Ottawa’s Centenary

16 August 1926

In 2026, Ottawa will celebrate its bicentenary, marking two hundred years from when General George Ramsey, 9th Earl of Dalhousie and Governor General of British North America, wrote to Lieutenant-Colonel John By advising By of his purchase of land for the Crown that contained the site of the head locks for the proposed Rideau Canal on the Ottawa river, and the suitability of the locality for the establishment of a village or town to house canal workers. Lord Dalhousie asked Colonel By to survey the land, divide it into 2-4 acre lots and rent them to settlers, with preference to be given to half-pay officers and respectable people. The rough-hewn community, which was subsequently hacked out of a hemlock and cedar forest, was quickly dubbed Bytown. Its name was changed to Ottawa in 1855, and two years later the town was selected as the capital of the Province of Canada by Queen Victoria.

To celebrate the centenary of its founding by Col. By, the City of Ottawa had a week-long, blow-out extravaganza in the summer of 1926. Although the official opening of the celebrations was on Monday, 16 August 1926, the fun actually began two days earlier on the Saturday with a range of sporting events wide enough to please the most die-hard sports fanatic.  The Capital Swimming Club staged a centennial regatta in the Rideau Canal opposite the Exhibition Grounds—a daring event given the poor quality of Canal water. Swimmers from across Canada participated with five Dominion championships at stake. At Cartier Square on Elgin Street, four soccer teams competed for the McGiverin Cup with the Ottawa Scottish emerging the victor, beating the Sons of England with a 5-2 score in the finals. Also featured that day were track and field events, cycling, golf, baseball, tennis and a cricket match at the Rideau Hall cricket pitch.

Centenary Pipers Samuel J. Jarvis Library and Archives Canada PA-025132

Bagpipers, Ottawa Centenary Parade, August 1926, Samuel J. Jarvis/Library and Archives Canada, PA-025132.

The following day, there was a huge Garrison Church parade involving 3,000 soldiers including local regiments as well as the Queen’s Own Rifles from Toronto and the Royal 22nd Regiment from Quebec City who had been quartered in tents on the grounds of the Normal School on Elgin Street (now the Heritage Building of the Ottawa City Hall). The troops marched from downtown to Lansdowne Park where 15,000 people crowded into the stands for divine services. More than 50,000 people watched the soldiers march through the streets of Ottawa.  That evening the band of the “Van Doos” gave a concert that was broadcast from the Château Laurier hotel.

Centenary Devlin Furs Samuel J. Jarvis Library and Archives Canada PA-025130

Devlin Furs’ Float, Trades & Industry Pageant, August 1926, Samuel J. Jarvis/Library and Archives Canada, PA-025130.

The official opening ceremonies took place on the Monday morning on Parliament Hill in front of cheering thousands and “in the shadow of the nearly completed “‘Victory Tower.’” (The name for the Centre Block didn’t officially become the “Peace Tower” until the following year—the 60th anniversary of Confederation.) After much military pomp and pageantry, Sir Henry Drayton, delivered the opening speech in the absence of the Prime Minister, Arthur Meighan. He welcomed visitors to the Capital in the name of the Dominion of Canada. Mayor John Balharrie also greeted visitors and former Ottawa residents who had come home for the celebrations. To symbolized the granting to them of the “freedom” of the city, he released a coloured balloon that carried aloft a four-foot golden key. Messages of congratulations flooded into Ottawa from near and far. Three Governors General—Aberdeen, Connaught and Byng—sent telegrams, as did the Lord Mayor of London, and Jimmy Walker, the controversial and flamboyant Mayor of New York. Civic, provincial and federal politicians from across Canada did likewise.

After the official opening, sporting events occupied the rest of the day. That night, there was a military display and tattoo involving troops from all services in from of 12,000 spectators at Lansdowne Park. The chief feature of the night was the staging of a mock battle scene. As searchlights played over the field, the soldiers re-enacted the crossing of the “Hindenburg” line by Canadian troops in 1918. The mock machine gun action and field bombardment was apparently very realistic. So much so that many veterans experienced flash-backs of their time in the trenches. Also featured that night was a performance of the 1,000 voice Centenary Choir, platoon drills by the Royal 22nd Regiment, and gymnastics displays by cadets.

A highlight of Tuesday, the second day of the Centenary celebrations, was the unveiling of a stone memorial dedicated to Colonel By in a small a park located on the western side of the Rideau Canal just south of Connaught Square opposite Union Station. To the strains of Handel’s Largo, played by the band of the Governor General’s Foot Guard, the memorial, which was covered by a Union Jack, was unveiled at noon. Mayor Balharrie presided. More than 2,000 people witnessed the solemn event. The bronze plaque on the side of the stone, which was intended to be the cornerstone of a much larger memorial, bore the inscription 1826-1926 In Honour of John By, Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Engineers. In 1826 he founded Bytown, Destined to Become the City of Ottawa, Capital of the Dominion of Canada. This memorial was unveiled in Centenary Year. (A larger memorial was never built. A statue of Colonel By sculpted by Joseph-Émile Brunet was eventually commissioned by the Historical Society of Ottawa and was erected in Mayor’s Hill Park in 1971.)

At Lansdowne Park, a multi-day western rodeo and stampede commenced with over 200 horses, 100 cattle, and dozens of cowboys from western Canada and the United States. Log rolling competitions took place on the Canal. That evening, an historical pageant was held involving 2,000 actors from service groups, theatre groups, and drama schools. The pageant began with a prologue depicting Confederation with Miss Canada seated on a throne exchanging greetings with Misses Provinces. After pledges of mutual support and loyalty, the provinces curtsied to Canada. This was followed by tableaux representing scenes from Ottawa’s history, including “The Spirit of the Chaudière,” depicting the region before the arrival of Europeans, “The Coming of the White Man,” “Pioneer Settlers,” “The Lumber Industry,” “Bytown and its Early Inhabitants,” “The First Election,” “Naming of the Capital,” “The Fathers of Confederation,” and, a finale where all joined together with the Centenary Choir to sing a closing anthem. The massed 1,000-member Choir accompanied by the G.G.F.G. band also performed a number of popular songs including, O Canada, Land of Hope and Glory, Alouette, Indian Love Song, and, of course, God Save the King.

The pageant got a mixed review. The Ottawa Citizen opined that it provided a “felicitous treatment of the historical episodes chosen for presentation,” but there was “room for improvement.” However, on balance, the pageant was “stimulating and educative.” The dancing was described as “effective.”

After the performance, street dancing was held from 11pm to 2am on O’Connor Street between Albert Street and Laurier to the tunes of two jazz orchestras. With the crush of people, there was little actual dancing though things got a bit better on subsequent nights. With massive crowds downtown, there was some minor trouble. The police arrested a number of young men for setting off firecrackers in the streets. Some had placed “torpedoes” on the street-car tracks that caused “terrific successive explosions” as the trams went over them.  Police also acted to curb dangerous driving on the crowded city thoroughfares. Reportedly, louts also molested young women. Generally speaking, however, the street partying was carried out in good humour. A dozen youths organized an impromptu game of leap frog on Sparks Street between Bank and Elgin Streets.

Wednesday, 18 August, was declared a civic holiday by Mayor Balharrie, and more commemorative plaques were unveiled. In addition to non-stop sporting events, rodeo competitions and other fun activities at the Exhibition Grounds, one thousand guests attended a garden party at Rideau Hall. Although Lord Byng had left Ottawa to return to Britain, his term of office as governor general having just ended, he had given permission for the residence to be used as the venue for the civic birthday party celebration. Mayor Balharrie provided a massive four-tier cake decorated with silver foliage and tiny silver cupids. Guests received little boxes of cake bearing the inscription “A souvenir of Ottawa’s Centenary with the compliments of Mayor J. P. Balharrie.”

Centenary Samuel J. Jarvis Library and Archives Canada PA-025127

Float of the Ottawa Electric Company, Col. By’s Home, Trades & Industry Pageant, August 1926, Samuel J. Jarvis/Library and Archives Canada, PA-025127.

That evening, Ottawa’s merchants and businesses held the second of the week’s three parades. Starting in the Byward Market and ending at Lansdowne Park, the parade highlighted milestones of Ottawa’s commercial progress over the previous one hundred years. Among the many entries, the Producers’ Dairy’s float featured a huge milk bottle and milk maids. Camping equipment in 1826 and 1926 was the theme of the Grant Holden and Graham entry. Also in the parade was the largest shoe ever manufactured in Canada with six little girls seated inside it, courtesy of Ottawa’s boot and shoe stores. Representing the Ottawa Department Stores Association, four white horses with attendants dressed in white and yellow uniforms pulled a float bearing eight young women in long gowns. Not to be outdone, the A. J. Freiman entry, which was decorated in silver and flowers, was drawn by six white horses with six attendants dressed in white and blue livery. On board were five young ladies wearing period costumes. The Ottawa Electric Company float consisted of an (inaccurate) replica of Colonel By’s house. Instead of a pioneer’s log home as depicted, the Colonel’s actual home was made of stone.

With amusements and events continuing at the Exhibition Grounds, Thursday’s highlight was an “old timers’ parade. In front of immense crowds, historical floats, three bugle bands, three brass bands and one band of bagpipers wended their way slowly from the Byward Market, along Rideau and Sparks Streets before heading down Bank Street to Lansdowne Park. Old-time vehicles on display included an 1897 Oldsmobile and penny-farthing bicycles. Firefighters dressed in the red outfits of yore pulled hand reels or drove antique horse-pulled engines including the “Conqueror,” Ottawa first fire engine. There were also historical tableaux depicting the early days of the Ottawa Valley and Bytown, including Champlain and his men, the arrival of the Jesuits, the establishment of the first white settlement in the region by Philemon Wright, and the beginning of the lumber industry.  Guests of honour in the parade included veterans from the Fenian Raids, the South African War and the Great War.

