Friday, October 17, 2014

Girl Bands and Geneva

By Alice Askins, Education Coordinator at Rose Hill Mansion

Recently, I got the book Swing Shift by Sherrie Tucker.  The book was published in 2000 and Professor Tucker was a professor at Hobart and William Smith when she wrote it.  Swing Shift is about the all-women bands of the 1930s and 1940s.  I wondered if any of the bands in the book were seen or heard in Geneva.  It turns out some of them were.

The first band I found was Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears.  At the age of eight, Ina (1916 –1984) began dancing and singing onstage.   By the time she was 18, she had been featured in revues in Chicago and on Broadway, including the Ziegfield Follies.  In 1934, Irving Mills (a manager and jazz publisher) asked Ina to lead an all-girl orchestra called the Melodears.   

Ina and the Melodears were one of the first women bands filmed for Paramount shorts and Hollywood features.  The group visited Geneva several times in the 1930s, including in 1939, and performed at Schine’s Geneva Theater.  The group disbanded in 1939.    During the War years, many male musicians were drafted and “girl bands” came to prominence in popular music.  Ina, though, conducted an all-male band through the 1940s.  She brought them to town in 1948 when they played at Club 86. 

Between 1939 and 1948 Ina Ray was not forgotten in Geneva.  In 1942 She showed up in the Daily Times wearing her rubber bathing suit for the last time before she donated it to the war effort.  “Bombshell to Bomber,” said the Times.  

Ina and the Melodears, of course, were not the only female musicians of the era.  Professor Tucker mentioned that girl bands tended to be either bombshells or domestic angels.  Another girl band was Phil Spitalny’s Hour of Charm orchestra, which ran from 1934 to 1954.  I have not found that Hour of Charm visited Geneva, but they do show up frequently in the radio schedule listings in the local paper.  In 1946, for example, you could hear them on Sunday at 10pm on WHAM.  They were also featured in a short film, too, and were listed in between Cary Grant’s Mr. Lucky and a Donald Duck cartoon in the Schine’s Daily Times ad on July 12, 1943.

Geneva Daily Times, May 22, 1939

For twenty years, Phil Spitalny incorporated a talent search into his orchestra performances and women in this area tried out.  In 1941, the Daily Times reported that three young women had been chosen as “Cornell finalists” in the preliminary Hour of Charm song auditions.  The eventual winner would appear as guest singer on the Hour of Charm broadcast and win $100.  In 1947, the Shortsville Enterprise ran a piece congratulating Miss Ann Stoddard for performing a harp solo with the Hour of Charm.   

The Daily Times mentions several other “all-girl” bands appearing locally during the 1940s.  Joe Bishop and his All Girl Band played at Schine’s for the Halloween Fun Fest in 1940.  Pearl Jaquin’s All-American Girl Band performed at the Romulus Grange Hall in January 1941.  The same group played for the Danc’ Inn the next August.  Count Berni Vici and his All-Girl Band played Schine’s in February 1942.  The Count’s band also traveled with a chorus line.  In 1946, Geneva’s Armory hosted a Dance Parade, featuring Bonnie Downs and her All Girl Band.  Professor Tucker says the Downs Band was made up of Eastman School of Music students.

Many of the girl bands went on USO tours, both in the US and abroad.  I have not found that any of the nationally touring women’s bands played at the Geneva USO, but the Daily Times reported in April 1945 that “Music sweet and smooth was served up by Eastman School of Music students for servicemen at USO yesterday . . . an all-girl orchestra headed by Miss Nancy Gates of Geneva presented a program in the style of Phil Spitalny’s girl orchestra.  . . .”  The program was about a month after Joe Louis visited the Geneva USO.  It appears that the USO went for variety.

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