Friday, August 7, 2009

All-Girl Bands: Phil Spitalny and Frances Blaisdell

Many think of all-girl bands as a World War II phenomenon made necessary because of the draft, but musical ensembles consisting of all female players had existed since the 1920s. Phil Spitalny’s orchestra had 20 years (1934-1954) of coast to coast success that included concerts, movies and network radio sponsorships usually reserved for male bands.

Join us now as contributor Victoria Balloon conducts a symphonic study of the all-girl orchestra that became an American standard and composes a very special tribute to Spitalny flutist Frances Blaisdell.

In conducting interviews for her book, Swing Shift: “All-Girl Bands” of the 1940s, Sherrie Tucker realized that “the word Spitalny is not just the name of a bandleader but a useful adjective with both positive and negative connotations. Spitalny means strings and harps and elaborate production numbers. It means an emphasis on a particular brand of femininity.” (p.71)

Phil Spitalny and The Hour of Charm was so well-known that on an episode of I Love Lucy, Ricky Ricardo threatened his band with, “The first guy who looks like he’s playing in his sleep gets traded to Phil Spitalny.” The threat demonstrates stereotypes all girl bands dealt with — that they weren’t professional, that they were somehow inferior to the male bands they “copied.” (Tucker, p.79) Professional female musicians had to live down this stereotype and the Spitalny jokes whether they played for the band or not.

Spitalny was born in Russia in 1890 and began his musical education at the age of 9, training at the Conservatory of Music in Odessa on the piano and violin. The clarinet, however, was his main instrument, and he made several appearances as a child prodigy playing it. In 1905 he came to the U.S. with his family, settling in Cleveland, OH. There, he and one of his brothers were part of an orchestra which performed in the dining room of the city's Hotel Statler. Spitalny also became a member of the original Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.

Later Spitalny moved to Boston and for two years lead a 50-piece ensemble that played Loew’s State Theater. Eventually he formed his own touring orchestra, which recorded for Victor from 1924 to 1926. Spitalny collaborated with many big-name composers such as Gus Kahn and jazz musician Lee “Stubby” Gordon, but perhaps his most lasting tune, made famous by The Drifters (1960) is “Save the Last Dance for Me,” which he co-authored with Frank Magine and Walter Hirsch.

Spitalny moved to New York in 1928; his conventional all male band, the Phil Spitalny Hotel Pennsylvania Orchestra, had a successful debut in 1930 and performed concerts, played night clubs and was heard on the radio.

Why Spitalny decided to disband his male orchestra and create one entirely of female musicians is lost somewhere between the legend he created and the reality of musical employment during the Great Depression. In 1938 Spitalny told Etude Magazine:

If I were seeking an effect of power, of heavy beats, of sort of military precision that commands you against your will, I should certainly not go to work with a group of girls. But the effect desired was one of charm, of mellowness, of floating, elusive persuasion. And so it seemed the most natural logical thing in the world to assemble a band of women and to ask them simply to go on being charming women in their playing.

One version is that in 1932 Spitalny saw a “brilliant violinist” performing a concert, and thus the idea was born to search America looking for other women who could form an orchestra. Was the violinist Evelyn Kaye Klein, or did he discover her later at the Institute of Musical Art (now the Juilliard School)? The search cost $20,000, and Spitalny auditioned some 1,500 women musicians before he found twenty-two of them judged good enough to be in his group.

“Sweetness and Charm” would be part of his formula for success, and in order to keep “his girls” sweet and charming Spitalny had them rehearse for five or six hours a day. They signed contracts that they would not marry for two years, and then only with six month’s notice. They could not weigh over 122 pounds and wore their hair styled in “long, soft bobs.”

Evelyn Kaye Klein became Evelyn and Her Magic Violin, accompanied by the Golden Voice of Vivien (soprano) and the Haunting Voice of Maxine (contralto).

Spitalny knew he had a good orchestra, but sponsors for an all-girl band were harder to come by. He arranged a “blind” audition for Linit Bath Oil — the orchestra played in another location and the music was piped in — and only after Linit had signed the contract did they learn the orchestra was all-female. The orchestra made its debut in New York City’s Capitol Theater, and began a network radio program, "The Hour of Charm," on January 3, 1935.

Part of the popularity of Phil Spitalny’s orchestra may be that he never sought to compete with male bands, but emphasized the femininity of his players. The novelty of an all-girl orchestra became an attraction, and by 1940 the orchestra had expanded to 34 members. Phil Spitalny and the Hour of Charm radio program was a fixture on Sundays, first over CBS (1935), then NBC (1936-46) with General Electric, and then back on CBS (1946-48) with the Electric Light and Power Company. In 1937 the orchestra won the Achievement Award from the radio committee of the Women's National Exposition of Arts and Industries for the most distinguished work of women in radio during the previous year.