Centenary Samuel J. Jarvis Library and Archives Canada PA-025131

Ottawa Firefighters with hand reels, “Old-Time Pageant,” Ottawa Centenary, August 1926, Trades & Industry Pageant, August 1926, Samuel J. Jarvis/Library and Archives Canada, PA-025131.

Centenary celebration wound down on the weekend but not before the finals of the stampede, more street dancing, this time in Hintonburg, more sporting activities, and a “Venetian Nights” boating event held on the Rideau Canal.

For those who hadn’t had their fill of fun and games, the Central Canada Exhibition opened immediately after the official ending of the centenary fun, prolonging the excitement for another week.

Both of Ottawa’s major newspapers covered in detail highlights of Ottawa’s first hundred years and centenary events, with each publishing extended supplements. The Evening Citizen boasted that its edition of 16 August weighed in at more than two pounds. It’s rival, The Ottawa Evening Journal ran a close second. In one regard, however, the Journal went one step further by publishing a fascinating prospective view of what Ottawa might look like on its bicentenary in 2026. Some of its guesses look pretty accurate. It predicted that Ottawa would have a population of 975,000 (actual number 934,240 in 2016) and that it would annex neighbouring communities. It also correctly forecast the elimination of the above-ground, cross-city train tracks and the replacement of the tram lines with buses. It even predicted a tunnel between LeBreton Flats and downtown used by electric trains!

Not surprisingly, however, the crystal-ball gazers got a lot of things wrong. The newspaper predicted that Canada would have a population of 100 million by 2026, and that the airplane would effectively eliminate the automobile as a mode of transportation. The paper also postulated that after decades of delay the great Georgian Bay Ship Canal would finally be completed in 1982, almost eighty years after the idea was first proposed, thereby making Ottawa a deep-water port with direct access to the Atlantic Ocean. As well, given the region’s cheap hydro-electric power, the Journal envisaged a massive expansion of manufacturing in the Ottawa area, forecasting that the Capital would become the home of the largest Canadian plant for the manufacture of pleasure, commercial and air taxicabs. It also predicted the emergence of a large furniture manufacturing industry in Chelsea in West Quebec, and the construction of immense iron ore smelters in Ironside, just north of the old city of Hull, to process iron ore mined in the Laurentians.

For the Journal, the demise of manufacturing and the conversion of Ottawa into the primarily white-collar city that it is today were unimaginable.

 

Sources:

The Ottawa Evening Citizen, 1926. Various issues, 14-24 August.

The Ottawa Evening Journal, 1926. Various issues, 14-24 August.

 

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The Earl Grey Musical and Dramatic Trophy

2 February 1907 and 29 February 1908

Each November, thousands of rabid Canadian football fans huddle in the freezing cold, or more typically settle back on their chesterfields, to watch the Grey Cup game that pits the Canadian Football League’s Western Division Champions against the Eastern Division Champions in the quest for bragging rights as Canada’s best football team. The trophy was first given by Lord Grey, Canada’s Governor General, in 1909 as the top prize in Canadian amateur rugby football. The first Grey Cup champions were the University of Toronto Varsity Blues.

Lord Grey

Earl Grey, Governor General of Canada, 1904-1911

During his term as Governor General from 1904 to 1911, Lord Grey handed out trophies for all sorts of events, including skating, horse racing, and even for the best dog in show at the Ottawa Kennel Club championships. Not to be outdone, Lady Grey had her own award for best Ottawa garden. Of all these prizes, the Grey Cup is probably the only one that has survived. However, for a few years, the Grey Trophy, properly known as the Earl Grey Musical and Dramatic Trophy, was likely the best known of all of Lord Grey’s awards, and was highly coveted across the country.

Government House announced the trophy in late 1906 as means of promoting the performing arts in Canada and Newfoundland, then a separate dominion. Very early on, it was decided to offer two trophies, one for the country’s top amateur musical or choral group, and another for the best amateur theatrical company. Entrants were initially limited to provincial capitals, including St. John’s, and cities with a population of more than 50,000. Multiple city entries were permitted though it was expected that provincial government houses would limit the numbers to about fourteen, enough for two shows per evening during a week-long musical and dramatic extravaganza. Colonel J. Hanbury-Williams, the Governor General’s secretary, who was also a friend of Rudyard Kipling, took charge of the event, with the help of at least eight committees that dealt with such things as transportation, finance, entertainment, and the press. There was also a special committee for women. Provincial chairmen were also appointed.

The competition was open to amateurs, defined as persons who had not “lived by the profession” within the previous five years. However, the rule was not intended to exclude those that had been paid a nominal amount for performing in a choir or with a dramatic organization. The performances of each company would be limited to ninety minutes, and no company could have more than 50 members.

The first competition was held in Ottawa from 28 January to 2 February 1907 at the Russell Theatre. Sixteen companies—eight musical and eight dramatic—entered the competition from Winnipeg, Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Halifax and St. John’s. To ensure impartiality, the judges for the competition were American. George Chadwick, the director of the New England Conservatory in Boston judged the musical entries. Kate Douglas Wiggin, the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and Langdon Mitchell, a Broadway playwright, judged the dramatic productions.

Earl Grey Trophy ii

Earl Grey Musical and Dramatic Trophy. The trophy was designed and executed by Louis Philippe Hébert from suggestions of Lord Grey. The woman holding the mask symbolizes drama while the man holding the lyre symbolizes music. The fence between the two figures indicates that music and drama have their own territories. Each figure has a foot on the lowest rail to indicate a willingness to cross onto the other side. See Souvenir Programme, the Earl Grey Musical and Dramatic Competition, Ottawa 1912.

Competitors had to pay their own way to Ottawa but the transportation committee organized discount fares on the railways. Group rates were also provided by area hotels, though the main venue hotel was the Victoria Hotel in Alymer which was completely booked for the event. In downtown Ottawa, a Reception Committee organized a city “rendezvous” spot at the Racket Club at 153 Metcalfe Street where a dancing hall was converted into a large, temporary drawing room complete with settees, comfortable arm chairs, and other amenities. There, performers, who were made honorary members for the competition, could relax, write letters, use the telephone, or read newspapers. It was staffed throughout the week with volunteers. Social events were organized for contestants, including a skating and toboggan party at Rideau Hall hosted by Lord and Lady Grey. There was also a tea at the Wright’s Greenhouse, a seven-acre, glass-covered conservatory, in Aylmer.

Two shows were held each evening through the week at the Russell Theatre—one musical and one dramatic—with ticket prices of up to $1. Ottawa led off the competition on the first evening with the D.F.P. Minstrels in the musical event. Shockingly racist, the minstrel show, in which its performers wore “black face,” was warmly received by the Ottawa audience. The finale of the show was “a medley of plantation songs and Southern war ballads.” Later that same evening, the Ottawa Dramatic Company put on Gringoire, a short comedy by Théodore de Banville about a poet forced to play in front of Louis XI of France. The play was performed in English despite it being written in French and all the actors, francophone.

The finale of the event was held on Saturday, 2 February in front of the largest and “most fashionable” audience. After the last two performances of the week, the judges announced the winners of the competition. The winner for best dramatic performance was Winnipeg’s The Release of Allan Danvers. The play had been expressly written for the Earl Grey competition by three amateur Winnipeg authors, Messrs. Beaufort, Devine and Blue, two of whom acted in the show while the third was the stage manager. According to the Ottawa Citizen, it was the first time a Canadian-written play had debuted in Canada. It was a three-act play with a very heavy plot line. Danvers, afflicted with locomotor ataxia, a muscle disorder, falls in love. Although his love is reciprocated, Danvers refrains from declaring his affections to his lady love since he is dying. Before running off to England to hide from her, his lady indicates her affection for him, but Danvers falls dead at her feet—hence, his “release.”

Based on criteria which included stage setting and the company acting as a unit, individual excellence in grace, diction, make-up and dress, and the power to impersonate and express a range of emotions, the Winnipeg Dramatic Club was selected as the competition winner with a total of 49 out of 50 marks. The Ottawa Dramatic Company managed 41 points for its Gringoire.

Overall, the two drama judges were impressed by the high quality of all the theatrical performances. They added that amateur theatre was typically “a crucifixion of the soul,” but that wasn’t the case over the week-long competition. They opined that Lord Grey’s competition should have a positive impact on both the amateur and professional stage. They hoped that it would help address the lack of a standard spoken English which was a deficiency of North America.

The Quebec Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1904 and led by its conductor, Joseph Vezina won the musical trophy. It had presented a classical programme but one of its best numbers, Valse de Concert, was written by Vezina himself. According to the Citizen, it was hard to believe that the orchestra consisted of amateurs, so good was the playing. Spontaneous applause broke out on several occasions during their performance. In scoring the competition, the judge gave the Quebec orchestra 27 out of a possible 40 points in four categories—attack, precision, and accuracy; intonation (singing/playing in tune); technical proficiency; and expression and interpretation. Ottawa’s minstrels received 16 points.

So successful was the week-long competition, Colonel Hanbury-Williams announced on the last night of the performances that Lord Grey was making the competition an annual event.

The following year, thirteen teams competed in the second annual Lord Grey Musical and Dramatic Competition. The competition was again held at the Russell Theatre in Ottawa. Subscription tickets for the full six nights of the competition cost $5. Again, the judges were American to avoid the appearance of bias.  Although competition rules had been eased for 1908 to allow any musical or theatrical group from a town or city of any size to compete, all the competing groups came from major eastern cities. Six of the contestants came from Ottawa, with the remaining participants coming from Quebec City (2), Toronto (2) and Montreal (3).

