On Earth as It Is in Purgatory

July 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today was my quarterly doctor’s visit in San Marcos, and as is my custom, I did some sightseeing along the way, precisely, an hour’s exploration of the 463-acre Purgatory Creek Natural Area. There are three access points; I chose the southwest or “Wonder World Extension” Entrance, which is probably the easiest to get to and certainly for the readers of Central Texas, since is it located on Hunter Rd., just a few feet south of the intersection with RR 12/Wonder World Drive.

The access point here includes parking, a kiosk and the trailhead to a 1 mile-long, crushed stone and dirt hike and bike trail. Where the trail’s bike ramps merge onto the roadway, the trail splits south (connecting to the lower Purgatory/Prospect Park trails) and north (connecting to the more challenging upper Purgatory trail). There are several miles in all of hiking and mountain biking trails. The kiosk has a map of the rather complicated trail system. Just a few yards north of the kiosk is a fenced in Native American campsite where the only known metal arrowhead was found several years ago, by accident. The metal was probably obtained from early Spanish settlers or explorers, whether through peaceful trade or more hostile encounters is not known.

The Area is within the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, is home to Purgatory Creek, and includes upland meadows, canyon bluffs of 40 feet or more, dense juniper thickets, an champion oaks. Several areas within this natural area are habitat for golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos, meaning that parts of the area are closed during the spring mating season.

Portions of Purgatory Creek Natural Area are generally referred to as lower and upper Purgatory. Lower Purgatory, also known as Prospect Park, is about 9 acres of passive-recreation parkland with about 3 miles of trails, including a 1-mile accessible, crushed limestone trail. Lower Purgatory sits on a rather porous section of the Edwards Aquifer with juniper groves, meadows, ephemeral wetlands, and oak mottes. This in-town location makes a perfect destination when you need a quick nature fix. Benches are located at various points along the accessible portion of the trail.

In upper Purgatory, visitors can travel along the mostly natural “Dante’s Trail.” Work is underway to improve and add trails throughout the Purgatory natural area, with the goal of eventually leading all the way to the San Marcos River.

I’ll be bringing the mountain bike with me in October; you can bet on that. Given the congestion of Austin’ few remaining bike-friendly/legal trails, I am counting on this being a singular pleasure. (Don’t get me started on how many trails we have lost since I started mountain biking in 1981, and trail riding on an old 3-speed in 1973.)

Download Wonder World Extension trail map

Warning: There are no restrooms or drinking water in Purgatory Creek Natural Area.


Vive La France! Vive l’amour Libre! Happy Bastille Day! (And If You’re Enjoying Yourself in a Very “Special” Way in the Company of a Very “Special Friend” You Should Probably Thank the French!)

July 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today is Bastille Day, French Independence Day, which we in the United States should celebrate almost on an equal footing with our own Fourth of July, since we would still probably be British subjects today without the assistance provided by France during our war for independence. King Louie was not, of course, animated by any great love for libertie, egalitie, and fraternitie, but rather by his rivalry with King George, the soon to be insane. And in the grand tradition of “be careful what you wish for, for it might bite you in the ass,” Louie and his Marie were sacrificed for the greater good of France just a few years after what has turned out to be our descent into self-indulgence — excuse-moi — ascent to personal freedom.

And it is in that great American spirit of self-indulgence that we must also pay homage and thanks to the French today for the truly greatest gifts that France has given us: wine; French leave; French kissing; “soixante-neuf” and the “French cigarette” specifically, and oral sex generally; farting on stage as art specifically, and vaudeville theatre generally.

Of course there are those of us, who still possess a shred of moral fibre, who detest the French for these great gifts enjoyed by the rest of us; nowhere more so than in Texas.

Vaudeville, or variety, theater, has long prospered in Austin (as demonstrated by the longtime popularity of Esther’s Follies), and has also been long condemned, though not so much now as in the past, when fibre was something you had for character, not for breakfast.

Back in the summer of 1880, the Austin Statesman was waging moral war on the town’s vaudeville/variety theatres and the base pleasures and blandishments contained within. (My, how far we have come in 132 years, where today our same august fishwrapper lionizes that which is deviant as chic and high art.)

