The NMM is excited to bring to you this series of musical delights. Written by curator Ana Sofia Silva, "Digging the Fifties" takes readers through some unseen highlights of our collections, with intriguing stories, commentary, photos and more, celebrating our 50th Anniversary with 50 objects extraordinaire. Read more below to see how we're "Digging the Fifties!"
To view other Notes from this series, and download the full article, check out https://www.nmmusd.org/notes/tags/digging-the-fifties
Digging the Fifties
A curatorial perspective on 50 objects from the NMM collections
By Ana Sofia Silva, Curator
Tell-tales of instruments with local stories and connections are featured in the latest curatorial article “Digging the Fifties.” Read about a C. G. Conn cornet (NMM 02350) that belonged to Vermillionaire William R. Cleland, a C. G. Conn tenor saxophone (NMM 06050) used by Yanktonite Arthur E. Bjornsen, and a Ludwig bass drum (NMM 06150) that was part of South Dakota band leader Tom Ptak's drum set. Two other percussion instrument stories about an all-original Leedy drumset outfit from the 1940s (NMM 12950), and a unique exemplar of a King George marimba specifically built for Musser's International Marimba Symphony Orchestra (NMM 15550) are also included.
Cornet NMM 02350 made by C. G. Conn, Ltd., was owned and played by Vermillionaire William Robert Cleland (1881–1977). Born on December 9, 1881, on a farm near Spirit Mound, Cleland was proud of his South Dakota heritage, education, and life. He attended the University Preparatory School and received a BA from USD in 1907. Soon after graduating from USD's Law School in 1912, Cleland opened his own law office in Vermillion, where he practiced until his retirement in 1975. When Cleland passed away in 1977, the NMM received this cornet from his estate along with a couple of panoramic photos of a particular event in Vermillion's history. As reported in “The Dakota Republican,” the “Washington Highway Booster Meeting Drew Three Thousand People to Vermillion” on June 5, 1915: “(…) notwithstanding threatening weather conditions on Saturday morning, people from all over Clay county, and many citizens of Yankton, Turner and Union counties came to Vermillion to attend the big barbecue held on the University campus (…). The crowd assembled on [campus] some time before lunch was ready, and they were induced to pose for a panoramic picture before eating.” A copy of the “crowd” picture, along with a copy of another panoramic view of the Vermillion City Band “of thirty pieces,” are now part of the NMM archival collections.
Cleland was a member of the band, and he appears in that photo holding a cornet with a similar micro-tuning device that is featured on cornet 02350. However, the date of the event, 1915, poses an interesting question on whether the gifted cornet 02350 is the same one featured in the photo. Research on Conn New Wonder model cornets indicates that the classic cornet with the distinctive micro-tuning mechanism, also known as “opera-glass” tuning device (due to the resemblance of wheel mechanism used in opera glasses), first appears in company catalogs of 1914 as New Wonder cornet. But only in 1918 did the company receive its patent for this device and the cornet was renamed Victor New Wonder cornet. The serial number 156876, the stamp “PATENTED” in the second-valve casing, and the “Victor New Wonder” engraving on cornet 02350 place the date of manufacturing in ca. 1918, so it is unlikely that the instrument featured on the photo is the exact same instrument. Cornet 02350 does bear an additional star stamp above the serial number, which indicates a custom order. One could make two speculations: either Cleland had an earlier version of a New Wonder cornet in 1915, by then already offered with the micro-tuning mechanism, which could have been upgraded or custom-modified at a later date; or he purchased a newer instrument around 1918, as a replacement of his 1915 one. In any case, both the instrument and photos bear testimony to local history and to one of the earliest examples of C. G. Conn's most popular cornet line.
