|Dick Booth and His 9 Years as a Musician|
Richard Kielley Booth, or 'Dick' as he was known to his friends and co-workers, was born 23 Jun 1904 in Fergus Falls, MN. His parents were Samuel Herbert and Louise Kielley Booth. Samuel's parents were Jonas Glazier Booth, and Justina Ida Taylor, the couple having moved from Marcellus, Cass Co., MI to Long Prairie, Todd Co., MN shortly after they were married on 26 Dec 1867. Jonas had been a Corporal in the 25th Infantry Unit, Company H of the Michigan Infantry during the Civil War, while his wife's parents had immigrated from Lincolnshire, England 2 years before her birth. Louise's parents were Samuel Marques Kielley, who had worked for the railroads in Duluth MN and elsewhere, and would later become a Duluth building code inspector as well as the author of many of Duluth's building codes. Louise's mother was Jerusha Posey. Louise's father and mother married just outside of Madison, WI where the Kielley and Posey families moved in search of good farmland.
While no marriage certificate has been found, Samuel and Louise likely married in Minnesota about 1902, since the 1900 census shows Louise living at home with her parents in Duluth. Samuel was then boarding in Two Harbors Village, Lake Co., MN (about 30 miles northeast of Duluth, on Lake Superior) while working as a telegraph operator. The couple had moved to Fergus Falls by the time Dick was born, and had then moved on again to Grand Forks, ND by 21 April, 1908, when Dick's younger brother, Harry, was born there. By the time of the 1910 census, Samuel was working as an assistant manager at a candy manufacturing company, a position he also held in the 1920 and 1930 censuses. Samuel's 1918 draft registration card states it was Congress Candy Company.
Dick attended the Grand Forks public schools, where he was a seemingly above average student except for poor grades in his 11th grade Chemistry class. He was a member of his high school glee club, and played the role of 'Dick Deadeye', a comedic character, in his high school's performance of Gilbert and Sullivans comic opera, 'HMS Pinafore' in March, 1922. That this is the only program saved from his high school days, suggests that Dick may have stolen the show. At some point in time he had also taught himself to play the piano - he could play most songs by ear, and was a good sight reader of music as well. He was also a member of the boy scouts, and became a tent leader at summer scout camp. While most of the other details of his early life are unclear, there is no doubt that Dick had an early involvement with music. More importantly, he had a gift for performing and sharing his musical and comedy skills with an audience.
|Dick in a 1927 Routine associated with his time with the Harold Menning Orchestra|
Not a great many photos, family stories or memorabilia survive from Dick's lifetime. That is not too unusual for this time period, when many families were more focused on earning a living, and not a lot of photos were taken. Many of the records of Dick's parents are likely now lost, since they all went to younger son Harry (with whom Samuel lived his remaining years, after Louise had died). But Harry and his wife Vera have now passed on, as has their only child Patricia, who left no descendants. Whatever family records that Dick's parents had, are therefore most likely lost. Or if any have survived, their location is unknown.
But thanks to Dick's love of music and a pride in his accomplishments, he left behind 2 small scrapbooks devoted to the 8 years following his graduation from high school. Everything in them is devoted to his musical career. Those scrapbooks had been stored away in a family cedar chest, but had not been closely examined until now. It was not until Dick's eldest son, Richard, recently found and shared some early family photos. The excitement of those discoveries prompted a closer look at the scrapbooks, which hitherto had been thought to be a random collection of 1920's news clippings. As summarized below, those scrapbooks instead indicate that Dick Booth had a highly successful early career in music. That career came to an early end because of the depression which began in late 1929, and because of his growing responsibilities for a recent marriage and the birth of his first child in 1929. Because Dick was a man of many talents (he was early involved in building radios and other electronic devices, and also had a love of good literature), he was able to successfully move on to a career with the then rapidly growing communications industry as an employee of the Wisconsin Telephone Company (later part of AT&T).
The scrapbooks are devoted to the years 1922 to 1930. Before reviewing their contents, it is useful here to recount a bit of the history of the 1920's. In this way, the events in Dick's life during those years can be better understood based on their historical context. The 18th amendment was enacted in 1919, prohibiting the legal sale of alcohol throughout the 1920's. Silent pictures reigned supreme until the October 1927 release of 'The Jazz Singer', considered to be the first movie with sound. But only portions of that film had sound, and much of it still used subtitles, so it was another year or two before most theaters were equipped for sound, and movie producers began producing talking pictures in quantity. Until then, many theaters often offered shows that consisted of a short movie, some vaudeville acts, and a musical performance with a small orchestra. Sometimes the orchestra, or members of it, would also play background music for the music. With no TV, and radio but in its infancy, one popular use of young and older adult's leisure time was to go dancing at a local club or hall which featured not only live musical performers, but might include comedy and other routines. The quality of recorded music at the time was also very poor, so live music was a necessity. That is, recordings were grainy and on easily scratched 78 rpm records, and the reproduction equipment was nowhere near the quality of live music. Last but not least, people liked dancing to multi-piece orchestras which had a range of musical instruments and sounds, and which would also offer interesting comedy sketches and other audience pleasing forms of entertainment in their programs.
