Sunday, May 24, 2020

How to be the life of the (socially distant) party

Spending time at home lately? Maybe it’s an opportunity to pick up a musical instrument.

Good parties need great music, ‘twas always thus. If you can play, you’re the life of the party. Okay, maybe this was truer before the invention of DJs, but it’s still true.

 Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt grew up in the 1880s–1890s hearing superb orchestras play at lavish parties hosted by his parents and others in their social set. Years later, the parties Alfred threw at Sagamore, his Adirondack camp, would not have orchestras, but guests would play the piano.

 And it appears that the host himself had skills. The photo is a little blurry, but just look at Alfred’s smile while he strums his mandolin, sitting on his Main Lodge porch in the summer of 1913. Let’s imagine the scene at the Playhouse that night: “Alfred, where’s your mandolin.” “No, no…well, ok!”

 The Playhouse at Great Camp Sagamore is where the parties took place, and still do. The color photo below was taken inside the Playhouse in 1949 and there, 36 years after the porch, next to a big bass drum, is Alfred’s old mandolin.

 Most mandolins, including Alfred’s, have four double sets of metal strings. They’re small, but they’re not easy to play. Beethoven wrote a Sonatina in C Minor for Mandolin and Harpsicord in 1796. When the photo of Alfred was taken in 1913, a mandolin craze was sweeping the nation.

 The instrument’s popularity grew from a style of entertainment called Vaudeville. These were stage shows that combined comedy acts, music, dance, and short skits. The shows were always silly and sometimes just a little naughty. When they were good, the laughter inside the theatre could be heard out in the streets.

 The height of bigtime Vaudeville in New York City, Alfred’s hometown, was right around the time that the photo on the porch was taken. It would soon end with the rise of movies, but many musicians and actors who started in Vaudeville would become jazz musicians and early Hollywood stars. Some would later be guests at Sagamore.

Learn more . . .

  • What musical instruments have you played?

  • Was that instrument ever part of an orchestra in Beethoven’s time?

  • Read a little online about Vaudeville and compare it to shows like America’s Got Talent.

Photos courtesy of Great Camp Sagamore. At top: Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, owner of Sagamore Lodge, playing mandolin on the Main Lodge porch, 1913. At right: Alfred’s old mandolin in the Sagamore Playhouse, 1949.

Built in 1897 on 1,526 acres of remote Adirondack wilderness by William West Durant in Raquette Lake, Great Camp Sagamore was a wilderness retreat for the Vanderbilt family for half a century. It is now a National Historic Landmark managed by a non-profit educational institution in order to inspire others to help protect the environment, history, and culture of the Adirondacks.

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Robert Engel is historian at Great Camp Sagamore in Raquette Lake.

One Response

  1. Sherry says:

    Wonderful, Robert. These stories are excellent. Thank you so much.
    My mom’s father was in Vaudeville at Radio City Music Hall — he played violin, and his brother played Vaudeville, too — and went on to marry a Rockette.

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