by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Long before the creation of a professional choruses and orchestras in Los Angeles, talented amateur residents performed concerts with their own musical ensembles.
In 1888, as Los Angeles crested during the great “Boom of the Eighties”, attorney and real estate developer Charles J. Ellis started a choral club that bore his name with a total of thirty-two members.
Ellis was a native of the Boston area, an 1865 graduate of Harvard University, and, like his father, went into law. In the late 1870s, while in his early twenties, Ellis migrated to Los Angeles to open a practice and invest in the burgeoning real estate scene. His “Ellis Tract” was located west of Figueroa Street and north of Adams Boulevard in what became a very fashionable area of town in the late 19th century.
A 1916 article in the magazine, The Musical Courier, noted that Ellis was “a highly educated and accomplished gentleman, a connoisseur in music and art, and, because of his gentle and attractive manner, and his efficiency as an executive, was beloved and trusted by all.”
In the remaining years of the 19th century, Ellis’s club, of which remained an active officer, grew to over 100 members and performed concerts on a regular basis. In fact, the club’s members were in such demand for performances that the Orpheus Club, a similar organization, was launched in 1905 by Joseph P. Dupuy, a native of France and a voice teacher in Los Angeles.
In the Homestead’s collection are a pair of programs for Ellis Club concerts from 1894 and 1895. This post focuses on one for the earlier offering, held on 23 May 1894 at the New Turnverein Hall, which replaced a landmark German-American club hall about the time the club was founded, at Spring between 2nd and 3rd streets in downtown. That concert was the first of the sixth season for the club and featured fifteen pieces in two parts separated by an intermission.
While most of the works were, naturally, vocal pieces performed by club members who were conducted by Frederick Stevenson, there was considerable assistance from two female soloists (including a contralto and a soprano), a female pianist, a male organist, and The Woman’s Orchestra of Los Angeles.
Conducted by Harley E. Hamilton, who was also a violinist of repute in the city, the orchestra was founded in 1893 and, after a name change to the Los Angeles Woman’s Symphony Orchestra about thirty years later, continued to operate until the early 1960s. The ensemble performed instrumental interludes between some of the vocal works in the program.
Of all the works performed that evening, one was by the club’s conductor Stevenson, a native of England who identified himself as a composer as well as a vocal conductor and music teacher. His contribution was called “Come, Darling, Come,” using lyrics by Denver resident S. Fannie Houseley, who wrote songs with her husband Henry.
The Ellis Club remained popular and active through the first few decades of the 20th century and secured a footnote in history by being giving a transcontinental concert over the telephone to a group in New York in 1916. As times and tastes changed and the Great Depression ensued, the organization merged with the Orpheus Club to form the Ellis-Orpheus Club.
Under the new arrangement and moniker, the club pressed on, even as membership dwindle and concerts were fewer and farther between. It had long-serving musical directors of high quality, singers of dedication and talent, and enough support to continue operations through its centennial in 1988 and then lingering until a finale concert was given at a Torrance church in late March 2000. Amazingly, one member, George Stevens, performed that night at the age of 94 and had been a member since 1928.