The community of Brasher Falls, located on the St. Regis River in northern St. Lawrence County, can be described as “in the middle of nowhere,” defined here as about halfway between Potsdam and Hogansburg. No insult intended. Remoteness, after all, is a desirable attribute for many North Country folks, and at just a couple miles north of Route 11, it’s not really the boondocks. It’s a small community, and in 1880 had a population of about 240, making it all the more remarkable that a nationally famous musician and a true pioneer of vaudeville, movies, and radio is a Brasher Falls native.
Benjamin Albert Rolfe was born on October 24, 1879, to Albert Benjamin and Emma (Ballard) Rolfe. Both of his parents were interested in the performing arts, taking part in local theater productions. Both were also musically inclined, providing entertainment regionally as Rolfe’s Full Orchestra, and introducing their young son to the joys of playing musical instruments.
But it was their grocery store that paid the bills, and when the store failed in late 1884, just after young Benny’s fourth birthday, the family pulled up stakes and headed west. While they struggled to survive, Benny had already begun exhibiting the value of being raised in a show-biz atmosphere, and soon came to define musical precocity. His father had formed Rolfe’s Independent Band and secured a gig at a skating rink in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. At the tender age of six and already a member of the band, Benny played his first solo on the alto horn (smaller than a cornet or trumpet, neither of which he was yet able to hold upright while playing). Over the next couple of years he became a rising star of the family band.
As time went on, Albert realized the depth of Benny’s talent, which was a strong selling point in seeking other work. Albert took a gig as bandleader with the John Sparks Circus, a traveling troupe that toured the rough coal-mining towns of Pennsylvania. As Benny described it much later in life, “Ah, those were the days! Imagine how that would delight the heart of a small boy. … Such adventure. Life! Sometimes even yet I get homesick for the smells of the circus and life in the tents and big, rickety wagons.”
In June 1886, the family returned to their roots, once again settling in Brasher Falls. Their talents were in constant demand by local churches and at weekly social events. Benny could now play the piccolo, trombone, and cornet (a smaller, slightly different version of the trumpet), and even at the age of seven was being referred to as a prodigy.
The Rolfes were deeply involved in the community, but much of the local work was unpaid or involved meager compensation. To cover living costs, they found summer work at hotels and other venues or performed with traveling troupes. In 1887, they toured in Canada for six months with the Leith & Lambert show, a minstrel and comedy group. Even at such a young age, Benny was writing music and making notes on the musical pieces of others he heard.
In early 1888, the Lewis, Rolfe, and Stevenson Concert and Comedy Company was formed. The musical department featured Albert on cornet and violin, Emma on clarinet, and Benny, touted as the “musical boy wonder,” performing on three different instruments when he was still just eight years old. After three shows in one week, word-of-mouth advertising led to large audiences the following week at Colton, Hopkinton, Massena, Parishville, and Potsdam.
In 1889, the Rolfe family took to the road again, returning in early 1890 after touring south through Pennsylvania and West Virginia. With barely a month’s rest, they then embarked on a tour of the West. The steady work proved lucrative, and also raised their public profile, leading to more work. It was believed by many observers that young Benny was a special talent, something that his knowing father had long been promoting.
In 1891, the Rolfes signed with the Hardie and Von Leer Company for a show titled On the Frontier, which they planned to take overseas. Albert had become expert at all facets of the business, and this was an opportunity to test his skills. The show was based on early life in America, and among Albert’s recruits were eighteen Mohawk Indian brass musicians from Hogansburg. In England, the show was a hit, as was eleven-year-old Benny, promoted as the Boy Trumpet Wonder, and also taking an acting role in the play. Before returning home, he performed in Europe to great acclaim.
After returning stateside, the Rolfes were hired by the May Henderson Company to perform in a similar production, The Indian Princess. Albert was the musical director, while Emma, Benny, and Nellie Morse, another Rolfe troupe member, played music and performed comedy roles. Dissatisfied after three months of touring western New York and Ohio, Albert resigned and began pursuing work for his own troupe known simply as The Rolfe Family. After touring through Pennsylvania in late 1891, they returned to Brasher Falls for the holidays.
As always, they were in great demand in nearby towns and villages. There were weekly stints at the Catholic and Presbyterian churches, where they helped with the choir and played songs, including regular solos by Benny. There were evening socials; gatherings in private homes; events for the dramatic clubs of the Deer River Grange, Lawrenceville, and Hogansburg; plus dances, school events, and dance classes. They also assisted area towns and fairs with plans for concerts. Nary a week passed without community events requiring the Rolfes’ talents.
Besides playing and performing solos, Benny also became involved in singing, dancing, and comedy, usually partnering with a childhood friend. The family remained in Brasher Falls, ensuring Benny attended school and received a solid education. Leisure time was spent riding his bicycle with friends, and enjoying family trips into the nearby woods, where they camped, hunted, and fished.
From years of observing his father, Benny now assumed a leadership role in the family business. The two began collaborating on assisting local towns and organizations with staging proper events. They also held musical revues and judged music contests. Before long, the precocious sixteen-year-old was handling several of those duties on his own. As it turned out, from early childhood to his late teens, he received the perfect schooling for a future career of distinction in show business.
The Rolfes had done well financially, but in early 1898, Benny, now 19, began preparing for life on his own. To provide a steady income stream, he opened a village laundry, allowing him to still perform music on the side. At the end of 1899, a bookstore was added as an expansion of the business. In April 1900, the 24-piece Brasher Falls Military Band was organized, with Benny as its leader. A bandstand was built and the town was abuzz at the possibilities. He also served as manager of the Rolfe family business. Life was looking pretty good.
Next week, Part 2: Vaudeville comes calling.
Photos: Benny Rolfe; Benny age 6 (1885); the Rolfe Independent Band (circa 1885)