The Methodist orchestra and choir in 1914. Two years later Charles Nidd (centre) formed the Cranbrook Symphony  Orchestra.

The Methodist orchestra and choir in 1914. Two years later Charles Nidd (centre) formed the Cranbrook Symphony Orchestra.

Whenever You’re Near One, You Hear a Symphony: Part II

The latest in a series looking at the history of orchestralCranbrook, and celebrating the 40th season of the Symphony of the Kootenays

Jim Cameron

And so it was that, on May 4, 1911, the first (reasonably large) orchestra comprised of local Cranbrook musicians set up at the old Cranbrook Auditorium on Norbury Avenue to accompany the Cranbrook Operatic Society’s first theatrical production, “The Geisha.”

The word “orchestra” had been employed previously, referring to a group of no less than two, but rarely more than four players. The orchestra for “The Geisha,” however, contained 12 members, including strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. It was a rousing success and left audiences and performers alike feeling that Cranbrook had climbed just a little higher on the social and musical scale.

Within a week the Cranbrook Auditorium hired members of the orchestra to provide live soundtracks for silent movies on a regular basis. The Rex Theatre next door also hired an ensemble — including Jessie Wallinger on violin and Jean Edmondson on piano — as did the Edison Theatre on Baker Street. Musical groups found further employment as summer turned to autumn and “the dancing season” began. Regular dances at the Masonic Hall (the present day Studio) began in October with overflowing crowds filling the same hardwood floor that is in use today.

There was work aplenty, although the dance orchestras, varying in size from three to ten pieces, rarely played tunes of a symphonic nature. It can be a little tricky dancing to Beethoven.

The Operatic Society returned in 1912 with “The Country Girl,” featuring a 15-piece musical ensemble and a chorus of 50 voices. The Wallinger/Edmondson group became the Cranbrook Orchestra and moved on to private engagements. Shortly thereafter Mrs. Edmondson severed her connections with the Cranbrook Orchestra and formed the six-member Kootenay Orchestra.

Thus, for many years to come, Cranbrook’s two most popular small orchestras were led by women.

Pictured: The release of the movie “Birth of a Nation” saw the performance of Cranbrook’s largest symphony up to that time – Herald, Oct. 26, 1916

The First World War kept local musicians in steady employment for a time, with regimental balls, farewell parties, and general soirees of all types. Riding on the musical wave, local music teacher C.F. Nidd formed the Cranbrook Symphony Orchestra in 1916, and so it was that on Tuesday, February 1, citizens witnessed the birth of honest-to-goodness-live-classical music performed entirely by local musicians.

The Grand Symphony Concert took place at the Auditorium with all proceeds going to the Belgium Relief Fund. The concert was deemed a success although a local editorial stated, “Three symphonies of Haydn, although beautiful to music lovers, are not exactly calculated to make concerts generally popular to the large body of the public, a necessity to financial success.”

And so it was that the first ever Cranbrook Symphony heard the first ever “Yeah, I don’t really like that. Play something else.”

The orchestra attempted just that in the month of May featuring a lighter programme. The music was good, the attendance was not. “A sad commentary on the public spirit and taste of our residents,” stated the local Herald newspaper.

The Cranbrook Symphony, now thirty strong, performed once again on October 26, 1916, when D.W. Griffith’s epic movie “Birth of a Nation” ran for one night at the auditorium. All agreed it was a stellar evening but it appears to have been the swan song for the symphony. In fact, local symphonic music in general underwent a downturn as musicians aimed to fill dance floors rather than theatre seats.

By 1919, it was Edmondson’s Jazz Orchestra providing “the music with the pep,” the uniquely named Rudnicki Vitrompidrum Orchestra entertaining crowds with modern tunes and coloured light shows and the Cranbrook Orchestra “jazzing” things up at regular Joy Club dances.

It wasn’t until 1922 that anything resembling a large orchestra made another appearance when members of the community approached city council requesting funding to reform the city band, an on-again, off-again ensemble from Cranbrook’s earliest days. Promising a membership of between 20 – 30 musicians the group met with local support and began rehearsals early in 1922 under the leadership of Lee Edwards.

Dave Kay, a local newspaperman and musician of the day recalls in a newspaper article of January 21, 1970, what transpired. The band leader was, stated Dave, “one of the most outstanding musicians with which Cranbrook has been blessed over the years.” He first appeared during a lumberjack dance in which the regular violinist failed to show and immediately proved to be an excellent player. His abilities became the talk of the town and soon thereafter he organized a 35-piece concert orchestra and also took over as not only leader of the city band, but also a choral group and a glee club of stringed instruments which often performed as a single large unit. His wife came to join him and soon “Mama” also became a popular local figure. The following spring his wife left for Spokane for a serious operation and shortly thereafter he showed his friends a telegram stating his wife had died. He remained in town to conduct the band during a large ceremony for the WWI vets, earning the sympathy and admiration of the entire community and left the next morning to attend to his dear departed.

It soon became apparent that he had borrowed varying sums of money from numerous acquaintances just before his departure. He was never seen in town again.

Amazingly, about a year later, Mama, apparently entirely non-deceased, returned and, with nary a word as to her mislaid husband, took over a restaurant on Van Horne Street. She proceeded to pay off many of his debts one by one but was soon requested to move on by local authorities who were not impressed with her upstairs “roomers.”

The music continued, however. The music always does.

Next Week: Symphony of the Kootenays and Other Delights.

Jim Cameron is the author of “Janus: Cranbrook Then and Now: Volume I, on sale  in the Cranbrook area, including at the Daily Townsman