Honoring Four Generations of Women Responsible For Keeping "That Great Gretsch Sound" Alive For 124 Years.
Gretsch’s “First” First Lady to founder, Friedrich Gretsch
Next to her husband, Friedrich, Rosa Gretsch is the second most important person responsible for today’s Gretsch legacy and continued family dynasty.
Born Rosa Behman on June 18, 1856 in Brooklyn, New York to German-born parents, Rosa’s parents died in a Cholera epidemic when she was a baby. Fortunately, she was adopted by friends of her parents who had no children.
In February 1879, 22-year-old Rosa married Friedrich Gretsch who had immigrated to Brooklyn from Germany six years earlier and was working at Albert Houdlett & Son, a drum and banjo manufacturing business.
A year after getting married, Rosa and Friedrich started the Gretsch family legacy with the first of seven children. Fred Gretsch, Sr. was born on February 10, 1880. A second son, Walter, followed two years later. Being a talented piano player herself, Rosa was very encouraging to her husband to start a family musical instrument business. In April 1883, Friedrich “Americanized” his name to Fred and opened a small music shop in Brooklyn manufacturing banjos, tambourines, and drums for music wholesalers.
Five more children (Louis, Elsa, Helen, Hertha, and Herbert) were born between 1885 and 1891, and Friedrich’s small music manufacturing shop prospered and expanded to 12 employees. Rosa’s life was nearly shattered in 1895, however, when Friedrich, while in Germany on business, was stricken with Cholera. He was only 39 when he died.
A strong, independent woman for her time, Rosa was determined to pass along her husband’s successful musical instrument manufacturing business to her children. Today’s Gretsch legacy and family dynasty started with Rosa’s bold decision to turn her husband’s company over to their oldest son, Fred, Sr., who was only 15 years old at the time. This proved to be a wise decision as Fred, Sr. guided Gretsch for 47 years, leading it to become one of the world’s largest and most respected manufacturers of musical instruments.
In addition to being remembered as a loving mother, totally dedicated to her seven children and large German-American extended family, Rosa also encouraged and worked with her two oldest sons, Fred Sr. and Walter, to keep the family business growing. In 1905, Rosa, Fred Sr., and Walter also incorporated the Fred Gretsch Realty Company with all three serving as directors.
During her life, Rosa was dedicated to the local Goodwill Industry chapters in New York. Rosa was a great cook and found time to bake and play piano at Goodwill fundraisers and enlisted her children to volunteer as well. Rosa later remarried David Kling (a friend of Friedrich’s who was also born in Mannheim, Germany) and passed away in 1934 at the age of 78. When Rosa’s household effects were inventoried, her most prized possession was her beloved Steinway Walnut Parlor Grand Piano.
Gretsch’s First Lady during the decades of great growth.
Charlotte Gretsch was at her husband, Fred Sr.’s, side to help build the Gretsch Company into the world’s largest musical instrument manufacturer in 1920.
Charlotte Sommer was born on December 16, 1880 in New York City to American-born parents who owned a successful grocery store in Manhattan. She was the sixth of eight children and grew up in a house with five brothers.
In January 1904, 23-year-old Charlotte married Fred Gretsch, Sr. in a small ceremony at her parent’s home. Charlotte most likely sailed with Fred to Europe on a business trip as part of their honeymoon. Annual musical instrument buying trips to Europe with her husband became part of Charlotte’s life.
On March 10, 1905, the first of three sons, Fred Gretsch, Jr., was born. A year later, William Walter (Bill) was born and in 1908, Richard (Dick) Gretsch was born. Bill was stricken with polio as a child which, no doubt, took more of Charlotte’s care and time than her husband’s expanding company. Fred Sr. and Charlotte exposed their children to the family business early. The brothers worked many Saturdays doing everything from packaging phonograph needles to picking up drum heads at the tannery.
The first two decades of the 1900’s were years of astonishing growth and innovation for the Fred. Gretsch Manufacturing Company. In 1916, the growing company expanded again and moved into the famous 10-story Gretsch Building in the Williamsburg District of Brooklyn at 60 Broadway. This landmark building was built by partners, Fred Sr., brother Walter, and their mother, Rosa Gretsch.
Shortly thereafter, Fred Sr. invented the industry’s first “warp-free” multi-ply drum lamination process. This revolutionary new construction method had tremendous advantages over the then-current method of steam bending wood. Drum shells and hoops were not only lighter, but were more perfectly round and stronger.
In April 1928 with her husband and oldest son, Fred Jr., in Europe on business, Charlotte became seriously ill and was admitted to St. Catherine’s Hospital in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, she lost a battle to ovarian cancer and died on May 12, 1928 at the age of 47.
