Chester Z. Bronson
Kalamazoo Bandleader and Director
From an early age, Chester Z. Bronson was at the forefront of American popular entertainment during its most formative years. Though 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—Patrick Gilmore, P.T. Barnum, B.E. Wallace, and John Philip Sousa—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.
Born in Trowbridge Township (Allegan County), Michigan, in 1857, Chester Z. Bronson spent his childhood years on the Bronson family farm on County Road 653 in Van Buren County’s Pine Grove Township. Chester was the second of six children born to Laura (Earl) and William Z. Bronson; William was born in Connecticut about 1820, Laura in New York about 1833. The oldest of the Bronson children, William S. Bronson, was born about 1854; Chester followed three years later. Other children included Sarah E. Bronson (born about 1859), Albert E. Bronson (born about 1861), Charles J. Bronson (born about 1863), and Stephen Henry Bronson (born about 1869).
Chester 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 largest and most prestigious theater in Boston in its day and 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, Chester Bronson studied music with Eustach Strasser, principal clarinetist for the Boston Symphony, and a clarinet teacher at the New England Conservatory.
New York and Baltimore
Chester Bronson’s first professional engagement came in 1874 when, at the age of 17, he took a position with George H. Primrose, a minstrel performer with Michigan roots who was then making the rounds in Brooklyn, New York. George Primrose, who later became one of the most famous performers of his day, was working at the time with William H. West as “Primrose & West,” and with Charles T. Ellis as “Primrose & Ellis,” on tour with P.T. Barnum’s World Fair Circus and Museum (a.k.a. John O’Brien’s Circus).
After touring with Primrose, Bronson went on to Baltimore to work at the acclaimed Monumental Theater and to study music under Charles Warner at the Peabody Institute.
By 1880, the elder W.Z. Bronson had retired from farming and moved the family to a small farm at 904 North Rose Street in Kalamazoo. Chester worked as a blacksmith, though music was clearly his primary interest, and he certainly was not the only family member to share that passion. While Chester’s father had been a great influence from early on, it was Chester’s older brother, William S. “Will” Bronson, who often worked side-by-side with young Chester as they both struggled to become professional musicians. Will Bronson would eventually become a well-known musical instrument maker.
The other Bronson children pursued a variety of interests; Albert became a well known Grand Rapids automobile dealer, and the youngest, Stephen H. “Henry” Bronson, became an accomplished woodworker, vocalist and local entertainer.
Patrick S. Gilmore’s Band
At some point after November 1881, Chester Bronson returned to New York for a run at Harry Miner’s Eighth Avenue Theatre. While there, Bronson 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. (Gilmore’s Band performed at the Opera House in Kalamazoo in January 1878.)
Stockigt & Damrosch
During his time with P.S. Gilmore, C.Z. Bronson studied music with Gilmore’s renowned solo clarinetist, L. Stockigt, who was a member of Gilmore’s band from 1883 to 1890. Bronson also studied during this time 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
William and Chester Bronson both spent a great deal of time on the road during the mid-1880s. The spring of 1883 saw Bronson and his good friend Frank Holton performing together with James S. Robinson’s Celebrated Band as part of P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth. The season opened on the 24th of March in New York City with a grand torchlight parade, which prompted the press to call it “the most brilliant scene ever witnessed in the city,” with one account proclaiming it to be “the crowning triumph of Barnum’s career.”
On a warm, sunny Saturday morning, June 23, 1883, P.T. Barnum’s enormous entourage rolled into Kalamazoo for the sixth Michigan stop on its massive seven month tour. All told, the season took 650 workers and 325 animals on a 10,000 mile journey in 59 railroad cars, and encompassed 180 performances.
The Famous Minstrel Shows
During their early years, both William and Chester Bronson spent a great deal of time traveling with the various minstrel shows. Regardless of their overtly racist nature, 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 left Kalamazoo to join Charles Heywood’s minstrel troupe in Louisville, Kentucky. Heywood was a singer with a “phenomenal voice” and famous for using pigeons—sometimes hundreds—as part of his act.
Thatcher, Primrose & West
The Bronson brothers worked tirelessly as traveling performers. From the fall of 1884 until May 1885, Will Bronson spent time on the road playing clarinet with the famous Thatcher, Primrose & West Minstrels, known as the “Millionaires of Minstrelsy.” But no sooner had that tour concluded when both Will and Chester found themselves on the overnight express from Kalamazoo to Utica, New York, where they both joined Milton G. Barlow & George Wilson’s minstrel show, a recent offshoot of Primrose & West.
Barlow & Wilson’s Greater New York Minstrels
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. W.S. Bronson signed on to play first violin, and C.Z. Bronson played first clarinet. The brothers toured with Barlow & Wilson for fifteen weeks over the summer before returning to Kalamazoo briefly in August.
Thatcher, Primrose & West Again
After a few days in Kalamazoo ‘Chet’ Bronson returned to the road with Thatcher, Primrose & West in August 1885 to begin a forty-four week season. Lauded as “the best on the road” by the Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph, the troupe performed a sixteen-week run “before crowded houses everywhere” (Telegraph) in New York City, then on to eight weeks in Boston, eight weeks in Philadelphia, and three weeks each in Baltimore and Washington D.C. After a few short weeks off during the summer of 1886, Bronson left for Detroit in July that year to begin rehearsals for yet another season with the Thatcher, Primrose & West troupe.
