by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the many examples of how Los Angeles vaulted into the top ranks of American metropolises during the 1920s was the growing recognition of its music scene, whether this involve so-called “serious” or classical music or popular forms, including dance music that was “the bee’s knees” for the younger set during the era.
On a century ago this month, the Biltmore Hotel opened on Olive at Fifth streets to the west of Pershing Square and quickly became an elite venue, not just as a hostelry, but soon for its added theater and for the quality of its orchestra, which was led for most of 1925 by Art Hickman and his student Earl Burtnett. By the end of the year, however, the baton was passed to Donald E. Clark (1896-1963), a local saxophonist, composer and conductor, whose rise to prominence in the preceding decade was quickly followed by a sudden decline.
Clark was born in Santa Monica to Jessica Rubicam and Edward J. Clark, the latter the only child of Ida and Joseph H. Clark. Joseph Clark was a prominent grain merchant with banking and other business endeavors in Minneapolis, Minnesota, before he retired and moved with his wife and son to Santa Monica in the early 1890s. The family resided in a large house on Fifth and Nevada streets, with Nevada later becoming Wilshire Boulevard.
Edward Clark was set up by his father with a bicycle shop, with cycling a major fad in the period. In 1894, he married Jessica and their son followed two years later, but tragedy struck in March 1898 when Edward was on the roof of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union Building which housed his shop, fiddling with electrical wires, when one touched him. The shock caused the young man to lose his balance and he tumbled thirty feet, hitting a billboard and fracturing his neck and skull. His father happened to be across the street and ran to find his son partially reclined and unconscious on a pile of lumber—death occurred within just a few minutes.
Donald Clark was raised by his widowed mother and his father’s parents and he showed musical talent from a young age, encouraged by his mother, who was a leading figure in the Bay City’s women’s club and had a flair for the dramatic, meaning drama. Jessica Clark (who later married a prominent Santa Monica pastor) enlisted her son to compose and conduct orchestra music for her performances, which gained him renown in Santa Monica. In fact, after completing two years of study at Pomona College in Claremont, Clark decided to end his educational endeavors and devote himself to music.
Married to Hortense Novak in 1917, Clark went to work for the Southern California Music Company, one of the biggest merchants in that line in Los Angeles and headed by Frank J. Hart, whose brother, Edwin, was the founder of Hacienda Heights and La Habra Heights near the Homestead. In addition, Clark expanded his local fame on the alto and soprano saxophones and was featured in advertisements for his employer for the Buescher company.
His big break came in early 1921 when he went to New York to become part of the sax section for the dance band of Paul Whiteman, who was one of the top conductors in that realm, but went on to be a phenomenon in the Roaring Twenties pop music scene. His moniker of “The King of Jazz” may have been a gross exaggeration of his skills in a form of music that included such legends at the time as King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, but Whiteman’s popular success was unparalleled.
The peak of Clark’s tenure with Whiteman, who had a large coterie of Angel City musicians in his band at the time, was a 1923 tour of England, lasting from March to August. When he returned home, however, the saxophonist decide to leave his spotlight gig, which featured him as first chair among the quartet in the sax section. Part of the reason may have been to salvage his marriage, which included a four-year old namesake son, with another boy born later in the decade.
One of his sidelights was as a lecturer in music at the Southern Branch of the University of California, housed at a Vermont Avenue campus that evolved from the state Normal School for teacher education and is now the site of Los Angeles City College. At the end of the Twenties, the Southern Branch became the University of California, Los Angeles, or U.C.L.A. In addition to his interests in broader forms of music, including composition, Clark decided to form his own dance orchestra.
In late July 1924, the La Monica Ballroom, an ornate venue with a 15,000 square-foot dance floor and a capacity of 5,000 persons, perched on the edge of the Santa Monica Pier, opened with Clark and his orchestra as the house band. Over more than a year, the ensemble generated considerate enthusiasm, including live broadcasts on radio, which debuted in Los Angeles a few years prior, including on the KFI, KNG and KNX stations, while there was at least one recording for the Victor label from March 1925.
By the end of 1925, Clark was hired to helm the Biltmore orchestra after the departure of Earl Burtnett, another musician and bandleader of considerable note in the Angel City. Notably, just after he took the baton at the famous hostelry, the Los Angeles Record of the last day of the year in its “In the Listening Tower” column penned by “Dizzy Dials,” noted that a “rumpus” emerged between radio broadcasters and ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), with the latter raising the license fee charged to the Biltmore from $180 to $3,000 annually. It was added,
And what makes us especially mad about this is that it comes just when the Biltmore has put on Don Clark’s orchestra, which has always appealed to us as being pretty good. Of course, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good, and perhaps a whole lot of us who have been enjoying the Biltmore programs will now go down and buy some of Mrs. Biltmore’s meals and lodgings in order to hear the orchestra.
Despite the brouhaha, Clark’s tenure continued and, moreover, he secured some recording gigs. For example, in June 1926, an advertisement from the Wiley B. Allen Company promoted the tune “Neapolitan Nights” and four recorded versions, as a fox trot, song, concert version and a waltz, the latter by the Clark ensemble for Victor.