Like Rosa Gretsch, Charlotte was a strong, loving, independent woman who played a key role in supporting and assisting her husband during a critical growth period of the Gretsch Company. She exposed her three sons to the family business at an early age and felt strongly that her sons should attend college (although Fred Sr. did not). She also took up golf when it became a big part of her husband’s life and helped Fred Sr. plan the first unofficial world golf championship in 1921 at the Soundview Club in Long Island. Like Rosa, Charlotte had a big heart and was involved with and supported Goodwill Industries. She was known to often visit stores and pay bills for less fortunate families.
Multi-talented First Lady to Bill Gretsch and mother of current president, Fred W. Gretsch
Sylvia Gretsch was an independent, outgoing, multi-talented lady who helped her husband, Bill, during the “scaled-down production” war years at Gretsch during World War II. After the war Sylvia was caretaker to Bill during his serious illness until his untimely death in 1948.
Maxine Lois (“Sylvia”) Elsner was born on September 17, 1917 in Joplin, Missouri. As a child Sylvia was fascinated with radio (a relatively new invention), and at an early age began studying dramatics and training in theater and speech.
In 1939 Sylvia graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois majoring in speech. While at Northwestern she crossed paths with Bill Gretsch, a 30-year-old bachelor who managed the operations of Gretsch’s Chicago Distribution Branch, and a special friendship was born.
After college the career-minded Sylvia accepted a job at a Missouri high school teaching English, drama, and supervising the traveling debate team. A year later in 1940, she moved to Wichita Falls, Texas and wrote copy for a radio station. In 1942 Sylvia was hired as the editor of “Western Hotel and Restaurant Reporter” magazine. Sylvia’s relationship with Bill also deepened during this time.
1942 was an important year in the Gretsch family for many reasons. Bill’s father, Fred Sr., retired and Bill’s older brother, Fred Jr., was named Gretsch Company president. Soon afterward he left to serve as a commander in the Navy during World War II. With his brother’s departure, Bill moved from Chicago to New York to assume the reins as company president. Bill, whose polio as a child prevented him from serving in World War II was, nonetheless, very involved in the war effort. Bill worked with the Red Cross to supply Entertainment Kits and musical instruments to thousands of soldiers around the world.
Shortly after relocating to New York, Bill proposed to Sylvia and they were married on December 14, 1942. During their marriage Sylvia helped with the layouts and development of Gretsch ads in music trade magazines. She and Bill had four children (Charlotte, Katie, Fred, and Gretchen). After having been married and Gretsch president for only five years, Bill developed cancer and was very ill for 18 months before losing his battle in 1948 at the young age of 41.
Upon her husband’s untimely death, Sylvia continued the Gretsch tradition of preparing the next generation to learn the family business and continue the Gretsch legacy through her only son, Fred. He began working in the business as a boy, preparing for the day when he would run his great-grandfather’s company. Fred’s grandfather and uncle were both great teachers and exposed Fred to many aspects of the music manufacturing business.
Sylvia never remarried and remained a loyal, loving mother dedicated to raising her and Bill’s four children. In early 1964 Sylvia became seriously ill and passed away on February 29, 1964. Like Charlotte Gretsch, Sylvia lost a brave battle to cancer and died in her mid-40’s, but during her life played an important role in the Gretsch legacy and helped prepare her son for future success. When his uncle sold Gretsch to the Baldwin Music Company in 1967, Fred wasn’t in a position to buy the company. Fortunately, 17 years later, Fred’s dream of buying back the family business from Baldwin and reviving the Gretsch name back to prominence came true. Fred remains president of the Gretsch Company today.
The first First Lady to work in the business on a daily basis (for over 27 years!)
In 1979 a bubbly, hard-working, business-savvy lady named Dinah joined the Gretsch Company and made an immediate impact.
Music has always been a big influence in Dinah’s life. She grew up in a military family (her father was in the Air Force) so moving around exposed her to many different cities, countries, cultures, and music. Dinah’s love of music began when she was eight years old and her father was transferred briefly to Korea. Dinah’s family went to stay with her aunt in a house full of teenage cousins in South Carolina. That’s when she was exposed to what she called “teenager music”-especially Motown-and saw how important rock music and shag dancing played in the lives of her older Southern cousins.
When Dinah’s father was transferred to England in the early 1960’s, she was lucky enough to witness the musical “British Invasion” up close and personal. Dinah and her teenager friends went to countless concerts and saw The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dave Clark Five, and other British rock stars early in their careers. One of her biggest thrills was going to a pub one night with friends, spotting all four Beatles, and getting to meet and talk with them. This was before their historic 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and the explosion of “Beatlemania” in America.