Again, the week-long series of musical and theatrical performances were judged a great success. Ottawa fared particularly well. On 29 February, 1908, Colonel Hanbury-Williams announced that Ottawa teams had won both the musical and dramatic events. The musical trophy went to the Canadian Conservatory of Music, conducted by Donald Heins. The Quebec Symphony Orchestra, the 1907 winner, and Ottawa’s Orpheus Glee Club came in tied for second place. The Canadian Conservatory of Music’s entry was essentially a string orchestra consisting of thirty violins, violas, violincellos and basses plus a grand piano. Its classical programme included Grieg’s Elegiac Melody, Minuet by Motzart, and La Dernier Sommeil by de la Vierge.

On the theatrical side, Ottawa’s Thespian Club won the Earl Grey Trophy for its two short productions of Food and Folly, a two-act “gastronomic” farce and A Light From St. Agnes, a one-act Broadway tragedy. Although the eventual winner of the competition, the Citizen’s reviewer was not terribly impressed by the Thespians’ farce. He described the play as “impossible,” thin on humour, with dialogue that tended to drag. He had much kinder words for A Light From St. Agnes. He thought the climax of the play was “admirably acted” with both the leading man and leading woman putting on strong performances.

Earl Grey Trophy

Souvenir Programme for the last Early Grey Musical and Dramatic Trophy Competition held in Ottawa in 1912, City of Ottawa Archives.

The Early Grey Musical and Dramatic Competition continued to be held for the next four years, moving to Montreal in 1909, Toronto in 1910, Winnipeg in 1911, and back to Ottawa in 1912. The 1912, and ultimately the final winners of the Lord Grey Trophy, were the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra (for the fourth time) and Winnipeg’s Dramatic Society.

In late 1912, Colonel Lowther, the military secretary to HRH the Duke of Connaught who had succeeded Lord Grey as Governor General the previous year, said that the 1913 Competition would be dropped for “various reasons.”  It is possible that the new Governor General had other priorities, and didn’t see the point of adding to the lustre of his predecessor’s reputation. Organizing the competition must also have been a considerable challenge. Given its scale and the huge number of volunteers needed to organize and run it, the necessary logistics may have been too onerous to sustain.

Did the competition succeed in its mission in encouraging amateur music and drama? It’s difficult to say, not knowing the counterfactual. However, in 1913, just months after the cancellation of the Earl Grey Competition, the Canadian Federation of University Women launched the Ottawa Drama League (ODL), later known as the Ottawa Little Theatre. Over time, “little theatres” were also established in other Canadian cities. The ODL presented its first production at the Russell Theatre in 1914. In 1933, the Earl of Bessborough launched the Dominion Drama Festival in co-operation with the ODL at its Little Theatre on King Edward Avenue.

As for the Earl Grey trophies themselves, they seem to have disappeared.[1] An Earl Grey Trophy continues to be awarded at the Winnipeg Music Festival for the best school chorus. But it only dates back to 1923, six years after Lord Grey’s death. It is likely named for the “Earl Grey School,” the first winner of the cup-like trophy.

 

Sources:

Earl Grey Musical and Dramatic Trophy Competition, 1912, Programme, City of Ottawa Archives.

Manitoba Free Press, 1907. “Through Milady’s Lorgnette,” 12 January.

Montreal Gazette, 1906. “Earl Grey’s Contest,” 21 December.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1908. “Ability Shown by Ottawans,” 29 February.

Ottawa Citizen, 1906. “The Musical Competition,” 27 October.

——————-, 1907. “Judges For The Competition,” 18 January.

——————-, 1907. “Today Opens Competition,” 28 January.

——————-, 1907. “Last Night’s Performances,” 30 January.

——————-, 1907. “Winnipeg Dramatic Club and Quebec Orchestra,” 4 February.

——————-, 1907. “Earl Grey Competitions,” 4 March.

——————-, 1907. “Arranging For A 2nd Competition,” 26 March.

——————-, 1908. “Earl Grey Trophy,” 14 February.

——————-, 1908. “Not In Ottawa,” 18 March.

——————-, 1908.  “Earl Grey Musical and Dramatic Competitions and Competitors,” 19 February.

——————-, 1912. “No Earl Grey Competition,” 16 November.

Ottawa Little Theatre, 2019. History, http://www.ottawalittletheatre.com/history/.

Winnipeg Music Festival, 2019. Trophies, https://www.winnipegmusicfestival.org/earl-grey-trophy/

 

[1] If you are aware of the location of a trophy please send me an email.

The Last Presentation of Debutantes

24 January 1958

Through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, red letter days on the British social calendar marked royal levées and “drawing rooms” when aristocratic men and women met and socialized with the monarch. Levées, from the French word lever meaning to rise, had their roots in the old tradition of men attending the sovereign when he got up in the morning. To be present when the king used the chaise percée a.k.a. toilet was a great privilege for the up and coming courtier whose future could be made should the royal visage look favourably upon him. Intimacy meant power. Conversely, a courtier’s future could be dashed if he made some unpardonable faux pas, such as pointing and laughing. Like their masculine counterpart, “drawing rooms” were occasions for women to mingle with the sovereign, and became an opportunity for a young girl, or debutante, typically in her late teens, to be lancée, (literally thrown) into high society by being presented to the sovereign. Over time, the distinction between a levée and a drawing room faded.

These highly stylized rituals reached their zenith during the ancien régime in France prior to the Revolution in 1789, though Napoleon was no slouch in the etiquette department either. Courtiers attended every function of French royal life, bodily or otherwise. In Britain, Queen Elizabeth the First apparently mingled with commoners in the gallery at Greenwich Palace during the sixteenth century, with the practice become more regular and formalized by the reign of Queen Anne in the early eighteenth century. But it was during Queen Victoria’s reign that the tradition of presentation parties for young debutantes reached its peak. As anybody knows from watching Downton Abbey, coming out to Society, which had a very different meaning in those days, was a once in a lifetime event for a young aristocratic girl. It marked her emergence into adulthood—a sort of secular, Anglo bat mitzvah. It also marked the start of the social season, which included such events as the Royal Ascot, the Henley rowing competition and the yacht races at Cowes, as well as a constant swirl of parties and receptions. The aim of all these activities was the acquisition of a suitable husband, preferably one with a title.

In republican United States, the lack of a king or queen was only a minor hindrance. Debutante balls and cotillions were regularly held to launch young women into the upper ranks of American society. For those seeking a royal imprimatur, American heiresses with the right connections and heaps of money could be presented at the Court of St. James’s in London. Once presented, they could troll for a suitable British husband who had the right forebears but was short of cash to maintain the family pile.

debutante drawing room 230201888 oj

Notice of a Drawing Room, 23 February, 1888, The Ottawa Journal

Here in Canada, we were fortunate that there was a vice-regal “court” that followed the same traditions as in London. Governors General held levées and drawing rooms just as Queen Victoria did. Indeed, Lord Elgin held a levée in Bytown in 1853 when he visited the town to check it out as a possible capital for the new Province of Canada. By the time of Confederation, the presentation of debutantes to the Governor General was in full swing with “drawing rooms” held in the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill.

At one such drawing room held in February 1870, guests were given specific instructions. Sleighs were to enter Parliament Square from the eastern Elgin Street gate, proceed past the East Block and set down guests in front of the Senate entrance which was lit by red lights. Sleighmen were then to exit via the central gates. Parliamentarians with wives and daughters were to enter via the House of Commons door which was lit by green lights. All guests were requested to provide two cards with the name of the person legibly printed, one for the aide de camp at the door and the other for the presentation aide. Presentations would end precisely at 10 pm. In little Ottawa, this was the social highlight of the winter season and received considerable newspaper coverage. More than one thousand people might attend these events. The names of participants were listed in the newspapers complete with descriptions of what the ladies wore and their jewellery.

A whole industry developed to dress ladies attending the drawing rooms, and to provide deportment lessons to the aspiring debutante who was, understandably, stressed about literally putting the wrong foot forward. Girls would practise in the privacy of their bedrooms curtseying before chairs. (For those who need to know, the proper style is to put the right foot in front, left behind, make a deep knee-bend, hold out the right hand, and go down very slowly while maintaining eye contact. Then rise and retire without turning your back on the important personage.)

While many wanted the social cachet of being presented to the Queen or Governor General, some saw the whole rigmarole as excessive or a waste of time. As early as 1863, the satirical magazine Punch called the Queen’s Drawing Room “The House of Detention for Ladies.” In 1896, an American debutante said in the press that “it was vulgar to come out. Boys never come out.  What is the reason of it all, I should like to know? Isn’t it really to announce to the world that we are a marriageable age and that we are on the market? It is perfectly intolerable. I think we are like victims decked out for sacrifice.” Instead of spending thousands on dresses and dinner parties, she asked her father to give her the money to start a business.

By the time of the more egalitarian 1950s, the idea of being presented at Court seemed out-of-date. In November 1957, Buckingham Palace announced that presentations of debutantes would cease the following year and would be replaced by garden parties. This would allow the Queen and the Prince of Edinburgh to meet a wider range of people in a less formal setting. The announcement was widely applauded. “The selection of the privileged few [had] become increasingly difficult and even invidious” said one newspaper. The news led to so many girls applying to be presented that additional presentations had to be laid on in 1958 to accommodate everybody. The last presentation of debutantes in London occurred in July 1958 with the Queen Mother officiating as Queen Elizabeth was ill. The last debutante presented was a Canadian, twenty-year old Sandra Seagram.

debutante oj 17-1-58

Full page advertisement for Le Bal des Petits Souliers, 17 January 1958, The Ottawa Journal

The Buckingham Palace announcement led Vincent Massey, Canada’s Governor General, to also end the custom of debutante presentations in Ottawa which by this time had long left the formal environs of Parliament Hill, and replaced by a charity event held at a major hotel. The last official presentation of Ottawa debutantes occurred on 24 January 1958. Five young girls were presented to Governor General Massey in the context of gala charity dinner and ball hosted by La Ligue de la Jeunesse Feminine (the League of Feminine Youth). The event, held at the Château Laurier Hotel, was called Le Bal des Petits Souliers (the Ball of the Little Shoes) with funds raised going to buy shoes for underprivileged children living in Ottawa, Eastview, Hull, Pointe Gatineau and Aylmer. Called the Fiesta Espanola, the Château was Spanish territory for the evening. Tickets were $15 per couple.

