Herein lies the story of Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians, now entering upon their 49th year of being . . . proof enough that earthlings of conviction can rise to heavenly heights on the glory road . . . with a banjo on the knee.
A Waring appearance today signifies standing room only, from gala fetes in elite concert halls to spirit-lifting presentations at military facilities and benefit performances in makeshift headquarters, as witness the Pennsylvanians' recent magnificent show in an aircraft hangar draped with army blankets (to solve acoustical problems) at Bermuda Dunes Airport, as a boost to the Bob Hope Desert Classic, whose proceeds in turn go to Coachella Valley needy. Hope and Waring, both avid golfers, bantered their way through a preface to the full-length concert, with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Mamie applauding from the hangar's balcony "box seats" in a packed house.
Fred and his wife, Virginia, with their younger children are winter residents of Bermuda Dunes and are active club members there. From this home base, and another for summer at Shawnee-on-Delaware, Pa., Waring's annual concert tours have encompassed the entire United States and Canada. Additionally, it seems unlikely that any college auditorium has not been host to the Pennsylvanians . . . their White House performances for visiting royalty are known throughout the world.
As an attraction, Waring has outlived any of the musical fads which sweep the nation for a fleeting moment, and his name remains synonymous with the best in high-caliber entertainment.
But now hear this!
Maestro Waring, dignified host of fabulous television shows and personal appearances for nearly a half-century, played a jazzy little banjo with that 1917 "Banjazzatra," unaware (or was he?) that the skittery teenage combo was the embryo of what was to become an undisputed giant in the world of show business.
The story begins in Tyrone, Pa., where collegian Fred and his brother, pianist Tom Waring, teamed up with two other boys from Tyrone, Poley McClintock on drums and Fred Buck on banjo, to play dance dates.
"We may well have been the Beatles of our day," recalls Fred, with a grin. "Our uniforms were white trousers, green shirts and white bow ties. We also went gung-ho for striped blazers and raccoon coats. Our style was play-it-by-ear . . . singing all the way because something had to carry the melody. And we made the grand sum of $3.00 each per evening."
The "Banjazzatra" actually was founded by Tom Waring who, at 15, got together with his boyhood pal, Poley McClintock, and started playing for dances, later inviting the two Freds to join them. Tom was to become a gifted singer, pianist, composer and painter, and his death in December of 1960 at the age of 59 brought a deep sense of personal loss to associates. Co-founder McClintock remains with Waring to this day … a frog-voiced drummer whose comedy is a tradition with any Pennsylvanians performance.
"We did nothing but current dance tunes in those days," Waring recalls.
"But we didn't just sit there and play; we performed. Tom and Poley were wonderful; each was a show by himself. I've never seen a better entertainer than Tom at the piano. And Poley's antics behind the drums made the dancers stop and laugh until the tears came."
But the real token of things to come was in Fred's handsome appearance and self-assurance as he stood in front of the other boys with his banjo. Even then he was forceful looking, forceful acting and quick-thinking.
Fred, busy with classes in architectural engineering at Penn State, found that while there was not much money coming in from the fraternity dates or club affairs, the tiny ensemble was increasingly well received. Whatever the "Banjazzatra" (later called "Waring's Collegians") attempted had the spark of originality, and the group's strong interpretations, fresh as tomorrow's newspaper, were excellent advertisements. The apparent need was for someone to take charge and cultivate the combo's wealth of ideas for all they were worth.
The finding of someone to "take charge" was a natural development. Fred tells it this way:
"Tom and Poley were irreplaceable in their spots, and I could visualize all the stage business being built around them. But there was nothing indispensable about my banjo playing! It could be done by somebody else, and done a lot better. My job as organizer, director and business manager was cut out for me. Besides, I like to build things. This life holds nothing more fascinating for me than the sight of something taking shape under my hands, toward a useful end. So, without any formal doodads, I became the leader and a kind of managing partner, and we began the struggle for recognition."
Meanwhile, at Penn State, Fred tried out for the glee club . . . and was turned down!
And that is probably one of the biggest rib-ticklers in show business. Fred had the last laugh, for right about then he promised himself that he would form his own choral group some day. To the delight of the world, he kept that promise.
