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Around the Union

By Don Hofmeister

I know when and where God’s primordial, infinite silence was broken for me. I was three years old, clad in my puppy pajamas, sitting on the top step of the stair landing in my grandmother’s house in Saint Paul.

It was early in the evening, and at intervals men began to enter the house, carrying black wooden boxes with nickel cleats on the corners, and silvercolored sticks that became stands to hold music scores when they were opened. The men gathered in the living room, easily seen from my perch at the top of the stairs. When the latches on the black boxes were snapped, glorious silver and gold objects emerged; they looked like Christmas.

The silence was split by the sounds of brass, woodwinds, piano and drums, startling me into a state of excitement I have neither forgotten nor lost. What I heard caused my blood to rush to the farthest extremes of my small body; the intensity was so great I felt the boundaries of my skin must break. Wordlessly, I realized that creating sounds like these would shape my life. No price could be too high to prevent me from making music.

The men who introduced me to this enchantment were my father and his brothers; the musical Hofmeisters of New Ulm, Springfield and,later, Saint Paul. They were the sons of Joseph Hofmeister, a young, but well trained musician, who immigrated to the United States from Germany/Bohemia in 1885 He brought up a daughter, Josephine, and nine sons, most of whom he graced with some
form of names of famous composers. His first wife, Anna Manderfeld, died of tuberculosis shortly after their third child was born. His second wife, Marie Hackle, had emigrated from Europe soon after Anna died. She brought a son to the marriage, a boy conveniently named Ludwig, so Joseph didn’t have to scurry to find a musical nickname for him. In order, the boys were Haydn Andrew, Francis John, Ludwig, Peter Ilyich, Hugo Gounod, Otto Wolfgang, Walter, Theodore and Anthony Robert. They lived up to the names bestowed on them, all becoming professional musicians.

My father, Haydn, was the eldest and he fascinated me with tales of his growing up in New Ulm, learning his art from his father. As a youngster, he had two clarinets; a B flat and an A. At age ten he thought he could pull a quick switch and combine parts of each clarinet into one, thus eliminating the need to play back and forth between them. After some sawing he realized it was not going to work, and so hid the evidence behind Joseph’s old upright piano. When his father found the remains, he applied the sting of his violin bow as an instructional reminder to never commit mayhem on a musical instrument again.

From the stories Dad told I could see how he and his brothers were introduced by their father to dance band playing. He started early in the 1900’s, embarking on his maiden voyage with his trusty old Albert System clarinet. He was confident that he could successfully play the many pieces he had practiced at home with his father. He never forgot that job from its beginning to its end and he enjoyed reminiscing about it.

Dad said they went to dances in their horse drawn wagon, the mode of transportation whether winter or summer. None of the tunes was written down; the musicians knew them by ear. This was common among the German Bohemian community of players, although most knew how to read music. Dance music was a folk tradition, and the melodies were passed along aurally from generation to generation. My dad knew a share of them and had played them, but on that first job there were twists he hadn’t anticipated. The library in the players’ heads was far more extended than Dad’s. He really only knew a fraction of what it took to play for four hours. It became necessary to learn new tunes while on the job and this he tried valiantly to do the first night out. He would try hard to figure out the melody on the first pass and sometimes on the repeat he could get something out, only to hear his father say to the group, “Modulate to A.” His mind and fingers would again become a jumble and by the time the evening was over, he was exhausted.

Haydn’s first job was in winter in a dance hall heated by a cast iron stove that blazed through the night, heating stones the size of grapefruits that rested on top of it. When the dancing ended and the musicians were ready to leave, they transferred the stones to the wagon and put them under the blankets where the musicians were to huddle for the ride home. As leader, Joseph picked up the pay and departed the dance hall last. He would climb aboard the wagon, tap the horse lightly on the rear and say the word, “Home.” Then, he too would get under the blanket with the others, and the horse, unguided, took them home . As Joseph aged and played fewer dance jobs, one of the older boys would assume his role and introduce his younger brothers to the routine.

Later, they branched out beyond their father’s group, and played with many bands, both within their area and the larger venues in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

For over a quarter of a century five Hofmeister brothers at one time or another played with the well-known band led by “Whoopee John” Wilfhart. Their repertoire in the early years was part of a German Bohemian tradition which met the criteria of true folk music, e.g., anonymous aural/oral tradition. Because the band slowly grew in size, and included men unfamiliar with the tunes, it became necessary to write down the music. This allowed it to become more sophisticated, complex and contrapuntal. Excellent arrangers like Red McLeod, whose hallmark was inventiveness, put their hand to writing. My uncles’ talents expanded from performing the new arrangements presented to them. One of my former teachers, Dan Tetzlaff, then of the Minneapolis Symphony, sometimes sat in with the band and marveled at the intricacy of their arrangements. Other highly skilled musicians who subbed also found to their surprise that playing with this group more than taxed their skills. “Old Time Music” sounded simple but was, in fact, remarkably difficult to play.