In October, the band headed into the studio for sessions to produce recordings for release by Columbia, Whiteman’s label, and it would appear that the pop kingpin arranged this to give a boost to his former lead saxophonist. In fact, Whiteman was in Los Angeles at the time and arranged a ball at the El Patio Cafe in which he promoted a quintet of local players that he labeled the “$10,000 band,” because that was the aggregate of the fees the musicians, including Abe Lyman, another major Los Angeles figure, commanded.
The highlighted object from the Museum’s collection for this post is a 78rpm phonograph record issued by Columbia of “Just One More Kiss” with the B-side being “When You Waltz With The One You Love.” The latter tune had lyrics by Charles O’Flynn and was composed by Avram (Al) Sherman, a veteran of the Tin Pan Alley scene whose sons became the legendary team of Robert and Richard Sherman. Los Angeles tenor Ernest Morrison, who also was well-regarded in the local music scene, provided vocals.
As for the A-side, “Just One More Kiss” was written by Reggie Montgomery, pianist with the Clark-led orchestra, and Harry Owens, the latter another prominent musical figure in Los Angeles during the period, but who went on to greater renown during his many years in Hawaii. The song, which was most identified with Owens, featured a vocal refrain by Betty Patrick, who also sang on another Columbia release from the October sessions called “Idolizing” and performed with other bands including on radio broadcasts.
While the Biltmore orchestra cut takes of these songs on 12 October, there was a second session three days later (the same that yielded “Idolizing”) that were selected by Columbia for release with the catalog number of 709-D. Fortunately, there are several YouTube videos of “Just One Kiss“. Then, on the 18th, the Clark ensemble returned to the studio and, doing a favor for Whiteman, employed two vocalists from Washington state who’d moved to Los Angeles in 1925 and generated some buzz before being hired by the “King of Jazz.”
The tune “I’ve Got the Girl!” was written by veteran composer Walter Donaldson and there were three takes with the Clark orchestra and the two singers, with tenor Al Rinker, who was not quite 19 years old overwhelming his long-time partner, a 23-year old baritone, making his first recording, named Harry Lillis Crosby, Junior, soon to be world famous as the legendary crooner with the moniker of “Bing.”
It may be that October 1926 marked the pinnacle of Don Clark’s career, because his tenure with the Biltmore soon ended, with Burtnett again wielding the baton. In fact, his name is basically absent from the press for the rest of the Roaring Twenties and the Pasadena Post of 19 March 1930 briefly recorded that, among former Whiteman band members,
Don Clark, whose Pop [actually, “Grandpop”] had dough to give him a opportunity to experiment with musical instruments, inherited wealth and quit.
It may be that the pressures of leading a band at a preeminent venue in Los Angeles was behind his decision to walk way from the Biltmore orchestra, but, it is true that Clark was in no need to make a living in a world where musicians were largely scratching to make do. The 1930 census recorded him with the occupation of “pipe organ recordings” musician and residing with his wife and older son in a $100,000 house on San Vicente Boulevard at the edge of Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades. One neighbor was a Kansas City lumber magnate with a mansion self-valued at $700,000, an enormous sum, while others were the prominent father-and-son architectural team of John and Donald Parkinson.
For a brief period in the early Thirties, Clark occasionally popped up in press accounts concerning appearances on KHJ radio and an interesting early 1933 article in the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News included Clark’s reminiscences of being in the orchestra for George White’s “Scandals of 1923,” part of a popular series, and for which the famed composer George Gershwin wrote the music. Clark added that Gershwin wrote a 20-minute opera remembered as “125th Street,” for the show and that there were “three really marvelous numbers,” with one, “I’m Going to See My Mother,” remembered as so tragic that “many of us in the orchestra were deeply affected.”
The saxophonist recalled that the musicians and others felt the piece would be a success, but on the opening night, a prop gun wielded by the lead female character failed to go off and Clark added “stage tragedy turned sourly to travesty” and the piece was “hooted by the crowd,” leading the composer to “sadly put it aside, [and] turned again to other works.” The work was actually called “Blue Monday” and was for the 1922 version of the Scandal series when Whiteman was the music director and conductor.
The “jazz opera”, performed in blackface, had lyrics by the prominent Buddy DeSylva and its tragic ending with the shooting led it to be removed from the show after the one performance. Whiteman, however, was taken with the work and asked Gershwin to write, for an important concert, a jazz-inflected symphonic work, which became the famous “Rhapsody in Blue,” the 1924 classic that was Gershwin’s best-known piece. “Blue Monday” was later reconfigured into “135th Street” by composer and conductor Ferde Grofé, who’d orchestrated “Rhapsody in Blue.”
The Great Depression may have taken a major financial toll on Clark, who was also divorced during the period, and the 1940 census showed him as a “orchestra writer and musician,” though there is no indication he was working much—moreover, he rented a back unit on a street in Westwood near UCLA. When he registered for the draft during World War II, two years later, the 45-year old Clark was living next to the beach at Manhattan Beach and was working for Northrup Aviation in the “template tool control” section.
Just over two decades later, in early June 1963, Clark, who resided in an Inglewood apartment complex, died of heart failure at age 69. He was remembered in a Santa Monica newspaper obituary as having opened the La Monica Ballroom, which was a roller skating rink before it was torn down a year prior to Clark’s passing, and for being in Whiteman’s band. Otherwise, the once-prominent local musical figure had long been forgotten, though a few of his tunes can be heard on surviving recordings, as linked above.