s playing.

 

One more question about Max Dreyfus. The general public only knows his name from the film “Rhapsody in Blue,” in which he was played by Charles Coburn. Was there any resemblance between Coburn and the real Max Dreyfus?

 None at all. If Max look like anybody, it was Mister Magoo — as bald as a billiard ball, and short in stature. But what a great, great man he was! All of us learned more from Max Dreyfus than we could ever put into words. He had a gentle, patient way of getting not only more work but the highest quality work from everyone around him. You were inspired just being in his presence. He always made you feel as if you were the only person who had his attention when he was talking to you, even though he might be going from one small cubicle with, say, Gershwin plunking out of tune on an upright piano, to another cubicle with another young writer who was working on lyrics, and doing that twelve hours a day, six days a week.

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Max Dreyfus

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Max never criticized anything you brought to him. Instead, in his almost grandfatherly way he would compliment you by highlighting certain lines or measures that he thought were really good, and then very tactfully call attention to any weaknesses that he sensed in the song. Then he would offer you at least one suggestion as to how you might improve it. There was no one else like Max Dreyfus in the music-publishing industry. Even Irving Berlin, who had his own publishing company, respected him. To all of us who worked with him — and he was “Mr. Max” to us — Max Dreyfus was Tin Pan Alley.

 

— J. A.D. (12/7/2020)

 

Editor’s Notes 

[1] Actually, “The Maurice Tango” is a entirely different composition, by Silvio Hein. It was published by Harms in 1912, before “The Maurice Glide.”

[2] Although Williams never recorded for Brunswick, the company signed Ham Tree Harrington, a well-known imitator, after Williams’ death. Harrington recorded a number of titles for Brunswick in the Williams style between 1923 and 1925, none of which appear to have sold well.

[3]  Haenschen is mistaken here, unless perhaps he was recalling an undocumented Brunswick trial session, which is not possible to confirm. Jolson recorded “Swanee” for Columbia, to which he was under exclusive contract at the time. Brunswick’s cover version was by the team of Al Bernard and Frank Kamplain.

[4] Brunswick 2012, in medley with “Tee-Oodle-Um-Bum-Bo” and “Nobody But You” (Carl Fenton’s Orchestra, Piano Passages by Carl Fenton and Frank Banta). Recorded in late 1919, this was the second-earliest release under Haenschen’s “Carl Fenton”  pseudonym.

 

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© 2021 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

 

 

From Kodisk to Speak-O-Phone: Victor and A. T. Emerson Launch the Instantaneous-Recording Industry

From Kodisk to Speak-O-Phone:
Victor and A. T. Emerson Launch the
Instantaneous-Recording Industry
By Allan Sutton

Source documents courtesy of Doreen Wakeman

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Father and son: Victor Hugo Emerson and Adelbert Tewksbury (“A. T.”) Emerson (Doreen Wakeman)

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Victor Emerson’s next venture after resigning from the Emerson Phonograph Company in 1922 was the Metal Recording Disc Company. Beginning with the purchase of Henry Wadsworth’s patent on a process for manufacturing pre-grooved metal recording discs, Victor and his son Adelbert built an operation that would corner the market for bare-metal recording discs, in the process laying the groundwork for what would become the instantaneous-recording industry.

The Metal Disc Recording Corporation was incorporated in Manhattan on March 22, 1922, by L. E. Dresser, E. E. Ennison, and A. B. Hermans [1] W. Jay Ennison (Victor Emerson’s personal attorney) made the corporate filing and served as MDRC’s president, while Emerson served as treasurer. The corporate filing stated only that the company would “make phonographs,” with no mention of metal recording blanks.

It appears that the original plan was to manufacture a coin-operated automatic disc-recording and dispensing machine on which Henry L. Wadsworth had filed a patent in 1917. For recording purposes, Wadsworth stated his preference for a disc of varnish or shellac, the surface of which was to be slightly softened by the application of a solvent just prior to recording. [2]

Wadsworth soon came up with a more practical recording blank. In March 1918, he filed a patent on a pre-grooved, uncoated metal disc:

I have discovered that a substantially permanent record groove may be formed in the highly polished surface of a suitable fine grain metal, for example, copper, sheet aluminum, pewter, etc. For best results the surface of the blank is first properly prepared by filling the voids therein as by the application thereto of an element of wax-like nature… Aluminum possess all of the characteristics necessary to make a record by my process, and I prefer to use the metal.

On May 11, 1922 MDRC signed a memorandum of agreement with Wadsworth, agreeing to purchase both patents (the second of which was still pending) and the corresponding foreign patents. Wadsworth was paid $10,000 in cash and received 2,500 shares in the company. [3]

In the meantime, Emerson had filed his own patent embodying improvements to Wadsworth’s pre-grooved metal blanks, which he claimed would make the discs more suitable for use “in connection with the ordinary talking machine.” Chief among them was a wider groove that he claimed would offer less resistance to the cutting stylus. In his patent filing Emerson boasted, “I have produced a new type of disc record in which the public, that is the unskilled person, can utilize his talking machine for the purpose of recording and thereby making permanent and indestructible records.” [4]

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Victor Emerson’s metal-disc patent, showing the wide groove that Emerson claimed offered less resistance to the cutting stylus. (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)

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With strong patent protection in place, the Metal Recording Disc Company was ready to commence operations. The idea of manufacturing Wadsworth’s automatic disc-recording machine apparently was dropped. Instead, the company focused on creating a market for pre-grooved aluminum discs and an accompanying recording attachment that could be used to make home recordings on ordinary phonographs.

There had been earlier, short-lived attempts to market home-recording devices for the disc phonograph, including the Landay Brothers’ widely advertised Land-O-Phone of 1906. None had been a technical or commercial success, in part because the discs usually were composed of wax or other materials that were easily damaged in playback. MDRC’s aluminum discs solved that problem, being largely immune to damage provided that they were played with thorn or fiber needles rather than steel.

MRDC sold its pre-grooved blanks under the Kodisk brand beginning in May 1922. [5] Recording was accomplished by simply shouting into the phonograph’s horn (preferably with the aid of a megaphone), allowing the phonograph’s own reproducer and stylus serving as the recording mechanism. For better results, the company offered a $6 recording attachment consisting of a pivoting recording horn attached to a reproducer. An early advertisement pictured the device being used by Irving Kaufman, a popular Emerson recording artist.

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Irving Kaufman plugs Kodisk, August 1922. As an exclusive Emerson recording artist for a time in the early 1920s, Kaufman would have been well-known to Victor Emerson. (Talking Machine World)

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Although MRDC at first warned that only Kodisk blanks were the genuine article, it was soon supplying other companies who sold the discs under their own names. The Plaza Music Company, which had recently taken over Emerson’s Regal label, marketed the blanks under the Echo brand. Even Eugene Widmann, president of the Pathé Phonograph and Radio Corporation, got involved. [6] For a short time, Pathé phonographs could be purchased with a home-recording attachment employing the MRDC blanks. The idea apparently failed to interest many consumers, but it would not be Widmann’s last involvement with Emerson’s metal discs.

Unfortunately, due to the low volume inherent in the acoustic recording process and the mechanical resistance of the metal blanks, the recordings were often barely audible. As Douglas Cooke noted in his early account of the operation, “While an important step had been taken, there were still further obstacles to be overcome — the record was right, but mechanical recording was deficient.” [7] Interest in the Emerson–Wadsworth system of home recording faded in the mid-1920s. It would take the advent of commercial electric recording to rekindle that interest.

Little was heard of the Metal Recording Disc Company during 1925–1926. Management of the company had already passed to Victor Emerson’s son, Adelebert Tewskbury Emerson (or “A. T.,” as he called himself for business purposes) by the time Victor died on June 22, 1926. In early 1927, A. T. incorporated the Emerson Foundation Company to carry on the family’s business interests. H. T. Leeming, who had developed the inexpensive Regal label while an Emerson Phonograph executive in 1921, served as the company’s treasurer. [8]

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Emerson Foundation Company stock certificate #1. (Doreen Wakeman)

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On September 21, 1927, the Metal Disc Recording Company licensed Frederick H. Sanborn to manufacture blank metal discs, with or without pre-grooving, under the Emerson and Wadsworth patents. MDRC retained ownership of the underlying manufacturing rights, which it transferred to the Emerson Foundation Company on or about October 1, 1927. [9] Sanborn’s as-yet unnamed company was licensed to manufacture and sell the blanks in the United States, its territories and dependencies, and Cuba “in connection with installations of phonograph recording machines to make personal recordings on said discs at such installations.” [10]

Sanborn would be allowed to sell the blanks to his agents or sub-licensees, with several restriction. The blanks, and the machines on which they were to be recorded, were not be employed for commercial record production, broadcasting, home recording, or office dictation. The question of whether or not to enter the latter market, which at the time was dominated by Dictaphone and Ediphone, would resurface several times in the coming years. Ultimately, the machines and blanks would be marketed for dictation and other business purposes, but not until the early 1930s.

Sanborn was required to pay MDRC a royalty on each blank sold, ranging from ¼¢ for five-inch or smaller discs to 2¢ for ten-inch or larger. In addition, effective January 1, 1928, Sanborn would be required to manufacture and sell a minimum of 200,000 discs that year, and 500,000 discs in each succeeding year. The agreement prohibited Sanborn’s agents and licensees from duplicating recordings made on the blanks, effectively precluding their use in commercial record production.

By late 1927, Sanborn had acquired rights to an electrical recording system and was in the process of assembling a group of investors to develop and market that system. On December 30, 1927, Henry Blum, J. H. Schiller, and Helen Marsak, filed a certificate of incorporation for Speakeophone Incorporated in New York. Their names thus far had not appeared in connection with the metal-disc business, and they were inconsequential from an operating standpoint. The driving forces behind Speakeophone would be Frederick Sanborn, as president, and A. T. Emerson, as its largest stockholder. [11]

Speakeophone’s purpose, according to the incorporation filing, was:

To make, sell, lease, and otherwise deal in, metal or other discs for the recording, perpetuation or reproduction, or otherwise, of sound; and also recording and reproducing machines, their parts, thereof, and accessories therefor, relating to metal or other discs, and the making of phonographic records thereon, by any means, for the production, recording, or reproduction of sound. [12]

Incorporated as a separate entity, the Speak-O-Phone Corporation would serve as the public face of Speakeophone. It would handle distribution and licensing, while Speakeophone would continue to handle manufacturing. The distinction, although seemingly a fine one, would prove contentious in the later legal battle for control of the business.