A lot was going on in music during the thirties and forties, the era of Swing and the Big Bands, and performers had to be of high caliber. Great names came out of that period, and the whole nation listened to them over the radio. Excellent composers, arrangers and musicians were involved, and the quality of music produced during that time equals that of any other period in music history.

The German Bohemian musical tradition was appealing to many ethnic populaces. Whoopee John’s Band came close to expanding beyond that mold just about the time WWII started. A Hollywood producer had been courting the group, hoping to have their band featured in a movie, but the
war interrupted that effort. America’s enemy was Germany, and a movie featuring German heritage would not have been popular.

Whoopee’s band played not only all over the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota from four to seven nights a week, but also delivered a weekly radio show from Saint Paul to demonstrate their talents and gain publicity.

Every Sunday Dad announced their afternoon radio broadcast by calling to me, “Don, the boys are on the air!” I would move quickly to either the large living room Philco, with the green-eyed tuning device, or the $5.95 ivory plastic Montgomery Ward’s Airline on the kitchen shelf. I remained glued there for the entire thirty minute broadcast, which always began with their theme song, from “Marichen Waltz.”

Tunes spilled from the radio, announced in advance by a melodious male voice that introduced the group, saying, “Good Afternoon, Everyone. It’s two o’clock and that signals the time for another pleasant half hour of music you like to hear, featuring Whoopee John and his famous radio and recording orchestra , brought to you each Sunday at the same time by the publishers of the Northwest’s best newspaper, Saint Paul Dispatch Pioneer Press. Today and every Sunday the Merry Music of Whoopee John and all the boys is made up of requests sent in by enthusiastic listeners…”

Most songs were dedicated to someone in the radio audience; German, Bohemian, Irish and Scandinavian names came from the announcer’s lips. “This tune is for Mary Schmidt’s ninety-fourth birthday requested by her children,” or, “This is for Mr. and Mrs. Bisek of New Prague on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary,” or “For Jane, from Mr. and Mrs. Connelly on the occasion of her twelfth birthday.” “The boys” then played some waltz, polka, or schottische. In the center of the half hour broadcast they usually offered a novelty tune, a swing tune or a war horse march like “Stars and Stripes,” “Them Basses” and “Glory of the Trumpets.” During football season, two Sundays were dedicated to playing a medley of Big Ten Tunes, and five college fight songs were performed. Naturally, the “Minnesota Rouser” was played every Sunday.

Often, for variety, the band played a swing tune emulating the style of modern dance music being performed all over the country. The broadcasts were promotional for the band and the WTCN broadcasts were actually held in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch building, where, with Dad, I visited my famous uncles for the first time. The broadcast room hardly had enough room for the band, let alone guests, but, to my overwhelming joy, I was admitted. This was where the marvelous Sunday sounds came from, and I was seeing it from the inside. The blood in my veins was racing and hot, and my small bones seemed to rattle against the fiber of my muscles. My mind feverishly tried to take it all in, and yet I felt a certain calmness about what was going on. My heart already knew the drill. My uncles playing seemed effortless, like walking or talking, doing what anybody could do. It was a seamless undertaking and I didn’t question whether I, or anyone, could do it. It was beautiful and it was part of life.

Close to the program’s end, that melodious voice, which I could now see emanated from a real man, announced the itinerary for the coming week. The band played in hundreds of spots all over Minnesota and in surrounding states. They went to places like The Silver Lake Ballroom, Schlief’s Little City, The Marigold, The German House, The Lone Star Pavilion, The Gray Goose Pavilion, Prom Ballroom, New Ulm Ballroom, 400 Club, Tintah Dance Hall and Granite City Coliseum. I found the names romantic and alluring, and I wanted to be part of making those sounds. I was too young to understand the reality of performing with a band that could travel 50,000miles to 360 dates in a year and do radio broadcasts on Sunday.

It meant going to jobs in cars with no air conditioning and poor heaters over mostly gravel roads. When “The Quiet Immigrants” by Bob Paulson and Vern Ripley was published, in 1995, it was only then that I learned that my uncles had received no pay for their radio broadcasts Those many hours were considered to be just part of their job, and they performed without complaint. I like to think of that as their great gift to the citizens of Minnesota.