This following particular gem of the pecksniffian art ran in the Statesman on Bastille Day, 1880. So, open that bottle of vino, get nekkid, start groping, and thank the French for all they have given us.

Under the Gaslight.
During the decade just past this city had more than doubled in population and increased in wealth almost unparalleled. It now puts on the airs of a metropolitan city. With the growth we have gained many of the conveniences and advantages only enjoyed in large places but along with these marvels have grown up many of the wonderful and attractive evils that cling to and mar society.

Chief among these evils is the free and easy variety shows, which, with gaudy gold and glitter and sparkling spangles, attract and lure to ruin hundreds of young men. These shows have attractions and peculiar charms eminently calculated to ensnare young men, and once they are drawn into their vortex, escape is almost impossible and they soon go down into the grave overwhelmed with shame and grief. No evil is as powerful in its injuries and effects upon society as the variety shows, and the plot and heroine of “Nine,” one of the most powerful sensational novels of to-day are selected from behind the scenes and from before the footlights of a variety theater. There are two of these establishments in this city and the patronage they receive from the young men is alarming to all who have the welfare of society at heart.

Sightseers are constantly going and coming and it is safe to say that each of the concert halls in this city is visited nightly by over 100 persons. Among the crowd Saturday night the reporter noticed the familiar faces of certain young men who move in the best society in this city. They were sowing their wild oats, but alas, while will the harvest be?

There are several women engaged attempt in carrying around beer and induce those present to drink and treat. Huge fans are suspended from the low ceiling, and are kept in motion by a colored boy. Monday night there were eight performers on the stage, four of them were females. The performance consists of stale jokes and worn out songs interspersed with dances and acrobatic feats. The two end men were about average in their specialties but the other performers were indifferent and the whole play dragged. The actors know and feel that they are there simply to attract the unwary, and the money the concern is to reap is to come through some other source and they are careless as to the effect their parts have upon the audience. The reporter saw one young woman present who is undoubtedly out of her sphere, and lacks a great deal of having that reckless and indifferent air peculiar to variety actresses, and no doubt the slightest act of charity, which is so seldom offered to these women, and a helping hand from those whose duty it is and who are able to help, would save her from the vortex of ruin and place her upon the highway of an honorable life. There are several wine rooms in these establishments where the young men and the girls go to drink wine and beer and it is from these rooms that the money flows to pay the expenses of the establishments. It is in the wine rooms of the variety theater that the clerk, on a salary of 40 dollars per month, spends double the amount, and finally emerges to go to the penitentiary for forgery or theft or to a suicide’s grave. The institutions in this city are well patronized, and the good people of Austin would be astounded to learn by whom. You would be astonished to see faces that are familiar in the upper walks of society, but faces that are destined to be marred and made haggard with debauchery and ruin if they persist in attending these places of resort.

These establishments pay no license, and in conducting their business they use all the peculiar charms and wiles of women to induce men to drink, for it is from the sale of beer, wines and liquors that they derive their profit. The sale of liquors is very large, and seriously interferes with establishments that pay heavy taxes. The proprietors do all in their power to keep order, for it is to their interest to do so, but with all the care possible, the subtle influence for evil cannot be removed, and the injury inflicted upon the morals of young men and upon society at large can not be calculated. We learn that a petition is being circulated asking the city authorities to suppress the variety theaters in this city.

You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Have a Great Fourth in Austin, But It Sure Helps

July 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

July 5, 1846
The Fourth of July was celebrated at Austin. At 10 o’clock, A.M., religious services were held at the capital, when Rev. Mordecai Yell, presiding elder, delivered a sermon. Rev. Mr. Thrall offered prayer, after which the declaration of independence was read by James H. Raymond. Judge Lipscomb then followed with an address. A salute was fired by Capt. Highsmith’s company of Rangers who paraded in honor of the occasion.