The Speak-O-Phone Corporation filed a trademark application on the Speak-O-Phone name on August 28, 1928, claiming use since May 1. A second application covered the phrase, “A Snapshot of Your Voice,” a slightly revision of the old Kodisk slogan that would appear only on the earliest Speak-O-Phone discs. [13] The company planned to franchise walk-in Speak-O-Phone studio throughout the country.

The franchise operation Speak-O-Phone experienced steady growth. Licenses were granted to any financially qualified party wishing to open their own recording studio and willing to abide by a lengthy lease agreement that bound the licensee to purchase discs only from Speak-O-Phone.

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Page 1 of the Speak-O-Phone studio operating and lease agreement. (Doreen Wakeman)

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Before the advent of Speak-O-Phone, individuals wishing to make their own disc records had to deal with commercial record producers. Turnaround times were slow and costs were high, and most companies required customers to purchase multiple pressings. With the advent of Speak-O-Phone, anyone could walk into a studio, record their talk or performance, and walk out a few minutes later with an electrically recorded disc at prices ranging from 50¢ to $1.50 per side, depending upon the diameter.

The entire unit was housed in a cabinet the size of a large console phonograph. The licensee was responsible for set-up, maintenance, and repairs. Sound quality of the finished discs could vary, depending upon operator skill and the microphone selected (the choices, all carbon microphones, included the default Speak-O-Phone model, of unknown manufacture; a Western Electric model; and a couple of off-brands). But in the hands of a skilled operator working with a decent microphone, the technical results could be surprisingly good.

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Early Speak-O-Phone discs had full-size back-plates (top). They were soon replaced by the familiar Speak-O-Phone label (bottom left), which allowed for recording on both sides. The slotted, embossed-label Remsen blank — essentially just a rebranding of the Speak-O-Phone disc — was introduced in 1930. Another  version of the Remsen disc, not pictured here, had Remsen’s name and patent notice embossed in a circle around the regular Speak-O-Phone label. (Author’s collection)

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A demonstration studio — little more than a closet, judging from the advertisements — was opened to the public in the “economy basement” of Snellenberg’s Philadelphia department store on September 3, 1928. [14] By October, the studio was doing so much business that it was moved to a more prestigious location, in the fifth-floor music department.

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Speak-O-Phone’s first demonstration studio, in the “economy basement of Snellenberg’s department store in Philadelphia. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

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Speak-O-Phone’s license #1 was granted to the Famous-Barr Company’s St. Louis store, which first advertised its studio on September 18. [15] Speak-O-Phone made international headlines in May 1929, when it installed a studio aboard the luxury liner Ile de France. It was back in the headlines on June 22, when Dorothy Caruso (Enrico’s widow) opened Speak-O-Phone studio #7 in New York. [16]

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Speak-O-Phone studio #1, in the Famous-Barr Company’s St. Louis department store, 1928. (Doreen Wakeman)

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Speak-O-Phone studio aboard the S. S. Ile de France, one of at least five ocean liners that licensed Speak-O-Phone equipment. (Doreen Wakeman)

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Dorothy Caruso, Enrico’s widow, opened Speak-O-Phone studio #7 in June 1929. (Doreen Wakeman / Brooklyn Daily Eagle)

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By the late summer of 1929, new Speak-O-Phone studios were being opened almost weekly. A 1930 list of contracts showed seventy-one active Speak-O-Phone installations at the time, in department stores, music and record shops, free-standing studios, colleges, and aboard at least five ocean liners.  [17]

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Speak-O-Phone brochures, c. 1929, announcing the opening of a new studio in Boston (top); and explaining the system and touting its profit potential to aspiring licensees (bottom). (Doreen Wakeman)

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Speak-O-Phone provided portfolios of customizable newspaper ads to its licensees and distributors. This copy was sent to Herman Germain, of the Plaza Music Company, retailers of Banner and other inexpensive records. Plaza had been one of the earliest sellers of rebranded Kodisk blanks in the early 1920s.

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On August 14, 1929, Emerson wrote to Sanborn proposing a new partnership with the Emerson Foundation Company to further develop the technology for commercial purposes, including dictation machines, to be called the Metal Recording Products Company. [18] The way was soon cleared for Speakeophone to transfer all licensing, distribution, and sales rights to Speak-O-Phone. The agreement between Speakeophone and Speak-O-Phone was signed on August 28, 1929, at which time Sanborn also signed over the rights to his electrical recording process to Speakeophone. [19]

Speakeophone further consolidated its control of the operation in October 1929, when the Emerson Foundation Company assigned it all of its remaining U.S. manufacturing, distribution, and sales rights in return for a royalty agreement on disc sales. [20] On February 17, 1930, however, Emerson suddenly reversed himself, writing to attorney Thomas H. Matters, “I believe that the Emerson Foundation Co., Inc., should immediately take steps to cancel all of the  arrangements which it has with the Speakeophone Corporation of America.”

At issue was some bad publicity over the company’s failure to deliver machines and records for which customers had paid. The issue came to a head after crooner Rudy Vallee publicly complained that he had not yet received a machine and discs for which he had paid $750 many months earlier. Complaints to the Better Business Bureau increased as a rumor flew that executive Jacques Blevins was misspending company funds. Emerson was also displeased over the company’s failure to pursue the home-recording and radio markets. [21]

The next few months would be marked by ongoing disputes between Emerson, Blevins, Sanford, and various shareholders, involving accusations of questionable loans, overdue notes, missing stock, and unpaid salaries, among other issues. Thomas H. Matters (who ten years earlier had been of the receivers for the Emerson Phonograph Company), was finally called in by Emerson in an attempt to resolve some of most contentious issues. The ongoing legal squabbling had no apparent effect on Speak-O-Phone’s day-to-day operations, which so far seemed to be weathering the early effects of the Great Depression reasonably well.

By April 1930, Eugene Widmann — now working in banking after having resigned as president of the Pathé Phonograph and Radio Corporation three years earlier — was preparing to step into the fray. Blevins clearly wished to be out of the business. On April 8, he wrote to Widmann,

In connection with the proposal that you step into the situation and furnish the necessary capital to meet the requirement of the Corporation and develop its business, I propose to turn over to you the control of the business and its management and supervision on whatever basis you deem fair to the respective interests involved. [22]

At the same time, Blevins turned over a list of Speak-O-Phone accounts payable, notes payable, and studio contracts to Widmann, and Sanborn supplied him a breakdown of disc-production costs and an estimate of costs to produce attachments for home and radio recording. [23]

On April 11, Emerson informed Widmann that the Presto Machine Company could supply Speak-O-Phone fifty large studio recording machines within six to eight weeks and was also prepared to look into the production of home-recording equipment. Furthermore, Emerson reported, Presto was eager to take over production of the metal discs, with eighteen presses available and the capacity to “take care of unlimited quantities.” Emerson concluded his letter by writing, “I consider this an ideal plant for our work and for all of its future development.” [24] However, no agreement with Presto was forthcoming. The announcement that RCA Victor was about to introduce its own home-recording system may have dissuaded Emerson from further pursuing a Speak-O-Phone home system.

The long-simmering feud between Blevins and Sanborn came to a head toward the end of 1930, with Blevins complaining to Emerson that Sanborn had conducted “practically no business” since June, and had spent only $100 on sales. Blevins wrote to Emerson in January 1931, “In the interests if the creditors of Speak-O-Phone Corporation of America, I should like to see you and the other stockholders place a management in charge which will immediately take advantage of the demand for the product and give the business a progressive management.” [25]

As the sniping continued, Emerson finally moved to assume full control of Speakeophone Incorporated, canceling the Emerson Foundation Company’s contracts with Blevins and Sanborn. On January 20, 1931, he requested the return of their stock from the Harriman National Bank and Trust Company, which had been holding it in escrow. [26] Full manufacturing, licensing, and sales rights were transferred from the Metal Disc Recording Company to Speakeophone, which was now firmly under Emerson’s control (Speak-O-Phone now being little more than a trade name). In addition, MRDC lifted some earlier restrictions on its products’ use, although it inexplicably continued to prohibit their use for dictation purposes. [27]

On January 22, 1931, Emerson authorized the Emerson Foundation Company to sell any or all of its shares in Speakeophone Incorporated. [28] The move roughly coincided with the formation of H. T. Leeming’s Remsen Corporation, and it appears that Emerson accepted Remsen stock in exchange for some or all of his Speakeophone stock. By February, Emerson was negotiating to have Remsen take over manufacturing of the metal discs.

The Remsen Corporation left little in the way of a paper trail. It was affiliated in some way with inventor Douglas H. Cooke, who wrote a rambling, six-page document “not for public consumption” extolling the Remsen record’s virtues, although there is nothing to indicate that the Remsen disc was anything more than a rebranding of the regular Speak-O-Phone disc. [29]

According to Cooke, Remsen either owned or otherwise controlled (it is not clear which, from his wording) the Emerson and Wadsworth metal-disc patents, in addition to holding Cooke’s own pending patent on portable and home-recording machines. [30] When Cooke balked at the idea of manufacturing recorders, preferring to contract the work to outside suppliers, Emerson went to Widmann to with a proposal that they form a new company to manufacture recording machines. Widmann was not interested. [31]

On August 10, 1931, Sanborn wrote to Emerson, “Being completely out of Speak-O-Phone, I would like to clear it all up. The sum total of my loans to you is somewhere over $1,000. I would like to see this taken care of in some way… Trusting that Speakeophone is now doing all that you have expected from it.” [32] Emerson replied, “Am more than anxious to take care of the loan you were good enough to give me just as soon as I can… As to Speakeophone — Say Uncle Freddy, why pick on me?” [33]

On September 14, 1931, Emerson authorized sale of his Remsen stock through Widmann. [34] Speak-O-Phone would go on to flourish for a time in the 1930s, especially after finally getting into the dictation-machine market, although its bare-aluminum discs would be rendered obsolete by the Presto Recording Corporation’s superior lacquer-coated recording blanks. Speak-O-Phone’s later history will be the subject of a future posting.