Tenor saxophone NMM 06050 also made by C. G. Conn, Ltd. was owned and played by Yanktonite Arthur (“Art”) Elvin Bjornsen (1907–1997). Bjornsen lived most of his adult life in Yankton working as a warehouseman, but his probable “sidekick” musical career was a prolific one. Bjornsen played saxophone, clarinet, and banjo, and was one of those musicians that probably performed in the so-called “territory bands” that would travel from town to town in the early days of South Dakota jazz history. Bjornsen was a member of Don Fejfar's Orchestra, directed by Willard James Fejfar (1917–1994), who was one of the popular band leaders from the Great Plains that originated in Vermillion. Bjornsen also played with the renowned Lawrence Welk's Band, when Welk was headquartered in Yankton in the 1930s and performing live on WNAX, Yankton's famous radio station. At WNAX, Bjornsen also had his own radio music show called “The Banjo Twins.” Other local Yankton references in which Bjornsen played were the Loyal Order of Moose Lodge No. 1356 Band, the Stan Fritts Band, and the “dixie” group Bourbon Street Five. The NMM collections hold some archival photos of these groups in which Bjornsen appears with the tenor saxophone 06050. The instrument is in very good preservation condition, considering that it was completely overhauled in 1991 before it was gifted to the NMM through the Bjornsen estate in 1997. It is a re-lacquered brass, 10M model saxophone with an art-deco-style engraving, including the iconic “naked lady” in a pentagon, with nickel-plated keywork and mother-of-pearl touchpieces. The serial number 324912 places the manufacturing date ca. 1947, which makes this instrument an example of a post-war-made 10M, a staple tenor saxophone model that Conn had been offering for more than 25 years thus far, and a favored one among players.
The bass drum NMM 06150 is part of a drum set that came to the NMM in 1998 along with related materials of another South Dakota band leader, Thomas (Tom) Ptak (1895–1997) of Wagner. Born in Tabor, Ptak grew up hearing Bohemian tunes played by polka bands traveling throughout southeastern South Dakota. A farmer who was passionate about music, he taught himself to play button accordion, tuba, bells, and drums, the latter being his instrument of choice. His musical career began in the mid-1920s with fellow Wagner musicians as The Royal Serenaders, a dance band that played for several years and won a competition in the WNAX radio in 1927 (the first prize trophy is included in NMM's Tom Ptak Archive). But Ptak is probably best known in the area for his own band, the Tom Ptak Orchestra, which played all over South Dakota and down into Nebraska for more than twenty years. Although Ptak retired from his orchestra in the mid-1960s, by which time he was also in his 60s, Ptak never really slowed down in playing his favorite Czech songs whenever there was a chance. The instruments that make up the Ptak drumset donated to the NMM are not all from one single original drumset. As one would probably expect from a traveling musician such as Ptak, his “instrument” was a composite one, made with instruments and accessories that he felt fit for his performances. And it is not so uncommon for drummers or percussionists to customize their own instrument sets with different parts. The bass drum 06150 is an example of a very popular drum made by the Ludwig Drum Company throughout the 1960s and 1970s. By then, the Chicago-based company, first established in 1909 by brothers William F. Ludwig (1879–1973) and Theobald R. Ludwig (1888–1918), had been in business for more than fifty years and had a nationwide respected reputation. The drum has a Sparkling Green Pearl finish, now quite faded, and was customized with a red lightbulb on the inside, most probably installed by Ptak himself.
Now the NMM does have some all-original drumsets like the one that belonged to Betty Ruth (Ross) Moran (1922–2000), an enthusiastic amateur musician from Decatur, Indiana, who performed in small local groups throughout the 1940s until the late 1960s. The drumset NMM 12950 is a New “Trianon” Outfit that was offered by the Leedy Manufacturing Company in the 1940s, during the C. G. Conn ownership era (1929–1955). The complete outfit was essentially composed of a snare drum, a bass drum, a tom drum, and many accessories of choice for the price of $96.50 in 1941, making it one of the least expensive sets offered then. The Moran outfit at the NMM is composed of a 14-in snare drum, Reliance model with a Presto strainer, which was one of the models manufactured by Leedy in Indianapolis and continued by Conn. A 28-in bass drum, Spartan model of single-tension with center posts, equipped with a “Leedy Arch Trap Rail” for the following traps, also included in the set: a Leedy woodblock, two unmarked cowbells, one 12-in, thin cymbal by Zenjian, and one 10-in, thin cymbal by Avedis Zildjian (cymbals were the only product that Leedy did not manufacture). All traps were assembled in the outfit with original Leedy holders. The bass drum setup included an “X-L” bass drum pedal made by Leedy as well, and a tunable 11-in tom drum of single-tension with “self-aligning” rods in “Beaver Tail” lugs, which could be assembled on the same arch trap rail. The drumset also includes a hi-hat cymbal setup with two small, 10-in, high-dome-shaped cymbals, and a “high-sock” pedal made by Ludwig, which was also under the same C. G. Conn ownership. Although it was not part of the “Trianon” outfit as advertised by Leedy, this hi-hat was probably sold along with the original set by the local music shop and dealer, Tom Berry Music Co. in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Betty Ross Moran Archives at the NMM include the original cardboard box from the sale of this set and the warranty books. The Leedy and Ludwig drum pedals are almost indistinguishable except for the name placed on the foot pedal. According to provenance documentation, Moran acquired the set while she was a student at the Decatur High School (Class of 1940). After school, she remained musically active by performing in smaller musical groups that performed as Friday and Saturday night entertainment at the Decatur Moose and Elks Lodges, and private parties.
