Written by: Dick Batzer
Excerpts from the Semi-Centennial Program, 1983
Fifty years ago, on April 10, 1933, as Buffalo and the rest of the nation had hit the bottom of the Great Depression, a group of Buffalo musicians, mostly of German descent, decided to do something about their own economic plight.
250 years before that, on October 6, 1683, thirteen German families landed at the port of Philadelphia about the sailing ship Concord. They settled six miles inland in what is now the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Although there were Germans in the very earliest settlements in the New World, this date is observed as the official beginning of German migration to America. In numbers alone, today there are more Americans of German heritage than any other ethnic background.
While the biggest influx of Germans to Buffalo didn’t arrive until the 1840’s the first log house to built in the city was that of a German – Martin Middaugh – in 1776. The first landowner in Erie County was another German – Samuel Helm – who purchased his lot from the Holland Land Company in 1809.
Three hundred years ago the reasons for German migration to America were religion, politics, poverty and adventure. Fifty years ago the reasons for this group of Buffalo Musicians banding together were mainly economic.
F.D.R. had just been inaugurated as the nation’s 32nd President on March 4th. On March 6th, he declared a “bank holiday” in an attempt to revive the nation’s bankrupt economy. February had seen an unprecedented run on the banks and the American banking system had collapsed. The New Deal legislation was being enacted in the “100 days” special session of Congress
Kurt Wissing and Al Feustel, two of the founding members of what was to become the German American Musicians Association, remember well that organizational meeting on the night of April 10th, 1933. Mr. Wissing, a violinist who later became Association president and was Association secretary for 28 years recalled, “I was one of about 12 musicians. We were from four or five small bands, getting 50 cents or less an hour. “
Mr. Feustel, a piano and organ player and accordionist who, also, later became Association president, remembers that meeting of 50 years ago as being held at the old Casino Restaurant on Genessee and Kieffer. He said about 20 musicians attended. “Things were rough. The musicians’ union was weak at the time because of no work. A lot of places didn’t want to pay anything, or, very little,” he said. “So we formed the Association more or less for our own protection. Peter Dinst, a pianist who had his own orchestra was a prime mover.”
Of those who attended that first meeting, Mr. Wissing remembers Fred Hoefler, Al Kober, Louis Beer, Herman Kleinhans, Carl Streit, Joe Dering, Ed Zeitler, John Raszeja, Peter Dinst, Rudolf Hartmann, Frank Winkler and Al Feustel. They met again on April 21st, when the Association’s first charter was drawn up.
Frank Schwindler, who has been playing trumpet for 70 of his 83 years and still marches with the Wolcottsville Fire Co. Band, remembers playing a nine-hour job at the old Braun’s Park – now the site of Bavarian Village (formerly Mike Blab’s and Deutsches Haus) and a supermarket – for $3.00. Financial Secretary of the Association for 33 years, Mr. Schwindler remembers good times and bad. “The band was down to its last $9.00 at times,” he said.
Mary Troidl, widow of George Troidl, a tuba, violin and Guitar player, who was a member of the German American Band for 30 years, remembers her husband playing at Mann’s Restaurant on Bailey three nights a week for $3.00 a night – and $4.00 for Saturday night. The Association held business meetings and rehearsals for the band at Troidl’s Restaurant, first on Genesee, then moving to Northland and on to Olympic and Schreck, as the Restaurant moved.
Carl Fassel, an original member , and longest active in the Association band, still playing on his clarinet, was paid as well as most and better than many. But he still remembers the long hours when he worked weddings with an accordion player for 75 cents an hour, 7 p.m. to 3. am. “Boy, did I get tired. I slept all the next day.” Carl was treasurer of the Association at one time and band delegate to it for many years.
One of the first, if not the original, constitutions of the Association, printed in booklet form and provided by Rudy Hartman, a violinist and former treasurer, states the Association purpose. “The aim of the organization is to unite all musicians, to give the public good music, to get satisfactory wages (and) to get work for all members,” The initiation fee for membership was $5.00.
The emphasis on monetary consideration was short lived, however, and had all but disappeared by the end of the Second World War. The Constitution of the Association now states “the primary objective of the German American Musicians Association, Inc. is to maintain a band and a library of music for the band. To bring within the Association, musicians who are interested in preserving German music and German culture.” Today, the band is made of mostly amateur players who perform for their love of the music and good fellowship. Funds from concerts and fests go into a band treasury to finance trips and other activities.
Some of the first jobs of the early German American band, according to Kurt Wissing, were performances in a hall over George Doyle’s Restaurant on Genesee, and Variety Night at the Café Heidleberg, Genesee and Bailey. Its first picnic was played at the home of Dr. Milton Schultz, a lover of German music, who became an honorary member of the band. They played their first German Day celebration at the old Genesee Park-Genesee and Kerns – on the last Sunday of August, 1934, as Kurt Wissing recalls. Other jobs that first year included a live broadcast from the studios of WEBR radio and a concert in St. Catherines, ontario.