Dick kept all his musician union cards, placing them in the front of the first scrapbook. These help trace his movements during his music career, and thus merit their own review. The first card is for 1923, from Grand Forks Musicians Protective Union Local #485. There are also cards for 1924, 1925, 1926 and 1927 from the same union. While it is likely Dick was living in Duluth most of those years, the cards suggest he still called Grand Forks 'home', and perhaps periodically returned there to at least renew his union membership. As noted in more detail below, the places he performed were mainly in Duluth MN, which apparently had a very active music scene. Duluth at that time was also a major port, its major commodity being iron ore from mines in northern Wisconsin and in nearby areas of Minnesota.
In 1928, he transferred his membership to Musicians Protective Association Local #337, in Appleton WI. There are cards for 1928, 1929, and 1930. These all clearly relate to his days with the Harold Menning Orchestra, mentioned in greater detail below, which was headquartered in Appleton. Among Appleton's claims to fame at the time, was that it was home to Harry Houdini. I vaguely recall Dick mentioning that he had seen Houdini perform in Appleton, apparently in one of his dramatic escapes from a straight jacket while suspended several stories up.
In 1931, Dick became a member of American Federation of Musicians Local # 46, in Oshkosh, WI. There are union cards for 1931, 1932 and 1933. This suggests that he and his family had either moved to Oshkosh by then, or were contemplating doing so. Although it is unclear when Dick became an employee of the Wisconsin Telephone Company in Oshkosh, census data clearly places him in Oshkosh in 1935, as do the comments of his son, Richard, and an early photo of the family in Oshkosh discussed in more detail below.
The balance of the scrapbooks are largely newspaper clippings and dance ads, most only mentioning the names of the orchestras. But Dick also noted the date of most ads, so it is reasonable to conclude that ads for the same orchestra over a several month - or several year - period (and absence of other ads) indicated where he was playing and with whom. There are also several typed pages listing the month, date (or dates) and venue where he played during his early years. While neither the town or name of the group is noted, the newspaper clippings and ads can often supply the missing information.
Dick Booth began playing in orchestras at least by the summer of 1923. The earliest ad and business card in the scrapbook is for Sibell's Orchestra of Grand Forks, and there is an ad dated July 8 1923 beside it. Since he was born June 23, 1904, Dick had just turned 19, and had also just graduated from high school that year. There is not much else in the scrapbook for that summer except for an August 20 1923 response to an 'at liberty' ad he had placed in 'International Musician' offering him a job in Muscatine Iowa. Apparently nothing ever came of it (perhaps it was too far away from home), but this does suggest his 'at liberty' ad likely generated other important contacts. In any event, whether there was little work in Grand Forks, or the jobs elsewhere were better, Dick was no longer working in Grand Forks by fall, 1923. He had instead found steady employment in the Duluth area working for a number of different groups. We know this because of the aforementioned typed pages of his schedule, the first of which starts with October 2 1923. Not all calendar days are filled in (as one would expect when just starting out) - later he would be scheduled every night. While the names of the bands and orchestras are not noted, a separate page of dance ads, with Dick's hand-inked dates for them, identifies many of them. The leaders of those groups included a number of people who would be important to Dick over the next several years - 'Anderson' and 'Lavick'. Among the group's he played for in 1923 were 'Robinson's Syncopators' (also called 'Lark's Syncopators' and 'Lavick's Syncopators'), and Andy Anderson's Orchestra. Most nights they played in Duluth MN, which is about 275 miles from Grand Forks - clearly Dick was living in or near Duluth by then. There is an ad for a Dec 15 1923 show at the Armory in Duluth that states "special numbers, including Dick Booth, the sensational singing pianist, here with Anderson and his famous dance band." It also notes "You haven't heard jazz until you hear these boys". Good publicity was even then important to success, and several band leaders had clearly taken enough liking for Dick and his work that they kept asking him back.
