Old King Carl, Part 1: Carl William Besserer, Founder of the Modern Austin Music Scene

June 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

(The following text is excerpted from one of my forthcoming books, If You Can’t Dance, Get On and Ride: The Jazz Age in Austin. And this one’s for you, Randy.)

Carl William Besserer is largely unknown today, and undeservingly so, considering the role he played in Austin music history. This post is the start of his rehabilitation.

While America’s Jazz Age is generally conceded to encompass the years 1918-29, the Jazz Age in Austin was born in the summer of 1917 and was buried in the fall of 1931.

At the dawn of Austin’s Jazz Age, the city’s reigning king of live music was Carl William Besserer; whose reign lasted the better part of 50 years. And, ironically, this guardian of Austin’s old musical ways, and leader against the onslaught of jazz music, turned out to be, unwittingly, one of the prime enablers of the jazz music scene in Austin. Jazz music blitzkrieged Austin like Redneck Rock did 50 years later.

Carl William Besserer was born in New Braunfels in 1851, the son of German immigrants who had come to Texas the year before. Besserer’s father died 3 months before his birth. He was then adopted by John Buass, proprietor of Buass Hall, Austin’s first grand music hall. Buass sent Besserer to Germany at age 14 for his higher education. When he came back to Austin at the end of the Civil War, there were very few musicians among the citizenry. There were but a handful of pianos, and most of them were old, out of tune, and in serious need of repair.

In 1868, John Buass and Carl William Besserer opened Austin’s first music store, Buass and Besserer, which stocked a wide variety of instruments and sheet music. With this store, a new era in Austin music began, one that would last 50 years, until jazz came along and changed everything.

Besserer, a trained musician, was eager to teach his customers how to play their new instruments and so he began giving lessons.

A talented pianist, Besserer got a few local boys interested in forming a band and orchestra, thus making him the father of Austin garage bands. The boys worked or went to school by day, and learned how to play music at night on entry-level instruments, under Besserer’s patient and unflagging tutelage. Finally, they were playing well enough to attract new recruits, and then some paying gigs, which allowed them to buy better instruments.

Besserer’s band and orchestra became locally celebrated. Besserer also directed a state military band. He helped found the Austin Saengerrunde, or singing society, for the singing of German songs in 1879. After the University of Texas opened in 1883, UT students would help spread their reputation statewide, and soon they played in cities across the state.

Despite this whirlwind of activity, he still found time to fall in love and marry August Scholz’s daughter Mary in 1873.

Founded just before the Civil War, or in 1866, depending on which source you believe, August Scholz’s Garden is Austin’s oldest business, the oldest beer garden in the state of Texas, and the only survivor of Austin’s great nineteenth century beer gardens.

“Seventy years ago, Scholz’s Garden was the pride of Austin, and the city’s fashionables used to gather there on summer evenings to blow the foam off their steins and listen to the band or watch theatrical performances,” wrote future first lady of the United States Claudia “Bird” Taylor in October 1931, in the Daily Texan. “For two generations, Scholz’s Garden was the favorite haunt of Texas legislators – those bearded worthies gathering there for much merrymaking.”

At some point after the end of the Civil War, Scholz built Scholz’s Hall, which still stands today, much altered, as Saengerrunde Hall. On February 24, 1871, Scholz Hall hosted a “Grand Vocal and Instrumental Concert.” One of the show’s featured performers was William Besserer, pianist.

The garden was walled in and tables placed under the trees, which at night were hung with colored lights. At one end was the bandstand, where William Besserer, who had studied in Germany under the great Leopold Damrosch, led the lively music nightly. World travelers said that Scholz Garden was the most typical German beer garden they had encountered in the New World.

“The hall, whose wide doors opened into the garden, was built of white limestone. It had shuttered windows and doors, with sidelights to the floor. The stage was in the east end when the hall was built. The bar at the back, complete with the well-known rail and the mirror above it, has never been changed – except that the years have added dust and cobwebs,” Claudia Taylor wrote.

About the time the Austin Saengerrunde was founded and the Germania Society affiliated with Scholz Garden, the brick part of the hall was built and another bar, more accessible to the street was added (Presumably the Scholz Garden bar room of today), according to Taylor. After the Saengerrunde Society bought the property in 1909, the old bar at the back of the hall was kept for the use of members on Sundays when the public bar was closed.

At the time Taylor wrote the article, the Saengerrunde Hall was the home of the Austin Little Theater, which was presenting George Bernard Shaw’s “You Never Can Tell” at the time.

Austin, which was founded by intellectuals and artists, had an amateur band as early as 1840, just a few months after its beginning. Houston and Galveston had enjoyed traveling professional entertainers from their beginnings, owing to their convenient locations on the Texas coast. Austin, on the other hand, reachable only by an often harrowing overland journey of several weeks from the coast, had to provide its own entertainment. Austin’s homegrown music scene faded, along with most of the population, beginning with the removal of the Capitol to Houston and Mexican troubles of 1842. But the local music scene began to revive a bit with Texas statehood and with vigor after the Civil War.

Soon after the Civil War’s end, Henry Klotz, who would later teach at the Texas School for the Blind, organized an eight-man string band. At about the same time, the German community in Austin organized a brass band.

George Herzog took charge of the brass band in 1870 and that year the string and brass bands united to play a benefit show for the Franco-Prussian War orphans. Herzog would later form his own orchestra.

On January 4, 1876, a grand concert was given at the Opera House under the management of William Besserer and about 25 of Austin’s best musicians.

Besserer helped found the Austin Musical Union in 1882, which would take over a former “opera house” of iniquity and turn it into one of Austin’s premiere venues for a few years, complete with electric lights and large, swinging fans. The Musical Union presented family-oriented entertainment, usually light opera and operettas. The union even took one such show, HMS Pinafore, to the Threadgill’s Opera House in nearby Taylor.

During an entertainment given by the Musical Union on June 29, 1882, union members formed in a circle on the stage, and proffered the gift of a handsome diamond ring to its musical director, Professor Besserer, as a token of appreciation of Besserer’s services as manager. He was taken completely by surprise, as the matter had been kept a profound secret from him.

Besserer took over management of Scholz Garden in 1885. Scholz Garden opened its 1885 season with a grand open air concert on April 30 featuring the celebrated Kemps Ladies Orchestra, in the newly enlarged garden that had been also improved to a first-class park.

At the end of June, the Tyroleans began an extended stand at Scholz Garden. Nearly 800 showed up for opening night and were delighted with the program, which included zither and xylophone solos, and national dances in elaborate costumes. The Tyroleans sang English-language and German songs there every Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Visitors had to identify themselves through some member of Germania Society.

At that time, Scholz Garden boasted of being the “Most Popular Pleasure Resort in Austin,” and guaranteed a free Grand Concert every Sunday evening in the summer. In 1886, the Daily Statesman lent credence to this boast when it noted that “Scholz Garden is well patronized, especially on Sunday evenings.” Scholz’s even ran its own street cars to and from the grounds on special occasions.

The German Theater continued to present plays in Scholz’s Hall, often accompanied with fireworks and balloon ascensions, even a one-legged tightrope walker! A typical Garden Theater Sunday program would consist of six or seven operatic specialty numbers and a two-act comedy, such as Promise at the Hearth.

When August Scholz died in 1891, Scholz Garden became the property of daughter Mary and son-in-law William Besserer. They ran the place another two years before selling the operation to the Lemp Brewery of Saint Louis, which was seeking market share for its newly introduced brew. Breweries could own retail liquor establishments back then, and Besserer wanted to spend more time on his music. His orchestra continued to give Sunday afternoon concerts there.

(To be continued)

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