“Brass and string music furnished for private and public parties, excursions and picnics. Orchestra music a specialty. Address C.Z. Bronson, Kalamazoo”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, April 21, 1885
Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids
During the 1880s, orchestral music came into vogue among Kalamazoo’s music savvy elite, and the Bronson brothers were at the epicenter. After his time on the road, Chester Bronson returned to Kalamazoo and opened an office at 111 East Main Street in Kalamazoo where he began to manage his brother’s social orchestra, known as Bronson’s Orchestra Band. Chester also began performing with the newly formed orchestra at the Kalamazoo Opera House.
Bronson’s Band & Orchestra
Bronson’s Band was a nine-piece social orchestra directed by William S. Bronson, who was by then said to be “one of the best musicians in the state” (Gazette). In addition to Will Bronson, the group included earlier bandmates John Henson “Heinz” Everard and John Lounsbury, plus Lawrence Noe, M.B. Walt, J.D. Woodbeck, Charles A. Skinkle, Nicholas Hodgeboom, and Gus Ehlers (all well known regional musicians).
Bronson’s Full Orchestra, also directed by Will Bronson, was a larger fifteen-piece dance orchestra, which included Everard, Lounsbury, Skinkle, Hodgeboom, and Ehlers from Bronson’s Band, along with a superb violinist named Gustav Strehle, a noted cornetist named Walter Smith, trombonist Wesley Hodgeboom, and C.Z. Bronson on clarinet.
Wurzburg & Bronson’s Orchestra
William and Chester Bronson soon became associated with Grand Rapids bandleader Frank Wurzburg, named by the Grand Rapids Press as “one of the finest violinists in the country.” Together, they formed Wurzburg & Bronson’s Orchestra, with W.S. Bronson as leader. Both Chester and William would continue to work off-and-on with Wurzburg’s popular bands over the years.
Minstrelsy for Charity
In 1886, local organizers began an annual series of wintertime charity minstrel shows and more often than not, the Bronson brothers would return to Kalamazoo to help organize the events. Each year’s performances became more popular than before, and the elaborate shows sometimes featured as many as sixty or more talented entertainers from the local community. Orville H. Gibson was a frequent performer, as were the Mittenthal Brothers, attorney Dallas Boudeman, businessman Frank Henderson, and of course, William, Henry, and Chester Bronson.
Charles E. Rogers Cornet Band
Chester Bronson returned to West Michigan in April 1889 after several months in the South performing at the famous Piedmont Chautauqua near Atlanta with the Charles E. Rogers Cornet Band of Goshen, Indiana. A decade earlier, Rogers had led the Constantine (Michigan) Cornet Band, of which Will Bronson was a member. Later 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 spawned the famous traveling assemblies that attracted millions throughout the early years of the twentieth century. As usual, Bronson’s stay in Michigan would be a brief one. By late July, Will and Chester were both back on the road with Rogers’ band, performing open-air concerts and providing orchestral accompaniment for the variety entertainment during the famous programs at Chautauqua, New York.
Ellis Brooks’ New York Concert Band
Following his warm weather tours with Barnum and Rogers, Chester Bronson returned to New York where he joined Ellis Brooks’ celebrated New York Concert Band. Ellis L. Brooks (1848-1920) 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 among such contemporaries as Frederick Neil Innes, Patrick S. Gilmore and John Philip Sousa, both in terms of popularity and critical acclaim.
Brooks also gained great notoriety as leader of Chicago’s Second Regiment Band and later the Furniture City Band in Grand Rapids. During the summer months, Brooks’ band fulfilled extended engagements at lavish resorts along the East Coast; while the winter months saw the orchestra make its annual pilgrimage to play at the equally lavish resort hotels in St. Augustine, Florida. Ellis Brooks and Chester Bronson were to become good friends and would work together often over the years.
White’s Light Guard 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, C.Z. 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. In October Bronson was invited to begin training with White’s newly formed military band (often called the “Light Guard Band”) and by December he was the band director.
In addition to his work with White’s Band, Bronson performed instrumental music with Ed Desenberg during an Elks convention in December, and then continued to work with Wallace White throughout the winter months and into the spring of 1890, leading White’s Military Band of 15 pieces and performing social music for special occasions as Bronson & White’s Band.
Newell & Bronson Orchestra
Aside from his work with White’s Band, Chester Bronson worked steadily during the winter months with George B. Newell and formed the Newell & Bronson Orchestra, voted one of the most popular dance orchestras in Kalamazoo. Bronson and Newell then assumed management of Kalamazoo’s Academy of Music Orchestra, which was claimed by the Gazette to “stand on a par with any such organization in the state.” Newell and Bronson’s Academy of Music Orchestra received extensive promotion throughout the spring of 1890.
“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, February 19, 1890
Summer Resort Work
The following summer, C.Z. Bronson spent sixteen weeks with Wurzburg & Bronson’s Band at the summer resort on Reed’s Lake near Grand Rapids. The Kalamazoo Gazette speculated that Reed’s Lake would be “a lively place” during the 1890 summer season.
Ellis Brooks’ Wagner Band
In June 1891, C.Z. 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 Joseph Franz Wagner, the “Viennese March King,” was immensely popular among bandleaders in the United States at the time, including Brooks and Sousa.) On tour with Brooks in 1891 was Alice Raymond, advertised as the “World’s Greatest Lady Cornetist.” Bronson would return to Nantasket Beach with Brooks’ Band for a similar engagement the following summer.
Academy of Music Band & Orchestra
In December 1891, a group of local musicians formed an independent business organization and incorporated a new ten-piece band called the Academy of Music Band, commonly known as the Academy Band. Officers were elected at a meeting on 10 December 1891, and naturally it was B.A. Bush, proprietor of the Academy of Music, who suggested the name. Chester Bronson was the designated business manager; Eugene C. McElhany, the 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 Frank Newell were also involved. Bush, McElhany, Born, Pfeiffer, Newell and of course Bronson would all continue to be key figures of popular entertainment in Kalamazoo for years to come.
