Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A New Page for My Musical Family

I had planned to do some work this morning on my book project, picking up from where I left off yesterday, writing about the spring of 1925. That’s when G. Oliver’s St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band was preparing to make a splash at the International Kiwanis Convention in St. Paul.

I somehow got diverted. Ah, procrastination. But like many of my diversions, it was still related to G. Oliver. I got it in my head that now was a good time to create a separate Facebook page for the My Musical Family blog. So that’s how I spent my writing time this morning. Instead of new paragraphs about 1925, I have a new page.

My hope is that the new MMF page will make it easier for people to follow the blog and also will allow me to do some fun things, like post related picture albums. I’m still trying to figure out details, like how to make sure my blog posts automatically show up on the page, like they do on my personal Facebook page. It’s a little confusing to manage two different pages, but I think in the end it will be a helpful change. It’s good to keep things fresh, even when writing about the career of my 142-year-old great-grandfather!

Monday, November 26, 2012

You Say It's G’s Birthday

What do you get a vintage bandmaster on his 142nd birthday?


It sounds like the opening line of a joke, but it’s really just a rhetorical question. Because I don’t know what my great-grandfather G. Oliver’s favorite kind of cake was, I went to CakeWalk in Northfield today and brought home a delicious-looking fruit tart. The dessert wasn’t quite large enough to accommodate 142 candles, so I went with four, and we sang a heartfelt rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” in honor of the birthday bandmaster.

And that got me wondering ... I know the song has been around for a long time, and is said to be the most well-known song in the English-speaking world, but was it around when G. Oliver was growing up?

My Internet sources tell me that the tune has been around since 1893; at that time, 23-year-old G. Oliver was teaching violin and directing a band at the Iowa Wesleyan University Conservatory of Music. But the tune would not have been sung for his birthday that year. The song was originally known as “Good Morning to All.” Sisters Patty Smith Hill and Mildred Hill of Louisville Kentucky wrote it for kindergarten teachers to use as a greeting song.

It’s unclear exactly how or when the words changed to the ones we sing today. The “Happy Birthday” lyrics first appeared in a songbook in 1924 as a second stanza to “Good Morning to All.” Uncredited uses of the song in the mid-1930s – like its appearance in the Broadway musical The Band Wagon – led a third sister, Jessica Hill, to pursue copyright protection in 1934 (you can read more about the song history and its copyright protections here and here).

Although I can’t say for sure whether “Happy Birthday to You” was sung on the occasion of any of G. Oliver’s later birthdays, before he died in early 1946, I do know this: he never heard anyone sing the Beatles’ “Birthday” song. That song was released a few weeks before my first birthday, and four days before what would have been G. Oliver's 98th birthday.

That’s a good song, too. Maybe we’ll do it next year.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A House Call with Dr. Ted

An unexpected development has both slowed and advanced my progress this month in writing the book about G. Oliver Riggs and the St. Cloud Municipal Band: I found a delightful, 98-year-old source of information!

While studying a list of members of the first boys’ band G. Oliver organized in St. Cloud in 1923, I noticed the name Theodore Papermaster. Cool name! I thought, and filed it away in my brain. An hour later, I was looking at a newspaper article about a piano recital given by G. Oliver’s wife, Islea, in 1924 and noticed the name of one of her students was – you guessed it – Theodore Papermaster. I then checked the list of members from the 1930 boys’ band: yes, there again was Theodore Papermaster.

Who is this Theodore Papermaster, I wondered? He would have to be almost 100 years old – is there any chance he’s still alive? Through an online search, I discovered that he’d been a pediatrician in the Twin Cities for many years, he’d served in World War II, and he had a daughter living in the Twin Cities. I contacted her at work, and the next evening, I heard a strong, clear voice on the other end of the telephone saying:

“I was very well acquainted with G. Oliver Riggs. He came to St. Cloud in 1923, when I was 9 years old, and I was the No. 5 clarinet player in a band of 240. ... The two bandmasters – no, three – that followed him, they were not very satisfactory, so they hired him back. He directed another generation of the band, and I was among that, too.” 
St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band, 1924
If I were to create the character of Dr. Theodore C. “Ted” Papermaster for a novel, he would be no match for the real thing (that’s why I am a journalist and not a fiction writer; I find real people so wonderfully fascinating). I knew, based on our brief phone conversation, that I couldn’t have found a more perfect source – someone who not only was in the band from the time G. Oliver formed it in 1923 through 1931, the year of the big trip to Des Moines, but who also knew G. Oliver’s wife and sons (my grandfather Ronald and my great-uncle Percy, who helped direct the bands).

I didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to learn more, so on the day before Thanksgiving I visited Ted at his nursing home in the Twin Cities.

He told me he joined the boys’ band with the support of his father, Herman, who played clarinet in the adult municipal band. Herman was a tailor and had a dry cleaning business at 20 Sixth Ave. in downtown St. Cloud (the site is now part of Herberger’s); for a time, Herman rented the building’s upper floor to the city for use as a band rehearsal hall. Ted’s younger brother, Ralph (who died in 2001), later played in the band, too.

G. Oliver was a disciplinarian, Ted said, but he liked him because he was a great director. The only criticism he offered was that G. Oliver occasionally took time during rehearsals to lecture the boys about topics like the importance of staying both physically and mentally fit; Ted said he’d have preferred to spend that time playing music.