The festivities were rendered complete by an open air barbecued dinner, served on tables placed under some live oak trees then standing near the old courthouse square in the first ward, on West Cedar street, near Lavaca. There was a good sized crowd in attendance. The dinner was under the superintendence of two gentlemen named Brown and Chandler. There were present a number of prominent state officials. Toasts were offered and several patriotic responses were made.

In the afternoon, Louis Horst and George Oatmeal, both good fiddlers, entertained a crowd with violin music at the old “King Cole” stand on the east side of Congress Avenue. At night a well attended cotillion party came off at the representative hall in the old frame capitol.

July 4, 1871
Fourth of July by the Insane.
This glorious day was celebrated by the lunatics of the asylum with as much enthusiasm as by those outside of it. The entrances to the asylum, and the balconies, were decorated with wreaths and festoons of oak leaves, their dark green being relieved by the bright stripes and stars. The liberality of the citizens of Austin supplied everything necessary for the entertainment which a number of them favored with their presence. After a march in the large park, all assembled in the dense shade of a little “Pride of China” grove, decorated with flags, where supper was served in pic-nic style; and the gusto with which they made beautifully less the heaping dishes of sand-witches and cake cooled, moistened, diluted and freshened by ice cream, lemonade, water-melons, and peaches, was interesting to the beholders. Supper concluded, there was some tripping of the “light fantastic toe” on the grass to the music of the accordeon which afterwards showed its patriotism by accompanying a number of voices to “Hail Columbia” and other national airs. The grand finale to the out door performance was the display of “burning fiery serpents,” wheels of fire revolving in the air, stars falling, etc., which very much astonished and pleased the lunatics. This being over, all with badges of red white and blue disappeared into the house, and the evening ended with good music in the parlor by the crazy people.

July 4, 1880
Pressler’s Garden

Chas. Dyer, Proprietor.

My facilities for entertaining my friends and the public are ample.
No matter how many visitors


My beer is always kept ICE COLD. Seats,
Swings, Arbors, Good Dancing Pavilion, Ice
Water, Play Grounds for Families and
Children, and the best of Music


and all other occasions.

July 6, 1881
Willie Stamps celebrated the Fourth by sailing in and kicking up a muss. He was having a high old time, and no doubt would have been happy had not an officer scooped him in. Yesterday he was fined $5 and costs.

July 5, 1883

The Fourth in Austin.
There was not a very elaborate display of patriotism in the capital yesterday. Not a cannon thundered the national salute at sunrise, nor even a puny fire cracker snapped its gentle whiz to the great delight of the small boy. The occasional blast from the giant powder at the sewer sounded like a real Fourth of July, but it was not patriotism that made it speak. Men would go along the street anxious to meet some debtor to pay the little balance due, and when the receipt was written would inquire what day of the month it was. Even the first ward, which celebrates a Fourth of July every new moon was as doleful as an old maid at the fourth wedding of her grandmother. It rained early and rained often during all the day, and water is a bad thing at just such a time. Our German friends tried the hardest to celebrate, and there was quite a sprinkling in Pressler’s Garden, but it was not up to the model Fourth by many leagues. Prof. Saeltzer’s band in vain tried by its stirring strains to fire the freedom-loving heart, but it was a damp effort. The German patriot took his beer in gloom and sadness. The eagle did not scream.

July 5, 1893
A Change of Waiters.
A month ago the Driskill Hotel discharged all its negro waiters and employed white men. Yesterday they changed back to the negroes, owing to the fact that the patrons of the hotel claimed that their presence in the dining room was more agreeable than that of a white man.

Old King Carl, Part 3: Carl William Besserer, Founder of the Modern Austin Music Scene

July 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

Besserer’s Orchestra soldiered along, playing at governors’ inaugurations, during presidential visits, when troops were sent off to war, and when they came back for burial. When Lake Austin became the scene of boating parties about 1891, he directed the band that furnished the music. He also provided the musical programs for the Ben Hur river boat excursions that were so popular before the dam broke in 1900. Besserer would continue to lead his orchestra at Austin dances through and past World War I.