The Academy Band hosted a series of concerts and dancing parties throughout the winter at Turn Verien Hall, including several where the music was performed exclusively on wind instruments, a unique twist in a time when string orchestras dominated.
In March, Bronson made appearances in Kalamazoo with Getter’s Minstrels, where his clarinet solo, “Echoes from Ireland,” was a popular feature. In addition to Bronson, the same troupe featured the talents of other well-known local performers, including O.H. Stafford, Frank Ryan, and Frank Wilson.
B.E. Wallace Circus
During the summer of 1892, Bronson joined Prof. William Goetze’s 23-piece band and toured the Midwest with the B.E. Wallace Circus, otherwise known as “Cook and Whitby’s European Circus, Museum and Menagerie.” The season began in Peru, Indiana, on April 23rd, and concluded on October 8th in Noblesville, Indiana, after visiting more than 140 cities.
John Philip Sousa
After spending the summer of 1892 at Nantasket Beach, Ellis Brooks was preparing his famous New York Band for an engagement at the Pittsburgh Exposition in late October. Bronson, however, had accepted an offer to join many of his colleagues in John Philip Sousa’s New Marine Band. The new band was to feature the finest musicians Sousa could find, including several 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.
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.”
“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
Sousa’s New Marine Band
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.”
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 September 26, 1892 in Plainfield, New Jersey.
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, then on to Kalamazoo, 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 October 7, 1892, and gave a stunning performance before what the Gazette called “a large, enthusiastic and deeply appreciative audience.” Appearing with Sousa that evening were two highly respected Kalamazoo performers; Marcella Lindh and C.Z. Bronson. 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, of course, had joined Sousa’s “new” marine band just a month before. Both Bronson and Lindh toured with Sousa’s band throughout the 1892 and 1893 seasons. After 104 concerts in just 11 weeks, the tour came to a close in mid-December, and Bronson made his way back to West Michigan for the holidays.
“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, April 17, 1893
World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893
Come April, C.Z. Bronson returned to New York to begin rehearsals with Sousa’s band in preparation for the spring tour, 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, and 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. And thanks to daily performances by Sousa’s band, Charles K. Harris’ “After the Ball” became the hit of the summer and the first piece of sheet music to sell more than a million copies.
“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, July 26, 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 Patrick Gilmore’s Band (Gilmore had passed away the previous year). The 1893 fall tour saw Sousa’s band playing a six week run during September and October at the annual St. Louis Exposition, continuously 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 were responsible for their own meals and lodging, and they 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. Among those was the annual Elks charity benefit organized by C.Z. Bronson, which featured a “Refined Minstrel and Variety Performance” by no less than 60 local entertainers, including all three of the Bronson brothers.
Minstrelsy in America
However distasteful we find it today, 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.
“Gentlemen, be-e-e seated.”
With a unique blend of dance, comic wit, slapstick humor, clever choreography and musical virtuosity, the minstrel show—despite perpetrating a racist stereotype—became an integral part of early American theatre, and actually paved the way for many later forms of popular entertainment. The standard minstrel band, typically a four piece ensemble consisting of fiddle, banjo, tambourine (“tambos”), and castanet-like bone clackers (“bones”), can be seen as a forerunner of jazz and bluegrass combos. The comic sketch carried out during the middle—or “olio”—portion of the show evolved into the revue and later musical comedy, while the so-called “stump speech,” often given by the master of ceremonies (“interlocutor”) in pseudo-dialect, replete with malapropisms and puns, became a staple of vaudeville monologue for years to come.
Folz’ Excelsior Minstrels
During the break from touring with Sousa in early 1893, C.Z. Bronson became involved with Sam Folz’ Excelsior Minstrels, a group that included several familiar local musicians: Otto Schultz, director; Derance ‘Deal’ H. Richards, cornet; Fred W. Davis, French horn; Fred Miller, violin; C.Z. Bronson, clarinet; Frank A. Newell, bass; Hardy Hardella, trombone; Joe Wilbur, drum and tympani; Burton E. Fischer, piano; and W.S. Bronson, band and orchestral assistance.
“Sousa’s Sardine Band”
The organization traveled to surrounding communities in January and February, before appearing in Kalamazoo at the Academy of Music on February 16, 1893. The Kalamazoo show included “Sousa’s Sardine Band,” a light hearted spoof on the famous bandmaster, plus a C.Z. Bronson clarinet solo, performed “in a most skillful and artistic manner” (Gazette) with orchestral assistance led by W.S. Bronson. The members of this orchestra would soon become the core of Kalamazoo’s first symphony orchestra.
“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, March 12, 1894
Kalamazoo’s First ‘Symphony Orchestra’ (1894)
In the early spring of 1894, more than a dozen local musicians, including C.Z. Bronson and most of the Folz Minstrel Orchestra, worked actively to organize a new symphony orchestra in Kalamazoo. The “Kalamazoo Amateur Symphony Orchestra” (later simply “Symphony Orchestra”) was to be the local community’s first opportunity to host a professional organization of this size devoted solely to the production of classical and popular orchestral music.
Director & Business Manager
By May 1894, the Symphony Orchestra had grown to 22 members, and was under the direction of C.Z. Bronson. This orchestra, although active for only a few short seasons, was truly the first seed for the current Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. (After other attempts in 1911 and 1914 with again limited success, the Kalamazoo Symphony as it exists today was formed in 1921 with C.Z. Bronson directing. It’s also interesting to note that several members of this “original” 1894 Symphony Orchestra, including C.Z. 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, May 17, 1894
First Public Performances
The newly formed 22 piece Symphony Orchestra made its official public debut on Wednesday, May 16, 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 Sousa’s newly penned “Liberty Bell March.”