Hugo was the first Hofmeister to play with Whoopee, filling the woodwind spot in the band. Otto followed on tuba and trumpet, and later became lead trumpet. Next, Ted joined, playing sax and clarinet, Pete came in on drums and then Frank on trumpet. For many years these five men comprised the core of the band. The Quiet Immigrants, also confirmed that the Hofmeister brothers were the mainstay of the group.

I entered the picture as a player with my uncles in 1949, shortly after I was accepted as a union musician with Local 30 in St. Paul. I was a freshman, majoring in music, at the (then) College of Saint Thomas.

That first experience came at the 75th birthday party of Grandpa Joseph’s widow, Marie, in Saint Paul. All of the boys except Ludwig (who had moved to Texas) came to our house on Blair Avenue, and I was thrilled when they asked me to join them for their impromptu concert.

They set up in the living room, seating the spectators in the dining room. Otto had us play about eight bars to set levels on a wire recorder he had brought, and he gave just a tap on the music stand with no warm-up. We went right into playing and recording. Hot shot college music major that I was, I could barely hold my own.

Later, Otto somehow transferred the wire recording to small ivory colored plastic discs and gave copies of them to relatives as mementoes. Sadly, none of us knew enough to take care of the recordings. They were of poor quality to begin with, but after fifty years of dust and scratches caused by neglect, they are in bad shape. To my knowledge, there exist no other recordings of the Hofmeister Troubadours, the name they called themselves independent of other groups they played in.

I’ve regretted that, but am comforted by realizing that there are umpteen recordings of them on Whoopee John discs. Dennis, Wilfhart, John’s son, gave me copies of the many hours of tunes they played while with the Whoopee John band.

For me, that first time playing with Dad and the uncles was a revelation . True, I had some experience from starting my own band in High School and playing for dances, community playground events and once, in my senior year, for a dance at the University Club in St. Paul. When I graduated from high school all that ended, and for a few months, I was a musical orphan so to speak.

The first job with them was exciting and important to me, even though I knew there was a huge gap between my abilities and those of these experienced musicians. The ballroom was bigger than anything I had played in before; the floor was golden hardwood, the lights were low and there were not many people in the crowd who didn’t dance. The majority were on the floor for almost every set. They had paid two bucks to be able to dance from 9 P.M. to 1. A.M. and that is what they did. Often rural people would walk to and from dances. What with walking, dancing and doing their regular weekly work, they had about as much cardiovascular exercise as the human body can stand.

We arrived at the dance hall about a half hour before starting time and setting up was easy. My father had made stands out of light plywood, painted in medium blue with a crescent moon, a few stars and the inscription, Hofmeister Troubadours, in white. Otto handed out the music, and each of us went through the mechanics of getting our horns out of their cases and blowing a few notes to ensure all was okay. Because I was conditioned by my college band instructor, I spent more time warming up than all of them combined. They each went up and down the horn once, Pete kicked the drum a couple of times to make sure it stayed in place and that was it.

They had a four watt electric amplifier, but it was used only for announcing the numbers, not to amplify the band while playing. Occasionally it would be turned -on for special solos if there were a guest singer, but was not left on in general. The Hofmeister brothers would be appalled by the heavy use of amplification today. Real musicians should be able to fill up a hall by the power of their own lungs. There was very little drinking, and none at all while on the stage. They didn’t even have glasses of water available during a performance. At 11:30 the band would break and we could have something to eat and drink.

There is a big difference between playing two hour jobs in a high school setting where tunes are played one at a time, and a four hour job with tunes in sets of three. I wasn’t sure I had enough endurance to make it. It wasn’t until the intermission of the first job that I realized I had done it, so only the last hour was worry-free for me. Luckily, the dancers did not pass the hat for us to play an extra half hour. That experience came later and by then I could receive the extra two bucks happily.

The basic part of actually playing that first job went pretty smoothly, as my uncles and father were supportive. I could handle the harmonies, rhythms, tonguing and articulations. (They weren’t necessarily marked on the score sheets so all those years of my listening to the radio paid off!) Because I was playing second trumpet, range wasn’t a problem, but I could see Uncle Otto could do a lot that I could not. I was too timid at this stage to approach him with questions. There was a war going on inside me. From the demands at college I had begun to see a wider horizon of the skills trumpet players need to perform. Yes, I had a nice sound, but I had limited range and endurance. I used too much lip pressure to get out what I did, and I decided that I must need to significantly change my embouchure (the position of the lips and tongue.) My efforts to improve meant that I practiced almost incessantly, so that eventually, five hours a day wouldn’t be unusual. There had to be a better way, and finally after several jobs I asked Otto for assistance. He was at a loss to help me when I asked him to teach me his methods. He said,” I honestly don’t know how I do I; I just blow.”

