Chester Z. Bronson (1857-1926)
Kalamazoo Bandleader and Director
C.Z. Bronson, c.1920s. Kalamazoo Valley Museum
Reputed to be a grandson of Kalamazoo founder
Titus Bronson, Chester Z. “Chet” “C.Z.” Bronson was at the forefront of American popular entertainment during its most formative years. Although he called Kalamazoo home for much of his adult life, Bronson’s tireless professional career took him on the road with some of the most famous names in the business… P.S. Gilmore, P.T. Barnum, B.E. Wallace, John Philip Sousa, et al., before returning to Kalamazoo to play a lead role in the formation of several prominent community organizations, including the Kalamazoo Federation of Musicians, the Kalamazoo Concert Band, the Western Normal School (WMU) Orchestra, and the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. Early Years
Born in Trowbridge Township (Allegan County), Michigan, in March 1857, Chester Bronson spent his childhood years on the Bronson family farm near the intersection of County Road 653 and 6th Avenue (northwest of Kendall) in Van Buren County’s Pine Grove Township. Chester was the second of six children born to Laura (Earl) Bronson (1832-1895) and William Z. Bronson (1815-1891). Chester’s older brother and musical mentor was
William S. “Will” Bronson (1854-1914). Other siblings included Sarah Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bronson (1858-1898), Albert E. Bronson (1860-1936), Charles J. Bronson (1862-1927), and Stephen Henry Bronson (1868-1955).
W.Z. Bronson farm in Van Buren County, MI. Published by C.O. Titus in 1873. Michigan County Histories and Atlases Boston, New York, Baltimore
Bronson gained valuable musical experience at an early age by working with his father, who was once a flute player in the orchestra at the old Boston Theatre. The “Old Boston” was the city’s largest and most prestigious theater in its day, indeed one of the largest theaters in America at the time, akin to New York’s Academy of Music and the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. While in Boston, Bronson studied music with
Eustach Strasser, a clarinet teacher at the New England Conservatory and principal clarinetist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Courier for P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling World’s Fair at Boston, May 1873. University of Connecticut P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling World’s Fair
When P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Exposition and World’s Fair rolled into Kalamazoo in October 1872, it’s entirely possible that a young Chester Bronson visited the spectacle, as most folks in the area did. Anxious to become a showman himself, Bronson’s first professional engagement came in 1874 when, at the age of 17, he took a job in New York with George H. Primrose, one of the most famous performers of his day. Primrose and his partner, William H. “Billy” West, were traveling at the time as part of Dorris & Batchelder’s side show concert with none other than P.T. Barnum and his “Greatest Show on Earth.” After touring with the Barnum/Primrose show, Bronson went on to Baltimore to work at the acclaimed Monumental Theater and to study music under Charles Warner at the
Peabody Institute. The Move to Kalamazoo
By 1880, the Bronson family had moved to a new home at 904 North Rose Street in Kalamazoo. Chester was working as a blacksmith at the time, though music was clearly his primary interest, and he certainly was not the only family member to share that passion. While his father had been a great influence from early on, it was Chester’s older brother, Will Bronson, who often worked side-by-side with Chester as they both struggled to become professional musicians.
While Chester worked toward a career in music, other Bronson family members pursued a variety of interests. Will Bronson was a highly regarded musician, as well, and eventually became a well-known musical instrument maker. Sarah Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bronson was a regalia maker for
Frank Henderson’s firm, Albert was an engineer who later became a well-known Grand Rapids automobile dealer, and Stephen H. “Henry” Bronson was a woodworker for the Michigan Buggy Company, an accomplished vocalist, and a local entertainer.
Bronson family residence, 904 N. Rose St. c.1880. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Kalamazoo, Michigan, Oct 1891. Library of Congress / Local History Room. Patrick S. Gilmore’s Band
Patrick S. Gilmore c.1890. Library of Congress
Chester Bronson returned to New York in late 1881 for a run at Harry Miner’s Eighth Avenue Theatre. While there, he became associated with
Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, famously eulogized by John Philip Sousa as “The Father of the American Band.” Gilmore’s band was considered to be the finest in the country at the time, if not the world. The Kalamazoo Gazette declared it “a rare musical treat” when Gilmore’s Band performed at Union Hall in January 1878.
During his time with Gilmore, Bronson studied music with L. Stockigt, an esteemed solo clarinetist with Gilmore’s band. He also studied with
Walter Damrosch, a renowned conductor and a key leader in the movement to popularize classical music in the United States. P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth
Both Will and Chester Bronson spent a great deal of time on the road during the mid-1880s. The spring of 1883 saw Chester and his good friend
Frank Holton performing with Prof. James S. Robinson’s Celebrated Band, a key feature of P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth and the Great London Circus. The season opened in March with a grand torchlight parade through the streets of New York City. The press called it “the most brilliant scene ever witnessed in the city.” One even called it “the crowning triumph of Barnum’s career.”
A few months later, P.T. Barnum’s enormous entourage rolled into Kalamazoo for the sixth Michigan stop on its massive seven month tour. In all likelihood, Chester Bronson was a member of the band that sunny Saturday morning in June, as they paraded down Main Street in Bronson’s hometown. All told, the 1883 season took 650 workers and 325 animals on a 10,000 mile journey in 59 railroad cars, encompassing 180 performances.
Barnum Circus Parade in Kalamazoo, c.1884. Stereoscopic photograph by Schuyler C. Baldwin. Local History Room The Famous Minstrel Shows
During their early years, the Bronson brothers spent a great deal of time performing with traveling minstrel shows. Despite the overtly racist nature of minstrelsy, these shows presented the boys with lucrative employment outside of the local community, and a chance to be part of the most popular form of entertainment in its day.
In February 1884, Chester Bronson took the morning train from Kalamazoo to join Charles Heywood’s minstrel troupe in Louisville, Kentucky. Heywood was said to be a singer with a “phenomenal voice.” He was also famous for using pigeons—sometimes hundreds—as part of his act. After a fall tour with the Sells Brothers’ Circus as a member of Prof. W.N. Merrick’s 20-piece Silver Cornet Band, Bronson spent several months on the road playing clarinet with the famous
Thatcher, Primrose & West Minstrels, known as the “Millionaires of Minstrelsy.”
Thatcher, Primrose & West’s Minstrels, c.1800s. From Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America by Robert Toll
“Brass and string music furnished for private and public parties, excursions and picnics. Orchestra music a specialty. Address C.Z. Bronson, Kalamazoo”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 21 April 1885 Bronson’s Orchestra Band
C.Z. Bronson, c.1890. Nazareth Archives
Orchestral music became especially popular during the 1880s among Kalamazoo’s music savvy elite, and the Bronson brothers were at the epicenter. When Chester Bronson returned to Kalamazoo in May 1885, he opened an office at 111 East Main Street. Meanwhile, Will Bronson, said to be “one of the best musicians in the state” ( Gazette), had organized a nine-piece social orchestra called Bronson’s Orchestra Band. The group included earlier bandmates John Henson “Heinz” Everard and John Lounsbury, along with Lawrence Noe, M.B. Walt, J.D. Woodbeck, Charles A. Skinkle, Nicholas Hodgeboom, and Gus Ehlers (all well-known local musicians) with Will Bronson directing. Will Bronson also directed a larger fifteen-piece dance orchestra that featured German violinist Gustav Strehle, cornetist Walter Smith, and trombonist Wesley Hodgeboom. Chester Bronson played clarinet and managed both orchestras. On the Road Again
On Saturday, 25 July 1885, Will and Chester boarded the overnight express to Utica, New York, where they joined
Milton G. Barlow & George Wilson’s minstrel show, an offshoot of Primrose & West. The 24 piece Barlow & Wilson orchestra, led by the well-known director Eddie Fox, was the largest minstrel band on the road at the time. Will Bronson signed on to play first violin, and Chester Bronson played first clarinet. The brothers toured with Barlow & Wilson for fifteen weeks before returning to Kalamazoo in time for Thanksgiving.
Come December, Chester was on his way to Cincinnati to again join Thatcher, Primrose & West, lauded by the
Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph as “the best on the road.” The troupe performed “before crowded houses everywhere,” beginning with a sixteen-week run in New York City, then on to eight weeks in Boston, eight weeks in Philadelphia, three weeks in Baltimore, and three weeks in Washington D.C. After a brief time back in Kalamazoo, Bronson left for Detroit in July 1886 to begin rehearsals for yet another season with Thatcher, Primrose & West. Wurzburg & Bronson Orchestra
During the mid-1880s, Will and Chester became associated with Grand Rapids bandleader and fellow circus musician Frank Wurzburg, named by the
Grand Rapids Press as “one of the finest violinists in the country.” Together, they formed the Wurzburg & Bronson Orchestra, with Will Bronson as leader. The Bronson brothers would continue to work off-and-on with Frank Wurzburg’s popular bands over the years.
