Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Hal Smith, Alias Otis Campbell, Massena’s Shining Star (Part 2)

For Hal Smith and his siblings, there always seemed to be a new act in the works. When she was 18, Hal’s sister Bernadeen presented the Follies of 1932 in the local opera house in January, a show that included the Smith children singing and dancing. In April of the same year, the PTA sponsored a circus act as a stage production, with dozens of cast members led by Hal Smith as ringmaster. In two different shows presented in June, including a band concert, he sang solos.

In September, at the beginning of the next school year, Bernadeen and Kathleen directed, acted, and danced in a four-act play. Just three weeks past his 16th birthday, Hal sang a solo in scene two, and between acts he sang with Joe Calipari and his orchestra.

While still directing plays and shows, the Smith sisters enrolled in Potsdam Normal School in the fall of 1932. Hal continued taking acting roles, but more and more was performing as a singer. He joined the newly formed Massena High School choir, and in November, when the school band played on radio station CFLC (in Prescott, Ontario, opposite Ogdensburg on the St. Lawrence River), Hal was the solo vocalist.

For the next couple of years, he continued performing in plays and sang at every opportunity. There were solo performances, duets with his sister Bernadeen, appearances in a quartet, and shows with the school choir, in which Hal was one of two tenors.

He began reaching a wider audience in late 1935, joining local music favorites Johnny Morrison & His Krazy Kats as a singer and impersonator. Morrison had recently expanded into offering floor shows, and Hal, an excellent vocalist, portrayed a variety of comic characters, impersonations, and voices. In a 1982 interview with Hubert Matson of the Massena Observer, Morrison recalled those performances. “Hal Smith came in when he was 16 or 17. He was entertaining around [the area] back then. We approached him and got his dad’s consent to work with us. He was very clever. He always had everyone in good humor. There was a popular song, “The Prisoner’s Song,” and when we began to play it, Hal would come out dressed as a prisoner and break everyone up.

“He could sing very well, too.  People would come and stand and watch him. We learned to play for the show like the big bands did. We had one of the first loudspeaker systems of any band in the North Country, and he took to that quite naturally.” Morrison’s bands were sometimes not only quite large, but very good, he said, for many members came from the famous Crane School of Music in Potsdam.

In December 1935, Smith scored another important radio gig, appearing again on CFLC in Prescott to perform Hungarian music with friends Buck Murphy on piano, Steve Dudash on violin, and Hal singing. Through the first half of 1936, he continued performing publicly with his high-school quartet, and took roles in plays until graduation time arrived in June. As a senior, his high-school summary described Hal as a well-rounded and talented student: basketball, bowling, football, handball, softball, tennis, and volleyball for two years each; handball manager for two years; operetta and boys’ glee club for three years each; band and male quartet for two years each; and school news for one year.

The next and very important phase of Hal’s life is misrepresented in many online references—for instance, the year of his marriage is consistently wrong (even in many family trees on Ancestry.com), and most of the details of what he actually did are absent. So if you’re interested in Hal’s past and the building blocks of his career, you’ll find here information that has been overlooked elsewhere.

Jay Smith wanted his son to attend Clarkson University, but after graduation, Hal moved to Utica, where he embarked on paths during the next seven years that would deeply impact his future. Following his passion and utilizing his talents, he began performing as a comedian, impersonator, and singer in the Mohawk Valley region of central New York. In early 1937, the band he formed was advertised as Hal Smith and His Swingsters, which played at venues ranging from civic events to classy dinner clubs. The depth of his talent was considerable for his age: six months before his 21st birthday, he was advertised as “Hal Smith, the Jovial Master of Ceremonies … and the Swingsters Rhythmic Organization That Make Dancing a Pleasure.”

In April of that year, a “night-club night” at the Yahnundasis Golf Club in New Hartford (a southwest suburb of Utica) was planned as a fundraiser for the House of the Good Shepherd, which provided children and family support services. Radio station WIBX in Utica, a sponsor of the event, auditioned regional amateur artists, the best of whom would appear during a live broadcast. Among those who made the cut were Hal, selected for his marvelous impersonation skills, creating voices and characters of his own, and mimicking local and national celebrities.

He made a strong impression (pardon the pun) on the station’s producer and program director, and two months later, Hal began appearing regularly on WIBX. Besides singing, he could play guitar, drums, and the piano, skills that were utilized in his earliest shows titled Hal Smith and Organ, and Hal Smith Sings.

Each show served as publicity for his abilities, boosting the number of his music-gig requests to where he was in constant demand for church events, fundraisers, dances, club shows, and elaborate birthday parties. But his comedic skill was every bit as popular as his singing, if not more so, for it combined his marvelous tone with wonderful imitations that crowds of admirers, often numbering in the hundreds, enjoyed. In December of that year, he was one of three regional radio personalities chosen to provide entertainment at the fabulous Stanwix Hall in Rome, New York, which billed him as “Radio’s Man of a Thousand Voices.”

Next: Hal Smith, Part 3. (A nod goes to Tracy Negus Robertson, whom Jill and I met when we were guests at TAUNY in Canton in early December. While perusing one of my books, she noticed a story about a character from The Andy Griffith Show, Arnold Winkler, who was played by a child actor from Plattsburgh. She mentioned that Otis was from Massena, and that started me digging, which culminated in this five-part review of his remarkable life. Thanks, Tracy!)

Photos: Hal Smith; 1935 advertisement, Johnny Morrison band with Harold Smith, singer and impersonator; 1937 advertisement, Hal Smith and His Swingsters

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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.

3 Responses

  1. adkDreamer says:

    Mr. Gooley – As always a great read. Thanks for all the nearly-lost local history.

  2. SwilliAm says:

    Our mantra, as we used to sit late at night at the Delmar Tavern in Massena, was, “let’s get Otis’d!”

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