Gretsch at Carnegie Hall: Capturing a Moment In Time
By Fred Gretsch
It’s said that every picture tells a story. Well, there are a multitude of stories connected with the historic picture that accompanies this article. The occasion, the setting, and many of the individuals depicted in the photo all have fascinating histories associated with them.
Let’s start with the occasion. The photo was taken December 29, 1945—just a few months after the end of the Second World War. The management team of the Fred Gretsch Musical Instrument Company had gathered in Brooklyn to set a course for the second half of the 20th century. Their decision: Go full speed ahead with professional instruments.
To commemorate their decision the team traveled across the East River to Manhattan. There they planned to join with some of the leading drummers and percussionists of the day for a photo to be taken with a selection of Gretsch drums.
Of course, such a historic photo called for an equally historic location, which brings us to the setting. The sheer number of people to be included in the photo called for a sizeable area. The fact that notable musicians were to be involved called for a musical venue. So it made sense to hold the photo session on the stage of a concert hall. And what New York City concert hall could be more famous—or more respected—than Carnegie Hall?
Aside from its own legendary musical history, Carnegie Hall had a special attraction for the Gretsch team. Directly across the street was Steinway Hall, which was the headquarters of another venerable family-owned music business—and the two companies had much in common. In 1853 German immigrant Henry Engelhard Steinway founded Steinway & Sons in Manhattan. In 1883 German immigrant Friedrich Gretsch founded the Gretsch Company in Brooklyn. (Both companies are celebrating major anniversaries this year.)
That brings us to the people in the photo. Regrettably, the names of the gentlemen at the far left and far right have been lost to history. The others, starting from the second on the left, are: Saul Goodman, James Crawford, Mary McClanahan, Frank Kutak, Gus Helmecke, Art Neu, Viola Smith, Bernie Benson, Fred Gretsch Jr., Duke Kramer, Phil Grant, Richard Dickson, William Walter Gretsch, and Al Moffatt Sr.
Following is just a bit of information about this fascinating group.
Saul Goodman was a legendary timpanist, teacher, and inventor. His career with the New York Philharmonic began on that very Carnegie Hall stage in 1926 and ended with his retirement some forty-six years later. In addition, Saul taught at the Julliard School of Music for over forty years, and his students went on to populate the percussion sections of the great orchestras of the United States, Europe, and Asia. He is also responsible for revolutionizing the design and construction of timpani, employing lighter metals that greatly reduced their weight. He also devised a chain tuning mechanism that made it easier to keep their harmonics in balance. Saul retired in 1972 and died in 1996 at the age of eighty-nine.
James “Jimmy” Crawford was the drummer of the popular Jimmie Lunceford big band for from 1928 to 1942. He was known for playing in a shuffle style based on keeping the beat in two, which became a key factor in establishing the unique Lunceford sound. In the 1950s Jimmie worked as a pit drummer on Broadway, and he also had an extensive recording career with such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Frankie Lane, Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, and Frank Sinatra.
Mary McClanahan was one of the first, if not the first, successful female drummers of the 1930s and 40s. She was certainly the first female drummer to be featured in an advertisement for Gretsch drums. The November 1939 edition of Metronome magazine carried a full-age ad that depicted Mary and read, “‘Charmed with the tone and beauty of my new Gretsch-Gladstone ensemble,’ says charming Mary McClanahan of Phil Spitalny’s ‘Hour of Charm’ All-Girl Orchestra.”
The Hour of Charm was a nationwide radio show. And while an all-girl orchestra was admittedly a novelty, the quality of the band was genuine, requiring equally genuine talent of its members. Mary McClanahan had to have chops in order to fill that chair. The Gretsch Company thought she did, because they not only featured her in magazine ads, they also included her on the cover of their 1941 catalog—alongside established stars “Papa” Jo Jones, Nick Fatool, Bernie Mattinson, and Alberto Calderon.
Frank Kutak was a noted New York City percussionist who played regularly in the orchestras for Broadway shows. Ironically, his most notable credit was for a show that was not, technically, a musical. It was the 1951 production of Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo, which featured a band of five musicians playing what was termed “incidental music.”
AUGUST “GUS” HELMECKE
John Phillip Sousa’s famous band employed only three percussion players at any time during its entire existence: a snare drummer, a timpanist who also played bells and triangle, and a drummer who played bass drum and cymbals simultaneously. This was accomplished by attaching a cymbal to the top of the drum and playing on it with a hand-held cymbal. August “Gus” Helmecke, Jr. was Sousa’s favorite bass drummer, and he was highly regarded for the sounds he produced on bass drum and cymbals. He played with Sousa from 1915 to 1931, and was the highest-paid member of the band!