Evelyn and her Magic Violin. Click on this image to read the bios of the girls in the original orchestra.
Spitalny also did not emphasize the previous professional achievements of his musicians, but a number of them had long resumes. The programs from his concerts instead outlined their “feminine pursuits.” In a 1940 program these biographies describe the hobbies of the musicians, such as “collecting big stuffed dolls” and “Southern cooking,” and relaxing with “beauty treatments” and “gab fests.” (One wonders what male musicians such as Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey might have listed.) (Tucker, p.82-84)

Women who worked with Spitalny have said he was in turns fair, gruff, and demanding, but also gave his musicians fair salaries and opportunities to study with musicians they wouldn't have had access to otherwise. Some have said he founded an all-girl orchestra because men would have punched him before submitting to his demands. Some of Spitalny’s requirements were unique — all music was memorized so that the music stands wouldn’t detract from the gowns the musicians wore — but many were demands made on all girl bands at the time.

In matters of appearance, women encountered many more difficulties than male band members. Regardless of how far they had traveled or how many hours they’d managed to sleep on a tour bus, all-girl bands had to appear onstage in long dresses and heels looking beautiful, despite the fact that some instruments do not work well with an evening gown — straps for saxophones often bit into bare necks, and it is impossible to work the pedals of a drum while wearing heels. In addition to weight and age restrictions, some bands barred wearing glasses. Glamour was hard work; unfortunately, despite the fact that it was expected of them, the particular attention to appearances was one more thing that made some critics believe members of all-girl bands weren’t “serious” musicians.

Of particular concern for any band leader was strict chaperoning — no dating, no friends backstage, no men waiting at the stage door. Because female performers had reputations (deserved or not) of having looser morals, there was the need to protect the reputation of both the bands and the musicians. The bands were professionals, but also women batting gender stereotypes in America. Many managers, owners and military officers expected more than just a floor show. Some club owners expected members of bands to act as B-girls — hostesses who circulate and chat up customers to buy more drinks. (Tucker, p.59-63)

When it came to travel, the girls in Spitalny’s group were lucky; such was the success of the band that they traveled to engagements in private railroad cars. This was extremely useful during the war years, when gas and rubber were rationed and the ultimate success of a band often depended on how long their buses and cars could be kept running. Porters were instructed not to let anyone into the Spitalny private cars. Inevitably, some did get in, and Spitalny would remove them himself.

Did Spitalny hire women because he thought they deserved equal time, or did he hire them because, knowing they had fewer professional options than their male counterparts, would be more willing to endure his demands? While conducting her research, Sherrie Tucker found a disturbing and bizarre theme: Spitalny would sometimes interview potential musicians in his underwear. She summarizes the story:

A young woman shows up for her interview at the appointed time, either at Spitalny’s hotel room or at his dressing room. She knocks at the door, then is faced with the decision of what to do when he answers it dressed in nothing but his undershorts. Should she forfeit the job by refusing to enter? Or should she go on with the interview, risking further inappropriate behavior?

According to Tucker, those who fled were less ashamed than those who stayed for the audition. Women who experienced this with Spitalny and joined the band did not discuss the details with other band members and did not know others had similar experiences. No one said that he ever got “fresh” or did anything more than sit in his underwear. (p.92-94) Interestingly enough, in his autobiography Mickey Katz (Jewish comedian and musician) recalls Spitalny backstage at the Loew’s State Theater in Boston, wandering around in his silk BVDs to “air out his parts.” One wonders if Spitalny was simply boorish and unthinking, or found it psychologically stimulating to appear before others in a state of undress.

Hour of Charm radio announcer Richard Stark surrounded by some of the girls in the orchestra.
Making the musicians look like delicate ladies of leisure rather than wage earning women was a stage effect. By emphasizing that his players came from some of the “best schools,” Spitalny gave an impression of an upper-class background rather than union members making $75 - $100 a week (the soloists made much more). One thing was absolutely certain: Spitalny’s particular brand of femininity was for and about white women only. While there were many African-American all-girl bands, Phil Spitalny’s orchestra was not one of them.

Who were the women who played in Spitalny’s orchestra, and what were their musical careers both before and after the experience? Frances Blaisdell, who passed away in March of this year, was the first woman wind player admitted to the Juilliard School of Music as well as the first to perform as soloist with the New York Philharmonic. She also played flute in the Phil Spitalny Orchestra from 1934-37.