 

The Sound of Speak-O-Phone

As many collectors have learned from disappointing purchases, surviving Speak-O-Phone discs are only rarely of any musical or historical interest. Here are two interesting exceptions. The first is by Martha Wilkins, a professional radio and concert performer who also sang occasional minor roles at the Metropolitan Opera. Her collection of personal records and air-checks from 1930 through 1948 now resides in the Mainspring collection.

The second (courtesy of David Giovannoni) is an excerpt from a 44-minute talk, extending over multiples discs, on the rosy future of dirigibles. The craft mentioned suggest the recording was made in 1933 or thereabouts. If any of you aviation-history buffs out there know who this might be, we would love to hear from you.

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MARTHA WILKINS: Indian Love Call
Norfolk, VA: May 22, 1930

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UNKNOWN SPEAKER: Talk on lighter-than-air aircraft (excerpt)
Unknown location: c. 1933

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Notes

 

[1] “New Incorporations.” New York Times (Mar 22, 1922), p. 23.

[2] Wadsworth, H. L. “Sound Recording and Reproducing Machine.” U.S. Patent #1,312,461 (filed Mar 7, 1917; granted Aug 5, 1919).

[3] Memorandum of Agreement Between the Metal Disc Recording Company, Inc., and Henry L. Wadsworth (May 11, 1922.

[4] Emerson, Victor H. “Record for Talking Machines and Method of Making the Same.” U.S. Patent #1,444,960 (filed April 25, 1921; granted February 13, 1923).

[5] “Kodisk Placed on Market.” Talking Machine World (May 1922), p. 33.

[6] Cooke, Douglas H. Unpublished manuscript, c. 1930.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Emerson Foundation Co., Inc. Stock certificate issued to A. T. Emerson (Mar 10, 1927).

[9] Emerson Foundation Co., Inc. Letter to Frederick H. Sanborn (Aug 14, 1929).

[10] Memorandum of Agreement Between the Metal Recording Disc Company, Inc., and Frederick H. Sanborn (September 21, 1927).

[11] Blevins, Jacques E. Letter to A. T. Emerson (Jan 31, 1931).

[12] Certificate of Incorporation of Speakeophone Incorporated (Dec 30, 1927).

[13] Speak-O-Phone Corporation. U.S. trademark filings #268,321 (Aug 28, 1928) and #268,322 (Oct 10, 1928).

[14] “Tomorrow in Our Economy Basement” (ad). Philadelphia Inquirer (Sep 2, 1928).

[15] Famous-Barr Co. (advertisement). St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Sep 18, 1928).

[16] Speak-O-Phone Corp. List of Contracts (c. April 1930).

[17] Ibid.

[18] Emerson Foundation Co., Inc. Letter to Sanborn, op. cit.

[19] Agreement Between Speakeophone, Incorporated, and Speak-O-Phone Corporation of America (Aug 28, 1929).

[20] Agreement Between Emerson Foundation Company, Inc., and Speakeophone, Incorporated (Oct 5, 1929).

[21] Emerson, A. T. Memorandum for Mr. Matters (Feb 17, 1930).

[22] Blevins, Jacques E. Letter to E. A. Widmann (April 8, 1930).

[23] Sanborn, Fredrick H. Latter to E. A. Widmann (April 8, 1930).

[24] Emerson, A. T. Letter to E. A. Widmann (April 11, 1930).

[25] Blevins, Jacques E. Letter to A. T, Emerson (Jan 31, 1931).

[26] Emerson, A. T. Letter to Harriman National Bank and Trust Company (Jan 20, 1931).

[27] Agreement Between Metal Disc Recording Co, Inc., and Speakeophone Incorporated (Jan 16, 1931; amended Mar 28, 1931).

[28] Emerson Foundation Company, Inc. Resolution (Jan 22, 1931).

[29] Cooke, op. cit. Cooke and a group of associates invented what he called the Chromatron recorder in the winter of 1927, which he claimed in the document was “developed quite independently of anything of the Remsen Corporation.” It is unclear whether this was the recording device that Remsen marketed.

[30] Sanborn, Frederick H. Letter to E. A. Widmann (Oct 28, 1930).

[31] Emerson, A. T. Memorandum to E. A. Widmann (Aug 18, 1931); Widmann, E. A. Memorandum to A. T. Emerson (Aug 20, 1931).

[32] Sanborn, Frederick H. Letter to A. T. Emerson (Aug 10, 1931).

[33] Emerson, A. T. Letter to Frederick H. Sanborn (Aug 17, 1931).

[34] Emerson, A. T. Memorandum to E. A. Widmann (Sep 14, 1931).


Our thanks to Doreen Wakeman (A. T. Emerson’s grand-daughter, and Victor’s great grand-daughter) for providing the source documents and many of the graphics used in this article.


 

© 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

100 Years Ago at the Emerson Phonograph Company

100 Years Ago at the Emerson Phonograph Company
By Allan Sutton

Source material courtesy of Doreen Wakeman

 

The autumn of 1920 was a high-water mark for the Emerson Phonograph Company. A year earlier — after five years of producing only small-diameter discs — Victor Emerson had finally decided to take on the major companies, introducing standard ten-inch, full-priced records. Some popular stars and dance orchestras were being signed to exclusive contracts, there were the beginnings of a respectable operatic series, and the company was doing a strong business in records for the immigrant markets. In addition, Emerson had recently introduced a new line of phonographs starting at $80 and topping out at $1,000, a far cry from its first $3 offering of 1915.

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From Magazine of Wall Street (November 27, 1920)

 

Emerson’s facilities at the time were scattered around New York, with an executive suite at 3 West Thirty-Fifth Street, a sales office at 120 Broadway, and a studio at 365 Fifth Avenue. At some point, the decision was made to consolidate at a single location that could also house the company’s flagship phonograph and record store.

With production and optimism at an all-time high, in January 1920 the company signed a twenty-one lease for a building at 206 Fifth Avenue. A long, narrow five-story structure, it extended the full depth of the block, with an additional entrance at 1126 Broadway. It was already an old building, dating to 1856–1857 according to real estate records, but had recently been modernized and given a fresh facade by its new owner, the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank.

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Emerson’s offices and studio space would be consolidated on the upper three floors, one of which reportedly was given over entirely to recording. The move was completed during February 1920, at which time the record store was still in the early planning stages. Walter K. Pleuthner, a somewhat eccentric painter, architect, and interior designer, was hired for the task.

Pleuthner drafted ambitious plans for a record store and phonograph showroom on the ground level, with entrances on both Fifth Avenue and Broadway. It was an extravagant design, with vaulted ceilings, leaded-glass windows, specially designed chandeliers, individual listening booths, two “cloisters,” and a central staircase leading to a second-floor auditorium, to be called Emerson Hall. The store opened in September 1920 but wasn’t widely advertised until November, when it was featured in a nationwide marketing campaign.

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From Architecture magazine (December 1921).
View full-size floor plan

 

Unfortunately, no one at Emerson foresaw the crippling recession of 1920–1921, which began in the same month the company leased the Fifth Avenue building. Burdened with excess inventory and deeply in debt, the Emerson Phonograph Company was placed in the hands of receivers on December 9, 1920. It carried on, but on a less ambitious scale, buoyed in part by its 1921 introduction of the inexpensive Regal label for the dime- and chain-store trade.

The company continued to operate at 206 Fifth Avenue for nearly two more years, although plans to hold concerts in Emerson Hall apparently never materialized. Victor Emerson resigned in March 1922 and launched a new business, manufacturing and selling blank metal recording discs. Reorganized under new ownership in August 1922, the Emerson Phonograph Company vacated the Fifth Avenue building in October for decidedly cheaper-looking quarters. The Fifth Avenue building still stands today, minus the Emerson logo that once graced its pediment.

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Our thanks for Doreen Wakeman, Victor Emerson’s great grand-daughter, for supplying some of the source material for this article.

A detailed history of the Emerson Phonograph Company can be found in American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950, available from Mainspring Press.

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© 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan: After the Fall (1921 – 1936)

Arthur Collins & Byron G. Harlan:
After the Fall (1921 – 1936)
By Allan Sutton

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Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan
(Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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At a time when online access to digitized archives was the stuff of science fiction, Ulysses (Jim) Walsh did a remarkable job of chronicling what he called the “Pioneer Recording Artists” for Hobbies magazine, using the limited material available to him. Many of us found our collecting experiences greatly enriched by his columns. They remain enjoyable reading long after his death, even if some of what he wrote doesn’t hold up to close examination. As a popular columnist who relied on colorful tales to keep readers coming back, Walsh often accepted anecdotes as fact without question, provided they suited his narrative, and he tended to embroider the facts to keep the story line going.

A case in point is his account of Arthur Collins’ accidental fall from the stage at the Princess Theater in Medina, Ohio, and his skewed take on the outcome of that event. [1]  Walsh gave the date of the accident as Thursday, October 20, 1921, an error that has been widely repeated in derivative works. But in fact, October 20 was simply the date on which the Medina Sentinel belatedly reported the incident. [2]  As noted in the Sentinel article, it had actually occurred on “Thursday of last week” — i.e., on October 14.

Both accounts have Collins falling into the basement from a stage that had been darkened as part of the Tone Test routine. Walsh has him plunging dramatically through an open trap-door — then, “reeling dizzily…fearfully bloody and almost out of his head … dazedly — almost instinctively,” making his way back up a ladder, with “the trooper’s [sic] instinct that ‘the show must go on.'”  The Sentinel, on the other hand, has him simply falling down a flight of stairs, then being given medical treatment after regaining the stage.

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The Medina Sentinel for October 20, 1921, confirming the date of Collins’ accident as “Thursday of last week” (i.e., October 14).