The combo gradually enlarged its crew of musical cut-ups, and the group numbered ten in 1922, when Fred had his first experience as conductor. The event was the J-Hop of the University of Michigan, and it was the orchestra's first big splash in public. None of the boys could read music, and Fred Waring had never before held a baton in his hand. It was a jam-packed date, and the orchestra was a smash hit. Immediately following the engagement, the youngsters made their first radio appearance, over station WWJ, Detroit, which led to their first engagement as theater entertainers. And Fred Waring, Conductor, was in the limelight to stay.
The times were the rollicking '20's, and early in the decade the name "Waring's Pennsylvanians" was officially adopted. The boys sang through megaphones, cheerleader-style, and reviewers called them a "jazz band riot." The group was enlarged, and top vaudeville houses headlined the Pennsylvanians for weeks at a time. Before long they were chalking up new box office records even in such exalted entertainment palaces as those of the B. F. Keith circuit. The Pennsylvanians were on the way up . . . and they never stopped.
It is possible that the Waring ensemble would not have been heard beyond the perimeter of central Pennsylvania were it not for the balanced measure of creativity, humor and demanding discipline within the maestro himself.
From the beginning, Fred harbored a consuming zeal to "do things in a different and better manner." He has an instinctive allergy to all rules premised on the words "you can't." A favorite Waring saying, in spelling out a problem to co-workers, is: "Let's throw away the rules and have a little genius."
Offstage as well as on, Fred's humor comes through. Pointing to one of his dazzling young soloists as she approaches center stage, Fred may ask an audience, "How do you like that dress? I made it myself."
This comes so close to being the truth that it is brilliant self-caricature, for he is gifted with an inventiveness that is by no means limited to music.
If spouse Virginia yearns for a drapery carrier that, as it turns out, cannot be bought on the market, Fred will go down to his basement workshop and create a new device that meets her specifications.
Once the wife of a friend who was very ill, had a bad time concocting highly liquefied invalid food that the doctor had prescribed. Fred developed the Waring Blendor, which today will reduce any food to liquid puree and which has become a standard hit on the appliance market for all sorts of cooking and drink-making processes, as well as being a boon to medical research.
Fred is, by nature, kind and compassionate. If a friend has a splinter in his foot or something in his eye, Fred will take it out. He is such a calm and resourceful first-aider that his kitchen in the summer months at Shawnee Inn, world-famed golf center located at Shawnee-on-Delaware and purchased by Fred (himself a fine golfer) in 1943, is often as busy as a hospital emergency room.
But let no Pennsylvanian mistake this gentleness for softness, or the sky will fall upon his foolish head.
Waring's manner is patient and sympathetic in company rehearsals, but he detests indifference or sluggishness, and many a tear has been shed at Waring work sessions. On the other hand, if a chastised performer has left a grueling session burning with homicidal thoughts toward the "ruthless" perfectionist conductor, such strained relations are shortlived, and people who have worked for Waring for any length of time freely acknowledge a respect and admiration that are virtually undying.
From this unswerving discipline, coupled with Waring's sincere desire to help talented young people to achieve their best, comes the perfection of sound and performance that has taken the Pennsylvanians beyond the palaver of such monikers as "celebrity" or "personality." The Pennsylvanians are an institution. It is fact in show business that anyone who has worked for Waring gets top priority as a potential performer for other quality producers.
Every summer upwards of eight hundred teachers, in quest of new ideas for their classes as well as college credits, visit the Fred Waring Music Workshop at Delaware Water Gap, Pa. With students, and with vacationers in search of musical enrichment, they live in a dormitory that was once a summer hotel, dine together, and spend eight hours a day learning Waring choral techniques and such elements of showmanship as program planning, staging and lighting.
Bob Banner, who was director of the Pennsylvanians' Sunday night television show for G.E. and is now president of Banner Associates, producer of major network TV shows, first met Waring in 1947 when he was a Workshop student.
"Fred is a rigid taskmaster," Banner relates, "but he achieves excellence through hard work." Banner terms his later three years with Waring on the G.E. show a "post graduate course" in the art of good choral music.