Blaisdell first learned the flute from her father, a man in the lumber business and self-taught flutist. Disappointed she was not a boy, he called her “Jim.” When he wrote to New York Philharmonic flutist Ernest Wagner, her father asked if he would teach “my Jim.” It came as quite a surprise to Wagner when he saw “Jim” was a girl. At first he was not at all interested, but eventually relented after hearing her audition.

Georges Barrère, circa 1941. “He had a presence,” notes Blaisdell.
In 1928 she began her studies with the preeminent French flutist Georges Barrère, first at the Institute of Musical Art and then at the Juilliard Graduate School. This too almost did not come about, because her audition at Juilliard was scheduled as "Francis Blaisdell,” the masculine spelling of her name. Upon seeing the mistake an administrator tried to cancel her appointment, but Blaisdell, almost in tears, argued her way into Barrère's studio. Barrère was impressed; Blaisdell was admitted. Later she also studied with Marcel Moyse and William Kincaid.

Because women were barred outright from playing in major orchestras at that time, Blaisdell forged a successful career as a soloist and chamber musician. In 1932 she made her solo debut with the New York Philharmonic — a children’s concert, in which she played the Mozart D major concerto. Is this perhaps how Spitalny first saw Blaisdell? A story from The Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1937 says only that Blaisdell “came to his attention as a featured soloist with a well known male ensemble in New York.”

Blaisdell and members of “the band,” as they called it, were similarly musically well-educated and looking for more professional experiences. In addition to the concerts and radio engagements with Spitalny’s orchestra, during the 1930s Blaisdell played with the women’s orchestras under Antonia Brico and Ethel Leginska as well as with the New Opera Company and the New Friends of Music. If she and her bandmates could find work substituting for a musician who was ill or on vacation, they did it — as many things as their schedules would allow.

Radio and theater orchestras were a major source of employment, and in 1935 Blaisdell played four shows daily for two weeks at Radio City Music Hall. In her 2005 interview with “The Flutist Quarterly” she recalled wearing a beautiful gold lamé dress and having two Rockettes on either side of her. “And the first day,” Blaisdell said, “when that curtain opened, and I saw that vast, enormous, tremendous auditorium, all black, I just froze, absolutely terrified, and one of these Rockettes said, ‘Get going, kid, and smile.’ And I did both those things.”

Blaisdell remembered Spitalny as being hard-nosed and tight with a dollar, but he did pay his musicians well, and the money was very good on the vaudeville circuit. Perhaps most importantly, it was steady. He was indeed a “real stickler” about memorizing the music every week. “You just did it over and over and until you got it in your fingers.”

A brief article in The Milwaukee Journal from May 1937 reveals the view of women musicians – indeed, any professional woman – prevalent at that time.

Love laughs at locksmiths and it hasn’t much respect for law or contracts either. In violation of her agreement with Phil Spitalny, Frances Blaisdell has married. Spitalny, when he enlists the services of a new musician, points out the contract clause that the artist abstain [sic] from the life matrimonial… Frances Blasdell, the pioneering young lady who administered the K.O. to Old Man Career, was flutist in the orchestra. She remained true, at least, to her instrument. Her husband, Alexander Williams, also plays flute and clarinet with the New York Philarmonic [sic] orchestra.

Click on the image above to read the article from The Plain Dealer, June 1937
An article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer from June of 1937 shows Blaisdell wasn’t the only one who didn’t care for the marriage contract clause. Although Spitalny asserted that “a girl is a better musician unmarried because her emotional power… is not divided between home, husband, and children” his orchestra disagreed; they threatened to walk out unless Blaisdell was reinstated and the marriage clause abolished. Musicians in the all-girl bands wanted to be treated as professionals, not commodities. Although Spitalny gave in (without changing his mind), Blaisdell had moved on to other opportunities.

During the war years Phil Spitalny and his Orchestra showed their patriotism with their theme song, “We Must Be Vigilant” sung to the tune of “American Patrol” and assisted in the war effort through performances at the Boston Stage Door Canteen and on the USS North Carolina. During this decade the band also made two movies: When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1942) and Here Come the Co-Eds (1945).

When Johnny Comes Marching Home is the story of Johnny Kovacs (Allen Jones), a hero in the war home on a bond tour. Trying to escape the adulation heaped upon him, he hides under an assumed name in a theatrical boarding house. The other residents think he has gone AWOL and try to convince him to turn himself in, but all is explained during the musical finale. The film has some nice musical numbers and records the patriotic Spitalny theme “We Must Be Vigilant,” but the plot doesn’t have much staying power. What it does have going for it is a 17-year-old Donald O’Connor beginning his musical career.