With a full 25 pieces or more, the Symphony Orchestra appeared many times throughout the remainder of 1894, including dance parties at the Armory and Lake View Park, plus select performances with Bronson’s Minstrels. Though the orchestra continued to improve, maintaining adequate employment proved an insurmountable challenge. Faced with continuous financial struggle, the orchestra disbanded by year’s end.
“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, June 20, 1894
“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.”
Bronson’s Operatic Minstrels
With classical music still struggling to find an audience, Chester Bronson hoped to broaden its appeal by packaging the Symphony Orchestra with a road-worthy minstrel troupe of his own. This was to feature a cadre of local actors and musicians, many of whom had already been involved with the likes of Folz’ Minstrels and O.H. Gibson’s Young Man’s Musical Minstrels.
Dubbed Bronson’s Operatic Minstrels to emphasize its chorus of singers, the group of more than sixty local performers, including the recently formed Symphony Orchestra, made its first public appearance as a whole on Thursday, May 31, 1894 in Allegan. After subsequent performances in Paw Paw and Hastings, Bronson’s Operatic Minstrels made its first Kalamazoo appearance on June 19, 1894, at the Academy of Music, and were “uproariously applauded [by] a fair sized audience” (Gazette). 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 an unfortunate series of delays kept the show off the stage until February.
“Look Out for the Grand Parade”
Following weeks of arduous rehearsals, Bronson’s Operatic Minstrels appeared for one final program at the Academy of Music on February 5, 1895, albeit without the Symphony Orchestra. The all star cast did, however, include four local comedians, twelve solo vocalists, a vocal quartet, numerous variety entertainers, and the immensely popular Second Regiment Band. Festivities got underway at noon in typical minstrel fashion with a grand parade down Main Street, featuring C.Z. Bronson leading the Second Regiment Band in full military uniform.
Second Regiment Band
In 1894, C.Z. Bronson became deeply involved with yet another prominent local musical institution, Kalamazoo’s Second Regiment Band of the Michigan National Guard, also called the Second Infantry Band.
Formed during the late 1880s, Wallace S. White’s Military Band had long been the prominent Kalamazoo parade and concert band. When the band was christened “Second Regiment Band” during a summer encampment in 1893 and assigned to active duty, Wallace White stepped aside and the organization was placed under the direction of Derance ‘Deal’ Richards, a member of the band since 1890. Upon Richards’ departure from Kalamazoo in mid 1894, Chester Bronson stepped in and assumed management of the band. With Otto Schultz directing, Bronson promoted the Second Regiment Band extensively throughout Michigan.
Second Regiment Band members (August 1895)
|George Lauraine, drum major
||C.G. Bodley, cornet (Three Rivers)
|C.Z. Bronson, clarinet
||C.J. Chall, cornet (Three Rivers)
|Otto Schultz, piccolo
||Sol W. Kline, bass (Constantine)
|Fred Redmond, alto
||Julius Martin, clarinet (Battle Creek)
|Will F. Shonk, alto
||Gus Bucher, cornets (Battle Creek)
|Carl Catherman, snare drum
||Will Peters, clarinet (Battle Creek)
|John Leak, alto
||Fred C. Day, clarinet (Detroit)
|Hardy Hardella, trombone
||Carl Jones, trombone (Michigan City, IN)
|Hiram W. “Hi” Ballou, tenor
||Fred Curtis, clarinet (Michigan City, IN)
|Fred W. Davis, cornet
||Neal Jersey, baritone (Saginaw)
|John Vleiken, bass drum
|Charles M. Cook, clarinet
||Second Regiment Band officers (May 1896)
|Albert L. Waldo, Clarinet
||C.Z. Bronson, manager, musical director
|Samuel Born, cornet
||Albert L. Waldo, assistant manager
|Charles Pool, tenor
||Otto Schultz, assistant director
|Fred C. Hayes, bass (from Coldwater)
||Samuel Born, secretary, treasurer
During the summer of 1895, Bronson and the Second Regiment Band maintained an intensive touring schedule. The band performed for the annual Pioneer Picnic and Labor Day celebrations at Long Lake, frequent concerts at Lake View Park, county fairs in Marshall, Dowagiac, and Hastings, plus an extended engagement with other area band members at Reeds Lake near Grand Rapids.
Knights Templar Parade in Boston
In August 1895, C.Z. Bronson received a “liberal offer” (Gazette) to perform with the Metropolitan Band of Detroit in a massive Knights Templar parade in Boston. Accompanying Bronson on the trip would be Mr. S.W. Kline, celebrated bass player from Ellis Brooks’ Second Regiment Band of Chicago (not to be confused with Kalamazoo’s own Second Regiment Band). Both left Kalamazoo for Boston on the morning of 21st of August.
It was a warm and hazy Tuesday morning in Boston, August 27, 1895; a perfect day for a 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 C.Z. Bronson, led the ninth division, marching through the streets of Boston in cross formation. By Sunday, Bronson and Kline were back in Kalamazoo in time to perform with the local Second Regiment Band, as part of Pains’ Grand Summer Nights Carnival at Lake View Park.
1896 Summer Concerts
By the spring of 1896, the popularity of Kalamazoo’s Second Regiment Band had skyrocketed. Bronson secured a contract for a series of more than 50 concerts during the upcoming summer season at Recreation Park, a newly renovated facility on North Street.
