In the 1920s, pioneer of silent films and legendary trumpeter Benny Rolfe was in great demand. The Amalgamated Vaudeville Exchange gave him office space to organize and produce band acts. The Edison Company signed him as their “ace band attraction” and sought a recording deal.
Benny also scored big at the Palais d’Or, signing a four-week contract to play for the patrons of New York’s most successful restaurant. The Palais announced the new venture with a splash of advertising for “Twelve men, led by the greatest trumpet virtuoso of all time, who has organized more successful dance orchestras than any other man in the music world.”
Performing for the lunch-hour crowd, Benny was an immediate sensation. Edison moved quickly with plans to broadcast the show live on five radio stations. A week later, the Rolfe orchestra was being heard far and wide during three lunch sessions and two evenings.
The Palais d’Or, a Chinese–American restaurant and one of the hottest tickets in town, had a capacity of about 900. It was a big house to fill, but Rolfe more than proved his worth. After barely a week’s work, he was signed to a long-term contract before someone else could scoop him up.
And just like that, Benny was at the top again. He loved nothing more than playing dance music and seeing people enjoy themselves. His favored technique of guiding the orchestra with hand and finger motions rather than a baton became a crowd pleaser. When leading a band instead of a symphony orchestra, he also liked to face the audience, explaining that, “It’s a theory of mine, almost a conviction. I never went to a play in which the actors turned their backs on the audience.… Personality emanates from the face, not the back. I like to watch the audience, see their reactions.”
Besides the live crowd, he now began reaching millions via radio. Housewives listened at home, workers on dinner breaks enjoyed company-provided broadcasts, and dance groups met in the evening, strutting their stuff to Benny’s evening shows. Rolfe’s music was stamped with his own style, and the public loved dancing to it.
Better yet for the bandleader, the orchestra included his own invention, the eponymous Rolfaphone, a sort of large bass xylophone that was used during restaurant performances. The Palais was packed on a daily basis, and Benny became a rising star on national radio.
He also signed an exclusive recording contract with Edison, boosting their sales of phonographs and records. For their part, the company praised him effusively: “…the lilting jazz of this Broadway music wizard.… No one has ever played the trumpet as Rolfe plays it—complete selections in a register an entire octave above high C, with impeccable technique. These super-upper-register solos by Rolfe make his arrangements distinctive and superbly beautiful.”
His ability to write music and arrange works in unique ways kept the material fresh week after week, making Rolfe one of the biggest names in music. In November 1926, 22 stations joined in a simulcast touted as “one of the most pretentious radio programs ever assembled.” The biggest opera stars in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles were heard by millions. The program also included Will Rogers and four major bands. Rolfe’s orchestra was featured directly from the Palais d’Or.
During the next couple of years, he played several major events and created a successful vaudeville tour, but for the most part his time was spent on Broadway. Two years into Benny’s run at the Palais, the following assessment of radio appeared in the New York Telegram. “We cannot recommend the daylight programs as a whole.… And yet we encountered one period that proved refreshing—that hour featuring B. A. Rolfe and his Palais d’Or Orchestra. We give the Palais d’Or publicity because its music is worth it. Yesterday we listened to Rolfe a solid hour. It was the first time any popular orchestra has held us more than three numbers.
“The writer doubts very much if there is an orchestra on the air ranking that of Rolfe. Only a few begin to approach it. We’ve heard $5000 so-called stars who fell flat, and others do not come on the air often enough to afford comparison with the regulars. Cortlandt Street [known as Radio Row because radios were built and sold there] ought to bestow a medal on this orchestra because it has sold more radio receivers than any other feature on the air.”
His orchestra appeared regularly on more than 20 stations at a time, and sometimes upwards of 40. Several critics called Rolfe’s the leading band on radio.
Benny still made his annual trips home, where his many friends and fans now followed him on daily radio broadcasts. As always, there were local performances upon request. Despite the stardom, he remained good ol’ Benny from Brasher Falls.
In 1928, the Lucky Strike Tobacco Company signed Rolfe to an unusual three-year radio contract for shows to be broadcast by NBC stations. Each hour-long show featured his 55-piece band as the only act, appearing nationwide as the Lucky Strike Orchestra. New band members were selected by Rolfe from top groups in the business, courtesy of the tobacco company’s deep pockets. The show, launched in mid-September, proved well worth the expense.
Benny was always driven by the belief that music should be happy. After a careful search, he chose Theodore Alban to record the radio show’s nightly opening and closing song, but had no trouble selecting the song itself, which became closely associated with his name and the show: “Happy Days Are Here Again.” The jaunty tune set the mood perfectly for what was to follow—fun, dancing, and happy times. In deference to the sponsor, Lucky Strike, the word “lucky” was substituted for happy.
At that time, a wonderful story circulated the media regarding Rolfe’s remarkable comeback that had been solidified at the Palais d’Or. The restaurant was located across the street from the Strand Theater, which he once managed. Years earlier, when moviemaker Benny needed to shoot a particular scene, the restaurant was known as the Palais Royal. It perfectly suited his needs for filming, but the negotiated cost was steep: $3500 for an afternoon. Fast-forward through bankruptcy and then to the present, where bandleader Benny Rolfe, after raising the Palais d’Or to new heights, signed with Lucky Strike for a remarkable sum: $3500 for each one-hour broadcast. Comeback, indeed.
Besides the radio work, he had also made more than a hundred recordings for Edison, earning for him the highest salary ever paid by the company to any recording artist. Although the money was great, Benny was all about reaching people with his music. Record sales and broadcasts allowed him to do that.
Next week, the conclusion: Satchmo’s Inspiration.
Photos: Ad, Rolfe opens at Palais d’Or (1923); Palais d’Or interior (circa 1923); Edison ad for Rolfe recordings (circa 1928)