Here Come the Co-Eds stars Abbot and Costello and the girls in the band. A dance hostess (Martha O'Driscoll) gets into a girls’ college on a scholarship as a new young dean tries to update the fusty curriculum — not that the students are ever shown doing anything scholastic. The film portrays the same illusion of femininity as Spitalny espoused, and the band members play the girls in the dorm who naturally whip up some very nice musical numbers that have no bearing on the plot (Besides, when Lou Costello plays basketball in drag, plot is secondary).

In the late 1940s with the advent of television, General Electric reevaluated how it spent its advertising dollars. Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, a men’s orchestra, could wear a tuxedo every week, but because he felt an all-girl orchestra needed new gowns for every show, Spitalny would not come down on his price. Waring got the sponsorship. Electric Light and Power Company became the CBS sponsor, but not for the entire year, and Spitalny and his orchestra left radio in 1948. (Tucker p.78) The orchestra traveled more to play concerts and had several appearances on early television with the Ed Sullivan Show.

Spitalny and Evelyn Kaye of the Magic Violin were married outside of Atlantic City, NJ on June 17, 1946. Spitalny retired in 1955 and settled in Miami Beach as a music critic for the Miami Beach Sun and the Miami Beach Reporter. He died in 1970 after a long illness, and Evelyn Klein Spitalny died in 1990.

Blaisdell and husband Alexander Williams, circa 2000.
Blaisdell may have left Phil Spitalny’s orchestra in 1937, but she had no intention of ending her career. Most men of that time would not have understood her desire to pursue her career, but her husband Alex Williams did. Alex was a superb musician, the associate principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic and principal clarinetist of the NBC Orchestra under Toscanini. He wasn't in the least bit threatened by her talent or drive, and they performed often together. When Blaisdell was refused an audition for an opening as assistant first flute of the New York Philharmonic because she was a woman, she, Alex, and three other players (all Philharmonic members) started the Blaisdell Woodwind Quintet, which performed weekly on the radio for several years. Williams and Blaisdell had a great deal in common and made the most of it — they were married 66 years, until Alex died in 2003.

In 1939 she played as an accompanist to opera singer Lily Pons, both at the World’s Fair and other concerts. In 1941, after Barrère had a stroke, she took his place in the Barrère Trio. Later there was the Bach Circle of New York, the Blaisdell Trio of New York, performances of “Carousel” on Broadway, and then eventually the New York City Ballet. In 1962 Frances Blaisdell became one of the first woman to perform with the New York Philharmonic — as an “extra man” during a piece that required additional flutes.

In 1992, Blaisdell (center) spoke about her life at a standing-room-only concert of the New York Flute Club. On hand to celebrate were her granddaughter Allison (left) and daughter Alexandra. (Photo: Ira N. Toff)
Blaisdell taught for many years at the Manhattan School of Music, Mannes, and NYU, eventually “retiring” in 1973 and moving to California. She accepted an interim appointment as flute teacher at Stanford University, but actually continued teaching there almost until her death. In 2006 she received the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for Outstanding Service to Undergraduate Education.

Mario Champagne, administrative director for the Stanford Music Department, said “She was teaching until 97—in the last year, from her wheelchair, and mostly blind. She could still play her flute and it was not unusual for her to listen to a student play, comment on what needed to be fixed, and then demonstrate the correct technique from memory.” Thus a whole generation who knew nothing about Phil Spitalny or the difficulties of being a professional female musician learned to love both the flute and the very generous woman who shared her talents.

In February 1993, Frances Blaisdell spoke about her life and career at a standing-room-only concert of the New York Flute Club. She was introduced by then-president Nancy Toff and special guest Jean-Pierre Rampal. (Photo: Ira N. Toff)
Did playing in Phil Spitalny’s all-girl orchestra have any lasting effect on Blaisdell? Most certainly. She kept up with several of the band members all her life. In 1993 when her daughter, also a flute professor at Stanford University, played a New York recital in the midst of a blizzard, very few people were able to fight through the weather and attend. But arrayed across the center of the audience were three of the “girls in the band,” then in their 80s and all still friends. Blaisdell always remembered the experience fondly.

The longevity of Blaisdell’s career in part comes from her dedication — her willingness to play anything, anywhere for the experience and to earn a living. She was an artist without egotism, a trooper who wouldn’t let discrimination stand in the way of her music. Blaisdell made her own opportunity because she didn’t accept no for an answer, and whatever she did she did well. President of the New York Flute club Nancy Toff states, “She had absolutely the most positive attitude of anyone I’ve ever known. She was truly generous and felt she had an obligation to pass on what she knew to the next generation.”