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So, a minor factual error, and an over over-abundance of purple prose on Walsh’s part, which might be easily overlooked had he not then gone on to thoroughly misrepresent what happened in the wake of the accident, erroneously declaring “For the duration of Collins’ illness, the Collins-Harlan partnership was broken up…”

That was not the case; Collins made a quick recovery, and one week after the accident, the team was back on the road, which is where our survey of the team’s advertising and press coverage, post-fall, begins.

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Collins makes a quick recovery: The Zanesville Tone Test was presented on October 21, 1921, one week after the accident in Medina.

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The Zanesville Time-Recorder commented on his steady stride and the “virile quality” of his voice at the October 21 Tone Test). With Collins apparently in passable health, the team went on to complete their tour, wrapping up in late November. After a month-long break, they went back on the road in early 1922, reaching California in February.

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Collins & Harlan in Visalia, California (February 1922)

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Harlan seems to have first ventured out on his own in the spring of 1922, when he was featured on several broadcasts sponsored by Okeh records, minus Collins. At that time, however, the team was still performing together.

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Harlan on the air (New York Herald, April 26, 1922). “Rubalogue” was a coined term for a monologue by a “rube” (or “hick,” in slightly more modern parlance).

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Although Collins and Harlan did little traveling together during the spring and summer of 1922, they recorded duets for Edison in July, August, and September. In the latter month, they hired Palmer Kellogg as their new road manager, apparently anticipating a busy fall travel season.

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From the Fremont, Ohio, News-Messenger (September 6, 1922)

 

A short time later, however, the act split temporarily, for reasons that remain to be determined. Perhaps Collins was experiencing health problems, albeit not necessarily related to his accident, which was now nearly a year behind him; all that is certain is that there was a sudden dearth of press coverage devoted to him. Whatever the cause, Harlan took the road with a widely publicized new solo act in the autumn of 1922.

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Harlan and his own company on tour, minus Collins (Coudersport, Pennsylvania, November 1922)

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Collins and Harlan reunited in the late spring of 1923. They returned to the Edison studio on July 25, but recording was now only an occasional undertaking for them. Increasingly, their old minstrel-show shtick was lost on younger, more sophisticated urban record buyers. They attempted some more up-to-date material for Edison, toning down the racial stereotypes that marred so much of their earlier work, but the records fail to attract much interest. However, their older material remained popular in the small cities and rural areas.

They were soon on the road again, now with their own small company, making grueling cross-country tours of predominantly small-town America. While they continued to perform Edison Tone Tests, they also began staging their own shows in churches, high-school auditoriums, YMCA’s, fraternal halls, movie theaters, and any other venue that would have them. Clearly, given the rigors these tours entailed, Collins was not the broken, infirm man that Walsh made him out to be.

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Together again: Collins and Harlan in St. Louis in October 1923, on the first leg of a tour that would take them as far west as Utah.

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Collins and Harlan wrapped up their 1923 western tour in the final days of that year. This ad for their appearance in Provo, Utah, ran on December 16.

 

The team had barely time to catch their breath from their last 1923 tour before again heading west. They arrived in California in January 1924, then worked their way back east during February, with stops in Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. March and April were spent touring Pennsylvania, followed by sporadic appearances in the Middle Atlantic region during the spring and summer. A new feature had been added to the act — they would now make and play instantaneous recordings on stage, of themselves as well as aspiring local artists, using a process that remains to be discovered.

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The early 1924 western tour: Collins and Harlan in Grand Junction, Colorado (February 1924)

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The on-stage recording sessions were heavily promoted. Presumably they had been approved by the Edison organization, since many were conducted during Tones Test appearances. At least one ad made the misleading suggestion that these were Edison trial recordings that could lead to “fame and fortune” for the performers.

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Collins and Harlan in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (May 1924), on their second tour of the year.

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Collins and Harlan and “Company,” as the added attraction at a movie screening in Allentown, Pennsylvania (March 1924)

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Collins and Harlan stayed close to home during the summer of 1924, making only occasional documented appearances in the Mid-Atlantic region. On October 3, they returned to the Edison studio to record the forgettable “Liver and Bacon.” Coupled with “Any Way the Wind Blows (My Sweetie Goes)” on Edison 54123, it would be their last issued record as a team. [3]  A short time later, they embarked on a two-month Tone Test tour of the Midwest, with stops in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan.

A two-month Tone Test tour followed in February–March 1925, playing mostly no-name venues in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Ending in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, it would be their last major tour as a team.

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Collins and Harlan in Hinton, West Virginia, in February 1925, during their final major tour as a team.

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In 1926, Collins retired and moved with his wife to a suburb of Fort Myers, Florida, where he occasionally performed at the local social clubs and reportedly enjoyed tending his orange grove. He died at home on August 3, 1933. Walsh, quoting Mrs. Collins, has him expiring peacefully by her side in a pastoral setting:

“We were sitting on a bench under the trees, talking about a recent trip I had just returned from, when he put his head on my shoulder and quietly passed away.”

The Fort Meyers News-Press reported the event less poetically, although the basic facts are the same:

“After pushing the [lawn] mower, he sat down beside his wife for a minute’s rest and then suddenly slumped to the ground.” [4]

Harlan died at his home in Orange, New Jersey, on September 11, 1936 [5] — in his bath-tub, according to Walsh, who didn’t cite a source for that tidbit (nor have we found one so far).

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Notes

[1] Walsh, Ulysses “Jim.” “Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists. Arthur Collins — Part III.” Hobbies (Jan 1943), p. 13.

[2] “Edison Artist Nearly Killed.” Medina Sentinel (Oct 20, 1921), p. 1.

[3] Collins is not known to have made any further recordings. Harlan reportedly made unissued experimental recordings for Edison in 1926. His last commercially issued records were made with Steve Porter, for the ultra-cheap Grey Gull chain of labels, in 1928 and 1929.

[4] “Arthur Collins Dies Suddenly; Was Noted as Singer and Actor.” Fort Myers News-Press (Aug 3, 1933), p. 1.

[5] Walsh, Ulysses “Jim.” “Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists. Byron G. Harlan — Part II. Hobbies (Mar 1943), p. 14.

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Article © 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

 

The Records Guglielmo Marconi Didn’t Invent: The Marconi Velvet Tone Story

The Records Guglielmo Marconi Didn’t Invent:
The Marconi Velvet Tone Story
By Allan Sutton

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Related Article: Columbia Marconi-Type Pressings
in Chile (
Fonografía Artística Records)

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.Although shellac-based pressing materials were the industry norm virtually from the start of commercial disc-record production, there were periodic attempts to press in celluloid, beginning with Emile Berliner’s 1890 German discs. Nicole Frères introduced celluloid-coated cardboard discs in Europe in 1903.

In the United States, the Lambert Company introduced molded celluloid cylinders in 1900. But celluloid would not be used commercially for disc records in the U.S. until 1906, when the American Graphophone Company (Columbia) announced its Marconi Velvet Tone disc — a lightweight semi-flexible laminated celluloid disc — with tremendous fanfare. The records bore the name and likeness of Guglielmo Marconi, who was riding a wave of international acclaim as the inventor of radio.

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The earliest Marconi labels showed the inventor’s receding hairline (right), which was retouched on later printings.

 

Hoping to capitalize on Marconi’s popularity, Columbia offered him a position as “consulting physicist” on what it termed its “great experimental staff” in the summer of 1906. Columbia president Edward Easton was dispatched to London to personally interview the inventor.

On August 16 of that year, The New York Times reported that Marconi had sailed for the United States in connection with his new duties. Following his arrival in New York on September 8, he was treated to a lavish banquet at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel as Columbia’s guest of honor. Edward Easton, music department superintendent Victor Emerson, factory manager Thomas Macdonald, and other Columbia officials spoke at some length, vaguely alluding to Marconi’s experimental radio work, but without mentioning how that might possibly relate to phonograph records.

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Columbia announces its collaboration with Marconi, September 1906. (Courtesy of Steve Smolian)

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On September 10, Thomas Macdonald escorted Marconi on a whirlwind tour of Columbia’s plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut, followed by a luncheon at Macdonald’s home. Marconi boarded a ship back to Italy the next day, after telling a reporter for The Music Trade Review that he had not yet given the matter sufficient study to announce any new ideas.

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In this highly retouched photo, factory manager Thomas Macdonald is at the wheel, with Marconi beside him. Columbia president Edward Easton sits immediately behind them. (Courtesy of Steve Smolian)

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Macdonald and Marconi in the Bridgeport factory, from The Columbia Record. (Courtesy of Steve Smolian)

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Little more was heard of the alliance until November, when The Columbia Record ran a self-congratulatory piece that still failed to mention what, if anything, Marconi might be developing in the record field. An article in the London Music Trade Review noted that Marconi had not yet “disclosed what his views are on this and other talking machine ideas.”

Marconi had good reason to remain silent — he apparently had no hand in developing the discs that would bear his name. His sole contribution apparently was to allow Columbia the use of his name and likeness. Searches of U.S. and Italian patents have consistently failed to reveal any filings by Marconi that might relate to these discs.

However, the groundwork had already been laid for what would come to marketed as the Marconi record. On August 19, 1905 — a year before Marconi was tapped as Columbia’s “consulting physicist” — Victor Emerson had filed a patent on a lightweight disc pressed in a celluloid–shellac mixture. Emerson noted that the proportions of celluloid to shellac could be varied to produce a lightweight disc, with or without a cardboard backing.

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Victor Emerson’s 1905 patent for a lightweight celluloid–shellac disc, which Emerson subsequently assigned to American Graphophone. (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)

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Thomas Macdonald took Emerson’s idea a step further. On July 9, 1906 — nearly six weeks before Marconi’s brief visit to the States — he filed a patent application on a flexible, lightweight laminated disc with a playing surface of pure celluloid:

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Thomas Macdonald’s patent on what would be marketed as the Marconi record even specified the embossed pattern that is found on the reverse sides. There is no reference to Guglielmo Marconi anywhere in the patent filing. (U.S. Patent & Trademark Office)

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Thus, American Graphophone already held two patents covering all the essential features of the “Marconi” disc by the time the inventor was invited to serve as a Columbia consultant.