Nuns often come to Waring Workshop sessions to learn choral techniques to take back to parochial school classes. With nuns, as with everyone, Fred is blithely comfortable, and they seem to take his instruction or his chiding in stride.
"Oh, come now, you're in show business, Sister," he has been known to say. "Let's hear you sing that without sounding so ricky-ticky."
The idea for the Waring Workshop began years ago when music teachers and choir directors asked to be allowed to observe rehearsals. They found his "tone syllable" method of rehearsing and performing revolutionary, his approach to production problems fresh and stimulating.
Fred worked with Ennis Davis, a member of his staff, in planning the summer workshop, and a few miles from his own home at Shawnee-on-Delaware he found a large resort hotel, the Castle Inn, for sale. This he bought, and with the help of his talented wife the building was refurbished and redecorated; its large auditorium was equipped with a full-fledged control room for recording. At the moment, thought is being given to extending the Workshop service, and the building at Delaware Water Gap may become a full-fledged music school.
Fred Waring Jr., 28, handsome and talented in the way of his father, is a fine trombonist. He was with the Pennsylvanians in 1955-56, then joined the Navy prior to attending Indiana University for four years, and is back on tour with the Pennsylvanians this season. Like his dad, he is a golf addict.
Virginia Merritt Waring, third-generation Californian, met her "Pennsylvanian" when, under the stage name Virginia Morley, she appeared with Fred in concert with her pianist partner, Livingston Gerhart. While concert duo-pianists are not unusual today, Morley and Gerhart with their renditions of serious classical music were a novelty during their years of touring and recording. Virginia met Gerhart in Europe while she was studying piano with the renowned Robert Casadesus. Casadesus and his wife had performed together, and he took particular interest in assisting the Morley-Gerhart venture.
Fred and Fred Jr., when they are not on tour, play the Bermuda Dunes course regularly. Paul, 19, is a flying enthusiast and is working and studying aeronautics at Bermuda Dunes Airport. Fred's daughter Dixie (now Mrs. Albert Wilson) lives at Shawnee-on-Delaware with her family, and Bill Waring, 26, is assistant manager at Shawnee.
It was Malcolm, 7, youngest member of the Waring clan, who brought the family to the desert for the winter, his parents feeling it would be a possible cure for an asthmatic condition which he suffered in the east. The sun has wrought its magic and, according to Virginia, the active family members have to step smartly to keep pace with the healthy youngster.
Like big brother Fred, Malcolm seems destined to follow in his father's footsteps. While he loftily turned down piano lessons offered by his mother, he has developed a real yen for the trumpet. It happened accidentally… if such things do.
"Last summer at Shawnee, Malcolm informed us that he had never been to a dinner dance and would like to attend one," recalled Virginia, with a chuckle. "He had attended many concerts, of course, but we made arrangements to have him with us for a dinner program featuring the younger Pennsylvanians. Malcolm watched with interest as Fred Jr. and the others performed. After the program, he went up to the bandstand and someone handed him an old, beat-up trumpet. Malcolm blew a dreadful note. He stayed on stage while the group played for dancing, waited for an occasional tongue-in-cheek cue from the leader, whereupon he would give forth with another shattering sound. It was funny and fun, and everyone applauded."
And so Malcolm is determined to learn to play the trumpet, but he has a problem: he must wait for the removal of braces from his teeth before he starts his music lessons at the desert's Palm Valley School.
Fred Waring, a composer himself and a writer member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) for many years, has always been a great friend of the song-writing profession.
Precisely what has he meant to the music publisher?
"Well," says publisher Jack Mills, "what has Caruso meant to the world of opera? Ethel Merman to the Broadway stage? Schweitzer to the world of humanities? All, including Fred, are giants in their fields; all are respected and revered for their contributions to making our world a happier place. And music publishers, by and large, have been virtually assured of hit status for their tunes when Waring presents them. He has the knack of bringing out every nuance of a song with his spectacularly unspectacular treatment."
And what has he meant to composers ?
"Fred Waring plays my music," declares Richard Rodgers. "He is a leader who knows that good showmanship and good taste need not be inimical. He honestly believes that the intentions of a composer should be respected, and that the words of a song have a meaning that is expected to be communicated."