Wooldridge Park hosted its first concert on June 18, 1909, by Besserer’s Band. A bandstand had been built where the gazebo now stands and electric wiring and lights were strung to all parts of the park, which had most recently been a garbage dump.

The Austin entertainment scene was in transition in 1912. In February, the Shriners bought the now-venerable Turnverein Hall but would continue to present the occasional public entertainment there. The new entertainment hotspot in town was the roof garden atop the Littlefield building, which opened on June 6 with two reels of moving pictures, a cello solo and music by Besserer’s Orchestra. Its searchlight cast a beam visible for five miles. Every Friday was amateur night and it catered to the “family trade.”

By 1912, orchestra leader William Besserer was also a moving picture mogul. He and a partner named Marshall owned three local moving picture show houses and two live entertainment venues. The Casino and Yale theaters featured 2000 feet of new, special feature pictures and illustrated songs with music daily. The Princess offered 2000 feet of new pictures daily. The New Theater was the home of popularly priced musical comedy, with three shows daily and three act changes per week. The Texas theater offered three vaudeville shows daily at popular prices.

By 1913, Besserer and Marshal were operating the Bes-Mar, Casino, Texas, and Princess moving picture houses, in addition to the Playhouse Theater, which featured vaudeville, musical comedy (such as Fred L. Griffith and his 20 Musical Merry Makers), pretty chorus girls, and 2000 feet of new pictures daily.

Provocative (for the day) moving pictures shown by Besserer and Marshal, with titles like Forbidden Fruit and Twin beds were beginning to fill the boys of that day with the same erotic, highly unrealistic, fantasies that internet porn provide for boys of today, as evidenced by “Like a Motion Picture Girl” from a 1912 issue of the Coyote.

A freshman once was smoking his one last cigarette,
And in the rising smoke of it he tried hard to forget
The throw-down that he’d gotten, and the sight with heart awhirl,
“I want some one to love me like a moving picture girl.”

His “life light” that he loved so had cruelly thrown him down.
Yes, she’d handed him a lemon, and the thought caused him a frown;
And he thought of his allowance that he’d spent in a giddy whirl;
And he sighed for one to love him like a moving picture girl.

I guess he’s not the only one who’s feeling sad and blue,
Has wished for some nice little girl to love him and be true.
I guess I’ve often wished myself, with dreams of eyes and curl,
For some little girl to love me like a moving picture girl.

To escape the summer heat, and to forget the colored cook’s threat to go to the cotton patch, many Austinites in 1913 took the streetcar out to the Lakeview Café, where the girls pranced around in middy suits, the swimmers dove about like big fish, and Besserer’s Orchestra played at least one big dance a week.

Besserer’s Orchestra was composed of 18 or 20 pieces, all of them union musicians, two or three of whom were university boys. In those days, and for several years after, a boy thought he was getting rich quick if he got as much as five dollars a night playing with an orchestra. As an ad in the October 1911 issue of the UT humor magazine, the Coyote, indicated, Besserer’s Orchestra furnished music for all occasions and had been the University standard for years.

Early in January 1917, nearly 40 of the city’s music teachers met to consider the idea of concentrating their music studios in one locality of Austin, in the interest of better business. To this end they formed the Austin Music Teachers Association, which included William Besserer, UT Music Professor Frank Reed, Oscar J. Fox, and dance orchestra leader Mrs. Charles Cabaniss.

Besserer’s Orchestra played for Governor Jim Ferguson’s inaugural ball in 1917. When the Deep Eddy bathing beach opened on June 22, 1917, Besserer’s Orchestra provided the music.

William Besserer was in charge of the free open air summer concert season of 1917, and many of the concerts were devoted to a theme; on September 8, 1917, the program was devoted to old-time songs and ethnic numbers, including “Massa in the Cold Cold Ground,” “Old Black Joe,” “Old Folks at Home,” “the Philippine song “Bella Taga Pa,” the Brazilian song “La Conchita” by Vriel, and “Aloha Oe Hawaii” by Kati.