Wurzburg & Bronson’s Band, c.1890. Local History Room. Chester Bronson (back row, left), Frank Holton (middle row, 2nd from left), (probably) W.S. Bronson (front row, left), (probably) Frank Wurzburg (front row, right), others unidentified. Charity Minstrels
During the fall of 1886, members of Kalamazoo’s “Jolly Young Men’s Unanimous Club” began producing a series of charity minstrel shows to benefit the local
Children’s Home and to raise money for a new city hospital. The initial performance was declared “an overwhelming success” ( Gazette). As such, the charity minstrels became an annual affair and, more often than not, the Bronson brothers were involved. The elaborate shows often featured up to sixty or more talented entertainers from the local community. Orville H. Gibson was a frequent contributor, as were the Mittenthal Brothers, attorney Dallas Boudeman, businessman Frank Henderson, and others, including Will, Henry, and Chester Bronson. Charles E. Rogers Cornet Band
Will Bronson was a member the Constantine (Michigan) Cornet Band during the early 1880s when Charles E. Rogers was its leader. Later in the decade, Rogers formed the highly regarded Rogers Cornet Band of Goshen, Indiana. Recognized for “superior” renditions of Scottish and Irish airs, the Rogers Goshen Band grew to become the “official” musical group of the
Chautauqua movement, which later spawned the famous traveling assemblies that attracted millions throughout the early years of the 20th century.
After a brief time on the road with Rice & Shepard’s Minstrels, Chester Bronson spent several months in 1889 performing with the Rogers Cornet Band at the famous Piedmont Chautauqua at Lithia Springs, Georgia. After a brief summer break in Kalamazoo, Chester went back on the road in July with his brother Will, performing open-air concerts with the Rogers Cornet Band and providing orchestral accompaniment for the variety entertainment during the famous educational programs on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in New York.
Ellis Brooks’ New York Concert Band
Ellis Brooks, c.1896. Library of Congress
After the warm weather tours with the Rogers Cornet Band, Chester Bronson returned to New York where he joined Ellis Brooks’ celebrated New York Concert Band.
Ellis L. Brooks was a trombonist, composer and popular bandleader with strong ties to West Michigan. During the time that Brooks managed the New York Concert Band, he ranked highly, both in terms of popularity and critical acclaim, among such contemporaries as Frederick Neil Innes, Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore and John Philip Sousa.
Over the course of his career, Brooks gained great notoriety as leader of Chicago’s Second Regiment Band, and as director of the Furniture City Band in Grand Rapids. During the 1880s and early 1890s, Brooks and his band fulfilled extended summertime engagements at lavish resorts along the East Coast, while the winter months saw Brooks and his orchestra make an annual pilgrimage to St. Augustine, Florida, where they performed at the historic Ponce de León, Alcazar, and Cordova resort hotels. Ellis Brooks and Chester Bronson were to become good friends and would work together often over the years.
White’s Military Band, c.1890 (Chester Bronson: center w/ clarinet). History Room Photograph File P-478 White’s Military Band
Kalamazoo’s musical landscape had become rather bleak by the late 1880s, as the city struggled to maintain a dedicated
municipal band. During the fall of 1889, Chester Bronson returned to Kalamazoo and began working with Wallace S. White, a noted local photographer and musical instrument dealer, who had recently formed his own community military band known as White’s Light Guard Band.
Unfortunately, White’s band wasn’t very good at first. Ridiculed by the local press as a “tune-less” band, White replaced the “old kickers” with “good, reliable young men” (
Telegraph) and enlisted Bronson to direct the band and train its members. Under Bronson’s leadership, White’s 18-piece military band improved steadily and soon developed an enthusiastic local following.
“White’s city band, under the baton of Prof. Bronson, will surprise the public by their improvement.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 29 November 1889
Kalamazoo Gazette, 1 Dec. 1889
In addition to leading White’s Military Band and performing
social music with Bronson & White’s Band, Chester Bronson played instrumental music with Ed Desenberg and worked steadily during the winter months with George B. Newell in the Newell & Bronson Orchestra, voted one of the most popular dance orchestras in Kalamazoo, and “one of the finest and most complete musical organizations in the state” ( Gazette). The Newell & Bronson Orchestra would receive extensive promotion in Kalamazoo and around West Michigan for quite some time. Academy of Music Orchestra
In June 1889, George Newell was hired to direct the orchestra at Kalamazoo’s
Academy of Music, which the Gazette claimed would soon “stand on a par with any such organization in the state.” Newell brought a new level of professionalism to the organization and enlisted the finest local musicians he could find, including Chester Bronson. Newell and Bronson came to share leadership duties and were immediately recognized for “having such a fine orchestra… one of the best ever heard in an opera house” ( Telegraph).
The season began at the end of August with the first of several popular plays, all of which featured music performed during and in between acts by the Academy of Music Orchestra. “It was the finest music that has been heard in that theatre in a long time,” gushed a writer for the
Kalamazoo Gazette after the opening performance, “and Prof. Newell should receive the hearty commendation of a critical public.”
“It is pleasing to note the rapid progress being made by the orchestra at the Academy since Bronson & Newell took hold of it. The music nightly is getting to be one of the features of the entertainment…”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 December 1889
Academy of Music Orchestra (foreground), c.1886. History Room Photograph File P-177.
“The clarinet solo by Chet Bronson was the finest of the instrumental selections. He made the Academy ring with the sweet tones. It would be hard to find anyone who is his superior.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 February 1890 A Family Wedding
In March 1890, Chester Bronson married Miss Anna Mary Henry while “standing under the arch of smilax and roses” during a small family service at the bride’s home on Greenwich Place in Kalamazoo. A daughter of Thomas and Roseltha (Deitz) Henry, Anna was born and educated locally and said to be a great lover of music, “a charming young lady of Kalamazoo, who will in the future assist him prompting bands pounding solos and such other pastimes as will make their passage down the stream of time a pleasant one” (
After a string of engagements with the Newell & Bronson Orchestra, the newlyweds moved to Grand Rapids in May where Chester spent 16 weeks performing with the Wurzburg & Bronson Band at the popular resort on Reed’s Lake. The
Kalamazoo Gazette speculated that Reed’s Lake would be “a lively place” that summer. The Bronsons remained in Grand Rapids until early 1891, likely helping care for Chester’s ailing father.
In June 1891, Bronson traveled to Boston for a ten week engagement with Ellis Brooks’ Wagner Band at nearby Nantasket Beach, a popular summer resort in Hull, Massachusetts. (The music of
Josef Franz Wagner, “The Austrian March King,” was immensely popular among bandleaders in the United States at the time, including Brooks and Sousa, hence the “Wagner Band” identity.) Performing with Brooks’ band that summer was Alice Raymond, advertised as the “World’s Greatest Lady Cornetist.” Bronson would return the following year to Nantasket Beach for a similar engagement with Brooks.
Hotel Nantasket, Nantasket Beach, Massachusetts, c.1905. Postcard published by the Rotograph Co., New York
Academy of Music Band & Orchestra
Kalamazoo Gazette, 28 January 1892
In December 1891, a group of Kalamazoo musicians formed a new ten-piece outfit called the Academy of Music Band (a.k.a. Academy Band). Despite its name, his was to be an independent musical organization, free to solicit outside performances, although most of its members were likely involved with the Academy of Music Orchestra. Articles of association were drawn up and officers were elected. Chester Bronson was business manager; Eugene C. McElhany, conductor; and Sam Born, treasurer. Other members included Fred Shoecraft, Fred Davis, John Leak, Hiram Ballou, J.F. Warner, and Fred C. Hayes. Longtime associates George Pfeiffer and George Newell were also involved.
The Academy Band hosted concerts and dancing parties throughout the winter at Turn Verien Hall, including ones that were performed exclusively on wind instruments, unique in a time when string orchestras dominated. The group remained active for less than a year, but its members would continue to be key figures of popular entertainment in and around Kalamazoo for years to come.
Benjamin Wallace Circus
During the summer of 1892, Bronson toured the Midwest with the Benjamin Wallace Circus as a member of Prof. William Goetze’s 23-piece band. This tour marked the beginning of Bronson’s lifelong professional association with both Wallace and Goetze. Operating under the name of “Cook and Whitby’s European Circus, Museum, and Menagerie,” the 1892 season began in Peru, Indiana, on the 23rd of April, and visited more than 140 cities before closing on October 8th in Noblesville, Indiana. Bronson would later lead the Goetz band for several seasons.
John Philip Sousa’s New Marine Band
John Philip Sousa, c.1892. Library of Congress
After the summer circus tour, Bronson accepted an offer to join a number of his colleagues in
John Philip Sousa’s New Marine Band. The band was to feature the finest musicians Sousa could find, including members of Ellis Brooks’ Band. Among them would be Herbert Lincoln Clarke, regarded as one of the greatest cornetists of all time, and trombone virtuoso (and Bronson’s childhood friend) Frank E. Holton, who later founded the famous Holton musical instrument manufacturing company. Bronson was selected to join Sousa’s renowned clarinet section.
Brooks and other leaders were dismayed that Sousa was apparently recruiting players who were already under contract with other directors. In a September 1892 letter to Sousa, Ellis Brooks wrote, “My attention has been called to the fact that you are trying to get several of my Band for your coming engagement, not withstanding that you are aware that they are under contract with me for my Pittsburgh engagement. Don’t you think it a little unprofessional in so doing. I have already sent programmes there with the names of those men who are to appear in solos each on their respective instruments and you must certainly see the inconvenience it would cause me should any one disappoint me.”