Waring has something definite to add on that subject.
"So many young singers fail to understand a most important concept which I so earnestly feel must be taught and taught by every responsible teacher. It is this: a song is composed of both words and music. These two ingredients are blended to create a song. The singer must look upon them as being equal in value. He cannot consider them separately except, of course, for purposes of analysis and study. Integrated performance will have power of communication and conviction . . . and if that is not desired, why sing at all?"
When Fred, through patient and firm discussion, cannot "communicate" this idea to a promising young singer, there is slim chance that the aspirant will wind up as a member of the Pennsylvanians.
Recordings by the Pennsylvanians have sold into the multi-millions in volume . . . brilliant arrangements played and sung to satisfy Waring's super-sensitive "electronic" ear. Their first recording was made in 1923, using a song which has become their enduring theme. The story of the song, recalled for us by Stanley Adams, president of ASCAP, is an interesting one.
Fred was still in college with the original combo when he heard a tune which strongly appealed to him, played in a fraternity house session by a Negro band from Scranton. No one seemed to know who had written it. Fred and Tom Waring spent a solid year tracking down the song and its author, and the search ended in a Philadelphia church with a blind composer-organist named Adam Geibel.
Mr. Geibel had been educated in the Pennsylvania Institute for the Blind in Philadelphia, where he also taught. He was a fine church organist and had composed, among many songs, a work called "Sleep." It was this song that Waring had heard in the frat house . . . and it is the song which he adapted and has used at the close of each of his performances ever since.
At the time of the 1923 recording, however, Adam Geibel, composer of 3,000 hymns, was reluctant to have his material played by jazz interpreters . . . so his name was spelled backward on the record. That recording is now a collector's item.
Hollywood was in its heyday during this period, and its' stars became enthusiastic Waring fans. The Pennsylvanians played a fast-paced prologue to Harold Lloyd's The Freshman in Los Angeles and stormed the great movie palaces of the era, becoming famous for such staging effects as "Dancing Tambourines" and high-spirited novelty numbers such as Tom Waring's '"Way Back Home."
In 1928 the orchestra and glee club sailed for Europe for a long engagement at Les 'Ambassadeurs in Paris. Fred was awarded The Palms of the French Academy for his contributions to American music, including his introducing of the early works of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin.
Triumphant touring landed the Pennsylvanians back in Hollywood, and in 1929 Fred and the gang were starred with Morton Downey in the first big musical of the "talkie" era, Syncopation.
This was the height of the "glamor period" for Waring, and critics pinned the Pennsylvanians with the tag "International Favorites." The boys had developed into masters of many styles . . . anything playable took on a distinctive charm under their skillful handling, and composers of the day were quick to praise Allah when Waring introduced their latest numbers.
Waring's recording exposure of complete Broadway musical scores has given impetus to the creation of standards in musical Americana, and Fred's own experience in leading his orchestra in Broadway musicals undoubtedly plays its role in his continuing success as a conductor. He demonstrated this skill to New York audiences when the Pennsylvanians starred in such popular musical revues as Hello Yourself in 1928 and The New Yorkers in 1930. The latter show had a fine Cole Porter score, and it also featured a specialty number, "The Drinking Song," written and performed by Fred Waring.
The Pennsylvanians' greatest Broadway theater success came with an unprecedented six-months run at the huge Roxy in the early 30's. Paradoxically, since this was during the depth of the Great Depression, they played to full houses.
"I'll never forget that Roxy appearance," says Fred. "Everybody in the theater business was crying the blues, and they must have thought we were crazy to go in for a big, expensive stage attraction. Sometimes I think, looking back, that it was the best show we ever did."
Asked for a reason for the sensational box office, considering the unfavorable times, Fred replied, "The answer's simple, when you think about it. We put on a big, fast, breezy show that made people forget their troubles. It was like medicine for beat-up spirits."