Guests at the Fiesta entered through a wrought-iron portico where they were met by life-sized mannikins of toreadors and ladies wearing mantillas. The ballroom was decorated in red and yellow—the national colours of Spain with wide streamers radiating from the central chandelier which was lit by tiny red lights. The head table was decorated with black lace fans and red carnations. Other tables boasted centrepieces made of straw baskets filled with lemons and red carnations. In the corridor outside of the ballroom, guests could go shopping for Spanish handicrafts, refresh themselves at a Spanish-style café equipped with small tables and umbrellas, or try their luck in the games’ alley. Usherettes were dressed as Spanish dolls in colourful costumes.

The evening started with a reception where the Governor General was welcomed by the president of the League and members of the organizing committee. Later, seated at the head table with the Governor General Massey and senior members of the League, were the Spanish Ambassador and his wife, Mr and Mrs Eduardo Propper de Callijon, and Mr and Mrs Lionel Massey. Lionel Massey was the Governor General’s nephew and Secretary. Lionel Massey’s wife Lilas was acting chatêlene of Rideau Hall as the Governor General was a widower. The five lucky debutantes were: Miss Isabel Larrabure, the daughter of the Peruvian Ambassador, Miss Louise Brisson, Miss Pierrette Larocque, Miss Pierrette Vachon, and Miss Catharine Woollam. Each girl was given a fan of white Spanish lace with red carnations and streamers courtesy of the League.

the debutantes oc 25-1-58

The Debutantes,(left to right) Miss Pierrette Larocque, Miss Catherine Woollam, Miss Pierrette Vachon, Miss Isabel Larrabure, and Miss Louise Brisson, The Ottawa Citizen 25 January 1958.

Spanish-themed entertainment was put on during the evening with Don Quixote, alias comedian Roger Aucouturier, making an appearance with his pantomime horse Rocinante to poke fun at Ottawa. Lively Spanish dances were also performed by a troupe of dance students while a group of “non-so-little boys in berets and short pants” staged a comedic chorus. Dance music was supplied by Fred Quirouet and his orchestra. A strolling guitarist played Spanish tunes throughout the evening. At the end of the night, Mr and Mrs J.A. Roy of 351 Nelson Street won two airline tickets to Madrid in a charity draw.

While the 1958 edition of Le Bal des Petits Souliers was the last presentation of debutantes to the Governor General made in Ottawa, the tradition staggered on in other cities for a few more years. In Montreal, Governor General Massey greeted 28 debutantes at the annual St Andrew’s Day Charity Ball held in early 1959. The Artillery Ball in Toronto, where the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario greeted debutantes, was continued for another year. The last official provincial presentation of debutantes in Canada occurred at Nova Scotia’s St Andrew’s Day Ball held in 1965.

Notwithstanding the withdrawal of regal support, the tradition of debutante balls continues to this day, especially in the United States, but also in Canada. The most prominent ball is New York’s biennial International Debutante Ball that began in 1954.  This is an invitation-only event for the daughters of wealthy, well-connected New York society families. The daughters of U.S. presidents have been invited as have carefully chosen debutantes from Canada and other countries. Candidate debutantes are selected by previous debutantes and must be accepted by a committee. They also have to be able to afford the presentation fee of US$22,000. While the Ball has traditionally been held in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, the event moved to The Pierre while the Waldorf-Astoria undergoes a major renovation.

Since 1994, Ottawa has had its own fairy-tale ball where teenage girls and boys can pretend to be princesses and princes for the evening. Sponsored in part by the Austrian Embassy, the Viennese Winter Ball is held annually in March. In addition to fostering a love of Austrian culture and ball-room dancing, the Viennese Winter Ball raises funds for charity. Single tickets will set you back $400. $5,000 will purchase an eight-guest corporate table. Discount student and young adult tickets are available for as low as $150. Teenagers aged 16 to 18 years of age eager to participate must apply and write two short essays, the first on why they want to participate in this year’s ball and the second on themselves—their community service, charity work, goals and interests. The Ball Selection Committee will then review and interview the applicants, and invite them to a dance practice. (Apparently, kids practise waltzes, fox-trots and polkas for weeks leading up to the big day.) Twelve debutantes and twelve “cavaliers” will be chosen. The dress code is a white, full-length formal gown for the girls, with white comfortable shoes. Complementary long-white satin gloves will be provided. Hair and make-up must be neat and polished. The boys must wear a black tuxedo with a white shirt, black bow-tie, cummerbund and formal, wrist-length, white gloves. Their hair must be trimmed. Unlike debutante balls one hundred years ago, the Viennese Winter Ball is open to all Ottawa youth. For those unable to afford it, financial assistance is available.

Sources:

Montreal Gazette. 1966. “Day of Debutante Ends In Halifax,” 7 March 1966.

Ottawa Citizen, 1863. “Drawing Room Days,” 17 July.

——————, 1870. “Levee & Drawing Room at Parliament House,” 25 February.

——————, 1896. “A Debutante Revolt,” 10 November.

——————, 1957. “Debutante Parties Out,” 19 November.

——————, 1957. “Reaction Is Favorable To Presentation Ban,” 19 November.

——————, 1958. “Debs Storm Palace For Last Party,” 6 January.

——————, 1958. “His Excellency Receives Debutantes At La Ligue’s Annual Charity Ball,” 25 January.

Ottawa Journal, 1887. “Queen’s Drawing Room,” 22 March.

——————-, 1958. “Debutante Ball,” 24 January.

——————, 1958. “Five Debutantes Make Bows to Society Presented to Governor General at Ball,” 25 January.

——————, 1958. “Two at Ball Win Trip to Spain,” 25 January.

——————, 1958. “Annual La Ligue Ball Aids Hundreds of Needy Children,” 25 February.

——————, 1958. “Debs set For Last Royal Fling,” 15 March.

——————, 1958. “Canadian Girl Last of Royal Debutantes,” 18 July.

Viennese Winter Ball, 2019. https://www.viennesewinterball.ca/.

 

The Saturday Funnies

11 February 1905

Comic strips are a standard feature in most newspapers. The Ottawa Citizen currently publishes twenty comics daily, ranging from one image stories to four- or five-panel strips. On Saturdays, the Citizen publishes the comics in colour—sticking with a tradition of a weekend colour comic supplement that goes back to the dawn of newspaper cartoons. Most of the comics in the Citizen are written by Americans whose work has been syndicated to other newspapers around the world. The only exceptions are Carpe Diem, written and drawn by Niklas Eriksson of Sweden, and Between Friends by Canadian Sandra Bell-Lundy. Many of the strips have been published for decades. In longest production is Blondie whose run began in 1930. Cartoonist Chic Young wrote and drew the strip until his death in 1973, when his son Dean Young took over.

comic bayeux wikipedia

Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry, circa 1070, showing the death of the Anglo-Saxon King Harold. The Latin inscription reads Harold Rex Interfectvs est, meaning King Harold is slain. Wikipedia.

But comic strips, which can be defined as a telling of a story through a series of pictures, have a far longer and illustrious pedigree. Some historians contend that Trajan’s column in Rome, which tells in sculptured pictures the victory of the Roman emperor over the Dacians (modern-day Romanians) in the second century A.D., is a precursor form of a comic strip. A thousand years later in about 1070, Bishop Odo of Bayeux commissioned the making of another early “comic strip” known today as the Bayeux Tapestry. Made by female needle workers, possibly nuns, in Canterbury, England, the tapestry recounts the story of the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror that had occurred four years earlier. Bishop Odo was Duke William’s half-brother and principal supporter. Embroidered on linen cloth using multi-coloured woollen yard, it is roughly 68 metres long and 50 centimetres high, and is composed of 75 picture panels. Complete with Latin text, the tapestry is a marvel of medieval European art.

Following the invention of the printing press, satirists and caricaturists used cartoons to mock the social, political and religious life of their times. William Hogarth (1697-1764), an English painter, painted in 1731 a series of moralizing but humorous paintings that he subsequently had engraved and sold together called A Harlot’s Progress. Highly successful, this series was followed by the famous A Rake’s Progress and Marriage à la Mode. The British caricaturist and illustrator, George Cruikshank (1792-1878) was the author of many satirical and funny cartoons that lampooned the aristocracy, including King George IV and Queen Charlotte. He was one of the first to employ the multi-panel structure and dialogue bubbles used in cartoon strips of today. His 1849 comic strip The Preparatory School for Fast Men starred the likes of Professor Boozey Swizzle who taught drinking class and Professor Swindle in charge of Finance. See George Cruikshank in Lambiek Comiclopedia.

funnies, yellow kid

The Yellow Kid by R.F. Outcault, 1896, Wikipedia

Newspaper cartoon strips begun appearing at the end of the nineteenth century in the United States. They quickly swept North America when newspaper owners realized that comics sold copies. American Richard F. Outcault (1863-1928) is generally regarded as the father of the modern newspaper cartoon strip. He introduced readers of the New York World newspaper, owned by Joseph Pulitzer, to Uncle Eben’s Ignorance of the City in 1894. He also created the character of The Yellow Kid—a street urchin. Wearing a hand-me-down, oversized, yellow shirt, the Kid was likely drawn bald to indicate that his head had been shaved to prevent lice, a constant problem in the crowded urban slums of North America.

