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.


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

  • Lori McCulloch, a family relation, writes in to dispute my Eugenie Besserer reference:

    “Her father, Jean Theodore Besserer had 5 brothers: George Wilbrod Theodore 1830-1831, Joseph Alphonse Wilbrod 1831-1913, Gustave 1839-1844, Louis Theodore Terence 1841-1841, and Louis 1843-1843 and 6 half-brothers: Louis William Cameron 1847-1907, David Alexander 1855-1915, George Donald 1857-1858, Andrew Donald 1858-1936 and my great-grandfather Louis Joseph Papineau. No uncle Carl William Besserer in Austin, Texas. In the 1880’s she resided in New York (she married there and her daughter was born there). She moved to Los Angeles in 1910. She appears on the 1892 New York State Census with her husband Albert Hegger.”

    Thank you, Lori.

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