Sousa was a driven perfectionist. He famously preferred the sweeter mix of woodwinds and brass over brass alone, and the clarinets were at the forefront of his sound. According to one band member, “Sousa seemed to know just who the better players were and he invited those he wanted to try out for the band. Sousa in person held these auditions, and he was very critical and particular about whom he selected.” Sousa’s manager added, “It is the testimony of musicians that no clarinet department has ever been heard in this country whose playing could compare in refinement and velvety smoothness of tone with that of Sousa’s new band.”
“For two and one-half hours in the first rehearsal [Sousa] drilled the different sections of the band on how to play sixteen bars of an overture!
He started with the clarinet section. If this section had been a bunch of dubs, the long time he spent with them would not have been so remarkable, but these men were the cream of the clarinet players, the best in the land, each chair occupied by a finished artist, personally selected by Sousa for the job.
Sousa: ‘I want this band to play great music with the precision and polish of the finest symphony orchestra.’”
Bands of America, H.W. Schwartz. 1957
Chester Bronson made the cut and joined Sousa’s band as a clarinet player in time for the fall tour, seated beside such notables as Joseph LaCalle, William H. Santelmann and C.L. Staats. After a famously grueling series of rehearsals in New York, the tour got underway on 26 September 1892 in Plainfield, New Jersey.
Kalamazoo Gazette, 5 Oct. 1892
After a week on the road in Pennsylvania and New York, Sousa’s New Marine Band headed straight for Michigan. Performing a dozen shows in half as many days, the band worked its way westward from Detroit through Ann Arbor, Jackson, Owosso, Saginaw, Flint, Lansing, Battle Creek, and Kalamazoo, then on to Grand Rapids and Muskegon.
Sousa in Kalamazoo
For the second of the more than a dozen times the “March King” would visit Kalamazoo, John Philip Sousa brought his New Marine Band to the
Academy of Music on 7 October 1892, and gave a stunning performance before “a large, enthusiastic and deeply appreciative audience” ( Gazette).
Marcella Lindh and Chester Bronson appeared on stage with Sousa and his band that evening, both of whom were highly respected Kalamazoo performers. Lindh (Rosalind Marcella Jacobson) was a former local who had gone on to become an acclaimed soprano with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and elsewhere throughout Europe. Bronson had joined Sousa’s “new” marine band just a month beforehand and was only just beginning to make a name for himself. One can only imagine how proud they both must have been to be on stage that night in their ol’ hometown with the March King, and how equally proud the community as a whole must have been to see two of their own performing with one of the nation’s leading entertainers at the time. Both Bronson and Lindh toured with Sousa’s band throughout the 1892 and 1893 seasons.
After 104 concerts in just 11 weeks, the 1892 tour with Sousa came to a close in mid-December. Bronson made his way back to West Michigan, where he was to be a featured performer in a local orchestra led by his brother Will, “whose fame as an orchestral and band leader is widespread” (
Telegraph). Sam Folz’ Excelsior Minstrels
Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 February 1893
Ethnic humor was commonplace in American theatre during the 1800s. Although now recognized as overtly racist and demeaning, the caricaturing of certain ethnic groups (specifically African Americans, although few groups were spared) and the lampooning of their music played a prominent role in nineteenth century comic stage presentations, and was indeed the sheer essence of what became known as minstrelsy. But the minstrel shows also featured groundbreaking musical performances that set the stage for the future of popular music.
During the break from touring with Sousa in early 1893, Bronson became involved with Folz’ Excelsior Minstrels, a group that included many talented local musicians and performers. Sponsored by town clothier
Sam Folz, the band was directed by Derance “Deal” Richards, while Otto Schultz and Will Bronson directed the orchestra. The players included Deal Richards, cornet; Fred Davis, French horn; Fred Miller, violin; Frank Newell, bass; Hardy Hardella, trombone; Joe Wilbur, drum and tympani; Burton Fischer, piano; and Chester Bronson, solo clarinet.
After successful performances in surrounding communities, the group made its first appearance in Kalamazoo at the Academy of Music on 16 February 1893. The Kalamazoo show included a spoof on the famous bandmaster called “Sousa’s Sardine Band” and a Chester Bronson clarinet solo, performed “in a most skillful and artistic manner” (
Gazette). A year later, the members of this orchestra would become the core of Kalamazoo’s first symphony orchestra.
“Mr. C.Z. Bronson left last evening to join Sousa’s Grand Concert Band at New York city. They play during the summer at Chicago for the World’s Fair, Coney Island and St. Louis Exposition.”
Kalamazoo Telegraph, 17 April 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893
Come April, Bronson returned to New York to begin rehearsals in preparation for the spring tour with Sousa’s band, including an extensive series of concerts to be given at the legendary
World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Sousa’s band would spend five weeks at the Chicago World’s Fair, playing two and sometimes three concerts each day, while attracting thousands to each performance. Sousa’s concerts became so popular that more elaborate symphonic and choral events were eventually canceled due to poor attendance as the crowds gathered to hear Sousa’s band instead. The Charles K. Harris song “ After the Ball” became a runaway hit that summer, the first piece of sheet music to sell more than a million copies, thanks to daily performances of the song by Sousa’s band.
John Philip Sousa and his band, St. Louis Exposition, September 1893 (Chester Bronson: fourth row, third from the left). Sousa Archives
“Mrs. C.Z. Bronson has joined her husband at Manhattan Beach, N.Y., to spend the summer. Mr. Bronson is playing alto clarinet with Sousa’s Band.”
Kalamazoo Telegraph, 26 July 1893 1893 St. Louis Exposition
Bronson continued with Sousa throughout the summer of 1893, playing the prestigious series of concerts at Manhattan Beach that were made famous by bandleader P.S. Gilmore, who had passed away the year before. The 1893 fall tour saw Sousa’s band playing a six week run during September and October at the annual St. Louis Exposition, often performing up to four concerts each day. The tour prompted the
Musical Courier (New York City) to call it “the longest continuous tour ever undertaken by a musical organization in this country.”
As glamorous as all this might seem, touring with Sousa’s band was not easy. The schedule was grueling, pay was minimal, and while basic transportation was provided, individual players were responsible for their own meals and lodging, and were compensated only for the days they performed (not for rehearsal or travel). For the most part, the performers lived on sandwiches and slept on their equipment trunks.
After completing three tours with Sousa, including nearly 640 concerts, Bronson left the band after December 1893 and remained in Kalamazoo for the winter to concentrate on local events. Not a moment was wasted, however, as Bronson immediately helped organize the annual Elks charity benefit concert, which featured a “Refined Minstrel and Variety Performance” by no less than 60 local entertainers, including three of the Bronson brothers.
“C.Z. Bronson has decided to remain in this city during the coming season as his many friends and the music loving public will be pleased to learn.”
Kalamazoo Telegraph, 12 March 1894 Kalamazoo’s First ‘Symphony Orchestra’ (1894)
In the early spring of 1894, Chester Bronson and more than a dozen local musicians, most of whom were involved with the aforementioned Folz’ Excelsior Minstrels Orchestra, worked actively to organize a new symphony orchestra in Kalamazoo. Initially called the “Kalamazoo Amateur Symphony Orchestra,” this would be Kalamazoo’s first opportunity to host an orchestra of this size devoted solely to the production of classical and popular orchestral music.
By May 1894, the orchestra had become a professional organization simply called the “Symphony Orchestra.” With 22 members under Bronson’s direction, this orchestra, although active for only a brief time, was truly the first seed of the current
Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. (After subsequent attempts in 1911 and 1914 with still limited success, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra as it exists today was formed in 1921 with Chester Bronson directing. It’s also interesting to note that several members of this “original” 1894 Symphony Orchestra, including Chester Bronson, were involved with the official KSO incarnation nearly thirty years later.)
“The symphony orchestra, initially 22 pieces, made its first appearance at the Academy and were enthusiastically received.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 17 May 1894
The newly formed Symphony Orchestra made its official public debut on Wednesday, 16 May 1894, as part of a local production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals” at the Academy of Music in Kalamazoo. The orchestra’s program featured a variety of popular pieces and marches, including a rendition of Sousa’s newly penned “
Liberty Bell” march. The Symphony Orchestra appeared several times throughout the remainder of 1894, including dance parties at the Kalamazoo Armory and Lake View Park, plus select performances with Bronson’s Minstrels.
“Bronson’s Operatic Minstrels made its debut before a Kalamazoo audience at the Academy last evening and gave a very pleasing entertainment, and deserved the hearty applause of all… The clarinet solo of C.Z. Bronson showed that he was master of the instrument, and he was heartily applauded.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 June 1894
Program for Bronson’s Operatic Minstrels, 1895. Author’s collection Bronson’s Operatic Minstrels
With classical music still struggling to find an audience, Chester Bronson hoped to broaden its attraction by packaging the Symphony Orchestra with the popular appeal of his own road-worthy minstrel troupe. This was to feature a cadre of local actors and musicians, many of whom had already been involved with other local minstrel performances.