The Yellow Kid and his Phonograph, written in 1896, is believed by many to be the first modern comic strip that combined multiple image panels and speech bubbles. When Outcault was lured away from Pulitzer to the New York Journal-American by William Randolph Hearst in 1907, competing versions of The Yellow Kid were produced by the two newspapers as Outcault had failed to obtain a copyright on the character. The less-popular World version was written by George Luks. The expression “yellow journalism” is based on the Pulitzer/Hearst cartoon rivalry. The expression came to mean an emphasis on comics, fictitious news, exaggeration and misleading headlines. In Britain, it is often referred to as “tabloid journalism.”

Canadians were also active in the early days of newspaper cartooning. Henri Julien (1852-1908), who reportedly spent part of his childhood in Ottawa, drew cartoons for Canadian Illustrated News and satirical publications such as Le Canard. He later became the artistic director for the Montreal Daily Star. Palmer Cox (1840-1924) created the Brownies, a very popular series of humorous cartoon stories about sprite-like creatures based on British mythology. Like later twentieth-century cartoon characters, the Brownies were widely merchandized as toys, games, cards, etc. though Palmer apparently didn’t reap the rewards. Even the early Kodak camera, the Brownie, capitalized on their popularity.  Another prominent early Canadian cartoonist was Arthur Racey (1870-1941). He drew a series of humorous drawings called The Englishman in Canada in 1893-94 that incorporated speech bubbles. Racey took over Julien’s position at the Montreal Daily Star after the latter’s death.

comic fatty 11-2-1905 oej

Fatty Felix by Walter McDougall, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 11 February 1905

The weekend funnies came to Ottawa on 11 February 1905 when the Ottawa Evening Journal published without fanfare three multi-pane cartoon strips. The first was called Fatty Goes On An Errand To The Doctor’s And Gets Sick, featuring Fatty Felix, created by the American cartoonist Walt McDougall (1858-1938). McDougall was an illustrator for the New York Graffic, and was published in Harper’s Weekly and Puck Magazine. Reflecting the power of cartoons to effect society, McDougall’s 1884 satirical cartoon The Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings, which appeared in the New York World newspaper, skewered James Blaine, the Republican nominee for President, and is credited with helping Democratic Grover Cleveland win the U.S. Presidency that year. McDougall drew Fatty Felix originally for Philadelphia’s North American. Later, the comic strip also appeared in newspapers associated with the New York Herald’s syndicate. McDougall is also well known for his Handsome Hautry and The Wizard of Oz comic strips.

 

comic muggsy

Comic Strip Featuring Muggsy by Frank Crane, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 11 February 1905.

The other major cartoon strip in the Journal was called Muggsy Saves A Dude From The Billposter’s Paste drawn by Frank Crane (1857-1917). Crane, who had graduated from the New York Academy of Design, became a cartoonist and later the art editor for the New York World and later for Philadelphia’s North American. Muggsy was also distributed through the New York Herald syndicate. Crane produced the Muggsy comic strip from 1901 to 1915.

comic unknown, 11-2-05 toej

Untitled by unknown cartoonist, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 11 February 1905.

Sandwiched between the McDougall and Crane comic strips was a short four-panel strip featuring a circus elephant getting his tooth pulled. There is no title or dialogue, and the author’s name is unclear.

comic buster b 13-1-06 toec

Buster Brown and Tige, by R. Outcault, The Ottawa Evening Citizen, 13 January 1906.

The Ottawa Citizen began publishing regular comic strips a year after its rival. From the beginning of January 1906, Richard Outcault’s full-page Buster Brown comic strip, which originally appeared in the New York Herald, could be read in the Citizen. Buster Brown was an upper-class imp with a page-boy haircut who was accompanied by his pit bull terrier Tige. The series was like a cross between Dennis the Menace and Calvin and Hobbes. When Tige spoke only Buster could hear him. Each Buster Brown story ended in a moral with Buster resolving to do something. As was the case with the Yellow Kid, the comic strip got caught up in the Pulitzer/Hearst rivalry with competing versions of the cartoon being produced. Not having the rights to the strip’s title, post-1907 Buster Brown comic strips produced by Outcault were published without a title. Buster Brown became hugely popular across North America. The comic spawned the 1904 silent short movie Buster Brown and the Dude. That same year, Buster Brown’s name was licensed by the Brown Shoe Company. The company also produced “Mary Jane” shoes named after Buster Brown’s comic sweetheart.

In later decades, Ottawa’s two major newspapers carried all of the famous American comic strips, many of whose names remain household words. The Katzenjammer Kids, Bringing Up Father, and Mutt & Jeff were published by the Journal in the 1920s and 1930s. Little Orphan Annie, Popeye, Mickey Mouse and Superman followed in the 1940s. Blondie, with her hapless husband Dagwood Bumstead, debuted in the Journal just a couple of weeks before the start of World War II. Readers of the Citizen would find Felix the Cat, Henry, Li’l Abner, and Tarzan during the 1930s and 1940s, and Roy Rogers Joe Palooka and Dennis the Menace in the 1950s. Beginning in 1957, Citizen readers could also enjoy the philosophy and wisdom of Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus when the Peanuts comic strip of Charles Schultz first appeared.

So, the next time you pick up the newspaper to read Bizzaro or Hagar The Horrible spare a thought to their rich comic history that stretches back at least two thousand years.

Sources:

America Comes Alive, “Buster Brown Shoes and Mary Janes,” https://americacomesalive.com/2016/06/20/buster-brown-shoes-mary-janes/.

BBC History Magazine, 2018. “5 Bayeux Tapestry facts: what is it, why was it made and what story does it tell?,” History Extra, https://www.historyextra.com/period/norman/5-bayeux-tapestry-facts-what-is-it-why-was-it-made-and-what-story-does-it-tell/.

Haltz, Allan, 2018. Strippers’ Guide, http://strippersguide.blogspot.com/.

Lambiek Comiclopedia, 2018, Palmer Cox, https://www.lambiek.net/artists/c/cox-palmer.htm.

—————————-, 2018. Frank Crane, https://www.lambiek.net/artists/c/crane_frank.htm.

—————————-, 2018. George Cruikshank, https://www.lambiek.net/artists/c/cruikshank_george.htm.

—————————, 2018, Henri Julien, https://www.lambiek.net/artists/j/julien_henri.htm.

—————————, 2018. Walt McDougall, https://www.lambiek.net/artists/m/mcdougall_walt.htm.

—————————, 2018. Richard H. Outcault, https://www.lambiek.net/artists/o/outcault.htm.

—————————-, 2018, Arthur Racey, https://www.lambiek.net/artists/r/racey_arthur.htm.

Old Things, 2013. Buster Brown by R.F. Outcault, 31 October.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 11 February 1905.

San Francisco Academy of Comic Art Collection, Newspaper Comic Strips Guide, http://ead.ohiolink.edu/xtf-ead/view?docId=ead/xOhCoUCR0001.xml;query=;brand=default.

Saturday Evening Citizen (The), 12 January 1906.

 

 

The “Talkies” Come to Ottawa

26 December 1928

Imagine the excitement, anticipation and even trepidation that came with the arrival of talking movies—the “talkies”—in the late 1920s. For a generation, silent movies had ruled the cinemas of the world.  Audiences delighted in the romance of Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik (1921), the swashbuckling adventures of Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926), and the antics of Clara Bow, the girl with “IT” (1927). Language was no obstacle; film was universal. Foreign movies, like the German-made Nosferatu (1922), the horror classic that introduced the vampire to the silver screen, and the Russian-made revolutionary thriller Battleship Potemkin (1925) gained large audiences in North America.

Talkies, Regent Theatre, NWcorner Bk&Spks,TopleyLACPA-028126

Interior of the Regent Theatre located at the north-west corner of Bank and Sparks Streets, Ottawa, 1918, Topley Studios/Library and Archives Canada, PA-028126. The Regent became the first Ottawa cinema to show a “talking” film, 26 December 1928.

But for the first time, movie goers, who hitherto had to use their imaginations, were going to be able to hear their idols speak. Yikes! In 1928, the Ottawa Journal described the terror this engendered among the acting fraternity. All of a sudden, actors were rushing off to take elocution lessons. The newspaper opined, “To hear a Spanish beauty speaking in the accent of the East Side or a New England fisherman declaiming in the broken English of a Polish-American might be entertaining but it would not be art.” Many of the great matinee idols of the silent era were not to make the transition.

The first public exhibition of a synchronized film sound track took place at the Paris Exhibition in 1900 using a system pioneered by Henri Loiret and Clément-Maurice Gratioulet called Photo-Cinéma-Théatre. The sound was recorded on a cylinder that was played in sync with the film. But the technology was unreliable. Things didn’t really improve until after World War I when Theodore Case, Earl Sponable, Charles Hoxie and Lee De Forest perfected the optical sound-on film method of synchronizing sound with action.  Three commercial variants of this technique emerged: Photofilm, PhotoPhone and Movietone. Another method of synchronizing a sound track to film involved sound on a disc that was played in synch with the film. Photokinema developed by Orlando Kellum and Vitaphone by Warner Brothers used this technique.

Talkies, Regent ad, TOC 28-12-28

“Where the Screen Speaks,” The Regent Theatre’s advertisement for the official premiere of the talkies that appeared in both the Ottawa Citizen and the Ottawa Journal, 28 December, 1928.

The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jolson is usually credited with being the first feature-length talking film. It used the Vitaphone system. However, the movie was really a hybrid creation; it was a silent movie with four singing and talking scenes. Jolson apparently says a mere 354 words during the film, including the prophetic “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” The previous year, Don Juan, starring John Barrymore and Mary Astor, had been released with a synchronized Vitaphone music track and special effects, but without dialogue. In 1928, Fox Movietone began producing weekly news reports and short one-reel “talkies” using the more reliable sound-on film method for distribution in movie theatres that quickly dominated the talking film market.

