Striking a Chord: A Photograph of Soprano Constance Balfour, April 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

For many years, operatic soprano and voice instructor Constance Balfour (1880-1965) was a prominent figure in the musical world of Los Angeles, though she is forgotten now. Born Lell Loucks in Keene Township, east of Grand Rapids, Michigan, she adopted the first name of Constance when she was developing her budding singing career at the Nebraska Conservatory of Music, where she graduated in spring 1901 and then took charge of the vocal department at the institution. While in the Cornhusker State, she was praised for having “a high soprano of very pleasing quality, her tones being well placed and under excellent control show great flexibility and brilliancy of style.”

She first appeared in Los Angeles, where her family recently settled, in fall 1903, when she sang at the Women’s Clubhouse on Figueroa near what became Olympic Boulevard and, though she remained with the Nebraska conservatory, she studied in Paris. There she met a tenor, Henry H. Balfour, who claimed to be from a prominent British family, but was, instead born William Henry Bellford in 1885 in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in the northeast part of that state. The two met and had a whirlwind courtship leading to a quick marriage and the birth of a daughter, Eveline, named for Constance’s voice instructor in Paris.

[Lincoln] Nebraska State Journal, 20 April 1901.

By summer 1907, the couple, who had a daughter that year named Eveline (named for her parents’ vocal instructor in Paris: Eveline Sbriglia) was in Los Angeles and performing together, with Constance known as a member of the all-women Treble Clef Club, formed in 1889, and for being “possessed of a beautiful dramatic soprano voice, for which much has been predicted.” In December of that year, the couple performed at Blanchard Hall, with Constance’s singing of an operatic aria praised and the duets also praised. For a couple of years at the end of the decade, Constance had her own small company and toured in other parts of the country.

In 1910, the couple, back in Los Angeles, performed at another well-known musical organization, the Ellis Club (launched the year prior to the Treble Clef Club and during the great Boom of the Eighties), but Henry was reconstituted as Henri LaBonte, this surname being a tweaking of his maternal grandmother’s name of La Bounty. From 1911 to 1915, the two were in Europe, where Constance performed in operas and at concerts and also toured in South Africa.

Loucks Balfour marriage The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Feb_11__1906_
Los Angeles Times, 11 February 1906.

By the time, she returned to Los Angeles in spring 1915, however, she was referred to as “Miss Constance Balfour,” her marriage to LaBonte (who lived and taught voice in Dallas and then in Los Angeles before his death in 1950) having ended, when she was “reintroduced” in the Angel City with another Ellis Club appearance. She continued to be busy with concerts and recitals, such as a January 1917 appearance at the Trinity Auditorium with the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra as part of a Schubert Club Municipal Concert.

In 1918-1919, Constance toured on the East Coast and, upon her return to the Angel City in the late spring of 1919, she performed at a Gamut Club regular meeting and “was heartily welcomed” having just come from New York. She also began performing at theaters that combined live musical offerings with motion pictures, including an appearance at the California Theatre with the California Quartet, performing “At Dawning (I Love You)” by the well-known composer Charles Wakefield Cadman and including “special scenic and lighting effects.” On Christmas Day, she was featured as a soloist at an outdoor holiday concert at Exposition Park by the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Adolf Tandler. That same year, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra as launched with the support of William Andrews Clark, Jr.

Los Angeles Express, 1 December 1919.

Constance’s popularity was constant into the first half of the Twenties and she was one of the first Los Angeles vocalists to appear on radio, when, on 19 April 1922, just six days after its inaugural broadcast, she was featured with two songs in a 45-minute segment on KHJ, the station owned by the Los Angeles Times. The listing noted that she “has sung in the principal cities in the United States, England, Scotland, Wales and South Africa.”

While her career continued with great success, a strange affair occurred in the first days of 1924 when it was annouced that Constance’s daughter, then 16 and a talented pianist and vocalist, vanished and was feared to have been kidnapped. A friend reported that two Latinx boys approached them while the two girls were walking on Wilshire Boulevard near the Bryson Apartments where Constance and Eveline lived. The next day, Eveline was found by a police officer wandering half-dressed on Alameda and Fourth streets “drugged with veronal [a barbiturate] and with her mind apparently unbalanced by a terrible experience.”

Times, 19 April 1922.

Initial reporting stated that the police indicated “she was the victim of gangsters” and that she was last seen at in the St. James Park area north of the University of Southern California. The officer, Herbert Wheatley, said she was in an Italian area where “girls are frequently thrown out of automobiles” and she was definitely out of place and looking confused. She ran for three blocks as he pursued, and, when he caught up to her, she screamed “Don’t hurt me! Please don’t hurt me!”

