A January 12, 1920 U.S. Federal Census record reveals that Harry Auracher (34), musician in the theater industry, and wife Dorothy (27) were staying with friends in Manhattan.
The Aurachers' trip to Manhattan was not just a social visit.
The Frivolities of 1920
Reviews focused on the show’s vulgarity, its girls, and the likelihood of its success, not on its music.
The “Frivolities” is just a gigantic revue that is built up of vaudeville specialties with a big chorus and number here and there through it. There isn’t any attempt at any kind of a story and so it must be judged entirely from revue standards. As such, all that it needs is a little more comedy and some cutting and speeding here and there to make it a sure-fire for the box office. --Variety
There is plenty of life in The Frivolities of 1920, produced last night by G. M. Anderson at the 44th Street Theater. Much of it is low life, but it is all lively. There used to be a decided difference between the burlesque show and the Broadway revue, and the difference was more than one of mere costliness of production. That difference seems to be disappearing. The Frivolities of 1920 is really a very expensive burlesque entertainment. Our guess is that it will prove a great success. . . .
Frivolities of 1920, presented last night at the Forty-fourth Street Theatre, is big enough and noisy enough for that capacious playhouse, and has a lot of fun and activity. It is lucky the theater is roomy, for some of the revue needs the air.
Had Mr. Anderson been as spendthrift and energetic in providing expert showmanship and an atmosphere of good taste he would have an entertainment which might divert a part of the golden stream pouring into the Follies.
Frivolities of 1920 would run at the 44th Street Theatre through February and then go on tour.
A few days after Frivolities' opening night, an advertisement in Evanston, Illinois’ Daily Northwestern attested to Auracher’s entrepreneurial success. With several orchestras to his credit, Auracher was now president with his own business agent to handle bookings.
Despite Harry Auracher's success back home in Chicago, to garner attention and achieve comparable success in the musical theater world, he would need to do something different than Frivolities.
First Known Recording of an Archer Tune
Background and Education
Largely forgotten, composer and orchestra leader Harry Runkle Auracher was born in Creston, Iowa, on February 21, 1886, to George Auracher, a plumber, and Mary F. Runkle Auracher. Harry's sister Ruth, born just under two years after Harry and also a professional musician, later told a reporter, “My mother was a fine pianist, and she taught my brother and me the foundation of music, the rest I have learned in the world of experience. I started playing for shows at the theatre in my home town when I was a little girl.”
Young Harry seems to have led a similar life because he was nicknamed “the boy pianist.” The November 6, 1914 issue of the Baltimore Evening Sun states that Auracher wrote his first march at 14. As a youth, Harry also traveled and performed locally in Agnew’s Juvenile Band, directed by Frank E. Agnew, who owned a Creston clothing store.
Harry Auracher attended Michigan Military Academy where, according to the Greater West Bloomfield Historical Society, he played tuba in the band. Other sources, including David Jasen, say he played trombone. Michigan Military Academy, Orchard Lake, Michigan, Twenty-eighth Year, September, 1904 lists Auracher among the 1903 graduates.
After leaving Michigan Military Academy, Auracher attended Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois, where he joined Phi Delta Theta fraternity and, according to a 1925 Saratoga, New York newspaper, “thumped pianos at fraternity house parties.” The 1907 yearbook--the year of his graduation--reveals that he sang in the Men's Glee Club and served as accompanist.
Multiple newspaper sources indicate that Auracher caught the attention of Princeton University, said to have recognized his potential for contributing to its music productions. The Catalogue of Princeton University, 1906-1907 lists H. R. Auracher as a “Student Qualifying for Regular Standing,” which may indicate the university had admitted him based on his talent rather than standard academic qualifications.
In April 1907, Pittsburgh's Daily Post credits Harry Auracher and six other Princeton Triangle Club members with writing The Mummy Monarch, an original show then on tour in Pittsburgh. “The performance of The Mummy Monarch demonstrated that while the boys may be getting an education in the classics, they are managing to keep pace with the moderns," the paper declared; “There are men who are responsible for some of the late comic operas given us by the professionals who might go learn of these Princeton undergraduates how to do the thing well. For both the book and music of The Mummy Monarch were composed by the students who presented it, and the opera has more go and fun in it than many a work that has been palmed off on the public as ‘the hit of the season.’”
In the Directory of Living Alumni of Princeton University, 1917, Auracher’s name appears second in an alphabetical list of 1910 graduates, but the volume provides neither an abbreviation to indicate his major, nor a current address, both of which are included for the majority of alumni.
Auracher's Music Career: The Beginnings, 1908-1912
After stumbling across a funny anecdote involving Jean Lenox and Harry O. Sutton's visit to an "Old Ladies Home," I originally intended to share that one item, which sounded like something that could happen where my mom lives.
However, one thing led to another. When I decided to see what else I might easily turn up about the song-writing team, I found other anecdotes. A few contradictory newspaper items led me on a quest to determine Lenox's relationship to Sutton.