The municipal concert for September 15, at Wooldridge Park, was devoted to the past generation to honor Confederate men and women. Director Besserer included John S. Caldwell’s “I Want to Go” in the program. Besserer had directed the annual summer municipal band concerts during most of the 1910s and would continue to do so well into the 1920s.

With the World War on, student dances were few and far between during the 1917/18 school year. Those dances which did take place were often handled by old standbys including the Besserer Orchestra, Cabaniss Orchestra and Theo Meyer’s Orchestra. Oftentimes, the name of the band was not given in dance announcements and stories. For instance, all we know about the 1917 Thanksgiving German is that a 20-piece orchestra played.

Prof. Besserer’s band also played a series of concerts sponsored by the Austin Garden Association that fall, as well as the Austin Saengerrunde concerts and dances in 1917 and 1918.

Most of Austin’s musical energy went to the war effort, keeping up the morale of the boys in khaki stationed here. The prettiest girls in Austin hosted a weekly “dansante” at the Community House for the soldiers; dansante is French for “dance,” surprise, surprise. Besserer’s Band played for many of these dances, or any other war effort-related event, upon request, free of charge.

Prohibition again came up for vote in Austin in November 1917, and then in January 1918. Prohibitionists and anti-prohibitionists held a series of rallies in preparation for the upcoming votes on whether or not Austin would close its saloons and go “dry.” The “wet” rallies featured music by Besserer’s Orchestra, while the Jubilee Chorus sang their hearts out at the “dry” rallies. As with the campaign to shut down Guytown in 1913, care for the safety and morals of UT students were at the heart of the fight.

When Austin High School decided to revive and reorganize its orchestra in February 1918, Prof. Besserer offered his services as director, free of charge. Members of that orchestra included Marshall O. Bell on trombone, orchestra president Dorothy DuMars on piano, orchestra vice president Bryan Pharr on cornet, Mosby Pharr and J.H. Bolander, Jr., on drums, and Arthur Schoch on cello, all of whom would go on to play prominent roles during Austin’s Jazz Age.

The Austin Municipal Band, under Besserer’s direction, played weekly outdoor concerts during the summer of 1918. The program varied from week to week, mostly filled with light classical and patriotic pieces and some popular tunes of the times. The August 2 concert featured “Trail to Normandy,” a fox trot; “Jazz, Keep “Em Going” by Leroy Walker; and a Clement Mar novelty tune, “Moonlight in Dixie.”

The final municipal band concert of the season, on August 23, 1918, directed by William Besserer, featured an eclectic program that included David Guion’s fox trot, “Texas,” “A Summer Evening in Hawaii” by Wheeler, “Camouflage” by J. Boldwalt Lampe, and a jazz number, “Howdy,” by Gosh.

The Freshman Reception, originally scheduled for March 6, 1919, was to feature music by Besserer’s and Stanley’s Orchestra, 12 pieces in all, supplanted by the Majestic Theater orchestra, with plenty of jazz for all. But no venue could be found, and the dance was postponed at the last minute until April 5, featuring the Kelley Field Jazz Orchestra.

The Kelley Field Jazz Orchestra had played a few days earlier for the Settlement Club Charity Ball at the Driskill Hotel. The review the next day made reference to the “delightful jazz band from Kelley Field,” who played several jazz numbers that night.

One of the Besserer Orchestra’s last major music gigs was in March 1919, providing the dance music for Gov. Will P. Hobby’s reception at the Governor’s Mansion and Inaugural Ball, where they played in both the Hall of Representatives and Senate Chambers, at opposite ends of the Capitol’s second floor.

“Boys,” Mr. Besserer said at one point, “if we don’t play jazz, they throw us out, and then we lose our jobs.” But Besserer and the boys did not understand what jazz was about, and so they ultimately disbanded, probably some time in 1920; one of their last known gigs was the July 4 celebration held at the Deep Eddy swimming resort on July 5, 1920. Besserer’s band played in the afternoon and evening.

Besserer’s Band was run over by Shakey’s Jazz Orchestra, which became an instant UT campus hit, despite their tender age. Starting in March 1919, Shakey’s Orchestra became the house band for the Saturday night Germans at the KC Hall.