“Mr. Bronson’s many years experience with the finest minstrel companies makes him the most competent man to have charge of this aggregation of talent. The entire music of the performance has been especially arranged by him. His reputation as a musician is a guarantee that it will be as fine a musical performance as was ever given in this city.”
—Program handout, January/February 1895
Dubbed Bronson’s Operatic Minstrels to emphasize its chorus of singers, the group of more than 60 local performers, including the recently formed Symphony Orchestra, made its first public appearance in Allegan on Thursday, 31 May 1894. After subsequent performances in Paw Paw and Hastings, Bronson’s Operatic Minstrels performed in Kalamazoo on 19 June 1894 at the Academy of Music, where they were “uproariously applauded [by] a fair sized audience” (
Bronson planned additional summertime performances at Lake View Park, but ultimately only the Symphony Orchestra and vocal chorus were to appear. An additional performance at the Academy of Music was planned for October, but a series of delays kept the show off the stage for several months.
Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 November 1894
Though the orchestra continued to improve, maintaining a professional organization capable of adequately compensating its members proved to be an insurmountable challenge. Faced with continuous financial struggle, the orchestra was forced to disband by year’s end. Meanwhile, Bronson became deeply involved with yet another prominent local musical institution, Kalamazoo’s Second Regiment Band of the Michigan National Guard.
Kalamazoo’s 2nd Regiment Band at Camp Devlin (Island Lake, near Brighton, MI), August 1895. Willard Library, Battle Creek
Second Regiment Band
By 1893, Wallace White’s Military Band had become Kalamazoo primary parade and concert band. After being christened as the “Second Regiment Band” (or Second Infantry Band) during the Michigan National Guard’s summer encampment and assigned to active duty, Wallace White stepped aside and the organization was placed under the direction of longtime member Derance “Deal” Richards. Upon Richards’ departure from Kalamazoo in mid 1894, Chester Bronson stepped in and took over as manager of the band. With Otto Schultz as band director, Bronson promoted the Second Regiment Band extensively throughout Michigan.
Following several weeks of rehearsals, Bronson’s Operatic Minstrels made one final appearance at the Academy of Music on 5 February 1895. The all-star cast included four local comedians, twelve solo vocalists, a vocal quartet, and numerous variety entertainers, along with the popular Second Regiment Band, which replaced the recently disbanded Symphony Orchestra. In typical minstrel fashion, the day’s festivities got underway at noon with a grand parade down Main Street. Chester Bronson led the way with the Second Regiment Band in full military uniform.
A Pivotal Time
The years 1895 and 1896 would be an important and exceptionally busy time for Chester Bronson. During the summer of 1895, Bronson maintained an intensive touring schedule with the Second Regiment Band. The band performed for the annual Pioneer Picnic and Labor Day celebrations at Long Lake, gave frequent concerts at Lake View Park and county fairs in Marshall, Dowagiac, and Hastings, and enjoyed an extended engagement with other area band members at Reeds Lake near Grand Rapids.
Parade of the Knights Templars, Washington St., Boston, 1895. Boston Public Library
In August 1895, Bronson received a “liberal offer” (
Gazette) to perform with the Metropolitan Band of Detroit as part of a massive Knights Templar parade in Boston. Sol Kline, an accomplished local tuba player, was to accompany Bronson on the trip. Kline was a member of Kalamazoo’s Second Regiment Band and a former member of the Constantine Band, Hull & Arnold’s Band, Ellis Brooks’ Second Regiment Band of Chicago, and others. Bronson and Kline left Kalamazoo for Boston aboard the morning train on the 21st of August.
It was a warm Tuesday morning in Boston, 27 August 1895, when Bronson and Kline took their places with the Detroit band in preparation for the massive parade. “The sun’s rays were obscured by a thick haze, and a refreshing westerly breeze tempered the summer heat. Tens of thousands of Knights Templars, resplendent in uniform and regalia, were hastening hither and thither to join their commanderies in preparation for the march. Trains and street cars poured tens of thousands of visitors from surrounding places into Boston’s already overcrowded thoroughfares.” (
New York Times)
In all, some one hundred thirty-seven bands and numerous drum corps participated in the seven hour parade, celebrating the grand opening of the 26th Triennial Conclave of the Grand Encampment of Knights Templar. With its members dressed in their striking black and silver uniforms, the Metropolitan Band of Detroit, including Bronson and Kline, led the ninth division as they marched through the streets of Boston in cross formation. The Boston press considered the Detroit band to be the best among the bands that participated. Bronson and Kline were back home in time for a Sunday evening performance with the Second Regiment Band at Lake View Park as part of Pains’ Grand Summer Nights Carnival.
“Chet Bronson, leader of the Second regiment band at Kalamazoo, is considering the propriety of corresponding with the president of the Michigan Federation of Labor relative to a charter for a musicians’ union in Kalamazoo. Mr. Bronson first joined the union in this city; from here he went to Chicago and paid $5 to join there; then, as a member of Sousa’s band, he joined the New York union, paying $25 for the privilege. —The Workman, Grand Rapids.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 27 September 1895 Kalamazoo Federation of Musicians
During the fall of 1895, Bronson began organizing a labor union in Kalamazoo for local and regional musicians. A member of the musicians’ union in Grand Rapids since his days with Frank Wurzburg, Bronson was once part of the musicians’ union in Chicago, and later became a charter member of the National League of Musicians in New York City (founded in 1886). Through his correspondence with the Michigan Federation of Labor, Bronson helped establish the local chapter of the
American Federation of Musicians, which was finally chartered in August 1902.
In the spring of 1896, Bronson secured a contract for a series of more than 50 concerts during the upcoming summer season at the newly developed
Recreation Park on North Street. He continued to manage the band until August, when he returned to work in Chicago with Ellis Brooks. Bronson would performed with Brooks for the next ten years during the wintertime concert seasons, and his notorious “E flat clarinet solos” were often featured during Brooks’ concerts.
Poster for The Great Wallace Shows, Buffalo, N.Y. : Courier Litho Co., c1898. Library of Congress The Great Wallace Shows (1897-1905)
Bronson left Kalamazoo in 1897 and returned to the road with the
B.E. Wallace Circus as a member of Professor William F. Goetze’s band. Bronson played “Solo B Flat Clarionet” [sic] in both the 21-piece “Big Band” and the 8-piece concert orchestra, while serving as assistant director of the Musical Department and leader of the “Second Band.” Sadly, Goetze passed away in November that year while on tour in Yorkville, South Carolina, but not before making Bronson the leader of the band and awarding him custody of the bandleader’s extensive collection of music. The 9-month tour began in Peru, Indiana, on April 17th, and covered more than 14,000 miles before closing in New Orleans on December 26.
“Mr. and Mrs. C.Z. Bronson left last evening for Peru, Ind., to join the Wallace railroad show. Mr Bronson will have charge of the band and Charge Lane, trombone player, and Mr. (L. N.) Abbott, horn, will leave Saturday to join the band.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 22 April 1898
Each year, the Bronsons packed their belongings in the springtime and moved from Kalamazoo to Peru, Indiana, to join the Wallace circus. For nine consecutive seasons (1897-1905), Chester Bronson led first-rate musicians in circus bands and sideshows for the Great Wallace Shows throughout the United States. A typical season during this era would see a train of 20 to 30 cars make a 30+ week, 20,000-mile journey through 20 or more states, before returning to its winter quarters in Peru, which now houses the
International Circus Hall of Fame.
“Prof. Wm. F. Goetze’s Symphony Band.” (C.Z. Bronson back row, 3rd from the left.) The Great Wallace Shows Route Book Season 1897. Milner Library, Illinois State University “Prof. C.Z. Bronson’s Excellent Concert Band”
Bronson had a taste of circus life during his younger years with P.T. Barnum’s Great Show and he evidently took the “Big Show” quite seriously. While many of the circus bands of their day were evidently less than extremely impressive, Chester Bronson’s bands seemed to bring a new level of professionalism and musicianship to the shows. Bronson and his bands were highly praised for their work and held in high esteem among their peers.
“Great Wallace Shows Concert Band. C.Z. Bronson, Director.” (C.Z. Bronson front center) The Great Wallace Shows Route Book for the Season of 1901. Milner Library, Illinois State University “Not like the ordinary circus band…”
Contemporary press accounts and frequent mentions in trade publications best describe Bronson’s circus bands and their performances…
“C.Z. Bronson’s Symphony Band is receiving recognition everywhere as one of the best musical organizations in the country. The concerts preceding the performances are a new departure in circus business and have proven very successful.”
Route Book of The Great Wallace Shows, Season of 1899
“The orchestra, which rendered selections at intervals during the performance, is not like the ordinary circus band, but a symphony orchestra of 20 pieces, under the direction of Professor C.Z. Bronson.”