There was an immediate rush by cinemas across North America to buy the expensive equipment needed to play the new “talkies.” There were concerns, however. Would audiences accept this costly film innovation?  Many directors deplored the advent of sound, complaining that a focus on dialogue would detract from the aesthetic that they were trying to create.  Mary Pickford reportedly said “adding sound to film was like putting lip rouge on Venus de Milo.” Her career was to founder after talkies became established.

The word “talkie” didn’t go down well with some either. Pedants sought expert academic advice for a new name for the invention. Suggestions included the “Audien,” the “Cinelog,” and the “Phonocinema,” which, according to the Ottawa Citizen, would probably become the “Phocin.” The last alternative would have been particularly unfortunate if pronounced with a hard “c.” Thankfully, none of these possibilities took.

Ottawa was one of the first cities in Canada after Toronto to start playing “talkies.” The Regent Theatre located on the north-west corner of Bank and Sparks Street, where the Bank of Canada Museum is today, debuted Fox Movietone productions on Boxing Day, 26 December 1928. The first showing was a by-invitation-only, private event.

The program started at 11pm with Fox Movietone news, featuring the signing of the Kellogg-Briand Treaty four months earlier in Paris. Signatories to the treaty, which was negotiated by Frank Kellogg, U.S. Secretary of State and Aristide Briand, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, renounced war as a means of resolving international disputes. The Ottawa Citizen commented that one could hear the “buzz of subdued sound and then M. Briand arises to speak…” In a succeeding scene, the U.S. Ambassador to France introduces Mr Kellogg who also says a few words of greeting. The Citizen journalist enthused that “every word, every syllable, he utters is distinctly heard.” (Here is a link to that early newsreel footage: Signing of the Kellogg-Briand Treaty.) A second news story showed the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) opening a new dock in Bristol and giving a short speech, followed by an outdoor political rally in Britain with David Lloyd George, former Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party, speaking in the rain.

After the newsreel came a short film called “The Hut,” which was set in Siberia, starring the Russian soprano, Miss Nina Tarasova, backed by the Russian Cathedral Choir. Again the Citizen’s journalist was captivated with the quality of the sound which he thought was better than hearing music on “a phonograph, radio, or telephone,” and was “free of mechanical interference.” This was followed by an “all talkie,” ten-minute comedy called The Family Picnic. Directed and written by Harry Delf, this Fox film starred Raymond McKee as the husband and Kathleen Key as the wife. Again, the journalist was impressed with the sound fidelity, especially the reproduction of the actors’ voices, street sounds, and even the approaching sound of a train.

Talkies, Street Angel

Film poster for the “Street Angel,” 1928 by Fox Films, IMDb.

The pièce de résistance of the evening was the 1928 Fox movie Street Angel, starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, directed by Frank Borzage. The film is the story of a Neapolitan street waif with a past (Gaynor), who flees to the circus where she falls in love with a starving artist (Farrell). Although there was no dialogue, the 110-piece Roxy Theatre Grand Orchestra of New York provided the musical accompaniment. The film won Photo Magazine’s bronze medal for the best picture of 1928. Janet Gaynor won the very first “Oscar” for best supporting actress in 1929 for her role. The Citizen said that the movie ranked with “the best of all time.” Watch the Street Angel.

For the excited Ottawa citizens invited to this late-night inauguration of talking films, it was worth the bleary eyes they had the next morning. “The Canadian Capital joined movie fandom the world over in applauding this audio-scenic innovation,” wrote the Ottawa Journal. Ray Tubman, the manager of the Regent Theatre, was roundly congratulated by his many friends.

After its special showing on Boxing Day, 1928, a “preview” opened the following night, again at 11pm, with the formal opening the day after that (Saturday). The huge crowds of eager spectators were urged to go to the matinee and early evening performances to help ensure that they could obtain seats. The Journal wrote: “Never in the history of the motion picture has any new development been introduced which has caused such a furore as this new marvel.”

Ottawa companies wanted to be associated with the launch of talkies to the nation’s capital. Stanley Lewis, the future mayor of Ottawa from 1936-48 and the owner of an electrical store, advertised that the Regent Theatre had entrusted the installation of the Movietone equipment to his firm—“Enough Said” read the ad. Merchants on Sparks Street, including Orme’s, Lindsay’s, the Metropolitan Stores and John Raper Piano Co. Ltd—the Home of the Othophonic Victrola—advertised for sale records of the music from The Street Angel. The hit theme song Angela Mia could be purchased for 50 cents on the Domino label with The Rose You Gave To Me on the reverse side. Even the shoe company Gale & Co. got in on the action by advertising Cordovan leather shoes “as New and Distinctive as the Movietone.”

The arrival of the talkies to Ottawa was a huge success, as it was everywhere in North America. Within a few scant years, the great silent film industry fell, well, silent.

Sources:

Naqi, Sheza, 2012, The End of an Era: From Silent Film to Talkies, ETEC540: Text, Technologies — Community Weblog, 28 October, https://blogs.ubc.ca/etec540sept12/2012/10/28/the-end-of-an-era-from-silent-film-to-talkies/.

Ottawa Citizen, 1928. “Talking Movies Make Debut For Ottawa People,” 27 December.

——————, 1928. “Gaynor-Farrell In ‘Street Angel,’” 29 December.

——————, 1928. “Movietone Makes Its Ottawa Debut At The Regent,” 29 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1928. “The Changing Movies,” 31 August.

——————-, 1928. “Premier Showing Of Talking Film A Notable Event,” 27 December.

——————-, 1928. “The Talking Movies,” 29 December.

——————-, 1928. “First Movietone Show Here Starts Today at The Regent,” 29 December.

——————-, 1928. “Regent Theatre,” 31 December.

Rosenberg, Jennifer, 2017. “The Jazz Singer, The First Feature-Length Talkie,” ThoughtCo., https://www.thoughtco.com/the-jazz-singer-1779241.

The Great Farini Crosses the Chaudière Falls

9 September 1864

Back in the mid-nineteenth century, the world was wowed by Jean François Gravelet, better known as the Great Blondin. In June 1859, in front of a crowd of 25,000 fascinated and horrified onlookers, Blondin crossed the Niagara Gorge from the United States to Canada on a tightrope. On his return trip, he brought a daguerreotype camera with him to take a photo of the spectators.

One of Blondin’s greatest fans was a young man from Port Hope, Ontario named William Leonard Hunt. Hunt was born in June 1838 in Lockport, New York but grew up close to Port Hope where his parents settled after living for a time in the United States. As a child, he was a daredevil and was fascinated with all things related to the circus—much to his parents’ chagrin who view such activities as dishonourable. Hunt gave his first professional performance as a funambulist (tightrope walker) at age twenty-one by crossing the Ganaraska River in Port Hope on a rope stretched eighty feet high between two buildings, just months after Blondin’s conquest of Niagara Falls. Hunt chose the stage name Signor Guillermo (Italian for William) Farini, or the “Great Farini.”

Farini, Earl W. Brydges Public library 15 Sept 1860

The Great Farini crossing the Niagara Gorge with an Empire Washing Machine strapped to his back, 15 August 1860, Earl W. Brydges Public Library, New York.

The Great Farini challenged Blondin to a battle of who would be considered the greatest tightrope walker in the world. Signor Farini matched his idol’s feat by crossing the Niagara Gorge in June 1860. He topped off his performance by hanging from the rope mid-river by one hand, then suspending himself by just his feet. On a subsequent trip, after securing his pole, he climbed down a rope to the tourist boat Maid of the Mist circling below in the Niagara River, drank a glass of wine, and then climbed back up to finish his journey across the Gorge.

The rivalry of the two men took off. Blondin walked across the Falls with his feet in bushel baskets, pushed his manager in a wheel barrow, and even cooked omelettes on a portable stove high above the whirlpools, which he lowered to sightseers on the Maid of the Mist below. Farini responded by carrying his much larger manager across the Falls. Mid-river, Farini somehow unloaded his manager onto the rope, crawled on the underside of the rope beneath his friend to emerge on the other side, and then reloaded him onto his back before finishing the crossing. (Where do you find friends like this?!) Subsequently, Farini washed hankies mid-river using an Empire Washing Machine that he had brought with him across the high wire.

Needless to say, Farini was a sensation. It helped that he was darkly handsome, muscular, with brilliant blue eyes and slicked back black hair. He also worn a goatee with a waxed moustache that extended horizontally several inches on either side of his nose in a style popularized by France’s Napoleon III. He was also extremely articulate and spoke several languages.

After a brief stint in the Union Army in the United States during the American Civil War where he rose to the rank of Captain in the Engineers, he returned to the circus. While performing with his first wife, Mary, in a high wire act above the Plaza de Toros in Havana, Cuba in December 1862, tragedy struck. On their fifth crossing with his wife on his back, Mary unexpectedly waved to cheering spectators. Losing her balance, she fell. Somehow, Farini managed to grab her costume as she tumbled past him, but it was not enough. The fabric ripped and she fell sixty feet in front of a horrified crowd of 15,000 people. She died a few days later.

This catastrophe did not stop his high-wire career. In 1864, he came to Ottawa, which was then in the news owing to negotiations underway in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island among the British colonies in North America on Confederation. If those negotiations were successful, Ottawa would become the capital of a large new nation.