Macdonald’s patent specifications were exactly those that would come to be embodied in the Marconi Velvet Tone Record. Macdonald specified a flexible paper or cardboard core laminated between two thin sheets of celluloid — one to receive the impression of the sound recording, and the other to receive either a second sound recording or “a roughened surface…covered by fine lines close together and crossing at right angles.” Columbia addressed Macdonald’s claim that needles need not be changed after each playing by marketing semi-permanent gold-plated needles for use with the records.

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Marconi discs carried a large warning sticker on the blank reverse sides. The “fine lines close together and crossing at right angles” specified in Macdonald’s patent can be seen on the outer edge.

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Columbia reportedly sent advance copies of the first Marconi catalog to dealers in February 1907, the same month in which the records were announced in The Talking Machine World. A few dealers began advertising the records in March, inviting customers to come and listen, but it appears to have been a trial balloon. Little advertising appeared during the summer of 1907, and Columbia itself did not make its “first announcement” of the new records in The Talking Machine World until September.

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(Top) One of the earliest dealer advertisements for Marconi records was published in Washington DC on March 20, 1907. The Chattanooga ad (center) appeared on April 18; “Fifteen Hundred” apparently refers to the quantity of discs for sale, not the number of individual selections. Columbia’s own “first announcement” (bottom) did not appear in The Talking Machine World until September 1907.

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Bearing Marconi’s name, portrait, and facsimile signature, the records were touted as “Wonderful as Wireless.” American Graphophone filed a trademark application on the Velvet Tone trademark (but not Marconi’s name, which likely would not have been approved under U.S. trademark guidelines) on May 1, 1907. The records were a deluxe product, pressed in smooth black celluloid and packaged in heavy paper sleeves with glassine windows. Elaborate, oversized patent notice labels, affixed to the blank reverse sides, warned that the records could be safely played only with special gold-plated semi-permanent needles. Marconi’s receding hairline, which is evident on the early labels, was retouched in later printings.

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Despite their premium price and exotic appearance, Marconi records were pressed from standard Columbia masters, including material recorded several years earlier. The discs were produced in 10″ and 12″ series. The standard 10″ series substituted special catalog numbers for Columbia’s own, starting at 01 and reaching into the low 0400s before being discontinued. Twelve-inch discs were assigned the same 30000-series catalog numbers as corresponding Columbia releases.

Double-sided Marconi pressings are known, as are Marconi-type pressings with standard Columbia labels, but these probably were prototypes or samples. Thus far, no evidence has been found that they were intended for retail sale.

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Relatively few Marconi sleeves have survived.

 

Columbia apparently envisioned an international market for the Marconi discs, and various export versions are known. The best-known are the specially numbered Fonogramas Marconi, manufactured at Bridgeport for Mexican or South American distribution. A Chinese Marconi-type record (labeled Columbia Concert Record) and a Marconi sleeve with text in Japanese have also been reported. Several extremely rare Marconi-type  pressings from Italian Fonotipia masters, bearing special Fonotipia–Marconi Velvet Tone labels, are also known to exist.

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A rare Fonogramas Marconi disc made for the Mexican market.  (Kurt Nauck collection)

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Sales of the Marconi records lagged, however. Retailing for more than the ordinary Columbia releases they duplicated, requiring the use of expensive special (albeit reusable) needles, easily damaged, and having a tendency to slip on the turntable, Marconi discs do not seem to have engaged the general public. Production was discontinued in 1908, leaving Columbia with a large unsold inventory. By 1910 the discs were being remaindered by Simpson, Crawford & Co. (New York) for 17¢ each, or six for $1. The special gold-plated needles were given away with a minimum purchase.

Today, Marconi records are highly prized by collectors. They range from fairly scarce (for some of better-selling popular issues) to extremely rare (particularly for the export and Fonotipia-Marconi issues). The original paper envelopes can also be hard to find. Well-cared-for Marconi discs have remarkably quiet surfaces revealing recorded details that can be lost in Columbia’s usual grainy shellac pressings. Unfortunately, many surviving copies suffer from lamination cracks or needle damage, which can reduce their monetary value to “wall-hanger” level.

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© 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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New Discography — Star Records (Hawthorne & Sheble) • Free Download

Free to Download for Personal Use

STAR RECORDS (HAWTHORNE & SHEBLE)
The Complete Discography
Data Compiled by William R. Bryant
Edited and Annotated by Allan Sutton

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When the Hawthorne & Sheble Manufacturing Company launched its Star label in 1907, it turned to Columbia as its source of masters — a seemingly ironic move, since Columbia had just forced Hawthorne, Sheble & Prescott’s American Record Company out business. But there’s more to the story, as you’ll see in the introduction to this new discography.

Other than a few relabeled American Record Company discs, Star records were legal reissues of Columbia recordings, pressed in Hawthorne & Sheble’s own plant using Columbia masters from which all tell-tale markings had been effaced, and new catalog numbers substituted. Until 1909, the vast majority showed no artist credits on the labels or in the catalogs.

The discography includes artist identifications, as determined  from the corresponding Columbia releases; the original Columbia source issues and release dates; the Star release dates, taken from the original catalogs and supplements; corresponding H&S pressings on labels like Busy Bee and Harmony; and a listing of confirmed American Record relabelings.

You’ll also find a timeline covering the history of Hawthorne & Sheble from 1893 through 1910, and a selection of Star record and phonograph advertisements.

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Download Acrobat / Reader file (pdf) (~ 4.5 mb)
(Free for Personal Use — Print-Restricted)

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Star Records is a part of the free
Record Collectors’ Online Reference Library,
courtesy of Mainspring Press, the leader in forensic discography.

This copyrighted publication is intended for personal, non-commercial use only. Unauthorized reproduction or distribution by any means, including but not limited to e-book or online database conversion, is prohibited. Please read, and be sure to observe, our terms of use as outlined in the file, so that we can continue to offer these free publications.

 

Buy Direct from Mainspring Press:

Winner of the 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded-Sound Research, this unique volume contains more than 1,100 entries covering the record companies, independent studios, and individual producers — and the thousands of disc and cylinder brands they produced for the commercial market (including consumer, jukebox, and subscription labels) — from the birth of commercial recording to the start of the LP era.

“A mighty fortress is this book – and it guards an accumulation of knowledge of unparalleled proportions.”
– Tim Fabrizio, ARSC Journal

American Record Companies and Producers will forever be the ultimate resource.”
– John R. Bolig, author of The Victor Discographies

“I am in awe of the scope, breadth, detail
and documentation.”

– James A. Drake, author of Ponselle: A Singer’s Life and Richard Tucker: A Biography


DETAILS AND SECURE ONLINE ORDERING

 .

New Discography: Sonora Vertical-Cut Records (Free Download for Personal Use)

Free to Download for Personal Use

SONORA VERTICAL-CUT RECORDS
A Preliminary Discography

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The newest addition to Mainspring Press’ free Online Reference Library explores the Sonora Phonograph Company’s rare and obscure 1910 vertical-cut discs.

Sonora’s attempts to enter the phonograph and record market were stymied from the start by attorneys for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Having been legally enjoined from making standard lateral-cut recordings (although they went so far as to advertise a lateral disc under the Crown label), Sonora took a bold but ill-advised step, becoming the first American producer to reach the market with vertical-cut discs.

Unfortunately, no significant market yet existed for such records in the United States, nor was Sonora able to create one. The company failed in 1911, and its masters were taken over by the producers of the newly launched Princess label, which was equally unsuccessful in winning over converts to the vertical cut. The Sonora name and “Clear as a Bell” trademark subsequently passed through a long succession of other owners.

Sonora Vertical-Cut Records is the only in-depth study of these records, compiled from first-hand inspection of the original discs and ancillary materials. It is a preliminary discography, and we will be updating it online as needed; information on submitting data will be found in the file. Also included is a timeline summarizing the Sonora Phonograph Company’s history, adapted from American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950 (the very few remaining copies are available from Mainspring Press).

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Download Acrobat / Reader file (pdf) (< 1 mb)

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Sonora Vetical-Cut Records is a part of the free
Record Collectors’ Online Reference Library,
courtesy of Mainspring Press, the leader in forensic discography.

This copyrighted publication is intended for personal, non-commercial use only. Unauthorized reproduction or distribution by any means, including but not limited to e-book or online database conversion, is prohibited. Please read, and be sure to observe, our terms of use as outlined in the file, so that we can continue to offer these free publications.

 

 

Buy Direct from Mainspring Press:

Winner of the 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded-Sound Research, this unique volume contains more than 1,100 entries covering the record companies, independent studios, and individual producers — and the thousands of disc and cylinder brands they produced for the commercial market (including consumer, jukebox, and subscription labels) — from the birth of commercial recording to the start of the LP era.

“A mighty fortress is this book – and it guards an accumulation of knowledge of unparalleled proportions.”
– Tim Fabrizio, ARSC Journal

American Record Companies and Producers will forever be the ultimate resource.”
– John R. Bolig, author of The Victor Discographies

“I am in awe of the scope, breadth, detail
and documentation.”

– James A. Drake, author of Ponselle: A Singer’s Life and Richard Tucker: A Biography


DETAILS AND SECURE ONLINE ORDERING

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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.

Latest Free Download • The Victor Light Opera Company Discography (John R. Bolig)

Latest Free Download

The Victor Light Opera Company Discography
(1909–1930)
By John R. Bolig
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Victor’s “Gems from…” discs were among the first records many of us encountered as budding young collectors. Like them or not,  they were still seemingly everywhere. Even now, you’re bound to run across them if you scrounge enough estate sales, junk shops, and !!RARE !!L@@K!! eBay listings.

They had been tremendous sellers, capitalizing on a popular American phenomenon of the day — grand opera sung in English by troupes of competent, if not-quite-stellar, artists. As the twentieth century began, countless small civic and private opera companies were making the glories of Verdi and Puccini accessible to the far-flung general public at affordable prices and in a language most could understand, just as the “Gems from…” series would do.