The Association grew to about 40 members by the end of 1933, according to Kurt. One musical group, well known at the time, Frank Radl’s Band, joined the Association en masse. Al Feustel recalls that the first director of the band itself was Herman Tuchfeld, a former director of a German Army Band. “He had the music.” Al said, “that with the end of the Prohibition, (as the 36th state voted for repeal by ratifying the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933), beer was coming back and with it a great demand for German music.
In the words of Stanley Chodkowski, a trumpet player who joined the German band around 1936. “The year was 1934. An unusual advertisement appeared on billboards all over the city. Printed in large letters was ‘IITYWYBAB.’ The mystery existed for about two weeks. Everybody was asking everybody else about the meaning. Several weeks later, the answer to the puzzle began to spread around the city. The answer was “If I tell you, will you buy a beer?’ This was the first advertisement from the brewing industry. Prohibition was over and the breweries were going into business.
“Stash,” as Stanley is fondly nicknamed, recalled that this was great news for the musicians, since taverns were opening up all over town and had three- or four- piece orchestras playing on the weekends. Accordions, violins, guitars and basses were in great demand. “it was a matter of luck that I was studying the string bass. I was offered a good job in a five-piece German band. Oldtimers will remember Mann’s. on Bailey – it had the reputation of having the longest bar in the city. This is where I met many fine German musicians and got my start playing German music.
“These were happy days and prosperous for the German musicians. German music was becoming very popular all over the city, not just in strictly German neighborhoods. Al Feustel was playing steady with his group at Hotel Worth. Other groups were playing one-nighters at the statler and Hotel Lafayette.”
“But the prosperity didn’t last very long,” Stanley recalled. “The newspapers and radio stations were now telling the public about the dictators in Europe. Naziism and Fascism were always in the headlines. Little by little, the public sentiment turned against the German music. Everything German became suspect and un-patriotic. Hotel Worth laid off the German Band and the German music faded rapidly from the entertainment scene. There were only two or three German bands playing in Buffalo in 1939. Those were in the strictly German neighborhoods.”
And they were not left alone. “I was playing at George Troidl’s tavern at the time. The police came in three or four times during the evening, just to look around. We, as musicians, wanted to impress the police as being very patriotic, so every time they walked in, we played ‘God Bless America,'” Stan Chodkowski related.
Both Carl Fassel and Kurt Wissing recall FBI Agents questing band members in the early days of the war. Carl remembers one such interview conducted by an agent with the director of the band. When asked about the band’s devotion to German music, the director (who was of Irish descent) looked incredulous. “So what?” he responded. “I smoke my cigar. They drink their beer. We all play instruments. Music is international.”
How true! Over the years, the band had Irish, Italian, Polish and Ukrainian directors as well as German. And the membership of the Association, to this day, always has been a melting pot of nationalities. But the band did run into some hard times during the war, with the loss of players going into the armed services or defense work, along with the decrease in the popularity of German Music.
A rebirth came after the war, with a renewed interest in German music. The story of that rebirth would not be complete without Dick Silva. Of Spanish-Italian descent, Mr. Silva was raised by German Foster-parents. That is where he got his first taste of German music and his love for it was enhanced during service with the Air Force, in German, after World War II.
On his return to Buffalo, Mr. Silva, a trumpet player and singer, met Louis Beer and Al Feustel at the old Genesee Park Restaurant. They encouraged him to become active in the German American Musicians Association. “About 1961 I started to go to the meetings. The then-secretary was planning on leaving and they asked me to take notes.” He was officially elected to the post of secretary in 1962 after being nominated by Mr. Beer and George Troidl, and was an officer of the Association until 1982, when he declined to run as continuing president. Kurt Wissing was president in 1962 and Mr. Silva said, “I was honored,” when elected secretary.
In 1967, when the restaurant was build on the site of old Braun’s Park and Genesee Park, Dick Silva became Association business manager as well as recording secretary. He also became band manager in the ’60s. He worked diligently to bring new small bands into the Association and to promote new concert appearances to be added to the Concert band’s annual calendar. Much of this organization effort was necessary to, literally, save the band, as membership and the treasury dropped perilously low at times. Mr. Silva recalls the band being down to six or seven members at one time and a meeting in the bar after a rehearsal to decide whether to call it quits. “We decided to go on,” he said. With success in booking more appearances, the band began to revive again.
On behalf of the Association, Mr. Silva officially applied for incorporation as a non-profit organization in 1976. He was president of the Association from 1976 to 1981.