Farini Chaudiere Falls from Suspension bridgeTopley StudioLACPA-012695c.1867

The Chaudière Falls with the Union Suspension Bridge on the right, circa 1869, Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, PA-102695

According to Shane Peacock, the author of the definitive biography of the famed tightrope walker, Farini arrived in Ottawa in mid-August, 1864, booking into the Russell House, Ottawa’s premier hotel at the time. His first job was to suss out a likely spot for a high-wire act. He initially thought of crossing the Rideau Canal on a rope strung from Barrick Hill, where the new Parliament buildings were still under construction, to a tower located in what is now Major’s Hill Park. Deciding that such a route was insufficiently death-defying, he chose instead to cross the Ottawa River above the Chaudière Falls. Back in those days, the Chaudière Falls were not the tamed affair they are now but a raging torrent. The Ring Dam that regulates the flow of water over the Falls for the purpose of generating hydro-electricity would not be built for another fifty years. The only way over them at that time, and the only way between Ottawa and Hull, was the Union Suspension Bridge built in 1843. This bridge was later replaced by today’s Chaudière Bridge.

In the days prior to his much advertised crossing, set for Friday, 9 September 1864, work began on suspending a two-inch diameter rope from two heavily-braced wooden towers, one on Table Rock on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, a short distance upstream from the Union Suspension Bridge, and the other on the Booth lumber mill on Chaudière Island on the Ontario side. The rope was advertised as being 1,000 feet long and 100 feet high. Messrs Perley and Booth along with other mill owners constructed a private viewing stand complete with comfortable seats for the pleasure of Ottawa’s elite. Cost was 25 cents per seat with access to the site provided through the Perley & Company Mill and Brewery or through Mr Booth’s new mill. The general public could watch for free from other vantage points.

The Chaudière Falls stunt wasn’t the only performance planned for Ottawa by the Great Farini. On the Wednesday before his aerial show, Farini gave a charity performance in aid of the new General Hospital, “putting his acrobatic skills at the disposal of the Sisters of Charity.” On the day of his crossing, he also performed at the Theatre Royal where he again demonstrated his gymnastic virtuosity as well as his circus tricks, including the flying trapeze and placing a 400-pound stone on his chest and having somebody smash it with an 18-pound sledge hammer. He also held a man up at arm’s length, a feat that had previously earned him a silver medal from New York gymnasts.

Farini Chaudiere

The J.R. Booth Lumber Mill, Chaudière Island, where Farini started his crossing of the Ottawa River. The Prince of Wales Bridge, built in 1880, is in the background. Late 19th century, William James Topley, Library and Archives Canada, PA-012377.

As you can imagine, there was a lot of press hype for Senior Farini’s death-defying tight rope act across the Ottawa River. Half-price trains and excursion boats ran on the Friday of his performance. A special train brought up U.S. spectators from Ogdensburg, New York with extra ferries laid on to take them across the St Lawrence River to meet a special train leaving Prescott for Ottawa at 8am and to return late that night. The Ogdensburg Advance wrote that Farini was “said to excel the great Blondin, not only in hazardous undertakings, by in ease and grace of their accomplishment.” The newspaper also put a plug in for the Russell Hotel saying that its proprietor, “our friend Gouin,” was “always alive to the comfort and convenience of the public,” and dispensed services that “epicures most delight in.” It added that the Russell House ranked among the finest hotels in Canada, and urged excursionists going to Ottawa to “drop in at the Russell House and ‘smile.’”

Monsieur Gouin, of course, hoped they would do more than smile. He advertised first class rooms at only “$4 US currency per day” for visitors to Ottawa to watch Farini cross the Chaudière Falls. This was a real bargain. With the United States in the midst of its Civil War, US$4 was worth much less in Canadian dollar terms. (In mid-July 1864, the U.S. dollar, which was off the gold standard, touched an all-time low against its Canadian counterpart of US$2.78 to one Canadian dollar.) Of course, visitors could also find the best food and drink at the Russell House.

Friday, 9 September 1864 was a perfect day for Farini’s crossings of the Ottawa River. Two performances were organized, with the first beginning at 3pm and the second at 9 pm after his show at the Theatre Royal. Some 15,000 people turned out to watch. Given that the population of Ottawa was less than 15,000 in the 1861 census this is a remarkable number of people, even allowing for population growth and visitors. One of the best vantage points was on the Union Suspension Bridge. However, fearing an accident given the number of people crowding on to it, the bridge keeper closed the gates leading from the Ottawa side.

Farini TOC 6-9-1864

Advertisement for the Great Farini. The Ottawa Citizen, 6 September 1864

Spectators were not disappointed. Farini put on a masterful show. Dressed like a circus acrobat, Farini crossed the Chaudière Falls three times during the one hour-long afternoon show. He crossed with and without a pole, did acrobatics, and hanged upside down from his feet over the raging water. On his second trip, he wore wooden bushel baskets typically used for measuring oats on his feet. For a finale, he crossed in a sack.

As Farini was performing, he was almost upstaged by a young boy, no more than eleven years of age, who managed to climb around a fence that jutted out over the fast-flowing river and cordoned off the eastern side of the reserved area at the Perely and Booth mills. When spectators finally saw what the lad was doing, many rushed over to pull him to safety. But before they could do so, he swung himself around the end of the fence, dangling temporarily over the rapids, before pulling himself to safety and disappearing into the milling crowd.

After talking to the press and well-wishers at the Russell Hotel following his afternoon performance, and giving his evening show at the Theatre Royal—tickets were 25 cents each—Farini repeated his Chaudière Falls crossings at 9pm. As it was well past sunset, he performed to the light of fire-works. According to Shane Peacock, he cut short the evening performance at the request of Ottawa authorities who feared an accident owing to the press of the crowds.

Farini left Ottawa shortly afterwards to perform in Montreal; he never returned. By 1866, he had begun regular performances in England with a young boy, Samuel Wasgatt, whom he later adopted. Called El Niño (the child), young Sam and Farini performed as The Flying Farinis. When El Niño got a bit older, he began performing aerial acrobatics as a woman with long blond hair under the stage name “The Beautiful Lulu, the Circassian Catapultist.” He wasn’t “outed” as a man until 1878.

By this time, the elder Farini, had married an English girl, Alice Carpenter, and had retired his leotards in favour of managing celebrity performers and developing new circus tricks, including the first human cannonball act. For a time, he partnered with the famed P.T. Barnum assembling human oddities, included Krao, a hairy Laotian girl who Farini advertised as The Missing Link. He later adopted the girl. During the mid-1880s, the now divorced Hunt, accompanied by his son Sam, the former Lulu, trekked through southern Africa where they claimed to have discovered the Lost Kingdom of the Kalahari. Photographs taken by Sam and a paper written by Farini, which he presented at the Royal Geographic Society in London, caused a sensation…and sparked a decades’ long quest by explorers. Reportedly, some twenty-five expeditions were launched to find the fabled kingdom which stubbornly remained lost.

In 1886, he married his third wife, German-born Anna Mueller. A man of many parts, he took up horticulture, writing books on New Zealand ferns, and begonias. He later began to paint. In the early 1900s, he and his wife moved back to Canada from England. In Toronto, he apparently dabbled in the stock market, and was involved in a gold mining company. He was also an inventor of some renown, including, among other things, folding theatre seats. Moving to Germany in 1909, Farini spent World War I in that country where he wrote a multi-volume account of the war from a German perspective. In 1920, Farini and his wife returned to North America. After moving around a bit, the couple settled down in Farini’s home town of Port Hope, where he died of the flu in 1929 at the ripe old age of 90.

Sources:

Itchy Feet, Itchy Mind, 2014. The Great Farini, Lulu Farini, And The Lost City Of The Kalahari, 2014, https://itchyfeetandmore.com/2014/12/16/the-farinis-and-the-kalahari-lost-city/.

Ottawa Citizen, 1864. “Signor Farini performing at Theatre Royal,” 9 September.

——————, 1864. “Signor Farini,” 6 September.

——————, 1864, “No title,” 7 October.

Ottawa Journal, 1931. “Signor Farini was a Great Rope Man,” 31 October.

——————, 1950. “340 Years of History Flowed by Chaudiere,” 17 June.

Peacock, Shane, 1995. The Great Farini: The Hire-Wire Life OF William Hunt,” Viking: Toronto.

Eugène Ysaÿe, the Tsar of the Violin

6 March 1905

To draw up a list of the top violinists of all time acceptable to everybody would be a nigh impossible task. Selection criteria and their appropriate weights would be open to debate. Recency bias, where we put disproportionate weight on more recent events or observations, could lead us to favour living artists over the dead, especially those whose careers preceded sound recordings. Regardless of such difficulties, on any list purporting to represent the best would appear such virtuosos as Yehudi Menuhin, George Enescu, Fritz Kreisler and Isaac Stern. Of early masters, Niccolo Paganini, who was active in the early 19th century and was the composer of the fiendishly complex 24 caprices for solo violin, would also be on everybody’s list.  Of those currently playing, Itzhak Pearlman, Viktoria Mullova and Pinchas Zucherman, the Musical Director of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa from 1999-2015, stand in the highest regard.

Another master, though one less known outside of music circles today, who would be a candidate for the world’s finest list is the Belgium-born violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe (pronounced “Ee-zah-ee).” The late, great Russian violinist, Nathen Milstein, once dubbed him the tsar of the violin. Kreisler reportedly wouldn’t play Ysaÿe compositions in the man’s presence, and said that Ysaÿe was the greatest interpreter of the Elgar Violin Concerto. This Concerto had been expressly written for Kreisler by Edward Elgar and is widely viewed as among the most difficult of a violinist’s repertoire.

ysaye san fran chronicle 21-5-1905

Eugène Ysaÿe, San Francisco Chronicle, 21 May 1905

Ysaÿe was born in 1858 in Liège. During his very early years, he and his older brother were taught the violin by their musician father who scrapped a living by playing in an orchestra in nearby Germany. He made his first public appearance as a violinist at age seven. He later studied music at the Liège Conservatory. His older brother was apparently the one who was supposed to have a musical career. But once he heard his little brother play a violin solo at age nineteen, he abandoned his career and is quoted as saying, “I shall never play again.”