But Victor went a step farther, adding medleys from the latest hit Broadway shows that the average American was unlikely to be able to attend in person. In the process, the good folks at Victor  unwittingly preserved many now-forgotten songs (albeit it in abridged versions, and sometimes taken at break-neck tempos) that otherwise went unrecorded. The company had no qualms about using stage shots from the actual productions, picturing the actual stars (who almost never performed on the records), in advertising new “Gems” releases.

The Victor Light Opera Company was a fiction, of course. It never staged any live productions, and it never appeared in public. Its “cast” members — mainly Victor’s studio work-horses — changed from one recording session to another and (with one notable exception) were not credited on the labels. But their names are preserved in the Victor ledgers and, thanks to John Bolig’s expert sleuthing and generosity in sharing his work, are now available to you in this unique publication. Enjoy!

 

The Victor Light Opera Company is the latest addition to Mainspring’s rapidly growing Free Online Reference Library. As with all titles in the Library, this is a copyrighted publication and is offered for personal, non-commercial use only. You can help ensure that we continue to offer these free titles (and protect yourself from potential legal problems) by honoring our terms of use, as outlined at the beginning of each file.

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Download File for Personal Use (print-restricted) (pdf , ~1mb)

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Buy Direct from Mainspring Press:

Winner of the 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded-Sound Research, this unique volume contains more than 1,100 entries covering the record companies, independent studios, and individual producers — and the thousands of disc and cylinder brands they produced for the commercial market (including consumer, jukebox, and subscription labels) — from the birth of commercial recording to the start of the LP era.

“A mighty fortress is this book – and it guards an accumulation of knowledge of unparalleled proportions.”
– Tim Fabrizio, ARSC Journal

American Record Companies and Producers will forever be the ultimate resource.”
– John R. Bolig, author of The Victor Discographies

“I am in awe of the scope, breadth, detail
and documentation.”

– James A. Drake, author of Ponselle: A Singer’s Life and Richard Tucker: A Biography


DETAILS AND SECURE ONLINE ORDERING

 

 

Latest Free Download • U-S Everlasting Cylinders – Complete Issues (New Revised Edition)

Latest Free Download

U-S EVERLASTING CYLINDERS:
Complete Issues

 

New Revised Edition by Allan Sutton
Data Compiled by William R. Bryant and
The Record Research Associates

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Introducing the latest edition of Mainspring Press’ 2011 U-S Everlasting cylinderography (now out of print), fully revised using data from William R. Bryant’s and the Record Research group’s extensive research collections (a part of the Mainspring Press archive). In addition to the complete popular/standard catalog, this edition covers the Foreign, Grand Opera, Medicophone, and Singaphone series.

U-S Everlasting Cylinders is the latest addition to Mainspring’s rapidly growing Free Online Reference Library. As with all titles in the Library, this is a copyrighted publication and is offered for personal, non-commercial use only. You can help ensure that we continue to offer these free titles (and protect yourself from potential legal problems) by honoring our terms of use, as outlined at the beginning of each file.

.

Download File for Personal Use (print-restricted)
(pdf , ~1mb
)

 

Buy Direct from Mainspring Press:

Winner of the 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded-Sound Research, this unique volume contains more than 1,100 entries covering the record companies, independent studios, and individual producers — and the thousands of disc and cylinder brands they produced for the commercial market (including consumer, jukebox, and subscription labels) — from the birth of commercial recording to the start of the LP era.

“A mighty fortress is this book – and it guards an accumulation of knowledge of unparalleled proportions.”
– Tim Fabrizio, ARSC Journal

American Record Companies and Producers will forever be the ultimate resource.”
– John R. Bolig, author of The Victor Discographies

“I am in awe of the scope, breadth, detail
and documentation.”

– James A. Drake, author of Ponselle: A Singer’s Life and Richard Tucker: A Biography


DETAILS AND SECURE ONLINE ORDERING

 

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Latest Free Download • Indestructible Cylinders, 1907–1921 (New Revised Edition)

Latest Free Download

INDESTRUCTIBLE CYLINDERS:
The Complete American and
British Issues, 1907–1921

 

New Revised Edition by Allan Sutton
Data Compiled by William R. Bryant and
The Record Research Associates

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Introducing the latest edition of Mainspring Press’ 2011 Indestructible cylinderography (now out of print), fully revised using data from William R. Bryant’s and the Record Research group’s extensive research collections (a part of the Mainspring Press archive).

Indestructible Cylinders is the latest addition to Mainspring’s rapidly growing Free Online Reference Library. As with all titles in the Library, this is a copyrighted publication and is offered for personal, non-commercial use only. You can help ensure that we continue to offer these free titles (and protect yourself from potential legal problems) by honoring our terms of use, as outlined at the beginning of each file.

.

Download File for Personal Use (print-restricted) (.pdf, ~1mb)

 

Buy Direct from Mainspring Press:

Winner of the 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded-Sound Research, this unique volume contains more than 1,100 entries covering the record companies, independent studios, and individual producers — and the thousands of disc and cylinder brands they produced for the commercial market (including consumer, jukebox, and subscription labels) — from the birth of commercial recording to the start of the LP era.

“A mighty fortress is this book – and it guards an accumulation of knowledge of unparalleled proportions.”
– Tim Fabrizio, ARSC Journal

American Record Companies and Producers will forever be the ultimate resource.”
– John R. Bolig, author of The Victor Discographies

“I am in awe of the scope, breadth, detail
and documentation.”

– James A. Drake, author of Ponselle: A Singer’s Life and Richard Tucker: A Biography


DETAILS AND SECURE ONLINE ORDERING

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Good Listening • “The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us from Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business” (Archeophone)

Good Listening:

The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us from Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business
(Archeophone 6011)

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If you’ve been following Jim Drake’s Gus Haenschen interview series on the blog, here’s the accompanying soundtrack, on a newly released CD. Archeophone Records has compiled a superb sampling of recordings by Haenschen and some of the bands and singers he oversaw in the studio, along with some interesting related items.

The star attraction is a complete run of Haenschen’s 1916 Columbia Personal Records, including his Banjo Orchestra’s  impossibly rare “Maple Leaf Rag” — a wonderfully relaxed performance that stands in striking contrast to Vess Ossman’s break-neck rendition of a decade earlier. It’s interesting to compare this with recordings of the same piece by Brun Campbell, the only other confirmed Joplin pupil to have recorded it (Haenschen recalled paying Joplin “around $25 a month” for instruction). Unfortunately, the Personal Records were made at a time when Columbia’s recording and pressing quality were at their all-time worst, but Archeophone has done a remarkable job of  recovering what’s there while preserving the integrity of the original recordings.

The rest of the CD is devoted largely to jazz, pop vocal, and dance numbers of 1920–1924 by artists Haenschen recorded for Brunswick, ranging from some fine regional bands captured on their home turf, to the rather dreadful (but historically interesting) Charlie Chaplin–Abe Lyman collaboration. Brunswick’s acoustic recording technology was far superior to Victor’s or Columbia’s and comes through brilliantly through in these clean transfers. A nice bonus is an excerpt from Jim Drake’s 1975 interview with Haenschen and songwriter Irving Caesar.

Archeophone productions are notable for their accompanying booklets, and this one (at a generous thirty pages) is no exception, with an expertly researched and well-written biography and listening guide by Colin Hancock, a detailed discography, and many rare illustrations. For more details, visit Archeophone Records.

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On the Mainspring Press Blog:
James A. Drake: The Gus Haenschen Interviews

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110 Years Ago at Victor: Introducing the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet (Plus Photographs from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “When Malindy Sings”)

110 Years Ago at Victor: Introducing the
Fisk University Jubilee Quartet

With Photographs from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s
When Malindy Sings

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Victor announces the first Fisk Jubilee Singers releases
(catalog courtesy of John Bolig)

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On February 19, 1910, the Victor Talking Machine Company released the first recordings by a quartet from the Fisk Jubilee Singers — a widely celebrated group that nevertheless had been ignored thus far by the recording companies. They were not the first black vocal group to record, by any means (see Tim Brooks’ Lost Sounds for more on that), but those groups had failed to gain traction in the record market, and their names were mostly dim memories by the time Victor released its first Fisk records.

Blues-and-gospel purists often dismiss these records as pandering to white audiences with “sanitized” or “Europeanized” treatment of traditional spirituals. But that was precisely the strategy — to present black music and performers in a concert setting, in a bid to attract white audiences who might otherwise have never considered attending a performance or purchasing a record by a black artist — and it succeeded wonderfully. Victor’s initial Fisk offerings were outstanding sellers and are still among the most commonly encountered records of the period. The Fisk singers, with periodic personnel changes, went on to make dozens of recordings for Victor, Edison, and Columbia from 1910 to early 1926.

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FISK UNIVERSITY JUBILEE QUARTET: I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray

Camden NJ: December 8, 1909
Victor 16448 (mx. B 8422 – 2)
Released February 10, 1909; Deleted 1923.

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For their other February 1910 Fisk release, Victor slipped into more typical “good-old-plantation-days” mode, having the group record Stephen Foster’s “Old Black Joe,” and backing it with J. A. Myers’ recitation of the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, “When Malindy Sings.” Although Dunbar was African-American, and his work can be deeply moving at times, he employed stereotypical minstrel-show dialect that is almost unreadable, and difficult to stomach,  today. Myers’ recitation is an anomaly among the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ recorded output.

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From Paul Laurence Dunbar’s When Malindy Sings (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1903). The book is notable for its photographs by members of the Hampton Institute Camera Club, headed by Leigh Richard Miner; names of the individual photographers unfortunately were not given. (Mainspring Press collection):

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Gus Haenschen: The Radio Years — Part 4 (Conclusion)

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The Radio Years — Part 4 (Conclusion)

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In this final segment of The Radio Years, Gus Haenschen recalls his later experiences in radio and the changes that took place as television came upon the scene.

Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:

Brunswick Years – Part 1  |  Brunswick Years – Part 2
Brunswick Years – Part 3  |  Brunswick Years – Part 4
Radio Years – Part 1  |  Radio Years – Part 2
Radio Years – Part 3

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About the music programs you were responsible for, I’m inclined to begin by asking you what the Hummerts’ fascination with Thomas L. Thomas stemmed from.

You would have to have known Thomas to understand that. If you have ever seen film of him, you’d understand it because he was a handsome man, very engaging, a first-rate musician, and very, very easy to work with.

 

But his voice, to my ears, is small and his tone is more of a lyric tenor than a baritone.

It wasn’t as small as you might think. His voice carried very well, even in a large venue. That didn’t matter on radio, of course, but when we were on tour and were singing in armories, his voice carried very well. And he could sing anything—he had a very wide repertoire—so if he sang a folk ballad, it would sound like a folk ballad, and if he sang a song from a Jerome Kern musical, it would sound like a Broadway singer would sing it. It was his versatility, more than anything else, that made him so popular.

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Vivian Della Chiesa (left) and Thomas L. Thomas

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John Raitt told me that Thomas L. Thomas was his model, and that he wanted to do as Thomas did and have a concert career as well as to sing on television and on Broadway.

When John was starting out, he asked me a lot about [Thomas L.] Thomas. John was meant for Broadway, and his voice is much more distinctive and a good bit larger than Thomas’s was. But John did not have the level of musicianship that Thomas had. John Raitt would never have had a concert career like Thomas L. Thomas did. Nor would Thomas have had a Broadway career like John Raitt has had.

 

Thomas had a brother, David Thomas, who was also a singer. Did you have David Thomas on any of the Hummert programs?

No. David Thomas was basically a character actor who could do some singing. His whole career was spent in Broadway musicals and plays. He was in just about every performance of “My Fair Lady” [on Broadway], singing a character role in the ensembles. But he was an actor, not a singer like Thomas L. Thomas was.

 

In your archive, there is an air-check of an arrangement you wrote for Thomas L. Thomas and Margaret Daum, a symphonic arrangement of “White Christmas.” Do you recall that arrangement?

Very well—especially when I got a call afterward from Irving Berlin, who gave me a real shellacking over the phone! He told me that I had not only ruined the song but that I had also “wasted” an entire minute distorting his melody before Thomas and Daum had sung a note.

 

Did you defend the arrangement?

At Brunswick, I had learned not to try to reason with Berlin when he was mad. I could have said, “At least I didn’t have them sing the verse,” which if you’ve ever heard it, has nothing to do with Christmas. The verse is a lament about being in Beverly Hills and being surrounded by palm trees instead of pine trees. Anyway, all I said to him was that it wouldn’t happen again. That’s all you could say to Berlin when he was yelling at you over the phone. You could also count on getting a short but very complimentary letter from Berlin a week or so later. He wouldn’t mention the incident but would tell you that he and his wife often listened to your program.

 

The “White Christmas” arrangement was broadcast on “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round.” Was Thomas L. Thomas the star of the show week after week, or was he on it only occasionally?

He was the male star of “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round” at that time, and he was also on the Monday broadcast of the show [“Monday Merry-Go-Round”] and later on Frank and Anne gave him a half-hour program called “Your Song and Mine,” which was a middle-of-the-week show. By then, he was singing a lot on “The Voice of Firestone,” which he continued to do on television. He was still concertizing, and he sang all over Europe and I think in Australia too.

 

The Hummerts had a show called “London Merry-Go-Round.” Were you involved in that show?

No. They owned the rights to it, but the show was cast and broadcast in London. I didn’t have anything to do with it, and for all practical purposes neither did Frank and Anne.

 

There was another variation called “Broadway Merry-Go-Round.” Did you oversee that show too?

Yes, in the sense that I put in Frank Black as the conductor and let him pick the songs. Frank and Anne had this fascination with Paris, so everything on that show was supposed to be French-themed. We mixed comic songs and ballads on that show. Fannie Brice did the first half of the run of that show, but she had so many other offers that she didn’t want to be tied down to a weekly radio show. Bea Lillie was very popular then, so she replaced Fannie Brice—but that show only lasted one season, if my memory is right.

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Haenschen with Vivian Della Chiesa

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The Hummerts had another French show, “The French Mignon Trio,” but there isn’t much about it in your collection. Do you remember the show?

Unfortunately, I do. I was against it, but Anne wanted a daytime music show with a small cast and nothing but French songs. She came up with the title, which I thought was atrocious, but I couldn’t do anything about it because once her mind was made up, there was no changing it. I wish I could remember who the announcer was, but his name escapes me. He couldn’t pronounce “Mignon” at first and had to be told that it was pronounced the same as “filet mignon.” I’m not sure whether that show lasted an entire season, or whether Frank quietly dropped it.

 

Going back to “Broadway Merry-Go-Round,” the Hummerts had another “Broadway” show on the air that same season called “Broadway Varieties.” What do you remember about that show?

That one ran about five or six years. It didn’t do very well at first, mainly because Jerry Freeman, whom I had picked to conduct the show and handle the arrangements, just didn’t work out. It was also French-themed—not every number, but at least some of them in every show—and Jerry Freeman just didn’t give the show any life. So I turned it over to Vic Arden, and he made a go of it. Fifi D’Orsay was one of the stars. Willie and Gene Howard were on that show too. That was a show that we started on NBC and then switched to CBS for a better time slot and higher advertising rates. We also did that with another show, “American Melody Hour.”

 

Was the theme of that show “The songs of the day so you can know them all and sing them all yourself”?

Yes, Anne [Hummert] came up with that one. That’s very typical of her [writing] style, by the way. That’s the style of the narratives on their soap operas. “American Melody Hour” was a good show because of the cast and the arrangements. Frank Munn did the whole run, and Vivian Della Chiesa did the first season. Vivian wanted to go on tour, where she could make a lot more money. She was in good standing with Frank and Anne, and she promised she would do any shows that they wanted her for. She stayed with them, and she was on several of their shows later on.

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Vivian Della Chiesa and Frank Munn on “The American Melody Hour” (Autumn 1941)

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Who conducted and did the arrangements for “American Melody Hour”?

Frank Black did all of them. When Vivian wanted to go on tour, we were in negotiations to move the show from NBC to CBS. When we went over to CBS, we put in Evelyn MacGregor, who was very good, and Jean Pickens was on the show for a time. Stan[ley] McClelland was the baritone, and he and Frank [Munn] did a lot of duets. And Carmela Ponselle too—she was on several of the “American Melody Hour” shows when we went to CBS.

 

There was a show called “Waltz Time,” which I believe you conducted.

That was a long-running show, but I only conducted its first season—maybe the first and second, I’m not sure—but most of them were conducted by Abe Lyman. We put together that show as another vehicle for Frank Munn. He sang on every program until he retired, and then we put in a young lyric tenor named Bob Hannon. We paired Frank with Lucy Monroe, who did almost the entire run.

 

For some reason, it’s hard to envision Abe Lyman leading an orchestra that played nothing but waltzes. Was it a “hard sell” to get him to do that show?

No, not at all. “Waltz Time” was a very popular program, and it made Abe a lot of money. It wasn’t the kind of music he preferred playing, but he still had his own band and was still touring with them. But this was a solid program in a very good time slot, and the money was very, very good.

 

Although these shows emanated from New York, several of the Hummert programs had “Hollywood” in their titles—“Hollywood Nights,” “The Imperial Hollywood Band,” and “MGM Radio Movie Club.” You conducted “The Imperial Hollywood Band” program, but did you also conduct the other ones?

Well, first of all, “MGM Radio Movie Club” wasn’t a musical program at all. Anne [Hummert] had this idea for a show that would simulate a movie studio. It was a dialogue show with actors playing the parts of directors, cameramen, producers and such. “The Imperial Hollywood Band” was a show we used for up and coming singers and instrumentalists. I did most of the arrangements, picked who would be featured on each program, and conducted the orchestra.

 

And “Hollywood Nights”?

That was a show we put together at NBC for Frank Luther, but it didn’t “take” and was only one for a year. Frank was a good ensemble singer but he wasn’t strong enough to carry a show by himself.

 

In those early days of network radio, who decided whether a show would continue on the air or be cancelled?

That depended on whether the show was sponsored. The ones that weren’t sponsored were underwritten by the network and were called “sustaining,” meaning that the network was paying the tab. If a show was sponsored, the sponsors would deal directly with the network’s advertising people. But for all the Hummerts’ programs, Frank dealt with the sponsors and with the network. He was the one who put the sponsors together with the shows, and he called the shots with the sponsors and the network. That’s how much power he had.

 

Would [Frank Hummert] take on a music program before he had a sponsor for it—in effect, “sustaining” a program until he could find a sponsor?

No, never. There was no money to be made in a situation like that. Keep in mind that Frank’s career was in advertising. Sponsors were what mattered the most to him.

 

One of the Hummert music program was called “California Theatre of the Air.” Did it originate in California?

No, it originated in New York. It was a knock-off of “Chicago Theatre of the Air,” the show that Col. [Robert R.] McCormick used as a showcase for Marion Claire. Frank knew McCormick from his [Frank Hummert’s] years in Chicago. That “California Theatre of the Air” only lasted one season because there was nothing distinctive about it.

 

The Hummerts also had a show called “Nightclub of the Air” in the mid-1930s. What was the premise of that program?

That show was pretty open-ended. Any of the popular bands could appear on the show, and Isham Jones, Gus Arnheim, Abe Lyman, Fred Waring, and Ted Fiorito were on it. Milton Cross was the announcer of that show.

 

The Hummerts also had a program called “Roxy Symphony Theater of the Stars.” How much interaction did they have with “Roxy” Rothafel?

Not very much because it was Roxy’s theater and the program was essentially a broadcast of one of the stage shows at Radio City Music Hall during the first year or two that it was open.

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S. L. “Roxy” Rothafel (left) and conductor Erno Rapee

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Were you involved with the show yourself?