An ambulance was called and she was taken to a hospital, but her condition was such that it took some time before she could be questioned. Meanwhile, there were rumors of “white slavery,” in which young white girls were kidnapped and forced into prostitution, while authorities waited for her situation to improve, and there were comparisons made to the tragic 1910 disappearance in New York of socialite Dorothy Arnold.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 5 January 1924.

The Los Angeles Record columnist Don Ryan wrote a piece titled “Lost Eveline” on 7 January 1924 stating that the kidnapping story proved to be false and he lambasted those in the media who jumped on the “white slavery” and Dorothy Arnold angles. Ready to feast on these juicy storylines, the media instead found that police chief August Vollmer, a reformer who came from Berkeley in 1923 and then resigned not long after the Balfour incident because of his disgust with the corruption and political climate in the Angel City, simply labeled the matter as one of “dementia praecox,” or adolescent insanity. This was due, apparently, to social restraints due to her being kept too much in the confines of her home in the luxury Bryson Apartments or under the care of her mother’s sisters while Constance was on tour, as well as her concern over her weight, her parents’ divorce, and other issues.

Whatever took place, and her family initally believed she had gone through some kind of unknown experience brought on by some external source that induced a terror that caused her psychological trauma, Constance provided a statement to the Record in which she said that “we are still uncertain concerning an explanation of my daughter’s absence.” If there was a kidnapping, she added, it was the Record and other papers that helped in forcing “her release and subsequent return.”

Express, 28 January 1928.

If, however, “she were [sic] a victim of adolescent hysteria due to her artistic temperament and over concentration on her studies,” Constance hoped that the public attention given to Eveline allowed for an understanding of “the complexity and seriousness of his period of a girl’s life.” Constance concluded by wishing “that public sentiment has been aroused against all that is low and improper in our city life, thus protecting many other young girls who might be in danger.”

Constance soon returned to performing, including an engagement at Philharmonic Auditorium in late March in which she performed with the Temple Baptist Church choir and quartet, as well as with famed humorist Will Rogers. A trip long planned to Europe so that Eveline could follow in her parents’ footsteps and receive a further musical education there was undertaken in September and Constance remained there for three years. The Times in its edition of 14 September 1924 stated “it is with feelings of regret and joy that we see one of our beloved members of the Los Angeles music colony depart for Europe to be gone for a long time.”

Times, 18 March 1928.

The paper added that “Constance Balfour, whose name has stood for the highest in singing among the sopranos of our city, has earned a vacation among the romantic associations of Rome and Paris.” On the 23rd, there was a farewell concert at the Ebell Club, located a short distance west of the Balfour’s longtime residence, with Eveline accompanying her mother on the piano. While in Europe, Eveline, still in her teens, married and had a son and remained there, even as Constance came back to the Angel City late in 1927. She moved back into the Bryson Apartments, advertised as a “soloist and teacher” and added that she had “returned from three years in Europe, teaching and investigating the best in musical preparation for the singer.”

By mid-March 1928, Constance was ready to return to Europe and advertised that she was going to Paris “to open a residence studio” where she would with other well-known instructors. Further, it was noted, “Mme. Balfour will accept six students, or others to accompany her seeking her guidance in study or travel in France.” On the last day in April, she gave a farewell recital to several hundred people in the music room of the Biltmore Hotel and Isabel Morse Jones of the Times applauded Constance for the “clarity and ease of vocal emission” demonstrated, while “the quality of her voice was particularly warm and ingratiating.”

Hollywood Citizen, 24 September 1929.

After about a year-and-a-half, Constance returned to the Angel City and established a new “residence studio” at the mouth of Nichols Canyon in Hollywood. One of her early ads came out just a couple of weeks before the crash of the stock market in New York that ushered in the Great Depression. While she continued to perform, she listed herself in the 1930 and 1940 censuses as a voice teacher. She remarried late in life and then moved to San Luis Obispo, where her daughter, following family tradition, took on a new name, Yvonne, and was well-known in that area’s art and music circles.

In January 1965, Constance died at her home at age 84 and she was remembered in a brief Times obituary for her work with the Los Angeles Opera Company and touring Europe with the Paris Opera Company. It was added that she sang at the opening events for the Hollywood Bowl, the Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, and Union Station, and was past president of the all-women Dominant Club.

Portrait of Constance Balfour 2012.567.1.1

As for the featured photo from the museum’s collection, it is autographed with a message from April 1928 presumably to one of Constance’s students before her depature for Europe. It is an artifact representative of one of the most notable professional women musicians in Los Angeles for decades, with the peak of her career being during the 1920s.

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