Monday, December 1, 2014

Vaudeville Star Benny Rolfe of Brasher Falls

2A BARolfeBandHatIn April 1900, the 24-piece Brasher Falls Military Band was organized, with Benny Rolfe as leader. He also served as manager of the Rolfe family business. Life was looking pretty good for the Boy Trumpet Wonder of Brasher Falls.

Within a month, he received an offer of $30 a week ($860 in 2014) to lead the famous military band of Lowville, about 100 miles southwest of Brasher Falls. For the time being, Benny remained in his hometown, performing locally, playing solos in appearances with area town and city bands, and perfecting the laundry business.

But in early January 1901, it was announced that Benny had purchased the Lowville Steam Laundry, and would soon become the leader of Lowville’s popular band. What’s more, his father, mother, and Nellie Morse were all accompanying him and would be welcome additions to the band. After moving some laundry equipment to Lowville, Benny sold the Brasher Falls business and completed the move in April, becoming the most famous bandleader in Lewis County at the grand old age of 21.

By mid-year, he had hired two employees experienced at operating steam laundries, thus freeing more of his time for orchestra-related work, his true passion. Three months later, he sold the Lowville laundry to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity—an offer to join the Rath Orchestra in Utica as lead cornetist at the Majestic Theater, and assume the newly created position as head of the cornet division in the Utica Conservatory of Music.

In early March 1902 at Brasher Falls, Benny married longtime friend and fellow musician Nellie Morse. They left the next day for Utica, where he soon made his mark on the music scene. Benny’s fame preceded him, and then grew dramatically as he performed at various city venues. With a new cornet finished in gold, manufactured especially for him by famous Conn Instruments of Elkhart, Indiana, Benny performed to great acclaim for about two years, while still returning to the North Country to play in several major events.

Opportunity once again presented itself, this time in the person of Jesse Lasky, who had seen Rolfe perform. An offer was made, and in 1904, Benny moved to New York City to work with Lasky (the eventual founder of Paramount), who had identified him as “a prodigious talent.” With vaudeville on the rise, Rolfe’s background from the past twenty years of arranging and performing seemed a perfect fit.

And as Benny noted years later, his was no story of a starving artist in the big city. After touring successfully with his wife and proving his worth, Benny returned to New York, officially partnered with Lasky, and developed a vaudeville show that took New York and other locations by storm.

The Music Trade Review of April 1905 offered this assessment: “The Colonial Septette, which is one of the biggest acts in vaudeville, carrying, as it does, special scenery, electrical effects, and other necessaries, is under the skillful guidance of a musical genius named Rolfe, who is the inventor, designer, and controller of this unique act, and also wrote all the music excepting one number.”

Benny had hit the bigtime in a big way, becoming known in show credits as “B. A. Rolfe.” It was the heyday of vaudeville, and Benny produced one big hit after another featuring wonderful music and lots of girls. As Alison Kibler noted in her book on women in American vaudeville, “Jesse Lasky, Joseph Hart, and B. A. Rolfe became entrepreneurial giants in vaudeville in the early 20th century as they produced a rising number of girl acts, most of which achieved headliner status.”

2B ColonialSeptetteThrough it all, Benny returned home frequently to visit his parents, always taking the time to perform at local churches and regional events. To him, hometown roots were of great importance.

In New York, the pace was hectic, but Rolfe was more than up to the challenge. In early 1906, in a homecoming of sorts, The Colonial Septette (or Ye Colonial Septette) was called “the finest musical vaudeville act ever seen in Utica.”

But Rolfe’s newest effort was considered even better. Titled the Lasky–Rolfe Quintette, it was the year’s sensation in New York, with Victor Herbert among the composers. Said the Utica Sunday Tribune: “Lasky & Rolfe are masters of vaudeville stagecraft. Their Quintette will prove one of the greatest attractions ever engaged by the Orpheum management. The entire act is given in a huge seashell, which adds not a little to the beauty of the act. The electrical effects are also a feature, each number being given in a different colored light.”

The trend was towards elaborate, expensive productions, an area where Benny excelled. Subsequent hits of that type included The Military Octette, The Girl with the Baton, The Fourteen Black Hussars, The Immensaphone, and The Girl in the Clouds.

With current shows producing new income, many of the others ran for several seasons, producing royalties for Rolfe. The Colonial Septette, for instance, was still being produced eleven years later. Some shows enjoyed European runs. For men like Benny, the money just kept rollin’ in.

In June 1907, Lasky, Rolfe & Company was dissolved by mutual consent. Rolfe withdrew from the firm, selling his shares to Lasky and Henry Harris. They agreed on a division of the company’s shows, leaving Benny as sole owner of Ye Colonial Septette and The Immensaphone, a pair of big earners.

The B. A. Rolfe Company opened new offices in Manhattan’s St. James Building and forged ahead with a number of successful productions. In late 1908, Benny and Nellie sailed for England, where they had signed to appear in vaudeville for three months in Ye Colonial Septette and Ten Dark Knights. The shows were so successful, they stayed an extra month to establish permanent offices in London, with a tentative plan to spend half the year there and half in New York.

2C PburgRolfeAmericanGirlA measure of Benny’s clout is suggested by Billboard’s schedule of events for a single night in February 1909. On the 27th, his shows were playing in three countries: Ye Colonial Septette in Aberdeen, Scotland; Ten Dark Knights in Hull, England; Six Little Girls and Teddy in Portland, Oregon; Johnny McVeigh & College Girls in Oakland, California, before moving on to Los Angeles; and Fun In a Boarding House in Washington, D.C., before going to Baltimore.

In May 1909, he left England for Port Said, Egypt, in an effort to sign Orthya, “a favorite dancer from the Harem of the lately dethroned Sultan of Turkey.” Benny was always on the lookout for new talent.

Further success in London—his band’s concert at Wembley Park drew a crowd of 18,000—delayed his return to America for another month.

At the same time, Benny’s new show stateside, American Girl, was likewise a hit. The leading lady was a former resident of Malone, New York, about a half hour east of where Rolfe grew up, and where he appeared many times with the Rolfe Family Band. It was a theme throughout his life—returning to the North Country and providing opportunities for hometown folks hoping to break into show business.

Part 3: A pioneer of silent films.

Photos: Benny Rolfe (circa 1900); Colonial Septette scene (1908); Ad for Rolfe vaudeville show (1909)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

2 Responses

  1. Susan Tobias says:

    Hi Larry: That is very interesting! My sister lives in Brasher Falls! Do you know who the Malone woman was who starred in that show? Keep up the good work! I love reading your research!

  2. Larry says:

    Thanks Sue. Several more parts to go on Rolfe, and he just keeps getting better. What a talent! The girl’s married name was Jessie Richey, daughter of Augustus Munson of St. Lawrence County (Winthrop), not far from where Rolfe grew up. She lived in Malone, but moved to NYC. She later became Jessie Rydene in 1911, marrying after her first husband died.