The Utica Morning Herald (NY), 10 June 1899
“The performance opened with a concert by Bronson’s band, the programme embraced such numbers as Sousa’s ‘Man Behind the Gun,’ and Suppe’s ‘Wanderer’s Hope.’ The brilliant introductory pageant of animals and actors followed…”
The Billboard, 16 June 1900
“Prof. Bronson’s band of twenty-eight pieces is another feature worthy of special attention. It is superior to most circus bands and the peer of any. The music is of a higher class than is usually heard in tent exhibitions.”
The Times (Richmond, VA), 29 September 1900
“Prof. C.Z. Bronson’s excellent concert band, drawn in an elaborate chariot by a four-in-hand team, was in the lead… A feature of the performance which was liberally complimented was the excellent musical program rendered by the brass band under the leadership of C.Z. Bronson.”
Akron Daily Democrat (OH), 9 May 1901
“A particularly pleasing feature of the performance and one that immediately interests the visitor is the music, which is of an unusually high class. The bandmaster is C.Z. Bronson and the programmes he prepares are fine, embracing work of some of the great masters, appropriate, of course, to the performance.”
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (NY), 28 May 1902
“In addition to the quality of the music furnished, the work of Prof. Bronson’s band is remarkable as a physical test. Its members spend almost eight hours out of twenty-four making music that is music—the sort that thrills and quickens all who hear it. When it is remembered that concert bands as a rule never play to exceed three hours a day, it may be realized that an effort is necessary as well as skill and talent, to enable Prof. Bronson’s Concert band to play the high class of music they do and to play as much as required of them.”
The Times (Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania), 25 August 1903 The Great Wallace Circus
When the Great Wallace Show made its yearly visit to Kalamazoo during the early part of the twentieth century, Chester Bronson was at the helm, leading his band down Main Street during the morning circus parades, much to the enjoyment of his local friends and supporters. Reports indicate crowds in excess of 80,000 for these parades.
“Chet Z. Bronson, formerly of Kalamazoo, is the director-general of the musical organizations of the show and during the day received many calls from former friends. He has a fine band and orchestra and the music they discourse is first class.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 6 June 1901
Following each parade, Bronson’s band would typically give a 45-minute concert before the circus performances began, and in Kalamazoo, the hometown crowds welcomed him warmly. During one local performance, Bronson was ceremoniously presented with an armful of American Beauty roses by fellow members of the
“The fine work of Prof. C.Z. Bronson’s Concert Band is immediately recognized and the Professor had to respond to many encores both afternoon and night. A big crowd from Goshen witnessed the evening performance and declared it was the best they ever saw.”
Route Book of the Great Wallace Shows, 10 June 1901 Wardrobe Superintendent
So where was Mrs. Bronson during all of this incessant touring? For many years, Anna M. Bronson, a Kalamazoo dressmaker by trade, traveled with her husband on the Wallace and Hagenbeck circuits as the wardrobe superintendent (wardrobe manager or “wardrobe mistress”). She was in charge of keeping theatrical costumes for the massive productions cleaned, pressed, mended, and ready to wear.
“Wardrobe Department” (likely Anna Bronson, foreground left). Official Book of Tours of the Carl Hagenbeck Greater Shows Season 1906. Milner Library, Illinois State University
In 1902, the
Kalamazoo Gazette was highly complimentary of Anna Bronson, saying, “To her belongs the credit of the elegance and newness of the costly costumes worn by the various members of the show at each performance.” A later advertisement in the New York Clipper directed all “wardrobe people to Mrs. C.Z. Bronson” in preparation for the April 1906 opening in Cincinnati.
“When the Wallace Show made its street parade in Kansas City recently the No. 1 band broke all records in the number of tunes played in parade. This band, under the direction of Prof. C.Z. Bronson, played fifty-six tunes in parade.”
The Billboard, 9 August 1902 Black Hussar Band & Orchestra
Chester Bronson had a nearly insatiable appetite for touring, and he seemed to welcome the challenges that came with an everchanging workload. After completing a summer tour with the circus in 1902, Bronson began working with Al W. Martin’s massive $25,000 traveling production of “Ten Nights in a Bar Room” as the director of C.Z. Bronson’s 14-piece “Black Hussar Band and Orchestra.”
The New York Clipper, 6 September 1902. Illinois University Library
Al Martin was famous for his incredibly elaborate productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a seemingly endless series of tours in lavishly adorned rail cars. For Martin’s 1902-03 revival of “Ten Nights in a Bar Room,” he enlisted Ringling Bros. Circus associate Charles A. White as a traveling manager, and Chester Bronson as band director, two of the most highly respected people in the entertainment industry at the time.
The 1902 “Ten Nights in a Bar Room” tour opened in Marion, Indiana, on August 20th, and traveled through Michigan, Ohio, and other eastern states until April. After the Al Martin tour, Bronson returned to the road, leading his band with the Wallace circus.
The Billboard, 24 October 1903
“Among the many numerous characteristics which have secured popularity for the great Wallace show is its musical department. Its several bands are not ‘wind jammers’ and creators of noise, but they play strains of popular melody and classical music so as to favor its patrons of the circus with a high-class musical entertainment.”
“Prof. C.Z. Bronson’s Concert Band of forty-five artist musicians are capable of entertaining the most critical concert audience. So far superior is Bronson’s concert band to the ordinary show brass bands that is remarked upon by novices as well as by musicians. For forty-five minutes preceding the two performances given in Falls City on Tuesday, May 31, Bronson’s concert band will play a high-class program of eight numbers. It is advisable that patrons of the Wallace circus should go early so as to avail themselves of the opportunity of hearing a musical treat free of any extra charge.”
The Falls City Tribune (Falls City, NE), 27 May 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair
C.Z. Bronson, The Billboard, 10 October 1903
Evidence suggests that Bronson may have directed one of the bands at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, otherwise known as the St. Louis World’s Fair. While it’s uncertain exactly which of his bands Bronson took to the fair, it’s not at all surprising that he was there. Band concerts were a key feature of the 1904 World’s Fair and bands from all over the U.S. participated. Bronson’s former colleague, John Philip Sousa, led one of the most popular bands at the fair.
Savage Opera Company
After 1900, Bronson often performed during the circus off-season in Grand Rapids with Ellis Brooks and the Furniture City Band. Brooks returned to Chicago in 1905, so Bronson took to the road for the first of several seasons directing the orchestra with a touring productions of “Colonel”
Henry W. Savage and his English Grand Opera Company. Savage was well known for his English versions of opera standards— Faust, Aida, Il Trovatore, and others. But with classic opera still over the heads of most American audiences, Savage became greatly admired for his touring “light opera” productions of The Merry Widow, Madame X, Excuse Me, and more.
The New York Clipper, 18 March 1905. Illinois University Library
“There is hardly a day goes by in circus life but that there is some interesting event takes place and something that will be remembered for years to come. There is always something doing and after one has been on the road a short time he gets so accustomed to unusual happenings that they seem to be a part of his ordinary life.”
— C.Z. Bronson,
Kalamazoo Gazette, 25 March 1906
New York Clipper, 9 June 1906, p.17 Carl Hagenbeck Greater Shows
Bronson directed the Wallace Circus band through the end of the 1905 season. After a visit in March 1906 from Colonel C.N. Thompson, manager of the Hagenbeck circus, Bronson accepted an offer to join the Carl Hagenbeck Greater Shows as musical director. By the end of the month, the Bronsons were preparing to leave for Cincinnati to join the upcoming tour, with Chester Bronson as musical director, and Anna Bronson as wardrobe superintendent. (Hagenbeck and Wallace would later merge to become the famous Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, second only to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.) The tour got underway in Cumminsville, Ohio, on April 5, and by the time the show reached Kalamazoo on June 9th, Bronson had composed a new march to commemorate the occasion.
“Very few circuses have ever boasted of as excellent a musical organization as is the Bronson Band now with the Carl Hagenbeck Show. Under the personal management of C.Z. Bronson this band has been increasing in efficiency and popularity until now it occupies an exalted position among the famous bands that this country has turned out. Everywhere the band is meeting with the highest praise that the papers and the public have within their power to bestow. Mr. Bronson has been for fortunate in gathering about him musicians who have perfected their art to about as great a degree as human perseverance will permit.”
The Billboard, 23 June 1906
Music Program 1906. Official Book of Tours of the Carl Hagenbeck Greater Shows Season 1906. Milner Library, Illinois State University A Return to Kalamazoo
After a difficult tour that ended with an unprofitable excursion to Mexico, Hagenbeck closed early for the season in January 1907 and sold his operation to Benjamin Wallace. After a decade on the road, the Bronsons returned to their old family home on North Rose Street in Kalamazoo and began charting their own future.
The Billboard, 16 March 1907, p.70
Kalamazoo Elks Band
Bronson had been an active member and avid supporter of the Elks (B.P.O.E.) fraternal organization since his early days with the Al Fields Minstrels. In Kalamazoo, he often organized and led specially selected bands and orchestras for yearly Elks benefit events. In lieu of joining the circus during the springtime of 1908, Bronson began organizing a new Kalamazoo-based band in preparation for an upcoming Elks state convention to be held in Kalamazoo later that year in June.