Soon after the Roxy triumph, the Waring style of entertainment found its happiest medium of all in network radio. It took a bit of selling by Fred and his then long-time manager, Johnny O'Connor, to convince sponsors that lavish performances by a combined orchestra-glee club would be suitable radio fare. But an audition finally "took," and Waring's subsequent contributions to radio's place in family entertainment add up to one of the most astute chapters in broadcasting history, establishing also the now much-copied choral background techniques. Tom Waring solos included introduction of his own song, later a hit, "So Beats My Heart for You."
The group, burgeoning with new talent and new ideas, was petitioned by half a million students of colleges and universities, and Fred wrote and introduced hundreds of new "pep," "fight" and alma mater songs, many of which are now traditional.
In 1934 the Pennsylvanians started their unforgettable radio series for Ford Motor Co. The show ran for three years and led all popularity polls of the day.
Hollywood beckoned again in 1937, and the Pennsylvanians filmed Varsity Show with Priscilla and Rosemary Lane and Dick Powelk While on location at Pomona College, Waring, always on the lookout for young talent, spotted student glee club director Robert Shaw, hired and trained him as assistant conductor for choral work.
Teamed with Chesterfield for five memorable years, mostly World War II years, Fred and his musicians fashioned one of radio's classic series. During these golden days of radio their strongest following was among young people, and Fred organized and ran off the biggest college glee club contest ever held in America.
By 1942 there were 35 Pennsylvanians and members of the production staff in World War II uniforms. Under Tom Waring's supervision, rehearsal halls were turned into unpublicized Canteen headquarters, feeding hundreds of service men every week and just as literally nourishing war-torn souls with sparkling entertainment. Fred saluted armed forces outfits by producing inspired victory tunes.
With the end of the war and the lifting of travel restrictions, the Pennsylvanians went in for a heavy schedule of concert appearances throughout the country. There had been a lapse of nearly ten years since they last had "hit the road" in a serious way, and even Fred was surprised at the crowds they drew. Huge civic auditoriums seating up to fifteen thousand were jammed to overflowing. Sports arenas and college field houses were utilized to accommodate enthusiastic crowds.
In 1944 the Pennsylvanians recorded their famous interpretation of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," an interpretation which later was to put them on the hot-seat during a White House performance.
The Pennsylvanians had never participated in politics as a group, but in 1952 they threw their hats in the ring for their friend Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. During Eisenhower's tenure as President of the United States, they traveled at almost regular intervals to the White House to entertain.
During the recent concert at Bermuda Dunes, with General and Mrs. Eisenhower (who winter on the desert, at Eldorado Country Club) in the audience, Waring related the story of the aforementioned discomfiture at the White House over "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
"England's Queen Elizabeth and her entourage were guests of the President," he recalled. "The Pennsylvanians had concluded their program … or at least we thought we had done so," he inserted, holding his head, "and we thanked the dignitaries for their indulgence. Whereupon the President spoke up. 'But you're not finished,' he proclaimed. I looked at him blankly and retorted, 'But… we are'. . . with respect, of course, since we were in his House. 'But you haven't done Battle Hymn of the Republic,' he insisted.
"Now it just so happened," Waring continued, wiping his brow, "that I was breaking in a new group at the time, and we had not included that particular number on the program. But the President had spoken, so I responded. 'Tell you what we'll do. We'll do Battle Hymn if you'll all just sing along with us.' The Queen seemed nonplussed, to say the least, at hearing an upstart conductor talking back to the President of our country. Just the same, everybody sang. 'Glory, glory, hallelujah,' sang Her Majesty . . . and with enthusiasm."
Fans of the "upstart conductor" include a host of fellow musicians, and by no means are they all "pop" artists. Fred delights in teasing his friends when he knows they are in the audience. Dr. Fabien Sevitsky tells an amusing story about such leg-pulling.
Dr. Sevitsky was fresh from Europe in 1923 when he attended his first Waring concert, at the invitation of Joe Pasternack, who was then music director of the Stanley Theatre in Philadelphia.
"The performance was so outstanding that I felt I must go backstage and meet this conductor," said Sevitsky. "I did not speak English well at the time, so I profusely congratulated Mr. Waring and his company in my own way, mostly in the Russian language.