In 1992 Chamber Music magazine wrote, “Every woman flute player in every major American orchestra, every little girl who plays the flute in a school band, has Frances Blaisdell to thank. She was first.”

Indeed, thank you, Frances. And thanks to the multitude of other all-girl bands members for their determination and drive, for paving the way for women in music — and for leaving us some wonderful Bijou memories.

For Further Reading:
Sherrie Tucker’s Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s is an amazing look at the history of jazz, women, and American dance music. Barbara Highton Williams’s fascinating interview with Frances Blaisdell first appeared in the April 2005 edition of the New York Flute Club Newsletter and is a wonderful glimpse at Blaisdell’s life in her own voice. Here is a wonderful link to a full-color promotional piece featuring Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Orchestra (and a great plug for GE lightbulbs!). We at the Bijou would like to give a very special thanks to New York Flute Club President Nancy Toff for providing images of Frances Blaisdell and generous editorial support.

During the 1930s Phil Spitalny made several musical shorts: Phil Spitalny and His Musical Queens (1934), Big City Fantasy (1934), Ladies That Play (1934), Phil Spitalny & His All Girl Orchestra (1935), Sirens of Syncopation (1935), Meet the Maestros (1938), and Moments of Charm (1939). In addition the orchestra provides the music for the only color Betty Boop cartoon, Poor Cinderella (1934). Many of these delightful shorts are either lost or out of circulation, and we at the Bijou are busy tracking down as many as we can find for the Matinee at the Bijou sequel series.


Bea said...

I found this fascinating, since my maternal great-grandmother had an all-girl vaudeville troupe "Mildred Andre and Girls" in the 1910s and 1920s.

Anonymous said...

Rumors had it that when Stubby Gordon decided to leave Phil to start the 2nd radio station in the U.S. many of the musicians were also going to leave with Stubby and formed the NBC orchestra for the station. Phil felt he could not continue the orchestra and needed a less expensive way to compete and along with other factors the all girl orchestra was born. A great picture of the girls resides in the Library Theater in Warren, PA. - Stubby Gordon's home town!

Paul said...

Unfortunate that the Musical Charmers video is no longer available. I have a couple of photos from 1940 of members of the All Girl Orchestra being interviewed outside Proctors Theatre in Schenectady, NY as part of a GE event announcing their development of "staticless radio", and I'm looking for other photos and video footage in an effort to identify the gals. Evelyn is clearly in the background of one, though its unclear to me who is actually being interviewed in that photo... I'm guessing either Evelyn or Maxine, though other photos I've seen of them don't entirely answer the question for me. I also have a photo of a trio being interviewed, and I'm wondering if they might be "The Three Little Words".

Paul said...

Oops. The above should have said "I'm guessing either Vivien or Maxine..."

Anonymous said...

Simply this. Congrats and thank you, from an old Aussie retired in the Philippines. Information like this each day expands my fascination with old music.

Lorna Brittan Bank said...

I loved reading about this. My mother, Lorna Wren, also played in Spitalny's All Girl Band, and was later accompanist to Lily Pons on tour. I have memories of them rehearsing when I was just a toddler in my playpen! Unfortunately my other was diagnose with Alzheimers and passed in 2003. I have newspaper clippings of many of her musical experiences as a flutist, but nothing on tape or film. If anyone reading this has something, I would love to know. Thank you, Lorna Brittan Bank. My email address is

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading about the Spitalny band. I remember listening to it on the radio with my parents in the late 30's and early 40's

hbmmgram said...

I have an autographed 8x10 glossy signed "Sincerely Vivien." I'm trying to find out who this woman was. If she was "Vivien" of Spitalny's all girl band, I wonder if she has a last name? The photo has the identifying mark of "Bruno of Hollywood" and a series of numbers. Otherwise it is in pristine condition and I'm thinking ebay. Any help here?

BijouBob said...

Hi hbmmgram - you might try contacting the Metropolitan Washington Old Time Radio Club in
Walkersville, MD. They note at their site that Vivien's real name was Hollace Shaw. We found this info at their website and they might be able to help. Good Luck!

BijouBob said...

Hi hbmmgram - you might try contacting the Metropolitan Washington Old Time Radio Club in
Walkersville, MD. They note at their site that Vivien's real name was Hollace Shaw. We found this info at their website and they might be able to help. Good Luck!

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to put together a book about a member of the Phil Spitalny Hour of Charm Orchestra, who played with them in the 1930s (approx 1935-1937). If anyone has any photos they could share for a publication please contact me
oceanstarofthesea @ (without spaces)