Also included in the group of percussion instruments, there is one other recent acquisition that has a noteworthy story to be told: the King George marimba, NMM 15550. In July 2020, the NMM acquired one exemplar of a King George style marimba designed by Clair Omar Musser (1901–1998). Musser was a marimba virtuoso, composer, conductor, music professor, educator, inventor, instrument designer, engineer, and businessman; a true marimba impresario largely responsible for introducing, developing, and promoting the instrument. In 1930, Musser joined the notable J. C. Deagan company in Chicago, as manager of the mallet percussion instrument division, and shortly after, he designed the King George marimba. This model was specifically built for Musser's International Marimba Symphony Orchestra (IMSO), just before the orchestra went on a European tour in 1935, arranged by Musser, which included traveling to London for two scheduled performances at the Royal Albert Hall for the occasion of the 25th Silver Jubilee of the coronation of King George V. Unfortunately, due to a British versus American musicians' union dispute in an unrelated incident earlier that year in New York, both performances were canceled, but only upon the ship's arrival in Southampton, England—a clear maneuver of political retaliation. The first leg of the IMSO Atlantic journey, which lasted for seven days, ended in Le Havre, France, instead, and the tour continued as described by percussion professor Dr. David P. Eyler (Eyler, 1985). Only 102 King George marimbas were built: 100 for the members of the IMSO, one for Musser's personal use, and one spare. After the production of these instruments, Musser had all the materials for constructing King George marimbas destroyed, so that the design could never be duplicated. Musser insisted that these limited-edition instruments, each one tailored for each performer, be the exclusive property of the members of the IMSO. Following the European tour, the marimbas were repaired and restored at the Deagan factory and then returned to their owners. But this ownership was not just given out of generosity. After a rigorous auditioning process supervised by Musser himself, each orchestra member was obliged to purchase his own instrument at a cost of $500, which included the instrument traveling trunks, and major expenses of the tour trip. In a way, it was an investment from all parts involved: Musser would gather a large orchestra of serious and committed musicians, the musicians would acquire high-quality, customized instruments for their professional careers, and Deagan would get business done.
The NMM King George marimba was built specifically for Harvey Skewis Moen (1909–2001), a distinguished music professor and bandmaster in South Dakota, whose name is engraved on the brass shield plaque centered on the front of the marimba frame. The instrument is labeled “Cat. No. IMSO, Model FH92,” meaning that it is number 92 of the IMSO set, has a four-octave, F-to-F range (F to f4), and was built at a high-frame height (H). Part of the customization of these instruments included the offer of “high” or “low” frames to better suit the height of the performers. As typical of marimba instruments, the tone bars are made of wood (rosewood probably), and the resonators are made of round brass tubes in this case. The frame structure was designed with special brass-hinged components that allowed foldability, a much desirable requirement for these large traveling instruments. The legs of the frame structure are also built with round brass tubes, mimicking the resonators, and the frame ends and rails are decorated with a synthetic black diamond pearl finish. Like so many other IMSO members, Moen kept and used his King George marimba throughout his career, including teaching and performing as faculty at the Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota. The NMM is fortunate to now have this unique piece of percussion history with a strong local connection.
The Musser story inspired the author to seek similar examples in the pre-selected group of instruments for this article that tell stories about like-minded individuals, who contributed to the development of musical instruments. Throughout the history of musical instruments, one clearly recognizes that while some contributed in ways that revolutionized certain musical instruments entirely, others were focused on improving certain aspects of a particular instrument.
Stay tuned for more posts in this special curatorial series - Digging the Fifties!