And speaking of being run over, on the evening of January 27, 1919, Professor Besserer, while driving his buggy, was run into at the intersection of West 13th and Rio Grande by a rapidly driven auto. He narrowly escaped injury, but the shaft of his buggy was broken. The auto suffered a broken headlight.

Besserer’s Orchestra was losing so many gigs that, for the first time, it resorted to a series of ads in the Daily Texan:


For All Occasions Under Auspices of the University Social Committee

Parties, Receptions and Other Social Functions


Union Combination Orchestra With University Students

On May 13, Austin High School’s 11-A class entertained the senior class with a lawn party featuring Besserer’s Orchestra. Besserer had directed the school orchestra in concert a few weeks earlier.

The Ebenezer Choir sang at the white Baptist church downtown to raise money for the St. John Orphanage campaign on May 28, to a large and enthusiastic audience.

Even the free Municipal Band concerts in the summer of 1919 reflected the new music. As in years past, William Besserer was the band’s director. In their first concert on July 3, the program included “Jazzin’ Around,” a jazz trot; and a fox trot called “Indianola, by S.R. Henry and D. Onivas.”

The July 18 concert featured “Hindustan,” a fox trot by Oliver Wallace and Harold Weeks and recorded by the Milano Orchestra and Alex Welsh and his Jazz Band; and “Chicken Walk,” a jazz blues number by Tom Brown of the Six Brown brothers. Beginning in 1911, Tom Brown and the Brown Brothers saxophone sextet began to popularize the saxophone with American public by recording of such songs as Bullfrog Blues and Chicken Walk.

The July 29 band program included a jazz version of “Old Virginia.”

The city once again contracted with William Besserer in 1920 to provide the music for the annual municipal band free summer concert series. The band’s July 7 concert at the Upper East Avenue Park opened with “America,” followed by “Here Comes the Band,” “Jolly Troopers,” “Elaine,” “Jealous Moon,” “When It’s Moonlight on the Sewanee Shore,” “Your Eyes Have Told me So,” “They’ll Never Miss the Wine in Dixieland,” “Primrose,” “Danube,” “You’re a Million Miles From Nowhere,” “The Night Boat,” “Birth of Love,” “Señorita,” a medley called “Patriotic Songs of the Nation,” and “Star-Spangled Banner.” Not a jazz number in the lot.

During the first week of January 1922, the Queen Theater was showing The Light in the Clearing, with former Austinite Eugenie Besserer starring as “Mad Rovin’ Kate.”

Eugenie’s uncle was Carl William Besserer, of Austin. Not much is known of Eugenie Besserer’s early life, and much of that is contradictory. Depending on the source, she was born in 1867 or on December 25, 1868, in Paris or Marseilles, France, or Watertown, New York. The 1880 U.S. Census records state that she was born in Canada of Canadian parentage about 1867 and was then living in Watertown, New York, working as a family servant. As was often the case, the census taker had Americanized her name, listing her as Jennie Besserer.

According to Wikipedia, “She was taken by her parents to Ottawa, Canada, as a girl and spent her childhood in Canada. She was left an orphan and escaped from her guardians at the age of twelve. She came to New York City and arrived at Grand Central Station with but twenty five cents of Canadian money in her pocket. Miss Besserer located a former governess through the assistance of a street car conductor. The governess helped Eugenie locate an uncle and she found a home at his residence. She continued her education, becoming proficient in both cooking and athletics. She claimed to have held her own with the noted fencer Alexander Salvini.”

Eugenie’s uncle was Carl William Besserer, of Austin. We do not know when she came to Austin (other than it must have been after 1880), nor how long she stayed here.

Because most of the 1890 census records were destroyed in a fire, including those of Austin and New York City, we have no idea where she was or what she was doing.

Besserer’s most enduringly famous role would be that of Al Jolson’s mother in The Jazz Singer in 1927. When cast, Besserer assumed that her role would be silent, but in the celebrated Vitaphone “Blue Skies” sequence, Jolson’s incessant ad libbing all but forced her to say something in response, and thus she became the second actor to be heard in a major-studio talking picture.