As part of the Gretsch team, Art was a salesman covering the Midwest region.
Viola Smith was another pioneering female drummer. Eighth in a line of ten children—she and all her siblings were encouraged to be musical by her father, who put together an orchestra consisting of the eight sisters. They played to acclaim in a restaurant/dance hall owned by her family in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin. By the time Viola was twelve the Smith Sisters were touring, and they quickly became a favorite on the RKO circuit.
From 1938 to 1941 Viola drummed in an all-female band called The Coquettes, appearing on the cover of Billboard magazine in 1940. In 1942 she joined (you guessed it) Phil Spitalny’s Hour of Charm Orchestra, where she remained until 1954. She became known as the “Female Gene Krupa” for the way she would hurl her drumstick onto her drum, then jump up in the air and catch it as it bounced. In the ensuing years Viola appeared in feature films, played percussion with the National Symphony Orchestra, and performed her own “Drum Concertos.” In the 1960s she moved to Broadway, where she was a member of the Kit Kat Club’s on-stage all-girl band in Cabaret.
On November 29, 2012 Viola celebrated her 100th birthday, and as of this writing she’s alive and well and happy to talk about drums with anyone who’s interested. Several clips of her are currently on YouTube.
Another member of the Gretsch team, Bernie handled sales in the New York City area.
FRED GRETSCH JR.
Fred Gretsch Jr. became president of the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company when his father Fred Sr. retired in 1942. But shortly thereafter he turned the reins over to his younger brother, William Walter “Bill” Gretsch, and left to serve as an officer in the US Navy during the war. He accomplished that task with distinction, and he had only been home a short time when this photo was taken.
Following the untimely death of Bill Gretsch in 1948, Fred Jr. reassumed leadership of the company. He continued to oversee its expansion, guiding it through the golden era of jazz in the 1950s and into the rock explosion of the early 1960s.
Duke Kramer was the only person not actually named “Gretsch” who was nonetheless indelibly identified with the brand within the music industry. He joined the company as an instrument repairman in the Chicago office in 1935. He was shortly promoted to purchasing agent and later to traveling sales rep. After serving in the army during World War II, Duke returned to Gretsch as vice president in charge of Chicago operations. All in all, he was an integral part of Gretsch business operations for nearly seventy years.
In 1945 Bill Gretsch hired drum endorser Phil Grant to head the promotions and sales of the drum department, and to handle artist relations. From that time until he left the company in 1972 Phil’s contributions to Gretsch were varied and extensive. As a talented drummer himself he was sympathetic to the needs of Gretsch artists, and he traveled extensively as a clinician and product demonstrator. He was also an inventor, responsible for such Gretsch innovations as “Disappearing Drum Spurs,” the famous “Snap-In Drum Key,” and the “All Height [shell mount] Cymbal Holder.”
Richard was a drum builder employed at the Gretsch factory in Brooklyn. (Special thanks go to his family for providing this photo.)
WILLIAM WALTER “BILL” GRETSCH
The younger son of Fred Gretsch Sr., “Bill” Gretsch held key positions in the family business from a young age. When his father retired in 1942 Bill was running the company’s sizeable and important Chicago office. He left that position and moved to Brooklyn to take over as president of the company when Fred Gretsch Jr. entered military service. Bill retained the title of president upon his brother’s return. The two brothers jointly guided the business until Bill’s untimely death in 1948 at the age of forty-four.
Duke Kramer said of Bill Gretsch: “Bill was a man with a subtle talent for inspiring people to do their best and a genius for constructive counsel. And his sense of humor was irresistible.”
AL MOFFATT SR.
Al was yet another member of the Gretsch sales team, covering the New England region.
Gretsch Then and Now
The unique photograph presented here—and all the back-story that goes with it—depicts just a single moment within the 130-year history of the company that bears my family name. Along with my wife Dinah I’m proud to represent the fourth generation of that family. (I’m the son of “Bill” Gretsch and the nephew of Fred Gretsch Jr.) Our daughter Lena, who represents the fifth generation, has been an essential part of the business for almost twenty years. And I’m pleased to report that many sixth-generation family members are pursuing educational tracks that will help them continue the family legacy for years to come.
For those interested in the complete history of the Gretsch Company and the Gretsch Family, be sure to check out Rob Cook’s forthcoming book on the subject. Rob’s reputation as a writer and researcher—as well as the promoter of America’s oldest and largest vintage and custom drum show—has established him as a key figure in the field of drum history. With the able assistance of John Sheridan, Rob has produced a comprehensive work that is sure to appeal to Gretsch fans everywhere.