He was an extraordinarily competent performer, so I decided to watch what he did and also check out the equipment he used. Through the bulk of his professional career, Otto had played the same Bach Stradivarius Sheppard’s crook cornet with a 7C mouthpiece, the same that had originally come with the horn. He didn’t oil the valves; spit provided the lubrication. He smoked between the choruses and often had a cigarette burning on his case, ready for a drag when he could snatch a second.

I asked him why the center of his top lip was scarred and he explained that if he had a cold sore and had a job to play, he played the job. He said, “If you bleed, you bleed, but it heals within a few days. That may leave a scar.” He laughed and said, “Once by mistake I picked up a lit cigarette and put it in my mouth the wrong way. That one really stung, but it was my own stupid fault and I knew I had to continue.” It became obvious that emulating his methods were not going to turn me into another Otto. That struggle would lead me down other paths by other means, but that is another story.

Ted played tenor sax and clarinet made by Selmer with Brilhardt mouthpiecs. His older brother, Hugo, taught him many of the finer points of mastering these instruments, including their repair. He equipped himself with fine 2000 grit sandpaper, reed trimmers, small screw drivers and an assortment of screws, springs and key oil. Most of the instruction was done while they played together on the road. Ted regarded it as on the job training with his teacher sitting right next to him. The tightness of Hugo’s and Ted’s clarinet playing together matched that of Otto’s and Frank’s on trumpet. The ensemble sounds of those four guys still bring tears to my eyes when I listen to their recordings. My Dad’s tenor sax was a Conn Naked Lady, so called due to the engraving of a lovely female body on the bell. He also sported special mouthpiece. His clarinet was a Gerard bought in France when he was there in the WWI with the Sandstorm Division.

Dad often joked about the attempts his war time buddies made trying to sneak their army-issued horns before leaving France for home. No matter how or where the horns were stashed on the troop train going toward the coast, they were found. Secret places didn’t work, only the bass player managed to save his enormous tuba by leaving it out in the open. That must have made it look legal to the military police. Dad had bought and paid for his horn in France, and had the receipt to prove it, so he had no smuggling worries.

Pete’s drums were old style large Ludwigs, and he had an excellent set of bells. He set the tempo for every tune we played. For a polka, he tapped twice on the rim of the snare. Otto would look across the band and when he was satisfied that everyone was on board he gave a slight nod to Pete. He also signaled a waltz with two taps because they were played at one beat to a measure. The time between the first and second tap let us know the speed of all the tempos. For slower ballads he gave four light taps to set the tempo and they were always as accurate as the proverbial Swiss watch. They had a special nuance that always made the band sound as if it were alive and swinging. Otto was master of ceremonies with the dancers and also in charge of us on the stage. He would point a finger at a player to take the next chorus and then glance at another player and point two fingers. That meant the second player was up for the second chorus. If the audience seemed to really be into dancing, he could signal us to take the tune from the top by twirling one finger around and pointing up with it. After we were started, he could indicate which endings to take by using one or two fingers. All of this went smoothly and I do not remember any of us being confused about what was to happen.

Frank had (and has) a special part in my heart for two reasons. One, he was my first trumpet teacher. Two, he frequently carried me on his shoulders to Marie’s grocery store to buy green spearmint candy leaves, five for a penny. My family and Uncle Frank lived for a time with Grandma Jaspers in her big house on Marshall Avenue in Saint Paul.

He and I went down to the basement, set up a wire stand, and opened an instruction book, The National Self Teacher. It cost twenty-five cents and had come with the used Conn cornet I had received for Christmas.

At that first lesson I could get a few sounds out of the horn, as I had experimented by myself, but Frank quickly saw that the book was impossible. The second page was devoted to triple tonguing, totally inappropriate for a beginner. Frank was a performer not a teacher, but he instinctively knew what to do. He got a piece of paper and wrote simple exercises that I could play and feel good about. I credit those minutes of instruction for inspiring me to write the hundreds of pages I eventually designed for kids while teaching. My uncle taught me that if a book were inadequate to the task, I could create a new one. (See my work on to view the fruits of Frank’s creativity.)

On one of the jobs Frank played with the Troubadours, I was leading the band as Otto had another job. When I sat down after playing the first set he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Kid, you’ve still got a lot to learn.” I loved him for the remark. He was right.

Otto, because he was well known and also on the board of Local 30, would land some very nice jobs. One in particular I remember was at the Hotel Saint Paul. We were to wear tuxes to play dinner music for a large 3M annual party. The crowd numbered about three hundred, possibly more. The ballroom was huge; tables with white linen cloths and napkins, real silverware and more than three hundred beautifully dressed people.