Eugenie Besserer died on May 28, 1934, of a heart attack, at her home in California.

Ironically, the death of the jazz age in Austin coincided with the death of the director who had trained many of Austin’s first jazz artists, the music king of Austin’s “good old days” that the jazz generation superseded:

Carl William Besserer died at his home on December 12, 1931, a couple of hours before dawn, at the age of 80 years.

Besserer had been at the center of Austin’s musical circles for 65 years, having founded and directed virtually every musical organization, including the still-active Austin Saengerrunde, one of Austin’s oldest singing organizations. A talented pianist, he had always been a leader in the promotion of community music.

He had directed Austin’s first symphony orchestra, directed Austin Musical Union productions and summer municipal band concerts for many years, and the musical programs aboard the Ben Hur excursion boat during the 1890s. His venerable military and dance bands wilted only in the face of jazz.

Despite his advanced age, and in failing health for the past year, Professor Besserer continued teaching his music classes up to a couple of days before his death. He was completing arrangements for an upcoming Christmas concert at the Confederate Women’s home, where some of his own compositions were to be played. Although his classes were in widely separated sections of the city, he shunned automobiles and bus rides and usually walked to his engagements, though he still had his wagon for errands and such. On one such walk, on Thursday afternoon, December 10, he fainted and fell to the ground near Austin High.

At the time of his death, his music library was unexcelled in Austin, one of the best in the state. It contained about 35,000 compositions, which Besserer had carefully indexed.


Old King Carl, Part 2: Carl William Besserer, Founder of the Modern Austin Music Scene

July 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of the members of the Musical Union was Athol Porter, the writer O. Henry’s wife, back when he was plain old William S. Porter, editor of the Rolling Stone, an Austin humor weekly he began in April 1894, just as Athol were singing her way through the Musical Union ranks towards star roles. She had been singing for years under Besserer’s direction, in concerts at Scholz’s and Pressler’s’ and Jacoby’s Gardens.

Porter was a bit of a musician and actor himself. Soon after his arrival in Austin in 1884, he joined the Hill City Quartette. At 5 feet 6 inches tall, he was the shortest of the group and sang basso profundo.

Although not particularly religious, Porter rarely ever missed church, and the Hill City Quartette were nearly always to be found in either the Baptist or the St. David’s Episcopal Church choirs, though Porter usually attended church on Sunday evenings at the Presbyterian Church and sang in their choir.

Regular church attendance notwithstanding, they were a fun-loving bunch, as Porter wrote to a friend about the Quartette’s antics in 1885:

“… Our serenading party has developed new and alarming modes of torture for our helpless and sleeping victims. Last Thursday night we loaded up a small organ on a hack and with our other usual instruments made an assault upon the quiet air of midnight that made the atmosphere turn pale.

“After going the rounds we were halted on the Avenue by Fritz Hartkopf and ordered into his salon (Hartkopf owned the popular Club House Saloon). We went in, carrying the organ, etc. A large crowd of bums immediately gathered, prominent among which were to be seen Percy James, Theodore Hillyer, Charlie Hicks, and after partaking freely of lemonade we wended our way down, and were duly halted and treated in the same manner by other hospitable gentlemen.

“We were called in at several places while wit and champagne, Rhine wine, etc., flowed in a most joyous and hilarious manner. It was one of the most recherche and per diem affairs ever known in the city. Nothing occurred to mar the pleasure of the hour, except a trifling incident that might be construed as malapropos and post-meridian by the hypercritical. Mr. Charles Sims on attempting to introduce Mr. Charles Hicks and your humble servant to young ladies, where we had been invited inside, forgot our names and required to be informed on the subject before proceeding.”

Will Porter was a regular patron of the Millett Opera House, and briefly reviewed the December 21, 1885, show in a letter to a friend:

“The hack was to call for me at eight. At five minutes to eight I went upstairs and dressed in my usual fine bijou and operatic style, and rolled away to the opera. Emma sang finely. I applauded at the wrong times, and praised her rendering of the chromatic scale when she was performing on ‘c’ flat andante pianissimo, but otherwise the occasion passed off without anything to mar the joyousness of the hour. Everybody was there. Isidor Moses and John Ireland, and Fritz Hartkopf and Professor Herzog and Bill Stacy and all the bong ton elight.”

