Striking a Chord With “The Overture” Magazine, Los Angeles, 15 October 1925

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As noted in a previous post on this blog, The Overture was the official publication of the Musicians Mutual Protective Association, Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians and was issued twice monthly. This union organized in Los Angeles, a notoriously “open shop,” or non-union, city, in 1897 and it still exists today. Tonight’s featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection is the 15 October 1925 issue of the publication, issued from the Union League Building at Hill and 2nd streets in downtown Los Angeles.

The journal is an interesting and instructive window into the lives of professional unionized musicians during the mid-Twenties and there are several items of particular note. The first is on the impressively stylized front cover, which sports a drawing of three scantily clad muses playing the harp, a lute, and a horn. Below that, however, is a statement that the union’s board, at its 6 October meeting, approved a resolution banning any member “to render service broadcasting over LOS ANGELES TIMES RADIO STATION KHJ” effective the date the magazine was issued. Violations would lead “to such penalty as the Board of Directors may impose.”


In the “Editor’s Sanctum” it was noted that “Uncle John” Daggett, the most popular personality on KHJ and who was known for his programming for children including his “Bedtime Story,” was expanding his repertoire. Specifically, “evidently someone told John he was qualified to talk to the grownups for about two weeks ago, instead of telling the kiddies in his unusual gentle manner of how the ‘big brown bear chased the little white rabbit,’ radio fans were shocked to hear the gentleman deliver in stentorian voice a tirade against the Musicians’ Union merely because we dared to charge for our services in playing over radio.” When it was stated that he was applauded and, therefore, offered an encore, editor E.L. Smith, claimed that it was only from employees of the station owned by the vociferously anti-union Times.

Smith continued that “begin ambitions, Jawn [sic] decided he would appear right out in public where people could get the benefit of his gestures and everything, so he repeated the act at a luncheon at one of the big downtown hotels.” In this, the editor went on, “he was a riot, some of the customers declaring it to be the best comedy they had ever seen.” In the interests of “not wishing to throw anything in the way of an ambitious young man trying to get alone,” the Unions board “have decided to let ‘Uncle Jawn’ occupy the entire spotlight” but issued its order “prohibiting any member of Local 47 from playing over K.H.J., The Times.”


In the “Board Meetings” column, the minutes of the last two weekly meeting of September included information on applicants for membership as well as union musicians who transferred in from other cities. The best-known name among these was Fred Waring who, with his brother Tom and J. Roland McClintock and Fred Buck, submitted his transfer for engagements by Waring and His Pennsylvanians, a dance band formed in 1918 at Penn State University and which had its first of many hits in 1923.

At the 29 September board meeting, Waring submitted requests to perform with his band for a “dance team in conjunction with their own act” and “to play at [the] Soldiers’ Home for entertainment of inmates” as well as “for [a] student body rally at [the] University of Southern California” on 2 October. The second request was for the Pacific Branch of the National Home for Disabled Veterans in what became Westwood, while the latter involved a core audience for the band, college students. Waring and his orchestra continued to rise in popularity through the remainder of the Twenties and beyond becoming one of the biggest acts in America.


Other items of business from these board meetings includes the statement of H.J. Van Praag, who reported on hotel performances in Pasadena and stated “he has no orchestra on regular weekly salary at present; same musicians do play at different hotels, but he pays them at single rates; $10.00 per man for concert on Sunday nights; $8.00 per man on week days; concerts last possibly one-half to two hours.” For this, he was excused from union protocols. A Mr. Golstein, who ran “Jewish shows” at the Capitol Theatre on Spring Street south of 3rd, “asks that he be granted some concession in price for musicians” and was also excused from local rules. When the manager of a ball room in Ocean Park “asks that prices stated” in the by-laws ” be applied to his dance hall,” however, this was denied.

In reference to the radio issue, the meeting of the 29th included the approval of a motion “that on all steady weekly engagements continuing for six (6) months or longer, radio broadcasting in conjunction with regular work, scale shall be as follows: For orchestra, 1/2 hour, 15% extra; for orchestra, 1 hour, 25% extra; each additional 1/2 hour or fraction, 10% extra; one hour or more same day may be divided into 2 sessions.” There was also the matter of those musicians entitled to relief checks, with the confab of the 29th reporting that each of the nine persons received $10.00. Elsewhere in the magazine, a letter from a relief recipient, Earl Miller, was printed, thanking the local for the financial assistance he’d received after recently having two heart attacks.


Another item in “The Editor’s Sanctum” concerned the news that “the Olympic Auditorium which opened and ran for several weeks with non-union music has signed the regular form of theatrical agreement to employ union musicians for the next two years.” This included the unusual situation of having a twenty-piece band “play for the Wednesday night boxing matches” while another group ranging from ten to fifteen pieces “will be employed for the Monday night wrestling bouts.”

Lastly, there is an item about the Stewart Brothers concert of 17 October and broadcast on KFI, owned by Packard dealer Earle C. Anthony. This performance, with union musicians of course, included classical and popular pieces and included four women and fourteen men, with an emphasis on the cello, the featured instrument manufactured by the sponsors A.G. and C.G. Stewart, whose first and middle initials and surname were used in advertising as “All Good Cellists Get Stewarts.”