The 1908 Elks state convention was to be the largest convention of its kind ever held. Some 10,000 visitors were expected to descend on Kalamazoo for the two day event. Chester Bronson and Ed Desenberg were in charge of entertainment, and Bronson’s new 32-piece Elks Band, billed as “the largest Elks band ever organized in Southern Michigan” (
Gazette), would lead a grand parade with more than 5,000 participants through the streets of Kalamazoo.
The Elks Band was also scheduled to give an evening concert in Bronson Park to open the proceedings, but when the band arrived in the park to perform, all was dark…
“There was no band concert in the park last night. There were no lights in the grandstand. …about 3,000 people that crowded the park expecting to hear the concert, went away, after waiting two hours, greatly disappointed. Through some one’s forgetfulness no arrangements were made to light the bandstand, and when Chet Bronson with his splendid organization marched to the park expecting to play, they found it impossible. As a result he was forced to play under a street light on South Street.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 4 June 1908
Thankfully, the next day’s parade came off without a hitch. In all, some fifteen bands and hundreds of uniformed Elks members from across Michigan marched in the two-mile-long procession, led by the Kalamazoo Elks Band. The convention was declared an overwhelming success, and Kalamazoo deemed “the premier convention town of Michigan.” The Elks Band remained active after the convention, while Bronson returned to his other professional activities.
Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 September 1915
Traveling with circus bands and road shows was typically seasonal work, which allowed the Bronsons to returned to Kalamazoo for the wintertime months. During those rare times when they were not on the road, Bronson often worked as an independent local music instructor.
From as early as 1892, he offered clarinet lessons through his affiliation with George H. Phillips’ Music Store on Main Street. By October 1908, Bronson was giving instruction on “all kinds of musical instruments” through Roland Barnard’s Music Company on North Burdick Street. He later joined Jesse Crandall’s Academy of Musical Art in Kalamazoo, and was giving clarinet lessons from his studio in the Boudeman Building on West South Street. Around 1910 or so, he began offering “clarinet, oboe and saxaphone
[sic]” instruction from his home on North Rose, which he continued for the remainder of his life.
Bronson residence, 904 (834) North Rose St. c.1920s. Note Sally’s Ct. (aka Bronson Ct., now Darden Ct.) along the north side of the property. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1932. Library of Congress / Local History Room
“Prof. C. Z. Bronson, the well-known director of circus bands, with the Wallace Show for years, has closed with the Norris & Rowe show for the season, the deal being made by telegraph. Mrs. Bronson will have charge of the wardrobe. They will soon leave Kalamazoo, Mich., for the west.”
Variety, 27 February 1909 Norris & Rowe Circus
C.Z. Bronson, c.1910. Nazareth Archives
In late 1908, Bronson received a “flattering offer” (
Gazette) to lead the band in a new million-dollar, 50-railcar branch of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, one of the largest shows in the country. For reasons unknown, the Barnum & Bailey contract never panned out. Instead, “Professor Bronson’s band of 20 pieces” was to be a feature of H.S. Rowe’s Norris & Rowe Circus for the upcoming summer season.
Beginning in The Dalles, Oregon, on 5 May 1909, the Norris & Rowe Circus visited more than 130 cities across the United States and Canada, although the season would prove to be a long and difficult one. Unbeknownst to most people, perhaps even Bronson, the Norris & Rowe Circus had declared bankruptcy and was in dire straits financially. In an effort to elude its creditors the show visited mostly small, out-of-the-way places, often for a single day at a time, before moving on. Bad luck turned worse at a performance in Princeton, Indiana, when the big top collapsed during a storm, leaving more than one thousand people trapped beneath.
The tour closed for the winter on November 1st in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, after which Bronson returned to his home in Kalamazoo. A victim of bad weather, poor attendance, and unpaid debts, the Norris & Rowe Circus went bankrupt and was sold the following year.
Kalamazoo A.U.V. Band
While working with his music students in December 1908, Bronson organized a new concert band made up of 18 young Kalamazoo musicians between the ages of 17 and 25. The group was larger than Bronson could accommodate in his North Burdick Street studio, so they made an agreement with Kalamazoo’s A.U.V. (“Arbeiter Unterstutzungs Verein” or German Workingmen’s Benevolent Association) to use its expansive hall on Portage Street as a practice space. In exchange, the band agreed to take on the name of the hosting organization, and the Kalamazoo A.U.V. Band was born.
Kalamazoo A.U.V. Band, c.1910 (Chester Bronson: seated center, in white) Local History Room
“Comprising 30 ambitious and talented musicians, the A.U.V. band is practically the only brass band in the city that takes its existence seriously enough to practice every week. As drill master it has procured Prof. Bronson who is whipping the boys into great shape.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 8 February 1910
Both schedule and membership grew and by the spring of 1910, the by then 30-member band had already given more than 25 public performances. Under Bronson’s direction, the A.U.V. Band made appearances at
Oakwood Park, performed for U.S. Vice President James Sherman, and participated in local holiday parades and other public celebrations. “C.Z. Bronson’s Great Kalamazoo Band”
Bronson’s services as a bandleader remained in high demand. While working with the A.U.V. Band in 1910, he received a personal invitation from John Philip Sousa to join him and his band on the Australian leg of their upcoming thirteen-month world excursion. Bronson also received a generous offer to organize and lead the bands with the Sells-Floto Circus, a recently combined version of the Otto Floto Dog & Pony Show and the Sells Brothers Circus (famous for its elephants).
The Billboard, 19 March 1910
Most likely inspired by the popularity of his recent circus bands, Bronson declined both offers and decided instead to form his own 50-member concert band with “leading players from all over the country” (
Gazette) for a tour of summer amusement parks. To manage this new endeavor, Bronson teamed up with Clovis D. Salisbury, a Kalamazoo jeweler by trade, a viola player, and a financial officer in the local musicians’ union, who was at the time just beginning to dip his toe into the band management business.
Initially billed as “C.Z. Bronson’s Great Kalamazoo Band,” although he later advertised it nationally as “C.Z. Bronson and his American Band,” Bronson’s new concert band was intended to rival that of Sousa’s (who was by then out of the country on his famous world tour). In the wake of Sousa’s absence, Bronson hoped to fill a void left in the summer park circuit.
Unfortunately, it appears that Bronson was not able to gather the necessary financial support to make his large touring band a reality and a subsequent tour of summer parks never came about. Instead, Bronson remained in Kalamazoo and continued working with the A.U.V. Band for the remainder of the year.
Kalamazoo Concert Band
Bronson resigned from his leadership role with the A.U.V. Band in 1911 and joined forces with his old orchestra mate
Charles L. Fischer. Together they formed the Kalamazoo Concert Band, a current version of which is still active today. With an initial enrollment of 50 members or more, it would seem that Bronson finally had the touring band he hoped for. By April, the Kalamazoo Concert Band had already received at least one “very flattering offer” ( Gazette) for a month-long engagement at a summer park in Louisville, Kentucky.
Kalamazoo Concert Band, c.1911 (Chester Bronson: standing center, in white). Kalamazoo Gazette photo, Local History Room
Trimmed to a tight 20-piece band managed by Charlie Fischer and directed by Chester Bronson, the Kalamazoo Concert Band (often referred to as “Fischer’s Concert Band”) made its first public appearance on Memorial Day, 30 May 1911, during the grand opening ceremonies at Kalamazoo’s new
John Milham Park. A crowd of more than 5,000 enjoyed the day in the new park, which included a formal presentation by park commissioner James Grant, an acceptance speech by Kalamazoo mayor Charles H. Farrell, a dedication address by Western Normal School (WMU) president Dwight B. Waldo, and a “brilliant musical program” ( Gazette) by the Kalamazoo Concert Band.
Under Bronson’s direction, the Kalamazoo Concert Band performed for more than 2,000 students and teachers at Kalamazoo’s Riverview Park in June 1911, then headed north for a week-long engagement at a Chautauqua assembly in Ionia. From June 28 through July 4th, the Kalamazoo Concert Band, “one of the best bands in the state” (
Gazette), staged fourteen highly successful concerts in front of several thousand spectators, some of the largest audiences the city of Ionia had ever seen.
Kalamazoo Concert Band at Ionia Chautauqua. C. Z. Bronson, Director. Item #A-2758. Courtesy, Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collections. Identified in the photo: Director, Chester Bronson [standing in white]; Trombone, [Ed] Snuggs [2nd from right] and [Dingman] DeSmit; Tympani, (Wild) [possibly Joe Wilbur]; Sax, DeForest Walton; Clarinet, Bracato [Charles Brocato] and Bert Fisher [Burton Fischer, 2nd from left]; Bass, [Herb]; Bariton[e], Smith; others unknown.
Given the success of the concerts in Ionia, Bronson began receiving offers to have the Kalamazoo Concert Band perform elsewhere across the state. During July and August, the band made appearances at the Saginaw County Fair, the Ionia County Fair, and the Clinton County Fair. In between times, Bronson returned to Kalamazoo, where he offered instruction on clarinet from his studio at the Academy of Musical Art, and led an orchestra composed of fellow Academy of Musical Art faculty members.