From left to right: Dick Strobel, Ted Papermaster, and Ted’s buddy Sidney Kaufman, in 1925.
Ted was in the 150-member band that went to St. Paul in June 1925 to perform at the International Kiwanis Convention. Several months after that event, G. Oliver got in a dispute with the city band committee and resigned. Ted stayed in the band under its next two directors, Albert Koehler (who became ill and died of prostate cancer) and Theodore Steinmetz (a military man who was more of a showman than a director, Ted said), and during the two months or so of direction by J.E. Racicot in early 1928. By the time G. Oliver returned as director, Ted was in high school.

In this 1930 photo, Ted is in the front row, the first clarinet to the right of the drums.
Ted remembers traveling by train to Des Moines in 1931 for the National Junior Chamber of Commerce convention, and the difficulty of trying to sleep in a train full of boys and instruments. He also remembers, on one of the train trips, that the boys were given ham sandwiches to eat. Ted doesn’t eat ham because he’s Jewish; he said his dad, who was a chaperone on that trip, told him to give the ham to one of the other boys and just eat the bread.

Music was an important part of Ted’s boyhood. He took piano lessons for many years from G. Oliver’s wife, Islea, although he never knew her first name. “She was a lovely, lovely lady, a good performer and a wonderful teacher,” he said.

Islea Graham Riggs, an accomplished pianist and teacher
When I showed Ted a 1924 newspaper clipping about a piano recital that lists him as playing a duet with his good friend Sidney Kaufman, and a solo, Beethoven’s “Minuet in G,” he immediately began to hum the Beethoven tune.

Ted graduated from St. Cloud Tech and went on to school at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He graduated from medical school in 1938 and was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Army Air Force Medical Corps in 1942. During World War II, he served in the Mediterranean, rose to the rank of captain and received the Soldier’s Medal.
A photo of Ted as a flight surgeon in World War II
The last time he saw G. Oliver was in 1945, when Ted came home from the war and stopped in to see his old bandmaster. After the war, Ted was an instructor in pediatrics at Louisiana State University and the University of Minnesota, and he began his own practice in 1948 in the Twin Cities.

Although he lost track of Percy after he left St. Cloud, Ted knew that my grandfather Ronald had twin grandsons – my cousins Scott and Brent Riggs – because he was their doctor for a short time after they were born. I was so surprised to learn this – it is indeed a small world! I told Ted that Scott has twin boys of his own now, and that Brent named his younger son Griffin Oliver after G. Oliver (the G. stood for George). Ted was delighted.

I had to end our visit because Ted was getting tired, but I hope to see him again. It’s hard to put into words how meaningful it was to meet him and hear him say, “The happiest days of my life were when I was playing in the band.”

I came away from the interview feeling more convinced than ever of the need to tell the story of the St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ band in a book. So, this week, I’ll be back at the writing desk!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Fine Art of Giving

It’s Give to the Max Day in Minnesota, which means it’s a great day to consider giving to any number of worthy nonprofit organizations throughout the state. Of course, you can donate to these groups any day of the year. But there’s something fun about a day dedicated to giving, and in many cases, depending on the organization, a gift given today will be matched.


Arts and cultural organizations rate high on the list of our family’s donations. If you’re looking for ways to support the arts in Northfield, I know these groups would greatly appreciate a financial contribution:

Northfield Arts Guild
Northfield Fine Arts Boosters
Northfield Youth Choirs
Vintage Band Festival 2013
I Cantanti Chamber Choirs

Other local groups I am proud to support include the Friends of the Northfield Public Library, the Friends of Way Park, the Northfield Healthy Community Initiative, the Save the Northfield Depot ... the list goes on and on. For stories about these and other organizations, check out Northfield Patch’s great summary here.

If you can’t afford a financial gift, remember there are many ways you can help nonprofits through the gift of your volunteer time.

Have a wonderful, philanthropic day!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Rockin’ the 125th in the Granite City

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of attending the St. Cloud Municipal Band’s 125th anniversary concert with my parents.
Me, with Dad (and Mini G) outside the Paramount Theatre in St. Cloud
The 57-member band sounded fantastic as it led the audience back in time, decade by decade, with songs that evoked the band’s 125-year history. Four guest former conductors – Dave Haedt, Mel Hauck, Marv Pearson and Lowell Larson – took turns directing 14 pieces.
The cover of the concert program.
A screen at the back of the stage displayed photos of previous incarnations of the city band, including the St. Cloud Bicycle Band from the turn of the last century, the G. Oliver-directed St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band, and photos of the modern band’s trips to China (1999), Mexico and Germany (2010). The slide presentation also noted important or interesting historical events that occurred during each decade.

I couldn't resist taking a photo of Mini G in front of this “Rock On” award presented to the band by Mayor Dave Kleis.
Mini G. Oliver (the Flat Stanley of bandmasters) attended the concert with me, too, and his presence was a reminder that the beautifully restored Paramount Theatre was a new concert venue when my flesh-and-blood great-grandparents, G. Oliver and Islea Riggs, moved to St. Cloud in 1923.

Known as the Sherman Theatre when it opened in 1921 (it was renamed in 1930), the venue had a majestic organ that my great-grandmother played to accompany the showing of silent movies. It’s difficult not to feel a sense of awe when I gaze at the ornamental light fixtures and architectural details and think about how my great-grandparents both used to perform in that majestic space.

A glimpse of the theatre’s stage and interior decor.
The theatre has held many notes, and many people, over the years. The renovated main floor seats 498 people (according to the sign), and I was pleased to see that most of those seats were filled on Monday evening, plus many more up in the balcony that I wasn’t able to count. It was wonderful to see such support and appreciation for the band. I hope it continues – I’d love to go back for the band’s sesquicentennial concert in 2037!