Bronson continued to manage the Second Regiment Band until August 1896, when he returned to work in Chicago with Ellis Brooks. C.Z. Bronson performed with Brooks during the wintertime concert seasons for ten years, and his notorious “E flat clarinet solos” were often featured during Brooks’ concerts.
“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, September 27, 1895
Kalamazoo Federation of Musicians
During the fall of 1895, C.Z. Bronson began organizing a 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.
T.P. Brooke’s Chicago Marine Band
In mid-June 1896, C.Z. Bronson and assistant director of the Second Regiment Band, Otto Schultz, traveled to Chicago to take part in a massive 300-member band performance to be held in conjunction with the field day sports.
The performance was organized by Thomas Preston Brooke, one of the most famous band conductors of his time and director of the legendary Chicago Marine Band (not to be confused with Ellis Brooks and his equally famous Chicago Band).
T.P. Brooke, once a conductor for Gilmore’s band, was well known for drawing enormous audiences—which often numbered in the tens of thousands—and assembling extremely large bands (something he undoubtedly learned from Gilmore). In October 1896, Brooke’s Chicago Marine Band led the famous “Chicago Day” parade that included 110,000 participants!
The Great Wallace Shows (1897-1905)
In 1897, Chester Bronson again joined Professor William Goetze’s band and returned to the road with the B.E. Wallace Circus. In a odd twist of fate, Goetze passed away later that year, but not before making C.Z. Bronson the leader of the Wallace Circus Band and awarding Bronson custody of his extensive collection of music. The 1897 tour lasted for nine months and covered more than 14,100 miles.
“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, April 22, 1898
The following spring, Chester and Anna Bronson packed their belongings and moved from Kalamazoo to Peru, Indiana to join the Wallace company. For ten consecutive summers thereafter (1897-1906), C.Z. Bronson led first-rate musicians in circus bands and sideshows for the Great Wallace Shows and others throughout the United States.
A typical season for the Wallace show during this time might see a train of twenty to thirty railroad cars make a thirty-plus week, twenty-thousand mile trek through twenty or more states, before returning to its winter quarters in Peru, Indiana. The former Wallace quarters in Peru now houses the International Circus Hall of Fame.
“Prof. C.Z. Bronson’s Excellent Concert Band”
Bronson was given a taste of the circus life with P.T. Barnum’s Great Show during his younger years, and ‘Chet’ apparently took the “Big Show” quite seriously. While many of the circus bands of the day must have been somewhat less than extremely impressive, Chester Bronson’s bands seemed to bring a new level of professionalism and musicianship to the shows. C.Z. Bronson and his bands were highly praised for their work and held in high esteem among their peers.
Prof. Bronson’s Concert Band (1904 Season)
|C.Z. Bronson, Director
||Oscar Murphy, French Horn
|Ross Luther, First Flute
||Nate Bolton, French Horn
|E. Jacobs, Second Flute
||Fay Lemon, French Horn
|Herman Schmitt, E Flat Clarinet
||James P. McGrath, First Trombone
|Wm. Ulrich, Solo B Flat Clarinet
||Arthur Cuilen, Second Trombone
|Frank Campbell, Asst. Solo B Flat Clarinet
||W. E. Harris, Third Trombone
|J.R. Ruff, First B Flat Clarinet
||Bert Moore, Baritone
|J.W. Jarvis, First B Flat Clarinet
||Charles Elwyn, Second Baritone
|J.A. LaVelle, Second B Flat Clarinet
||Zeph Herb, First Bass
|V.E. Connor, Second B Flat Clarinet
||S.E. Kelso, Second Bass
|Frank Pierce, Solo Cornet
||George Cardill, Third Bass
|Roy Smith, Asst. Solo Cornet
||Charles Worstell, Drums
|P.J. Jenkins, First Cornet
||J.M. Newcomb, Drums
|E.A. Ferguson, First Cornet
||Don E. Wilson, Band Sergeant
|Charles Cunningham, Trumpeter
“Not like the ordinary circus band…”
Contemporary press accounts and trade publications best describe Bronson’s circus bands and their performances…
“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), June 10, 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, June 16, 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) September 29, 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), May 9, 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), May 28, 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), August 25, 1903
The Great Wallace Circus Comes to Kalamazoo
When the Great Wallace Show made its annual visit to Kalamazoo during the early years of the twentieth century, ‘Chet’ Bronson was at the helm and would lead 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, June 6, 1901
Following the parade, Bronson’s band would typically give a 45 minute concert before each circus performance, 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 Elks Lodge.
So where was Mrs. Bronson during all of Chester Bronson’s incessant touring? For several seasons, Anna M. Bronson, a Kalamazoo dressmaker by trade and Chester’s beloved wife since 1890, traveled the Wallace and Hagenbeck circuits with her husband as the “wardrobe mistress,” in charge of costuming for the massive productions; no minor task, indeed.
In 1902, the Kalamazoo Gazette complimented Mrs. Bronson highly by 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.
C.Z. Bronson’s Black Hussar Band and Orchestra
Chester Bronson had an almost insatiable appetite for touring, and seemed to welcome a variety of different and perhaps challenging work. 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 Black Hussar Band and Orchestra.
“Ten Nights in a Bar Room”
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 two of the most highly respected people in the entertainment industry; Charles A. White, an associate of the Ringling Bros. Circus, as a traveling manager, and Chester Bronson as band director.
The “Ten Nights in a Bar Room” tour opened in Marion, Indiana, on August 20, 1902, and traveled through Michigan, Ohio and other eastern states until April. Later in the spring, Bronson was once again back on the road, leading his band with the Wallace circus.