How far should we trust the newspaper anecdotes? To what extent might they have served as good public relations, perhaps to enhance the song-writing team's reputation? Exactly who were Jean Lenox and Harry O. Sutton? What can we learn from newspapers and public records? I'll admit to not finding clear-cut answers to some of my questions but will offer several reasons for the remaining mysteries. Perhaps someone will have the curiosity and time to look for more.
Biographical Backgrounds and Mysteries
Harry O. Sutton (1881-1911)
During a Presbyterian social at their home in early April, 1893, 11-year-old Harry gave what may have been his first public performance when he and his aunt entertained guests with their unspecified piano duet.
The March 8, 1911 Naples Record mentions a march, Black Diamond Express, composed by 12-year-old Harry Sutton. I have not been able to verify this piece through newspapers or copyright records, but if Sutton composed it, he should have been older than reported. The Lehigh Valley Railroad line's Black Diamond Express made its first run on May 18, 1996 when Harry would have been 15.
In April 1898, a few months shy of 17, Harry Owen Sutton copyrighted his first song, Sweet Nancy Lee, with lyric by W. H. W. Leland. The July 13 Naples Record commented, "Harry O. Sutton, of Olean, formerly of Naples, has composed a beautiful waltz song entitled Sweet Nancy Lee. It has been published and has proven popular in the large theaters." The article does not specify theater names or locations although other articles mention the song. In February 1902, for example, Rochester's Democrat and Chronicle described the song as "simple and melodious" and "well suited to the sentiment."
At least a third-generation musician, Harry had begun early to carry on the Sutton tradition.
According to the 1865 New York State census for Naples and the 1870 U. S. Federal Census, his grandfather Myron Carl Sutton was a "farmer and music dealer." Well before Harry's birth, this cornetist/violinist future grandfather also led Sutton's Band. Naples took pride in its local music and in Sutton's music business as illustrated by the following excerpt from a lengthy poem published in the June 30, 1860 Naples Weekly Express:
A June 5, 1929 Naples Record article published on the occasion of the ninety-first birthday of Mrs. Olive Case Sutton, Myron Sutton's wife and Harry's grandmother, identified her as "a fine musician" who "brought to this town the first piano, a large square one." People were said to have come "many miles to hear Mr. and Mrs. Sutton play."
Among the more than two-dozen O. E. Sutton compositions located in copyright records and newspapers are Fireman's Parade March (during or before June 1882, Scott R. Sutton, publisher), Silver Star Polka (during or before 1888); Flour City, lancers, The Smuggler, march, and Polonaise (during or before 1889); Trolley Polka (1896); The Electric Wave March (1897); Post Express (during or before 1898); Young America, march and two-step (1898); Our Favorite, two-step (1898); Funeral March, The Golden Gates (1899); Salute to Sam Johnson, cakewalk & two-step (1899); The Darktown Swell, march in ragtime (1899); Magnolia, three-step (1900);The Honeymoon (1901); Brownies' Quickstep (1901) Colonel Henry's March (1902); Midnight Revelers (1903), Roosevelt and Fairbanks Campaign March (1904), The Newsboy's March (1905); and Solitaire, an Autumn Reverie (1905).
Around 16, Harry left his aunt and uncle, the Pierces, and went to live with his mother, two siblings, his maternal grandmother, and his mother's sister.
Before his 18th birthday, Harry copyrighted Cotton Pickers Rag, Bon Air Waltz, and Aunt Jemima's Birthday Party. Because he was living in Olean, these pieces were originally published there although Harry O. Sutton Co. or Sutton Music Publishing Co., both of New York City, later reissued them.
Harry knew his career path. Although he was not yet 20, the 1900 census listed his occupation as "musician."
No doubt, Harry Sutton's musical family helped shape his career. He would go on to compose an assortment of music ranging from cakewalk and coon songs to a comic operetta, many of the most successful pieces with lyricist Jean Lenox.
Scott Joplin could not have conceived and composed a more suitable musical and dramatic finale for Treemonisha. Ed Berlin provides an excellent overview of Joplin’s accomplishment:
Treemonisha stands on a bench and calls the steps, sometimes assisted by Lucy. She leads the townspeople on two levels: on the literal level, she calls the steps for the dancers of “A Real Slow Drag”; metaphorically, she guides the people to a better life—“Marching onward.” But they march not to the military strains of a John Philip Sousa; rather, they march to a characteristically African American music—a rag, a slow rag. This finale is a fitting and glorious conclusion, summing up Joplin’s philosophy that African Americans choose education as their means to a brighter future. (King of Ragtime, 2016, 270)
Although Berlin’s multifaceted interpretation encompasses the message inherent in Joplin’s lyric and the culturally appropriate music genre in which Joplin couches that message and dramatically concludes the opera, there is more. This slow march forward to a brighter future mirrors the Hampton-Tuskegee ideology—a way of thinking repeatedly driven home to the schools’ students, to potential Northern benefactors, and to white Southern neighbors, a way of thinking adopted by many other African American schools throughout the former slave states, including Sedalia's George R. Smith College, which Joplin had attended.
I am a retired community college professor and the great-granddaughter of composer, orchestrator, arranger, organist, and teacher William Christopher O'Hare.
Click the "Read More" link to see each full blog entry.