“The Rolling Stone met with unusual success at the start,” wrote Porter’s business partner, Dixie Daniels, years later, “and we had in our files letters from men like Bill Nye and John Kendrick Bangs praising us for the quality of the sheet. We were doing nicely, getting the paper out every Saturday–approximately–and blowing the gross receipts every night. Then we began to strike snags. One of our features was a series of cuts with humorous underlines of verse. One of the cuts was the rear view of a fat German professor, leading an orchestra, beating the air wildly with his baton. Underneath the cut Porter had written the following verse:

With his baton the professor beats the bars,

‘Tis also said he beats them when he treats.

But it made that German gentleman see stars

When the bouncer got the cue to bar the beats.

For some reason or other that issue alienated every German in Austin from The Rolling Stone, and cost us more than we were able to figure out in subscriptions and advertisements.”

Porter dedicated one issue of The Rolling Stone to on-the-spot coverage of the State Saengerfest in Galveston, which among other things revealed Porter’s fine ear for dialect:

“Dose Austin vellers vot come mit der Musical Union are vine vellers. Not anywhere haf I seen a Cherman who can stand up mit dem und drink so much peer und haf it but on der schlate.”

The Germans seldom let a little thing like Sunday blue laws get in the way of Sunday afternoon beer drinking. In June 1881, Scholz was convicted of violating the Sunday blue law against liquor sales and was fined $20. But there were ways around the blue laws, as Will Porter observed in The Rolling Stone: “Most of the saloons now get a bonafide close on their every Sunday, and the chaser of the merry jaglet must needs fortify himself Saturday night or become a member of the Singenderinkeneinmehrfritzgehaben Society.”

In a little poem entitled “Unsusceptible,” Porter zinged the German singers:

How many dimes my Lena’s heart

I’ve dried to catch by singing.

It seems dot all my highest art

No nearer her is pringing.

Though oft I soar above High A

Und tremulo and quiver

She says if I don’t cease my lay

She’ll jump right in dot river.

Und ven I sing to her my best

Und vith my voice surprise her

She says “Dis is no Saengerfest,

Let’s open dot Budweiser.”

During the short life of the Rolling Stone, O. Henry wrote several more times of the Musical Union.

In his May 12, 1894, report about the State Saengerfest in Houston, he wrote: “The event of the day was the arrival of the Austin Musical Union, a body of singers which is well known as far as their reputation has extended. This organization has been in effect in Austin for about ten years and costs, and if the delinquent dues of its members were paid up, it would have a cash reserve on hand equal to that of the State treasury. They have been singing in Austin and other towns more favorably situated as regards distance from their headquarters for many years, of course with intermissions caused by occasional visits to their homes, sudden deaths, and the serving of peace warrants. The appearance of the Austin Musical Union in any hall is always greeted with rapturous applause.”

On May 26, he noted that the members of the Musical Union were hard at work on Rip Van Winkle, to be presented some time in the next month or so. The event was being looked forward to with a great deal of interest, and friends of the Union were predicting another triumph similar to that scored by the singers who attended the Saengerfest.

In July 1894, the Union presented “Rip Van Winkle,” a dramatic opera by the author of the well-known “Chimes of Normandy.”

The Musical Union presented several operettas per year in the 1890s, directed by Besserer. Any animosity Besserer and the union might have felt toward Will Porter did not extend to his wife. Late in June 1895, the union presented The Chimes of Normandy, with Athol Porter singing the lead role of Serpolette, the Good for Nothing. The Statesman critic wrote “Mrs. W.S. Porter as Serpolette was excellent. She sang and dressed the character to perfection and her vocalization was superb in every respect. She would be dead from tuberculosis two years later, and Porter entered Federal prison in April 1898, convicted of embezzlement at the bank where he had worked.

(To be continued)

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