Elsewhere, there is a short item titled “Do You All Know?” by Winnifred C. Ziegler concerning the Women’s Club within the local and her opening statement of “a club of women within an organization can be made entire co-operative,” adding “they are not banded to cut throats, nor scales, but to help hold up the Union standard.” She continued that “our brother musicians will be glad to work with them, and for them” when the aims of the club were understood and when its members worked to be dependable, efficient and showed ability as professional musicians.

Ziegler repeated, for obvious unstated reasons of gender relations issues, that “no feeling of agitation, and no desire to disrupt” would be allowed and reported that the women’s club was a member of the state federation, counting some 34,000 women under its auspices. She concluded by stating that “those women . . . have a right to expect that the men will be friendly toward Club activities” and implored “Let’s get actually acquainted!”


A reprinted article from the Long Beach Morning Sun concerned the work of that city’s municipal band leader, Herbert L. Clarke, and his march, “Long Beach Is Calling,” written during an era when it was popular for city-themed promotional songs to be written and published. It was stated that the song was being included in the repertoires “of some of the most famous band organizations of the country” and that it was performed by the ensemble playing at the Ringling Brothers’ circus “as its opening number.” It was also reported that Clarke was invited to be a guest conductor in St. Louis in mid-September and it was assumed that he would be asked to take on that role with the musicians’ union in Los Angeles moved into its new headquarters.

The “Theatre Scandal” section provided snappy and often humorous reports on the doings of the several orchestras at such houses as the West Coast in Long Beach, the Hippodrome on Main south of 3rd, the Rendezvous Ballroom at the Santa Monica Pier, and the Cabrillo Theatre at San Pedro, at the latter of which violinist Elmer Ruth was a performer as well as the subscriber to this magazine.


Another feature was about a call for a “Dance Club” or “Jazz Club” to be comprised of “the hundreds of Los Angeles musicians who play other jobs than theatre. The claim was that those in dance bands were doing work that “should be represented just as faithfully as theatre work, or any other kind.” Moreover, managers of theatres, cafes and dance halls were always angling for the cheapest rates for musicians, but it was countered that “the price of music, good music, should not, and cannot be successfully lowered, or governed by the laws of supply and demand. When that happens, music itself dies.” For “the unorganized jazz players,” such a club served their interests and those of the larger union and would circumvent the likelihood that “the jazz players are not interested enough in their OWN affairs to try to better conditions in their particular field.”

A short article noted that popular union member and Boulevard Theatre (which opened in May at Washington Boulevard and Vermont Avenue in the Pico-Union District) Orchestra drummer Sherman W. Davidson experienced a terrible tragedy “when the lives of nearly all his immediate relatives were snuffed out when the automobile in which they were riding was struck at a grade crossing three miles east of Puente by a Southern Pacific train late last Sunday evening.” Those killed were the musician’s parents, brother and nephew, while his sister was so badly wounded that she was not expected to survive. Notably, the Homestead has a photo, included here, of a Los Angeles drummer from the era who is identified only as “Sherman” and which could well be Davidson.

Jazz Drummer Perhaps Named Sherman 2008.120.1.5
This portrait by Albert Witzel, a well-known photographer of film actors and other entertainers, is of a drummer only identified as “Sherman,” but who may be the Sherman Davidson mentioned in this magazine and whose family members were killed or gravely wounded in a car accident with a train east of Puente just before the publication was issued.

Another main article of note is the seventh chapter of a “History of the Band and Orchestra Business in Los Angeles” by attorney C.L. Bagley. He wrote of musical events during part of 1891, including the music at the “New Vienna Buffet” across the the county courthouse; the opening of the new building of the Y.M.C.A. which included many musicians as tenant over the years, including noted local conductor Harley Hamilton, whose quintet played at the event; Bagley’s own work playing in the Pasadena Grand Opera House orchestra while he was working a day job with well-known photographer Benjamin Jarvis; and other notable concerts of the year.

Finally, it is interesting to peruse the advertisements that paid for the publication of magazines like this, including for local bands such as “Waldemar Guterson and his Band of All Nations;” “Don Clark and His La Monica Ballroom Orchestra;” and “Clair Case and his Eleven Debutantes,” this latter being a New York ensemble touring the east coast at the time. Individual musicians and teachers also had listings, as did music stores like the Southern California Music Company, the Birkel Company, and Platt Music Company, and there were some non-music advertisers.


At the rear of the issue is an ad headed with “Are You Working With Any of these Suspended Members?” with hundreds of names of those who were suspended from membership in the union, presumably mainly for not paying dues, though there could have been other reason having to do with not following local rules. There was also a “We Do Not Patronize List” including the Times and Hollywood Daily Citizen, who did not use union printers; several theatres who were employing non-union musicians; and a variety of other companies who did not employ members of unions for the building trades, bakeries, brewery workers, cigar makers, and others.

This edition of The Overture is a great deep dive into the world of professional musicians in the City of Angels as well as a snapshot of life in Los Angeles generally during the mid-1920s.

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