No, hardly at all. Roxy had hired Erno Rapee as his conductor, and he had a staff of arrangers. The Radio City orchestra had over 100 players, and of course they had a large chorus and that famous dance troupe. All I did was to look over what would be sung or played. Rapee had done several sessions for us at World Broadcasting, so he and I knew each other very well, and he knew what songs the Hummerts wanted to hear. But Roxy and Radio City were so big that they didn’t need the Hummerts, so that program didn’t last more than a year or two.

 

There was another short-lived program around that same time, called “Waves of Melody.” What do you remember about that show?

I think that was the one that began as a fifteen-minute program at NBC, then Frank expanded it to a half-hour, and it went nowhere. Vic[tor] Arden oversaw the arrangements and conducted the orchestra, and Frank [Hummert] found a tenor that he wanted Vic to feature. I can’t remember the name of the tenor [Tom Brown], but he didn’t go anywhere and the show didn’t either.

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In your collection, there are arrangements for a show called “The Musical Revue” which you conducted. What was the format of that program?

That was basically “The Palmolive Hour” under a different title, with Frank Munn, Virginia Rea, and Elizabeth Lennox and our studio orchestra. Frank Black and I alternated conducting the shows, and we did the arrangements as well.

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“The Pet Milk Hour” in a later incarnation, as “Saturday Night Serenade.” This ad is from a 1940s Pet Milk cookbook.

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One of your most popular shows late in your radio career was “The Pet Milk Hour,” which we had talked about before. In the late-1940s you gave two singers a start on that show: Vic Damone and Florence Henderson. I don’t believe either one of them had any national exposure until you put them on “The Pet Milk Hour.” Had you auditioned them?

Perry Como had recommended Vic to me. I had met Perry when he was with Ted Weems’ band, and I had given him some advice when he went out on his own. Vic was ideal to work with. Florence Henderson wasn’t with us very long. She was a conservatory graduate and had wanted to be an opera singer, but she really didn’t have the voice for it.

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Perry Como recommended Vic Damone to Haenschen for the Pet Milk broadcasts.

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Are you still in touch with both Vic Damone and Florence Henderson?

With Vic, yes, but not Florence Henderson. She’s so big on television now, and she doesn’t like to be reminded of her radio days because it dates her. Vic is just as popular today as he was twenty-five years ago. He’s followed Perry’s example of keeping in shape physically and vocally.

 

The longest-running of the Hummert shows, and the one you were associated with from beginning to end, was “The American Album of Familiar Music.” You did that show for twenty years, so it must hold a special place in your memory.

That was my show, it was my format, and I had the pick of anybody I wanted for that program. From the start [in 1931], I always mixed light classical music with popular music, so I was able to vary the repertoire and give the show a different “feel” than the other [Hummert] programs. I had my “regulars” on the show—especially Frank Munn, Virginia Rea, Lucy Monroe, Elizabeth Lennox, and Vivian Della Chiesa—but I also had Bert[ram] Hirsch heading the string section, and an excellent chorus too. Over the years, all of the guys who played in our World Broadcasting sessions—both Dorseys, [Benny] Goodman, Artie [Shaw] and the others—were in “The American Album” orchestra.

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Haenschen as the face of “The American Album of Familiar Music”

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When “The American Album” went off the air in 1951, you continued touring with the entire orchestra and cast until 1954.

I liked those annual tours, and I had discovered a new tenor who was perfect for everything we did on that show. His name was Earl William Sauvain, and he sang under the name “Earl William.” Earl was built like a lumberjack, and was a very handsome young guy. And what a tenor voice! I owe Jim Melton for Earl William Sauvain because Jim had discovered Lilian Murphy Sauvain, Earl’s wife, who was also a singer and a very attractive, petite woman. Well, I put together the best vocal trio I had ever had on “The American Album”: Earl as the tenor, and a good-looking baritone named Michael Roberts, and Vivian Della Chiesa as our soprano. My one regret is that I hadn’t come across Earl much, much earlier, when I could have given him more exposure and a longer career as a star. He certainly deserved it.

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“American Album” artists: Gus Haenschen (top left); Vivian Della Chiesa (top right); Earl William (Sauvain) (bottom left); and Michael Roberts (bottom right).

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In 1953 and 1954, even though “The American Album of Familiar Music” was no longer on the air, you toured the country from October 27 to December 16, 1953, and then again from late-October to mid-December 1954, you performed in fifty cities in fifty days. That’s a grueling schedule in a caravan of buses!

I won’t disagree about the schedule—but you also don’t hear me saying that I didn’t want to do it. I loved being on the road with “The American Album.” We were received like royalty wherever we performed, and all of us had a great time doing those tours.

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After radio: Examples of an “American Album of Familiar Music” program and their grueling itinerary in the early 1950s, from Haenschen’s archive.

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Being responsible to the Hummerts for overseeing all of their music programs must have been extremely time-consuming. How did you manage all of those programs?

The same way I managed all of the popular-music recording sessions for Brunswick, and after that the output of the World Broadcasting Company. None of the Hummert radio shows were complicated from a musical standpoint—the arrangements weren’t hard to do, we had the pick of the best studio musicians and singers, and Frank handled the sponsors and the networks. Frank and Anne ran their entire operation—the music shows, the soap operas, the kids’ shows, the detective shows—like a machine. I had gotten used to that long ago, so it wasn’t a problem for me.

 

Were you surprised that they didn’t carry their “radio empire” into television?

Not really, because television and radio were totally different in the late-1940s. Most people thought television was a fad that would go away. Even after the coaxial cable that linked the East and West coasts was completed, television sets were expensive and unreliable, and the networks—especially NBC—saw themselves as radio networks. If you remember television in the late-1940s, you’ll remember that except in New York and Chicago, television went on the air in the morning, and then went off the air until the late afternoon. The market for television programs was kids’ shows until Milton Berle started his Texaco show.

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1954 advance booking notice for the “American Album” group

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You could have turned “The American Album of Familiar Music” into a television program, much the same as Fred Waring did with the Pennsylvanians. Were you at all tempted to do that?

Actually, Fred persuaded me to get into television. He was sure it was here to stay. [Paul] Whiteman had gotten a television show, and NBC had already televised Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, so Fred really encouraged me to go into television. But Frank [Hummert] didn’t want to make the switch, and I had already been in show business for thirty years, mostly on radio except for my years at Brunswick, so I didn’t want to get involved in a new medium.

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Reviews for the “American Album” concerts, early 1950s

 

You did at least one television show with Jimmy Durante in 1949 or 1950. How did that come about?

He asked me to conduct the orchestra for one of his television shows. I used to kid Jimmy that I knew him before he was Jimmy Durante. I met him when he was a ragtime pianist.

 

That was before he teamed with Lew Clayton and Eddie Jackson?

Long before that. I’m talking about 1919, when Jimmy was the pianist with the Original New Orleans Jazz Band. In those days, Lew Clayton was in big-time vaudeville with Cliff Edwards. They were a big draw on the Keith Circuit, and with the Shuberts—they were an opening act for Jolson at the Winter Garden. But back when I met Jimmy Durante, he was just a ragtime pianist in cafes. Then he opened his own club, the Club Durant, and got Lew Clayton to invest in it. That was the start of Clayton, Jackson and Durante.

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Jimmy Durante (center) with the Original New Orleans Jazz Band, c. 1919.

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Where was the television show you conducted for Jimmy Durante telecast?

At NBC. I have a kinescope of it. Jimmy had come into his own long before then, and he was a big star. If you think about his career, he has done everything and has done it well. He was in one of the earliest jazz bands in New York, and then he made it big on Broadway with Clayton and Jackson—but it was Jimmy who was the star. He went into radio, and was also in several films that did very well, and then he became a television star. I feel so bad for him now because of the stroke he had about three years ago [in 1972]. Jimmy is one of the nicest guys in show business, and he’s the same off the stage as he is on the stage.

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Haenschen (right) signing autographs for “American Album” fans in Boston. Earl William (Sauvain) is at the left.

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After “The American Album of Familiar Music” went off the air, and you did the annual tours, were you still with the Hummerts?

I still had my position with Air Features, but television had taken hold by then, and Frank was having health problems. His health began to fail around 1960. It’s been almost ten years since Frank died [in 1966].

Do you still see Anne Hummert?

My wife spends time with her. Anne is a lost soul without Frank. They were so wrapped up in each other because of the sheer amount of shows they had on the air. But they had no children and very few friends, so Anne didn’t have many people to help her through Frank’s illness and death.

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Anne Hummert in 1939, when she was honored by editors of The Biographical Dictionary of American Women as “One of the most important women in America.”

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I should have asked you this first, but what brought you to the Hummerts, or the Hummerts to you?

Frank offered me the position. He came to me.

 

Just Frank Hummert, and not Anne?

She had nothing to do with it. Frank and I had known each other long before he got into radio.

 

Had you met him when he was in the advertising business in Chicago?

No, no—in St. Louis. Frank’s father, whom Frank is named for [Edwin Frank Hummert, Jr.] was an exporter in St. Louis. Frank, who was five years older than I, started out working for his father in the export business. He wrote ads for the family business, and was such a good writer that he was hired by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Then he got into the real-estate business, first as an agent and then as a broker, and he made a ton of money in real estate.

Frank was also a “regular” at the St. Louis Cardinals games. My band played between innings, and Frank looked me up when he was still with the Post-Dispatch. He gave me a lot of good press. Then he decided to start his own advertising agency—and my band, and then Gene Rodemich’s, were among his first clients. When Frank married his first wife, Ellie [Adeline Eleanor Woodlock], I was the pianist at their wedding reception. Ellie died in her early forties, when she and Frank were living in Chicago.

Anne knew that I had been part of Frank’s life with his first wife, and I think that’s why Frank never involved her in any of his dealings with me. But like so many other things in my life, my years with Frank Hummert go back to St. Louis. That’s where it all started for me.

— J. A. D

 

In the next installment, Haenschen recalls his formative years in St. Louis, including previously unpublished details concerning his privately made Banjo Orchestra records.
Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:

Brunswick Years – Part 1  |  Brunswick Years – Part 2
Brunswick Years – Part 3  |  Brunswick Years – Part 4
Radio Years – Part 1  |  Radio Years – Part 2
Radio Years – Part 3

Text © 2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

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