In the week before the dance my mind was in a quandary wondering what we would play for the dinner part of the gig. Being a college man studying music, I thought ought to know what dinner music was. I never asked, preferring to worry instead.

We arrived at the hotel, unloaded and set up on a nice festooned, elevated stage. My dad and uncles were good looking guys at any time, but in tuxedos with white shirts, black bow ties and coats, they were outstandingly sharp. Their appearance was equal to any band of that time with their name and the crescent moon and stars on the stands.

But what about the music? The same folder was handed and I could see no new pieces. Finally Otto, always calm and collected, came back to the stage after talking to the 3M people who knew how the evening was to unfold. Where was the “dinner music?” The numbers were called out and Otto then looked directly at me.” Put your mute in, Don.” That was it--dinner music only need be quieter than dance music!

That first job with my uncles led to many more over a number of years. All were good occasions and over time I was able to handle what was required, up to and including leading the band when Otto had another job. It seemed I had the gift of being able to talk to the audience and so it fell to me.

Local 30 put on a picnic once a year at which everybody got to josh and play baseball. They also did a big shindig at the Prom ball room where all of the local bands got to play for a half hour while all the rest of the musicians, wives, or dates could dance or listen. For something like that you feel high and your juices are running as you set up. It was one of the few times Dad, the uncles, and the other adopted family members were noticeably excited. They were more than ready to play. It felt like we were out for a kill. And we were.

We played our best arrangements, and from the sound of Otto’s first note I knew he wanted fire. Each tune became more intense. We soon succeeded in attracting a crowd of listeners close to the stage. Adrenalin was flowing freely and going to the right places. I remember three tunes that were done remarkably well that night, Hold That Tiger, South Rampart Street Parade and the Clarinet Polka. George Donnay roared on his tuba as the tiger. It’s a wonder the back wall didn’t fall down. The tempo of South Ramparts was a killer, and on the clarinet polka Otto, on separate choruses, took the lead from the clarinets. We were elated when our half hour was over and the audience went crazy. Dad had a drink that night, not his usual custom, and we felt like we were soaring to the heavens.

In 1954 I graduated from college and played my last job with the Hofmeister Troubadours. Only a couple of years had passed, but I did not play with them when I returned after serving in the Air Force. The job I had was too far away, and the market for sizeable bands was dwindling. Now the work was mostly for three and four piece groups as economics prevented the hiring of larger groups. The venues of entertainments for people had changed and ballrooms could no longer afford large bands.

Each of the Hofmeister brothers continued to play in smaller group settings, although my dad didn’t because his day job shifted to night time hours. We did play as a family at yearly gatherings or, occasionally, for a family wedding. This usually happened in New Ulm, Springfield or on a relative’s farm. So on those occasions I got to play with the brothers who did not live in the Twin Cities, Walt and Tony. All Joseph’s sons played alike so our performing together had a feeling of seamlessness. No matter which brother was added to the group, the band always sounded as an organic whole.

Walt, who had studied at McPhail School of Music, took over his father’s job of directing the Springfield and Morgan bands in 1932, and also directed the Springfield High School Band for a number of years. He was a talented pianist and arranger of musical scores, so talented that he could arrange a part on the spot for a band member who had forgotten his book.

Tony’s experiences included playing with Walt for some years in Springfield’s Sota Ballroom in the band they had started. (Hugo moved back there to live after he came off the road with Whoopee John, and joined them as both performer and arranger.) The three brothers also formed a trio, “Tony’s Combo,” that played for parties in the area. When he retired and moved to Arizona, he joined a band and played with them four fourteen years.

At family reunions my children had the experience of hearing Hofmeisters play, and the sounds and scenes are well imbedded in their memories. The only permanent aspect of life is change and I feel I got the best of it by being born into the Hofmeister family. The sounds I heard in the early years over the radio are still in my ear. The scenes of seeing the uncles playing in white shirts, with creased dark pants at the Minnesota State Fair are firmly implanted too.

And I share this legacy with a large number of Minnesotans who also heard them play, and they ask me if I’m related to “those” Hofmeister brothers. Often, when driving in southern Minnesota, I was able to buy gas and pay by check because the station’s owner recognized the name on the check. “You related to those musician Hofmeisters?” Often he would share his memories of them with me, recounting the many times he had danced to their music or listened to it on the radio.

Final remark: Tony, who is now over ninety, plays his King cornet every day. He called for a chat a couple of weeks ago and said that he was going to re visit the violin after a vacation of seventy five years. I said, “Fine, let me know when you are ready and I’ll act as your booking agent.”

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