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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