1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition
At some point during 1904, Bronson is said to have directed one of the bands at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the Saint 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—indeed Bronson’s former colleague, John Philip Sousa, led one of the most popular ones there.
Savage Opera Company
After 1900, Ellis Brooks was in Grand Rapids directing the Furniture City Band, with which C.Z. Bronson often performed during the circus off-season. In 1905, Brooks left Grand Rapids and returned to Chicago.
Following Brooks’ move, Bronson then took to the road for several seasons directing the orchestra with one of the 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.
“High-Class Musical Entertainment”
“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) May 27, 1904
“C.Z. Bronson’s Concert Band is a splendidly trained musical organization…”
— New York Clipper, April 14, 1906
Carl Hagenbeck Greater Shows
C.Z. Bronson directed the band for the Wallace Circus through the end of the 1905 season. In 1906, Bronson accepted a position as bandmaster with the Carl Hagenbeck Greater Shows and by May, the Bronsons were back in Chicago preparing for the next tour. (Hagenbeck and Wallace would later merge to become the famous Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, second only to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.) In trade publications, Bronson urged all qualified musicians to join what he termed “the Largest Real Music Band in the Show Business.” By the time the Hagenbeck Greater Shows reached Kalamazoo in June, Bronson had composed a new march to commemorate the occasion.
“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, March 25, 1906
A Return to Kalamazoo
After a difficult tour ending with an unprofitable excursion to Mexico, Hagenbeck closed early for the season in January 1907 and sold his operation to Benjamin Wallace. The Bronsons returned to their old family home on North Rose Street in Kalamazoo after a decade on the road and began to make their own plans for the future.
Kalamazoo Elks Band
C.Z. Bronson had been an active member and avid supporter of the Elks (B.P.O.E.) fraternal organization since his early days with Al Fields Minstrels. Nearly every season since, Bronson had organized and led specially selected bands and orchestras for yearly Elks benefit events. 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 the following June. The band was to be a brand new 32 piece outfit, billed as “the largest Elks band ever organized in Southern Michigan.”
The 1908 Elks State Convention was to be the largest state convention ever held; some 10,000 visitors were expected to descend on Kalamazoo for the two day event. C.Z. Bronson and Edward Desenberg were in charge of the entertainment committee, and Bronson’s band would lead a grand parade of more than 5,000 through the city streets. The Elks Band was scheduled to give an evening concert in Bronson Park, or at least that was the plan. 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, June 4, 1908
“Entertainment Excells Anything Ever Attempted”
Thankfully, the parade the next day 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 Chester Bronson returned to his other professional activities, which included leading the Gobleville (Gobles, MI) Band.
During those rare times when C.Z. Bronson was not on the road or organizing local performances, he provided music instruction for local residents. From as early as 1892, he had offered clarinet lessons through his affiliation with Phillips’ Music Store on Main Street.
Now back in Kalamazoo, Bronson was giving instruction during October 1908 on “all kinds of musical instruments” through the Barnard Music Company, 211 North Burdick St. After about 1910, Bronson would offer “clarinet, oboe and saxaphone[sic]” instruction from his home at 904 North Rose Street. By 1911, Bronson had joined the Academy of Musical Art in Kalamazoo, and was giving clarinet lessons in the Boudeman Building, 110-112 W. South Street.
Norris & Rowe Circus
In late 1908, C.Z. Bronson received a “flattering offer” to lead the band for a new million-dollar, fifty-railroad-car branch of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, one of the largest shows in the country. The Barnum & Bailey contract failed to pan out, however, and “Professor Bronson’s band of 20 pieces” would instead be a feature of H.S. Rowe’s Norris & Rowe Circus for the summer
The 1909 season with Norris & Rowe would prove to be a long and difficult one. Between May and November the entourage visited more than 120 cities across the United States and Canada. During a performance in Indiana on October 28, the big top was blown down during a storm, leaving more than one thousand people injured. After the tour, the circus returned to its winter quarters in Evansville, Indiana, while Bronson returned to his home in Kalamazoo for the winter. Thanks to bad weather, poor business, and unpaid debts, the Norris and Rowe Circus went bankrupt the following year.
“C.Z. Bronson’s Great Kalamazoo Band”
In 1910, Chester Bronson received a personal invitation from John Philip Sousa to join him and his band on the Australian leg of their massive thirteen-month world excursion the following year. 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).
Bronson declined both and instead decided to form his own 50 member concert band with “leading players from all over the country” (Gazette) for a tour of summer amusement parks. “C.Z. Bronson’s Great Kalamazoo Band” was intended to rival that of Sousa’s (who was by then out of the country on his famous world tour). Bronson hoped to fill a void left in the summer park circuit in the wake of Sousa’s absence.
Kalamazoo A.U.V. Band
Unfortunately, it appears that Bronson was not able to gather the necessary financial support to make his large touring band a reality. Still, for the past year, he had been working with a newly formed thirty-member group of young Kalamazoo musicians known as the A.U.V. (“Arbeiter Unterstutzungs Verein” or German Workingmen’s Benevolent Association) Band. The new band it seems needed a place to practice, so an agreement was made with Benjamin Schwartz of Kalamazoo’s A.U.V. to use its hall as a practice space. In exchange, the band agreed to take on the name of the hosting organization.