"Through the years we became close friends, and it was some years later, when I was music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, that I invited the president of the symphony society to accompany me to a performance by my good friend at the Circle Theatre. Said my friend Waring, from the stage, and naming me, 'There is in the audience the music director of your symphony orchestra. He is an excellent conductor … but he certainly does murder the English language."
The Pennsylvanians made their debut on television with the G.E. show in 1949. Knitting radio shows together with a king-size outfit had not been easy, "… but compared to television it was child's play," says Fred.
What it amounted to was producing, with about four days' preparation, an hour-long counterpart of a Broadway or Hollywood musical revue. There never seemed to be enough rehearsal time. In their first ten weeks on TV the
Pennsylvanians used up more than 150 special arrangements of songs old and new. For television, as in radio, they did more than perform. They contributed original and outstanding productions that no other musical group had dared to attempt.
Another Waring enterprise is Shawnee Press, a direct outgrowth of the interest of choral directors in arrangements and methods used by the Pennsylvanians. From the publishing of a limited number of standard songs from the Waring library, Shawnee Press has expanded into one of America's foremost publishing houses and has recently purchased the Educational Music Bureau of Chicago, long-established mail order distributing facility.
The Pennsylvanians play some 150 cities each year, traveling nearly every night by Waring buses. Murray Luth, who joined the Waring staff in 1950 following many years with Paramount Studios, is manager of the Pennsylvanians, booking the group (an average total of 40 for orchestra and glee club) one year in advance. The Pennsylvanians carry several thousands of dollars worth of sound equipment and the technicians to operate it.
In terms of "on the road" entertainment, Waring feels that qualified young musicians of today are overlooking one of the best ways of testing their professional capacities.
"The simple fact is," says Fred, "that many talented youngsters who should be serving their apprenticeship for professional careers are turning down 'road' opportunities and stubbornly sticking to big cities in the often vain hope of 'getting a break.' Over a full season, the road would pay them far more than scattered TV engagements or club dates; but quite aside from financial considerations, the experience before live audiences is by far the best way to develop that indefinable quality known as showmanship."
According to Waring, popular concert business is very much alive these days, but many groups are finding it hard to line up the necessary talents for an effective concert company. He suggests that gifted students should treat themselves to the test of the road, and the possibilities therein of mature performance and professional careers.
When Fred Waring conducts a concert, the public sees but one facet of one of the most creative and complex individuals of our time. With energy, intelligence and constant use of the do-it-yourself routine, he has become a world-famed musician, teacher of musicians, Doctor of Music, inventor, engineer, architect, golfer, decorator, songwriter, recreation director, guidance counselor, publisher, builder-developer and … yes . . . rescue worker.
Several years ago the Delaware River rampaged during flood conditions. Dams gave way, and many lives were lost in the vicinity of Fred's home at Shawnee-on-Delaware. In his own neighborhood, Fred took charge. Hundreds of persons wanted to leave before the floods rose higher, but he convinced them to stay at his Shawnee Inn. (Among refugees was a fawn Fred pulled from the flood-waters, now the neighborhood pet, Jill.) The water rose to the second story of the Inn, closely approaching Fred's prediction, and then subsided to leave everyone safe.
Sentiment and humor are mixed in Fred's naming of segments of the 27-hole course at Shawnee Inn, "Golf Capitol of the East." Flowering red crab-apple trees are used for the 150-yard markers on the "Red Nine," white birches on the "White Nine," and blue spruce for the "Blue Nine." The 300-capacity Inn features a conversational Cartoon Room, spotlighting laminated cartoon table tops which were presented to Waring by the National Cartoonist Society.
"Fred Waring is actually many men," says the Eastman School of Music's Dr. Howard Hanson. "Above all, he is a preserver of the traditional songs which sprang from the grassroots of America and which Americans love. If the prophecy of Walt Whitman, I Hear America Singing, is ever fulfilled, Fred and his following will have been largely responsible."
We do hear America singing, at any Waring concert. The song is a "battle hymn" to the pioneering spirit that molded America, the same spirit that nurtured the young souls of a nucleus of jazzy teenagers in 1917, inspiring them to reach high, to lean hard upon the best that is within creative humanity.
Quietly leading the hymn, Fred Waring sings along with America: "Glory, glory, hallelujah . . ."