Week 28: Characters

July Theme: Identity

My rule of thumb is to not write about living people, so I can’t write about what characters my children are. Public personas are fair game, though, and I do have one child that fits into an “almost famous” category, so maybe someday….. However, since he’s a classical musician, that fact alone will probably keep him from becoming a household name outside of his familial fan club. And since I value our relationship, I will respect his privacy. For a change.

But his great-great uncle, my grandmother’s brother, shares some similar attributes – both Uncle John and my son are Juilliard graduates who made music their life. So I’ll write about Uncle John instead, since he’s not around to complain. Further, Uncle John’s career as a singer occasionally took him to the stage in musical theater and light opera – as one “character” or another, so that fits into the week’s topic.

John Hoffer Kuebler was born 17 Jun 1896 in Omaha, Nebraska, where his father was a butcher. After the uninsured business burned down about 1902, the family – parents and seven children – moved to Erie, PA, where John grew up. (See my post for week 3, favorite photo, for more about the family.)

John Kuebler, through the years

Although the family was poor, music was important, and several of the children grew up with a certain competency in piano or violin. I’m not sure where the ability came from genetically – I don’t have any records showing musical aptitude in either of their parents.

John’s oldest sister, Mayme, was a concert pianist, and was John’s first teacher. By the time he was 14, he was serving as organist of a small church in Erie. He saved his earnings and bought himself a piano – a gorgeous Steger and Sons upright grand that became my mom’s when Uncle John left Erie, and is the piano I learned on. (After my mother’s death, we sold her house and left the piano there. It was too heavy and too hard to move. The new owner was a piano teacher and happy to get it. Doesn’t mean I wasn’t sad about it, though.)

His job at the church morphed into leading the church choir. To assist with that, he began taking voice lessons. He was a natural bass / baritone. Raised Lutheran, he also served as soloist in a Catholic church and Jewish Temple.

Erie High school 1913 yearbook (Note: the descendant comment is hyperbole)

After graduating high school, he aimed for a career in banking. He worked for awhile at a bank in Erie, while simultaneously continuing his musical studies. In 1922 he left Erie for New York City. He took accounting courses at NYU, which he paid for with money he earned through music gigs. After graduation from NYU, he decided to pursue music. He earned a fellowship at The Juilliard School, one of eight awarded by the school each year.

His musical career included many solo gigs, light operas, church choirs. He sang with the Paulist Choir, he toured with Sammy Kaye and his orchestra. For a number of years, he was regularly featured on radio programs. He had two offers from Hollywood, which he turned down, wary of the “precarious fortunes of show business.” He attributed his reticence to his bank training, but I wonder if some of it might have been the poverty of his youth that made him seek stability. He also worked as a “voice doctor” and coach. His clients were often famous, but he would not reveal names.

One of the most fun records I found documented his role in the musical “Jumbo” at the Hippodrome in 1935. I don’t know if the cast list is in order of appearance or importance, but Uncle John is listed second to last – right in front of the elephant. The “comedy star” of the show was Jimmy Durante. Another article listed a veritable “Who’s Who” of audience members on opening night, including Helen Hayes, Ed Wynn, Fannie Brice, Gracie Allen, George Burns, Arthur Hammerstein, Harpo Marx, Tallulah Bankhead, Irving Berlin, and many more. The show ran for five months, 233 performances, and was the last show performed in the Hippodrome, which was demolished in 1939.

This article has some of the songs which were performed by the cast for radio. https://jacksonupperco.com/2014/08/04/j-is-for-jumbo-1935/ “The Circus is On Parade” is one of the songs that uses the entire cast, so I know Uncle John’s voice is part of that, even though I can’t pick him out from the crowd.

I knew Uncle John in his later years. He was working mainly as a church organist and choir director for several different Catholic Churches in NYC. He never married. He made regular trips to Erie to visit his two sisters who still lived there, as well as his niece, my mom (her mother – his sister – was deceased). My sister and I called him “Giant John” after a book we had. He was a large man, well over 6 feet, with a deep, yet gentle voice.

One vivid memory is when I asked him to play a duet with me – a four-hand version of Barcarolle. Before we started, I reminded him, “Don’t forget the repeat.” My mother about died of embarrassment and scolded me. I had no idea what I did wrong – after all, when I duetted with my sister, she ALWAYS forgot the repeat. Uncle John took it in stride. He said it was important for musicians to communicate when performing together. I think he loved seeing the music being handed down, and his beloved piano being used.

Uncle John died 13 May 1976 in New York, and made one last trip to Erie where he is interred.

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2 Comments

  1. Marian Burk Wood says:

    Really enjoyed this 52 Ancestors post! How wonderful that your uncle did so well with his music.

    Like

    1. ferreestyle says:

      Glad you enjoyed it. It was fun to research and write.

      Like

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