“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, February 8, 1910
A.U.V. Band Members (February 1909)
|C.Z. Bronson, conductor
||Beryl Saunders, trombone
|Louis Raseman, business manager
||Dingman DeSmit, trombone
|Geary Van Eyck, clarinet
||Clarence Visher, trombone
|Earl Thomas, clarinet
||Ben Swartz, bass
|Joseph Peters, clarinet
||Charles Clinger, baritone
|C Lewis, clarinet
||H. Tyson, baritone
|Joseph Rosette, clarinet
||W. Thompson, piccolo
|Clarence Dutton, clarinet
||Clarence Skinner, alto
|Frank Green, clarinet
||Roger Williams, alto
|Louis Raseman, cornet
||Harry Morris, tenor
|Leo Lounsbury, cornet
||Calvin Clinger, drum
|Harry Pfeiffer, cornet
||Ralph Whitehead, drum
|Cody Caloway, cornet
Through the efforts of band manager and secretary Charles Klinger, the band grew rapidly and by spring of 1910 had already performed in public more than twenty five times. With thirty members under Bronson’s direction, the A.U.V. Band kept a steady work schedule throughout the year, including appearances at Oakwood Park, various local benefit performances and public celebrations. The band remained active under the A.U.V. name until 1914, although Bronson resigned his leadership in the spring of 1911.
Kalamazoo Concert Band
In January 1911, C.Z. Bronson joined forces with his old orchestra mate Charles L. Fischer and formed the Kalamazoo Concert Band, a later 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” for a month-long engagement at a summer park in Louisville, Kentucky.
Milham Park Grand Opening
Trimmed to a tight 20-piece band under Charlie Fischer’s management, the Kalamazoo Concert Band (often referred to as “Fischer’s Concert Band”) made its first public appearance at the grand opening ceremonies of Milham Park on Memorial Day, Tuesday, May 30, 1911, with C.Z. Bronson directing. A crowd of more than 5,000 enjoyed the day in the new park, which included speeches by Kalamazoo mayor Charles H. Farrell and Western Normal School (WMU) president Dwight B. Waldo, plus plenty of music from the Kalamazoo Concert Band.
The Kalamazoo Concert Band gave a performance for more than 2,000 students and teachers at Riverview Park in June, then headed northward for a week-long and highly successful engagement at the Chautauqua assembly in Ionia. Over the course of seven days during the summer of 1911—June 28 through July 4th—the Kalamazoo Concert Band, “One of the Best Bands in the State” (Gazette), performed fourteen concerts in front of several thousand enthusiastic spectators, indeed the largest audiences the city of Ionia had ever seen.
Back in Kalamazoo
With the success of the concerts in Ionia, Bronson soon received offers to have the Kalamazoo Concert Band perform elsewhere across the state, including the Saginaw County Fair, the Ionia County Fair, and the Clinton County Fair. In between performances, Bronson was back in Kalamazoo, offering clarinet instruction from his studio at the Academy of Musical Art on South Street, and leading an orchestra composed of fellow Academy of Musical Art faculty members.
Bronson Park Concert Series
In August, the Kalamazoo Concert Band made a triumphant return home for a highly anticipated series of three weekly concerts in Bronson Park. Directed by C.Z. Bronson and assisted by local pianist, composer, and local Choral Union president Edward B. Desenberg, the performances featured representative selections of waltzes, marches, semi-classical and popular pieces, including a much heralded trombone solo by Frank Newell and a “Novelette” for clarinet by C.Z. Bronson. Rousing versions of “Star Spangled Banner” concluded each performance, while more than 5,000 crowded Bronson Park for each of the three events.
C.Z. Bronson continued to direct the Kalamazoo Concert Band through the spring of 1914, including an annual series of highly successful summer evening concerts on a specially lighted stage in South West Street Park.
A New Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra
In early 1914, the musicians union scheduled a concert at the new Armory to benefit its members’ death and disability fund. As part of the program, more than 70 union members and local musicians formed a new fifty-piece orchestra and a new fifty-piece band specifically for the event.
“The Big Concert”
Chester Bronson directed both the band and the orchestra while Charles L. Fischer served as the orchestra concertmaster. Some 3,000 people filled the Armory on Sunday afternoon, February 22, 1914, to support the musicians’ union and enjoy the one-of-a-kind performance.
Organizers of the February concert were pleased with the turnout and were encouraged to make the orchestra into a professional organization. With support from the union, the Symphony Orchestra Society was established in March 1914, and a new incarnation of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra came into being, once again, with C.Z. Bronson directing.
1914 Summer Performances
The thirty-five member orchestra made its official public debut on Sunday, March 29, 1914, at the Kalamazoo Armory. C.Z. Bronson was in 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 36 piece orchestra perform a variety of semi-classical and popular numbers.
Oakwood Park and Chautauqua Tours
Hoping to make the newly formed orchestra a profitable organization, Chester Bronson was eager to contract with outside groups for orchestra appearances. In May 1914, Bronson signed a contract with park manager Ed Esterman to make the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra the featured opening day attraction at Kalamazoo’s Oakwood Park on Sunday, May 24, and again over the following Memorial Day weekend. Thousands were drawn to each performance, which launched one of the most successful seasons in the park’s history.
Following their considerable local success, Bronson took the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra on the road for a twelve week tour through Illinois and Wisconsin with the Lincoln Chautauqua, later reporting that “the season was a delightful one throughout and very successful in every way.” Based on their continued success, Bronson and the Kalamazoo Symphony were awarded contracts for similar tours in 1915 and 1916, though it’s doubtful that the 1916 tour took place.
“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
Renewing Old Acquaintances
On Sunday, April 25, 1915, C.Z. Bronson was a guest backstage at the Fuller Theater renewing old acquaintances with his former bandmaster, John Philip Sousa, before Sousa’s evening concert. The two were discussing 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 over the central circuit of 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 earlier that afternoon.
1915 Chautauqua Tour
Chester Bronson and Frank Newell had both worked diligently to keep the fledgling 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. Without adequate financial support, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra disbanded soon after the 1915 Chautauqua tour.