After moving back to South Carolina and finishing high school, Dinah worked part-time at a credit bureau for years and had the opportunity to buy the business when she was 20 years old. She worked hard to make her credit bureau business a success and sold it in the mid-1970’s. Dinah then worked at a local bank for several years before leaving to take her business, financial-and love of music-experience to the Gretsch Company in 1979.
According to Dinah, the Gretsch Company was very different when she first joined in 1979. Fred had moved from Chicago to Ridgeland, South Carolina and was making banjos. He also had a music import business. Dinah remembers doing almost everything that needed to be done including purchasing all the parts for banjos-an instrument she knew nothing about. But she was a quick learner.
It didn’t take long either to realize that Dinah and Fred worked well together and made a very strong team. Fred was the visionary, big-picture person with sales and marketing strengths. Dinah was the tactical thinker that made the company run smoothly by handling the daily operations, accounting, and computer end of the business. Together, they uniquely meshed as an effective team.
In the early 1980’s Dinah was instrumental in making Gretsch an industry leader in electronic ordering and payment. Gretsch was the first business in the music industry to go EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) and this success opened the door to a lucrative mass merchandising business. Through their Synsonics business, Fred and Dinah were shipping thousand of orders a day to J. C. Penney, Service Merchandise, Sears, and many other businesses.
Dinah’s next career milestone occurred in 1985 when she and Fred were in a position to purchase the Gretsch guitar and drum business from Baldwin. “It was truly a dream come true, especially for Fred,” says Dinah. “He had wanted to buy the business ever since his uncle sold it to Baldwin in 1967.” Fred and Dinah were so consumed with their successful Synsonics business, however, that Gretsch was put on the back burner at first. “Gretsch needed a lot of stroking,” says Dinah. “Baldwin had stopped making guitars and had let the drum quality really go down.” Eventually the drum business-and the high quality Gretsch had been famous for-returned. Dinah is very proud that the production was kept in the United States (at their Ridgeland, South Carolina factory) using American parts. The Gretsch guitar business, with the help of Duke Kramer, was then resurrected in the early 1990’s with beautiful Nashvilles, White Falcons, Duo Jets, Ranchers, and other familiar Gretsch classics gleaming in music stores again.
Another highlight in Dinah’s career was the privilege of working with George Harrison on the special Traveling Wilburys guitar. After sending George a thank you letter for using his ’57 Duo Jet guitar on an album cover, Mr. Harrison called Dinah at work to thank her for the letter and invited her and Fred out to California to sit in on a Traveling Wilburys recording session. Upon arriving at Dave Stewart’s home studio, Fred and Dinah were shown the twenty vintage Gretsch guitars being used on the album. George also wanted to talk about making a special Traveling Wilburys commemorative guitar. “We talked guitars and heard them play and sing songs well into the evening,” says Dinah. “Then George invited me into the kitchen to help him cook dinner. That’s when I reminded him we had met in England when I was a teenager. It was a very special evening for me and Fred. It was a night we’ll always remember.”
Artist Relations is a role Dinah has enjoyed during her long career at Gretsch. She maintains personal friendships with all of the Gretsch artists and feels these artists are just an extension of her Gretsch family.
As far as personal accomplishments, it’s obvious Dinah’s greatest satisfaction has been the privilege of working alongside her husband. Of all the outstanding women involved with the Gretsch family business over the past 124 years, Dinah is the only one to actually work in the business on a daily basis for an extended period of time. According to Dinah, mutual respect has been the key to Fred and Dinah’s ability to be with each other “24/7” and still make it work at home and at the office. She also enjoys the special times she and Fred share with their six children and 13 (soon to be 14) grandchildren.
Dinah is appreciative of all the people who have supported the Gretsch Company over the past 27 years. She admits it’s been a lot of hard work, sixty-hour weeks, and personal blood, sweat, and tears, but it’s also been a lot of fun and very satisfying for her to watch dreams come true.
Although she has stepped down from the daily operations of running the business, Dinah stays very busy. In addition to being a consultant to the business, she and Fred travel frequently and go on public relations trips to build the Gretsch brand name. They continue working with their Gretsch endorsement artists. As Dinah states, “I’m retired from the office, but not from the business.” Dinah also does a lot of community service in Savannah, Georgia with many charities and enjoys working in her beloved flower garden.
For the past 27 years, Dinah Gretsch has played a unique role in the rich 124-year history of The Gretsch Company. Adjectives such as “smart,” “outgoing,” “loving,” “hard-working,” “first-class,” and “spunky” are often used to describe this one-of-a-kind woman. When asked what she wants people to think of when they hear the name Gretsch, Dinah replied, “The top quality. We’re the Rolls Royce of musical instruments.” The same descriptions can be used to describe you, too, Dinah.