In 1924, there were a lot of dance and other appearances, Dick's typed schedules showing him booked essentially every night. Of special note, he started a 5 piece orchestra of his own called 'The Night Hawks'. There is a promotional poster for 'The Night Hawks' for Feb 23 1924 at the Legion Hall in Barnum MN. It notes it was a 5 piece orchestra from Duluth that featured Dick Booth at the piano and Ralph Watkins on the trumpet, both "master musicians and singers". But there were also other appearances with other groups including 'Lavick's 11 piece orchastra', 'Anderson and his Orchestra', and 'Andy Anderson's Night Hawks orchestra'. By June 24 he had become part of a new group known as the "10 Serenaders of 1924 - syncopation specialists supreme" playing at the Garrick Theater in Duluth. Dick kept a publicity photo of the group - 11 people in all - with him at the piano. The back of the photo notes the group's name, and that they were at the Garrick Theater (in Duluth) from May 31 to June 4 1924, performing on stage. It is perhaps the earliest photo of him in an orchestra, all performers neatly decked out in white suits, shirts, sox and shoes, with leader Morris Lavick holding his violin. Other news clippings note the Garrick's usual program included a silent film, music by an orchestra, some entertainment acts, and a newsreel and other film shorts. The program was long enough there was only one show a night, with a matinee show added on the weekends. Dick's typed calendars show he was fully booked essentially every day for the rest of 1924, including more performances on Garrick Theater stage. Importantly, a fall 1924 Duluth newspaper clipping noted that the Garrick Theatre had committed to adding a new ballroom by year-end. Dancing was clearly popular at the time.
In 1925, the Serenaders got rid of the '1924' in their name to become 'the Serenaders'. They were well received, and according to Dick's notes they played the Garrick Theater ballroom in Duluth from Jan 1 to July 3 1925. Such a long contract was a major step for him and the group. There is a Dec. 31 1924 Western Union 'Holiday Greeting' to "Richard Booth, 14 W First Street, Duluth, Happy New Year to all the Serenaders best wishes for a grand success at your opening tonight. Mother." Telegrams like that were highly unusual for Dick's parents - it was something very special. The group's leader was Morris Lavick, a violinist and manager of other orchestras Dick had played in. There was a small photo - enlarged via Photoshop - of Dick with Morris Lavick in their white uniforms, perhaps from 1924. But when the Garrick job ended in July 1925, the Serenaders were again looking for work, and likely parted except for occasional appearances in Duluth. They even sought a national booking tour, but without success. Dick had a few other dance appearances that year, one ad being for a Oct 20-24 1925 show at Superior Wisconsin's 'Ritz Cafe' featuring "Dick Booth and his Orchestra, formerly of the Garrick ballroom, the snappiest music in the twin ports and I don't mean maybe". Later that year he played in Lavick's 12 piece orchestra, no reference to 'The Serenaders', this time at various Duluth hotel ballrooms. While the name of the groups he played for is unclear, Dick's calendar shows him still booked for every night the balance of 1925.
In 1926 he continued playing a few times with Lavicks' 'Concert Dance Orchestra'. There is a dance card for the Shipmasters Association annual ball at Hotel Duluth on Jan 22 1926 - it lists 15 orchestra members. There were 4 violins, 2 trumpets including Ralph Watkins (earlier in 'The Night Hawks' with Dick), 3 saxophones, a drummer, a tympanist, and 'Richard Booth piano and vocal soloist'. Jan 15 1926 there was a dance at the Odd Fellows Hall with Chalman's Dance Orchestra, the ad noting "Dick Booth will be with us again at the piano". In March he received a rejection letter from Admiral Oriental Line of Seattle, noting the ship's orchestra was already booked for the summer. For some reason, Dick stopped keeping his booking calendar starting in 1926, so it is unclear what else was happening the first half of 1926. There are copies of booking requests sent out for Lavick's Serenaders as well as by 'Dick Booth Leader of the Sernenaders of 1926'. There was also a response from a national booking agency at that indicating they preferred smaller groups of 6 to 9 musicians, suggesting that larger groups were less competitive. Evidently a musician's lot was tough even then, and Dick apparently found himself forced to go in search of a new orchestra outside of the Duluth/Superior area, his home for the last 3 years.
June, 1926 brought some exciting news. In response to a 'Billboard' ad he had answered, Dick received a June 6 letter from Harold Menning (of Menning's Orchestra in Appleton WI) asking Dick to join Menning's group by June 20 1926 - if not sooner. "If you can do what you say in your letter I am willing to pay you $40 per week and your room." Menning's group was the top dance orchestra in northern Wisconsin and the upper peninsula. The offer of employment along with a room shows that Dick had established himself as a successful professional musician.