During 1916, Bronson was on the road for four months with the Sells-Floto circus. Bronson joined the show in Denver and directed the band as the entourage made its way through Texas and California, ending in December in Riverside. “(F)rom every standpoint, the engagement was one of the most agreeable in the musician’s career” (Gazette).
“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 Brothers Circus
In 1917, Bronson was back on the road as musical director with the Cole Brothers Circus, named for W.W. “Chilly Billy” Cole, the first man to make $1 million in the circus business. The 1917 Cole Brothers Show was described as “a ‘nice’ show—just right for medium sized towns. The performances were not as pretentious as Hagenbeck-Wallace or Ringling, but interesting.
Coop & Lent’s 3 Ring Circus
In 1918, Bronson was directing the band for Coop & Lent’s 3 Ring Circus. This would prove to be another unique though frustrating season, 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, IL, on May 25, 1918, but soon ran into serious transportation problems. Rain and bad roads hampered the process until finally in August the show was halted. Show promoters admitted that the four wheel trailers were just too heavy for the trucks to pull.
“America’s One and Only Motorized Circus”
1919 brought about yet another circus tour for C.Z. Bronson, and of course some new challenges. 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 Bronson 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.
“All men must be sober, capable players.”
After a long series of delays, America’s Combined Motorized Circus finally opened in Columbus, Ohio, on August 16, 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.
“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, October 17, 1920
Fuller Symphony Orchestra
Chester Bronson remained in Kalamazoo for the summer of 1920, playing music around the area and giving music lessons from his home, but never once had he given up on the idea of establishing a local professional symphony orchestra. By October, Bronson had assembled a new 20-piece orchestra with “the ultimate aim being a symphony orchestra with a concert repertoire” (Gazette).
Beginning October 17, 1920, the newly formed Fuller Symphonic Orchestra would provide half-hour musical programs on Monday evenings before and after the each 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 (regular) Charles Wolff directed Fuller Theater Orchestra.
As always, 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.”
— C.Z. Bronson, Kalamazoo Gazette, April 18, 1921
Joseph Westnedge Post American Legion Band
On March 19, 1921, The Billboard reported that “The B.L. Wallace Show is taking definite shape… Prof. Bronson will have an 18-piece big show band.” In April, however, the Gazette reported that Bronson had canceled his contract with the circus and opted instead to remain in Kalamazoo for the summer.
Following his announcement, Bronson began directing the newly formed 25-piece Joseph Westnedge Post American Legion Band. The band’s April 10 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.
American Legion Band Members (April 1921)
|C.Z. Bronson, director
|C. Rhuel Myers, business manager
||Sam R. Born
|George P. Brown
|Dingman De Smit
||Charles (Joe) Wilbur
||Flutell G. Bowman
||George L. Trombley
|Frank A. Newell
First Outdoor Concert
On Sunday afternoon, May 1, 1921, streets were closed to automobile traffic around Bronson Park while more than 3,000 spectators enjoyed the American Legion Band’s first outdoor concert. The performance began in true-to-form Chester Bronson fashion 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 series of free Friday evening performances in Bronson Park and elsewhere throughout the summer. Each of the Friday evening concerts saw as many as 5,000 or more attend.
Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra (1921)
During the summer of 1921, the Kalamazoo Musical Society, led by Mrs. Leta G. Snow, sponsored a new community symphony orchestra, with C.Z. Bronson directing, that included many of the members from Bronson’s recent orchestra. Leta Snow was highly praised for her “leadership, vision, tenacity, ability, and courage” (Tiefenthal), while Chester Bronson, remembered as the one who “recently organized and directed the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra” (Gazette) of 1914, was well respected among community members and the musicians 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, November 21, 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, plus the donation of Chester Bronson’s time and extensive collection of orchestral and band music, the community it seems would at long last have a sustainable symphony orchestra, which thrives to this day.
Western Normal School Band and Orchestra
Not one to remain idle for very long, C.Z. Bronson became involved with both the orchestra and the band at Western Normal School (Western Michigan University) during the summer of 1922.
Western’s first 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 no uniforms), the Western marching band made its public debut in 1920 under the direction of Lloyd Manley.
By 1922, however, the band was still struggling; only five or six students attended the first meetings that year. With Mr. Bronson’s help, however, and the promise of new music and new uniforms, Western’s band grew quickly thereafter. Under Bronson’s direction, the band (handsomely outfitted with new caps, coats, and trousers) provided “pep and vim” for the students and spectators during school football, basketball and baseball games, and took part in the community-wide Armistice Day programs and other events.
After the First World War, an orchestra was organized at Western Normal School during the fall of 1918 under the direct 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 23 piece orchestra was reorganized by Mrs. Hilliard, who enlisted C.Z. Bronson as director. New music was purchased, and great credit was given to Mr. Bronson for his work and tireless dedication.
“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
Chester Z. Bronson led the summer band concerts in Bronson Park during 1921 and 1922. He also led the Western Normal band through the 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.
Chester Bronson was a charter member of the Elks, New York Lodge No.1, which he joined with noted minstrel 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.
C.Z. Bronson passed away on September 27, 1926, at the age of 69. He was survived by his wife, Anna, and three brothers. After a lifetime of relentless work and tireless dedication to his craft, Chester Bronson rests in Kalamazoo’s Riverside Cemetery next to his wife, Anna, who died December 13, 1957, at the age of 91.
“…for real music, the American band cannot be excelled.”
~ Chester Z. Bronson
“Some Real Band Music”
Many current accounts tend to portray C.Z. 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.
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.
An 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.