In August 1911, the Kalamazoo Concert Band returned home home for a highly anticipated series of weekly concerts in
Bronson Park. Directed by Chester Bronson and assisted by local pianist, composer, and choral union president Ed Desenberg, the performances featured waltzes, marches, semi-classical selections, and popular pieces, along with a much heralded trombone solo by Frank Newell, and a “Novelette” for clarinet by Chester Bronson. More than 5,000 spectators crowded Bronson Park for each of the three events, which concluded with rousing versions of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The Billboard, 23 March 1912 Ellis Brooks and his Famous Concert Band
During the summer months of 1912 and 1913, Chester Bronson and Clovis Salisbury took on ownership and promotion of the Ellis Brooks Concert Band, with Bronson serving as assistant conductor. Brooks and his 40-piece military band had achieved legendary status by that time, and were especially well-known for their annual appearances at the prestigious Chicago Automobile Show. They had been featured at the Appalachian Exposition in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the opening of the Texas Cotton Palace Exposition in Waco, Texas, where for two straight weeks, Brooks and his band performed two concerts each day for the estimated 200,000 in attendance. With help from former bandmate Frank Holton and Chicago musician Col. Orrin E. Skiff, the organization promised a “big time band” of 40 pieces, personally conducted by the “Celebrated Bandmaster” (
The Billboard). A New Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra
Back in Kalamazoo, the local musicians’ union was planning a one-time concert at the new Kalamazoo Armory building on Water Street as a benefit for its members’ death and disability fund. More than 70 union members and local musicians had formed a new 50-piece orchestra and a 50-piece military band specifically for the upcoming event.
Kalamazoo Gazette, 22 Feb 1914
Chester Bronson was to direct both the band and the orchestra, while Charles Fischer would serve as the orchestra concertmaster. Some 3,000 people filled the Armory on Sunday afternoon, 22 February 1914, to support the musicians’ union and enjoy this special one-of-a-kind performance.
Organizers of the February concert were pleased with the turnout and encouraged to make the orchestra an ongoing concern. With support from the union, the Symphony Orchestra Society was established in March 1914, and a brand new incarnation of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra came into being.
Oakwood Park & Chautauqua Tours
After another month of rehearsals, the 35-member Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra made its public debut at the Kalamazoo Armory on Sunday, 29 March 1914. Chester Bronson took charge of the event and directed the orchestra, while Professor Harper C. Maybee, head of the Western Normal School (WMU) music department, assisted with the vocal arrangements. A crowd estimated between 4,000 and 5,000 people attended the Sunday afternoon program to see the new orchestra perform a variety of semi-classical and popular numbers.
Bronson was eager to book performances wherever he could in hopes of making this newly formed orchestra a sustainable organization. He immediately signed a contract with Oakwood Park manager Ed Esterman to have the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra be the featured attraction on the park’s opening day, May 24th, along with a follow-up performance over the Memorial Day weekend. Thousands turned out to enjoy the two shows, which helped launch one of the most successful seasons in the park’s history.
“Brooks’ Symphony Orchestra. Under the direction of C.Z. Bronson.” Janesville Daily Gazette, Janesville, WI, 8 July 1914 “Brooks’ Symphony Orchestra”
Encouraged by the orchestra’s considerable local success, Bronson took a scaled-down version of the new Kalamazoo Symphony on the road for a 12-week tour through Illinois and Wisconsin with the Lincoln Chautauqua. Interestingly, the 17-piece roadworthy version of Bronson’s orchestra was billed as the “Brooks’ Symphony Orchestra,” evidently intending to capitalize on the widespread popularity of Bronson’s recent tours with Ellis Brooks. Citing “especially strong violin, cello, trio and quartet appearances,” the tour opened near Chicago on the 26th of June and continued through the Midwest until mid-September. After the tour, Bronson reported that “the season was a delightful one throughout and very successful in every way.” Based on the success of its 1914 Chautauqua tour, Bronson was awarded contracts to take his orchestra on similar summer tours in 1915 and 1916.
“An immense audience presented itself at the New Masonic Temple recently on the occasion of a concert by the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. On this occasion, Mr. C.Z. Bronson, conductor, presented the program in a manner which drew forth long and hearty applause.”
The Metronome, New York, April 1915
C.Z. Bronson, c.1914
On Sunday, 25 April 1915, Chester Bronson was a guest backstage at the
Fuller Theater in Kalamazoo, where he spent time chatting with his former bandmaster, John Philip Sousa, before Sousa’s evening concert. The two discussed Sousa’s new operetta, “The Irish Dragoons,” and undoubtedly talked about the recent success of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. The Kalamazoo Symphony had just concluded its second winter concert season and would soon begin another summer tour with the Lincoln Chautauqua. How ironic that thousands had turned out over the previous months to see the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra perform, yet only about sixty or so were on hand for the March King’s matinee at the Fuller that afternoon.
Chester Bronson and Frank Newell worked diligently to keep the fledgling Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra afloat. The Musicians’ Protective Association (local musicians’ union) petitioned the city council to help support the Kalamazoo Symphony, but the request was denied due to insufficient funding.
Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, billed as “C.Z. Bronson and his Great Chautauqua Orchestra.” The Billboard, 11 September 1915 “C.Z. Bronson and his Great Chautauqua Orchestra”
For the group’s second outing with the Lincoln Chautauqua, Bronson again assembled a pared-down version of the Kalamazoo orchestra, although this time it was billed as “C.Z. Bronson and his Great Chautauqua Orchestra.” The 1915 summer tour covered the Lincoln Chautauqua’s “central circuit,” visiting major cities throughout Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. At each stop on the 15-week tour, the orchestra performed a 40-minute “prelude” before each afternoon lecture, then gave a full concert later the same evening featuring classical pieces and popular favorites.
After making “a favorable impression with the Chautauqua management” (
Gazette) and securing a contract for a third tour the following year, the orchestra returned home in September to dwindling local support and no plans for the foreseeable future. Bronson advertised nationally that his group was “at liberty” after September 20, but there’s no indication that a third such tour ever materialized.
In its final billing as the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, Bronson and his organization gave one last “exceptionally pleasing concert” (
Gazette) on 6 October 1915 before a crowd of 3,000 at the Kalamazoo Armory during a citywide “Prosperity Week” celebration. Without adequate financial support, however, this second incarnation of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra was forced to disband. Sells-Floto Circus
In lieu of a third Chautauqua tour in 1916, Bronson went on the road for a four-month outing as musical director for the Sells-Floto Circus. He joined the show in Denver and directed the band as the company made its way south through Texas and into California. The tour ended in December in Riverside, California, “where Mr. Bronson says he saw the oranges ripening. Mr. Bronson had, under his direction, a fine musical organization of twenty-two men, and, from every standpoint, the engagement was one of the most agreeable in the musician’s career” (
“C.Z. Bronson, leader Cole Bros. Shows, writes: ‘Battle of the Winds’ (march) by C.E. Duble, is a dandy, and one which all sit up and take notice. It’s all that the name implies.”
Musical Messenger (Cincinnati), June 1917 Cole Bros. Circus
In 1917, Bronson became musical director of the Cole Bros. Circus, named for W.W. “Chilly Billy” Cole, the first man to make $1 million in the circus business. The 1917 Cole Bros. Show was described as “a nice outfit, a crackerjack ‘little show’—just right for medium sized towns” (
The Billboard). The performances were not as pretentious as Hagenbeck-Wallace or Ringling, but interesting. The tour opened in Riverside, California, on March 7 and made 224 stops before wrapping up in Atlanta, Texas, on November 19.
The Billboard, 19 May 1917 “The Bronsonian Groupings of Living Statues”
Anna Bronson took her costuming skills to a new level in 1917 with the Cole Bros. Show and again in 1918 with Coop & Lent’s Circus as she assumed the role of “the creator of artistic life posings” in her statuary act called “Bronsonian Groupings of Living Statues” (
The Billboard). A circus standard that was later popularized in vaudeville, live performers (typically young women) would dress in costumes to portray classical statuary, and then pose as living statues in various groupings. Mrs. Bronson introduced her act to the audience at each performance with a group of eight specially trained white horses.
The Billboard, 22 June 1918 Coop & Lent’s Motorized Circus
During the 1918 season, Bronson took his All American Band on the road with Coop & Lent’s Motorized Circus. This would prove to be another unique though frustrating experience, for what had previously been a mammoth 20-railroad car entourage was for the first time being transported in its entirety over land by truck. The tour opened in Kensington, Illinois, on 25 May 1918, but soon ran into serious transportation problems. Rain and bad roads hampered the process until finally in August the show was halted. Since paved roads weren’t yet commonplace in rural regions, show promoters admitted that the four wheel trailers were just too heavy for the trucks to pull.
The Billboard, 27 April 1918 America’s Combined Motorized Circus
With World War I officially over, the year 1919 saw Bronson engaged in another circus tour with yet another new company. In April, Bronson announced to the press that he would be leading the band for the United States Motorized Circus Corporation during the upcoming season. Joining him on the tour would be his childhood friend and former Kalamazoo native Louis E. Cook, a veteran promoter with more than four decades of experience. In the meantime, however, the United States Motorized Circus Corporation was undergoing a period of significant corporate restructuring.