From 1926 until the end of 1929, Dick Booth was a valued member of Menning's group, and was at times featured in Menning's publicity about his orchestra. In one 1927 promotional brochure, Menning gives special mention to "Dick Booth pianist, comedian, vocal soloist and entertainer. 'Duke' is a familiar figure to the dancing public, having won much fame with his comedy sketches and novelties." Dick's son Richard has a number of photos of him clowning with members of Menning's orchastra, including one with six of them with the group's touring car and trailer (Mennings Orchestra barely visible on the back of the trailer). There are two publicity photos of Menning's orchestra showing them in their black dress uniforms, one of them as a ten member orchestra, and the second as an eight member group. Dick Booth is in both photos at the piano, while Menning is standing with his bass. There is an Aug 14 1929 concert program which notes "special entertainment for this evening only - Dick Booth in his side-splitting comedy railroad song 'The Wreck of the 97'".
The orchestra issued 2 records in 1929 on the Broadway Records label, both 78's that were recorded at Broadway's studio in Grafton Wisconsin. The records are now rare, but were popular with fans of the orchestra at the time. One indication of the fond memories many had for Menning's group, is that in the 1970's, an Appleton fan mentioned the records as well as the group in an Oshkosh newspaper article that even included a photo of the group along with their names. As shown on Broadway's January 1929 listing, Broadway #1239 contained 'Avalon Town' and 'I'll Get By', while Broadway #1238 had 'My Suppressed Desire' on 1 side, with the other side by a different orchestra.
There are mp3 and online streaming recordings of Avalon Town on the internet archives website - they are free because they are now in the public domain. The recording is of poor quality, and may not have been enhanced using modern technology. There is also a modern CD collection of early jazz records that contains 'My Suppressed Desire', the credit noting it includes Dick 'Decks' Booth on piano. The CD is 'Paramount Hot Dance Obscurities Vol. 1; Jazz Oracle BDW 8039' available at present from amazon.com. I have not yet heard it. There is no known modern recording of "I'll Get by". I am hopeful my 78 rpm recording of it can sometime be transferred to a CD.
There are a few dance ads in early 1930 in the last scrapbook, but nothing more after 1930 about the Harold Menning Orchestra - or any other orchestra. The only dates thereafter are the aforementioned union cards for 1931, 1932 and 1933, from the union local in Oshkosh. It is clear the depression caused a major change in people's habits about then. More importantly, Dick Booth had become a father of a son in May, 1929,and now had other priorities and new responsibilities to deal with. An early photo of Dick, his new wife Lillian Roy, and son Richard (photo courtesy of Richard), places them in Oshkosh by 1933 (where the photo was taken), their son looking to be about age 4.
|Dick Booth with son Richard in 1929|
Growing up in Oshkosh, I remember we had a piano in the house, but I do not recall my father playing it much. Sometimes relatives would visit and coax him into playing it for a 'sing along', but that is about as much as I recall about him and his musical career while growing up. He died at age 48 of stomach cancer (a disease now curable simply by treating the ulcers which precedes it) - I was only 11. It would have been great to hear him talk of his musical career, but it was even then a period of time seemingly locked away in his memories, but no longer talked about. Notwithstanding his obvious ease and success as a performer, I recall him as a quiet and often private person around home.
One of the last times Dick's two sons were together with their father, was during a 1948 visit to Oshkosh by eldest son Richard, then in the Army. Dick was clearly proud of his two sons, even though he did not live to see what successes they would later achieve.
|Dick with sons Richard & Terry, 1948|
Richard, the oldest, followed another of Dick's varied deep interests - radios and electronics - to become an electrical engineer for IBM at its research facilities in Poughkeepsie NY (during the days of that company's pre-eminence) and other important computer related firms. Terry had a successful finance and accounting career with such companies as Santa Fe Industries (which owned Santa Fe Railroad, since merged with Burlington Northern). Of special note here (since it relates to Dick's musical career), is that during his college days, Terry was a soloist for his Ripon College Choir. He also sang roles in Ripon musicals including Kurt Weil's 'Three Penny Opera' (in which Harry Ford - later famous as Harrison Ford - played 'Mack the Knife'). After college, Terry was a part-time music professional, most memorably as a tenor in the Chicago Symphony Chorus in the George Solti years. During that time, the chorus made annual concert trips to Carnegie Hall with soloists like Luciano Pavarotti and Leontyne Price. In hindsight, it is clear where not only his love of music came from, but that of his two daughters and youngest son. Older daughter Laura was 1st chair flute and president of the St. Olaf Concert Band, and still plays flute solos at her church. Alexis sang in Tufts College cappella groups and pursued a singer/songwriter career in New York City for several years. Graham took a year off from college to tour with a ska band, the 'Ecclectics', but soon tired of being on the road and making little money, and returned to Rice University to become an architect. Their older brother, Matthew, while not a musician, also has followed a creative career as a graphic designer.
Terry Booth. August 2013.
1. Booth Family Archive of Terry and Carol Booth
2. Booth Family Archive of Richard Roy Booth.