As a young man, Ysaÿe’s talent was recognized by some the leading composers of the time. Ferdinand Hiller, the German-born composer and conductor, introduced Ysaÿe to Jacob Joachim, who at the time was considered one of the greatest violinists of the 19th century. On hearing Ysaÿe play, Joachim delphically said that he had never heard the violin played like that before. While it is unclear whether Joachim liked what he heard, his pronouncement illustrated the originality and freshness for which Ysaÿe was later to become famous.

At age 20, Ysaÿe came under the tutelage of the great Belgian composer and violinist Henri Vieuxtemps. (As a sidebar, Vieuxtemps owned and played a violin made by Giuseppe Guarneri in 1741 that Ysaÿe used during his early career. In recent years, that same violin, now known as the Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesù, was played by Pinchas Zucherman. It was sold in 2013 for more than US$13 million and is currently on lifetime loan to American violinist Anne Akiko Meyers.) Vieuxtemps enabled Ysaÿe to study music in Brussels for three years and gave him private lessons. In 1880, Ysaÿe became the leader of the Bilse’s orchestra in Berlin. In 1886, he became professor of violin at the Brussels Conservatory. He made his first trans-Atlantic tour in 1894.

Ysaye Wikipedia US Library of Congress

Eugène Ysaÿe, later in life, Wikipedia, U.S. Library of Congress.

By the early 20th century, Ysaÿe was in top form and was an international star of the first magnitude. He was described as a polar bear of a man—“huge, massive and royal,” with a broad brow and dark, flowing locks.  “Thoroughly bohemian,” he appreciated the finer pleasures of life, especially good food. He also was keen on the sporting world. However, money seemed to have come second behind his art. In an 1895 interview given in San Francisco, Ysaÿe claimed that he rather earn $80 a month working as a professor of violin at the Brussels Conservatory than take home $10,000 per year as a professor in Cincinnati. As fate would have it, he was to become conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1919, a post he held for three years.

He also valued highly his family life, and for many years lived in near seclusion with his first wife Louise Bourdau with whom he had five children—three sons and two daughters—in the small Belgian town of Godinne, south of Namur in Wallonia. (After his first wife died in 1924, Ysaÿe married his student, the American violinist Jeanette Dincin, in 1927.) To an American journalist to whom he gave an interview in his country home in 1904, Ysaÿe said that he found inspiration in the pre-dawn hours of the morning paddling in his small boat on a creek near Godinne.

Ysaÿe owned two famous violins—a Stradivarius and a Guarneri. The Stradivarius, dubbed the “Hercules,” was made in 1734 by Antonio Stradivarius in Cremona, Italy. Ysaÿe used this violin when he practised, preferring the Guarneri for concert work as it was less “fatiguing” for him to play. The Stradivarius was stolen from Ysaÿe’s dressing room in 1908 while he was performing on-stage at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was recovered from a Paris stop in 1925. In 1972, the violinist Henryk Szeryng donated the instrument to the City of Jerusalem where it is played by the concert master of the Israel Philharmoic Orchestra.

Ysaye violin Shinichi Yokoyama Nippon Muic Foundation

Ysaÿe’s Guarneri Violin, Nippon Music Foundation, photo by Shinichi Yokoyama.

Ysaÿe’s Guarneri violin was made Bartolomeo Giuseppe, also known as Joseph, Guarneri of Cremona in 1740. The violin bears the original label of its maker—“Joseph Guarnerius, fecit Cremonae, anno 1740, I.H.S.” In 1928, Ysaÿe reportedly added a second label “Ce Del Jesus fut le fidèle compagnone [sic] de ma vie,” which means “this Del Jesus [the name of the violin] was the faithful companion of my life.” Stories about how he acquired the violin vary. One newspaper account says that he had originally purchased the instrument in Paris for 30,000 francs on behalf of man who gave it to his daughter who was a pupil of Ysaÿe. The girl insisted that Ysaÿe play the violin in concerts. When Ysaÿe found it to be the ideal instrument for his temperament, he bought the violin from the pupil’s father for the same 30,000 francs. Another account has him borrowing the violin from the woman for his first North American tour. On his return to Belgium, he traded his own violin made by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini and an additional 40,000 francs for the Guarneri. In recent years, the violin was played by Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman who seems to favour instruments used by Ysaÿe. The instrument is owned by the Nippon Music Foundation and is currently played by Sergey Khachatryan.

In February 1905, Ysaÿe came to New York aboard the first super trans-Atlantic liner, the S.S. Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse of the North German Lloyd line for a massive 75 concert tour of North America with Canadian stops in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. By this time, he was the highest priced violinist in the world. His income was said to be enormous. For this North American tour, which was organized by Robert E. Johnston who managed all the great violinists of the time, he was given a $50,000 advance (equivalent to roughly $1.3 million today) before he even left Belgium.

Ysaye 4-3-05 toej

Advertisement for Ysaÿe’s Ottawa performance, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 4 March 1905.

Ysaÿe arrived in Ottawa on Monday, 6 March 1905 for a single performance at the Russell Theatre. Ticket prices ranged from 75 cents to $2.00. On the day of the performance, 300 rush seats were released at 50 cents each. It was a sell-out crowd. 1,400 spectators came to see Ysaÿe perform. The Ottawa Evening Journal claimed it was the largest audience ever to greet an artist. Ysaÿe was accompanied by M. Jules De Befve on the piano. De Befve was the head of the piano department at the Liège Conservatory.

Without a doubt, the performance was the social climax of the winter season. All of Ottawa’s elite was there to listen to Ysaÿe, including the Earl and Countess of Grey. The programme started with Handel’s Sonata in G minor. The Citizen’s reporter wrote “every pianissimo crescendo, fortissimo, was brought out clear as a silver bell and the audience could have listened till morning.”  Other pieces played included the Ballade et polonaise by Vieuxtemps, the Chaconne by Bach, and Saint-Saëns’ violin concerto No. 3.

The evening was a huge success. The appreciative Ottawa audience gave Ysaÿe five encores.  A local musician of considerable personal reputation called Ysaÿe’s performance “the finest example of tone production and artistic impression he had ever heard.” One observer recounted that only the presence of the Governor General and Lady Grey restrained the exuberance of the crowd. Otherwise “the men would have stood up and thrown their hats into the air.” The Evening Journal enthused that Ysaÿe began where technique left off. “The soul of Bach will sing itself away to everlasting bliss so long as giants like Ysaÿe are raised upon earth” wrote the Journal’s reporter. When the master played Abendlied by Robert Schuman, the journalist wrote that his delicate muted tones seemed to wail and sing at his command and as his face became illuminated with the beauty of the thoughts suggested to him by Schuman so the music itself took on the form of beauty and together Ysaÿe and his audience were absorbed, spell-bound, lost, nor was the spell broken when the music ceased.

The journalist feared that this might be one of the last public performances by Ysaÿe outside of Belgium as there were rumours that the master was exchanging his violin for a conductor’s baton. Fortunately, this was not the case, though over time Ysaÿe devoted an increasing amount of time to composing, teaching and conducting. In part this reflected persistent health problems that plagued the virtuoso, especially in later life. According to Canadian violinist Maurice Solway who was a pupil of Ysaÿe in the late 1920s, ill-health went a long way to explaining why Ysaÿe sometimes trembled his bow hand while playing—that and apparently his unconventional bow grip using only three or even only two of his right-hand fingers.

In 1929, afflicted by diabetes and phlebitis, Ysaÿe lost part of a leg. But he continued to work. Two months before he died, his opus magnum, the opera Peter the Miner, was played in Liège. As he was too ill to attend the debut, Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians organized a radio broadcast so Ysaÿe could listen to it from his bed.

Following his death in May 1931, Belgium gave Ysaÿe a state funeral. On a pillow in front of his coffin laid his beloved Guarneri violin.

 

Sources:

Corzio.com, 2018. Eugène Ysaÿe (b1858; d1931), Belgium, Violinist, https://web.archive.org/web/20110522002804/http://www.cozio.com/Musician.aspx?id=20.

Cumberland Evening Times, 1931. “Eugene Ysaye, Violinist, Dies In Brussels,” 12 May.

Globe (The), 1931. “Ysaye Is Mourned In Music World,” 13 May.

Globe and Mail (The), 1981. “Grateful Solway’s Memories Pay Homage to Eugene Ysaye,” 23 October.

Detroit Free Press (The), 1904. “A Day With Ysaye.” 6 November.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1905. “Coming Amusements,” 6 March.

————————————-. 1905. “Ysaye, a King Among Violinists,” 7 March.

Ottawa Citizen, (The), 1905. “Ysaye’s Recital,” 7 March.

Nippon Music Foundation, 2018. Instruments, https://www.nmf.or.jp/instruments/eng.html.

Salt Lake Herald (The), 1905, “This Week In The Theatres,” 2 May, 1905.

San Francisco Call (The), 1905. “With the Players and the Music Folk,” 21 May.

San Francisco Chronicle (The), 1895. “He Talks Of His Art,” 12 May.

Smithsonian, 2018. Violins: Guarneri Family of Violin Makers, https://www.si.edu/spotlight/violins/guarneri.

Tarisio Fine Instruments and Bows, 2018. Antonio Stradivarius, Cremona, 1734, the ‘Hercules,’

Ysaye, Szeryng, Kinor David, Semel, https://tarisio.com/cozio-archive/property/?ID=41564.

——————————————, 2018. Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri ‘del Gesù,’ Cremona, 1740, the Ysaÿe, https://tarisio.com/cozio-archive/property/?ID=40064.

——————————————, 2018. Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri ‘del Gesù,’ Cremona, 1741, the Vieuxtemps, https://tarisio.com/cozio-archive/property/?ID=40433.

Topeka State Journal, 1905. “Ysaye Is Next.” 18 February.