After a long series of delays, the newly reorganized “America’s Combined Motorized Circus” finally opened in Columbus, Ohio, on 16 August 1919, with its own unique twist. As reported by the
Columbus Dispatch, “For the first time in history Columbus witnessed a big circus parade in which the floats and cages were not drawn by horses. Instead, handsomely decorated wagons were in reality camouflaged motor trucks.” Unfortunately, those trucks didn’t get very far. After just three days of performing, the show ran out of money and the entire production was seized by creditors.
America’s Combined Motorized Circus, c.1919. Circus Historical Society
“Beginnings of what it is proposed to develop into a large symphony orchestra for Kalamazoo have been made in the organization of a symphonic orchestra of 20 pieces by C.Z. Bronson, well known local band leader and orchestra director.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 17 October 1920 Fuller Theatre Symphonic Orchestra
After the Combined Motorized Circus debacle, Bronson gave up his life on the road and remained in Kalamazoo. He stayed busy playing music around the area and giving music lessons from his home, yet never once had he given up on the idea of establishing a professional symphony orchestra in his hometown. Undoubtedly inspired by the popularity of recent Kalamazoo appearances by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bronson gathered several of his musician friends and assembled a new 20-piece orchestra of his own with “the ultimate aim being a symphony orchestra with a concert repertoire” (
Kalamazoo Gazette, 13 October 1920. Kalamazoo Public Library
Beginning Monday, 18 October 1920, the newly formed Fuller Theatre Symphonic Orchestra would provide half-hour musical programs before and after the each Monday evening film showing at the
Fuller Theatre on Burdick Street. The repertoire was designed to be “light in character, and yet not of the jazzy popular type” and would not conflict with the music played during the (silent) films by the Charles Wolff-directed Fuller Theater Orchestra.
“The symphonic concerts being given Monday evenings by the symphony orchestra directed by C.Z. Bronson are to be exceedingly popular,” wrote the
Kalamazoo Gazette after the first performances, “if the reception given the opening concerts last Monday evening may be taken as a criterion.” The weekly concerts were extended through the holiday season and into the new year. It was hoped that the popularity of the programs would eventually lead to a full-time professional symphony orchestra.
“I have opportunities to widely advertise the Kalamazoo band and have every confidence that the organization will reach my highest expectations.”
— Chester Bronson,
Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 April 1921 Joseph Westnedge Post American Legion Band
On 19 March 1921,
The Billboard trade publication reported that “The B.E. Wallace Show is taking definite shape… Prof. Bronson will have an 18-piece big show band.” In April, however, the Kalamazoo Gazette reported that Bronson had decided to cancel his contract with the circus so he could remain in Kalamazoo for the summer and work with local musicians.
Following his announcement, Bronson began directing the newly formed 25-piece Joseph Westnedge Post American Legion Band. The band’s April 10th debut concert at the Armory was well received by a “large and attentive audience” (
Gazette), and was followed by two more weekly performances at the Armory under Bronson’s direction.
On Sunday afternoon, 1st May 1921, the city streets around Bronson Park were closed to automobile traffic while more than 3,000 spectators enjoyed the American Legion Band’s first outdoor concert. The performance began with an opening number by John Philip Sousa, “Hands Across the Sea,” then continued through fifteen popular selections before closing some two hours later with “The Star Spangled Banner.”
With the success of the first event, the band was awarded a contract for a weekly series of performances in Bronson Park and elsewhere throughout the summer. Each of the Friday evening concerts in the park saw as many as 5,000 or more in attendance.
Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, c.1921, C.Z. Bronson conducting. Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra archives Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra
During the summer of 1921, the Kalamazoo Musical Society, under the leadership of Leta G. Snow, gathered 25 leading local musicians and organized a new community symphony orchestra. This new orchestra included most of the players from Bronson’s recent Fuller Theatre Symphonic Orchestra, including Bronson himself as director. Snow was highly praised for her “leadership, vision, tenacity, ability, and courage” (Tiefenthal), while Chester Bronson was fondly remembered as the one who “recently organized and directed the (previous) Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra” (
Gazette). Bronson was highly respected among community members and musicians alike for his expertise.
“C.Z. Bronson will conduct. This musician’s name has always stood for the best in the musical interests of the city.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 21 November 1921
As one of the orchestra members later recalled, “The personality and musicianship of Mr. Bronson were large factors in holding the group together during its first struggles. During his entire stay with the Kalamazoo orchestra, Mr. Bronson would take no pay, but considered it a hobby which he enjoyed” (Tiefenthal). With Leta Snow as business manager and lead advocate, along with the donation of Chester Bronson’s time and extensive collection of orchestral and band music, the community could at long last enjoy a sustainable symphony orchestra that thrives to this day.
Learn more about the origin of the KSO, including Chester Bronson’s involvement, in a separate article about the
Roots of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. The Western State Normal Band
Not one to remain idle for very long, Bronson became involved with both the orchestra and the marching band at Western Normal School (
Western Michigan University) during the summer of 1922.
Western’s first brass band was formed in 1915, just twelve years after the school was established, but that attempt was short-lived. Reorganized five years later with 20 members (but without uniforms), the Western marching band made its public debut in 1920 under the direction of Lloyd Manley.
By 1922, the band was still struggling with only five or six students in attendance at the first meetings. But with Bronson’s help and the promise of new music and new uniforms, Western’s band grew quickly. Under Bronson’s direction, the Western State Normal Band (handsomely outfitted with new caps, coats, and trousers) provided music with “pep and vim” for the students and spectators during school football, basketball, and baseball games. The band took part in the community-wide Armistice Day programs and other events, as well.
The Western State Normal Band, c.1923. (C.Z. Bronson seated front center.) The Brown and the Gold, Western Normal School, 1923. Local History Room
Western Normal School Orchestra
During the fall of 1918, an orchestra was organized at Western Normal School under the supervision of the school’s musical director, Professor Harper C. Maybee. The small nine piece orchestra provided music for the Practice Teachers’ Tea, various assemblies, and other school programs. During the years that followed, orchestra membership grew gradually, as did its repertoire. Instrumentation included first and second violins, viola, cello, clarinets, cornets, French horn, trombone, and piano.
During the fall term of 1922, the orchestra was reorganized by music teacher Edna Hilliard, who enlisted Bronson as director. New music was purchased, and great credit was given to Chester Bronson for his work and tireless dedication.
Western Normal School (WMU) Orchestra, c.1923. (C.Z. Bronson is standing in the rear center.) The Brown and the Gold, Western Normal School, 1923. Local History Room
“The orchestra has given many programs and has been an important factor in school activities. Credit for the unusual interest evidenced by the members of the orchestra is largely due to Mr. C.Z. Bronson, who has devoted much time and energy to the development of the organization.”
The Brown and the Gold, Western Normal School, 1923 Retirement Years
C.Z. Bronson, c.1923
Bronson continued to give private music lessons and lead band concerts in Bronson Park throughout 1921 and 1922. He also led the Western State Normal Band through its 1922-23 season, and conducted the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra through its first two seasons; 1921-22, and 1922-23. Following the second performance of the Kalamazoo Symphony’s third season on 13 January 1924, Bronson was taken ill and forced to retire.
Bronson was a charter member of the Elks, New York Lodge No.1, which he had joined with the famous performer and show promoter, Al Fields. He was also a member of the local chapter of the
American Federation of Musicians, and a charter member of its predecessor, the National League of Musicians, in New York City.
While suffering from the effects of Parkinson’s disease, Bronson was confined to his home in May 1926 with “an attack of stomach trouble” (
Gazette) as his health continued to decline. Chester Z. Bronson passed away on 27 September 1926, at the age of 69. He was survived by his wife and three brothers. After a lifetime of relentless work and tireless dedication to his craft, Chester Bronson was laid to rest in Kalamazoo’s Riverside Cemetery next to his wife, Anna Bronson, who died 13 December 1957 at the age of 91.
Bronson gravestone, Riverside Cemetery, Kalamazoo, MI. Photo by Keith Howard “Some Real Band Music”
Many current accounts tend to portray Chester Bronson as an itinerate circus musician; a wandering conductor “who lived in Kalamazoo during the winter and toured with the elephants and acrobats during the summer” (
Gazette). But Bronson’s resume reads like a Who’s Who of early entertainment professionals, and in all reality, it was through his efforts that some of the organizations we so greatly value today came to be. For many, it was about public recognition, fame and fortune—but for Chester Bronson, it seems it was always about the music.
“…for real music, the American band cannot be excelled.”
~ Chester Z. Bronson
Like many of our Local History essays, this article is by no means a definitive study; rather it is a continuing work-in-progress. If you have new information, corrections, or items to share, please contact the author or the Local History Room.
Written by Keith Howard, Kalamazoo Public Library Staff, 2010. Updated November 2023.
An early adaptation of this article appeared in the December 2011 issue of
Circus Fanfare, a publication of Windjammers Unlimited, Inc., a circus music historical society dedicated to the preservation of traditional circus music.