The Prince

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For three summers in the 1950s, a prince walked among us, and although his proper name was Harry Stockwell, he did not go by “Prince Harry.” He was, in fact, the voice of the Prince in Walt Disney’s 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, singing “One Song” in his regal baritone.

Stockwell’s first appearance in Skaneateles was actually in 1935, on the screen of the Huxford Theatre in Here Comes the Band. In the 1940s, Stockwell was on Broadway, playing the lead role of “Curly” in Oklahoma. In the following decade, he toured the country in summer stock.

In 1952, he came to the big, blue tent of the Finger Lakes Lyric Circus on the edge of Skaneateles to portray The Red Shadow in “The Desert Song,” John Kent in “Roberta,” Prince Danilo in “The Merry Widow” and Captain Warrington in “Naughty Marietta.” The following year he was Tommy Albright in “Brigadoon,” and the summer after that he reprised his role in “The Desert Song.”

I would love to know if he ever did “One Song” as an encore, or perhaps after dessert at the Sherwood Inn or Krebs.

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Ramblin’ Jack

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On his way to a concert in Oneonta, N.Y., Ramblin’ Jack Elliott stopped by the Creamery Museum to look at the boats. He’d owned a Penguin, and was thrilled to see a Rhodes Bantam and Lightning #1. A charming fellow and, in my book, one of the greatest of singers and storytellers to ever visit Skaneateles.

Fritz Kreisler at the Krebs

Fritz Kreisler *

In July of 1918, Fritz Kreisler dined at the Krebs. An Austrian-born violinist and composer, he was one of the most famous violin masters of his or any other day, and regarded as one of the greatest violinists of all time, with a sweet, expressive tone that was his alone.

Just four years earlier, Kreisler had been caught up in World War I, on the Eastern Front, as an officer in the Austrian army. His time there was brief, and he described its conclusion in Four Weeks in the Trenches: The War Story of a Violinist (1915):

“The Russians by this time evidently had realized our comparatively defenseless condition and utter lack of ammunition, for that same night we heard two shots ring out, being a signal from our sentinels that they were surprised and that danger was near. I hardly had time to draw my sword, to grasp my revolver with my left hand and issue a command to my men to hold their bayonets in readiness, when we heard a tramping of horses and saw dark figures swooping down upon us. For once the Cossacks actually carried out their attack, undoubtedly owing to their intimate knowledge of our lack of ammunition. My next sensation was a crushing pain in my shoulder, struck by the hoof of a horse, and a sharp knife pain in my right thigh. I fired with my revolver at the hazy figure above me, saw it topple over and then lost consciousness.

“Upon coming to my senses I found my faithful orderly, kneeling in the trench by my side. He fairly shouted with delight as I opened my eyes. According to his story the Austrians, falling back under the cavalry charge, had evacuated the trench without noticing, in the darkness, that I was missing. But soon discovering my absence he started back to the trench in search of me… He revived me, gave me first aid, and succeeded with great difficulty in helping me out of the trench. For more than three hours we stumbled on in the night, trying to find our lines again. Twice we encountered a small troop of Cossacks, but upon hearing the tramping we quietly lay down on the wayside without a motion until they had passed. Happily we were not noticed by them, and from then we stumbled on without any further incident until we were hailed by an Austrian outpost and in safety.”

I trust that Kreisler’s dinner at the Krebs was far more restful.

Sand Dancers at Legg Hall

Gibbs HeadlineIn 1906 and ’08, The Gibbs Sisters of Syracuse, Marjorie and Lula, played Legg Hall for the benefit of the local firemen. The young girls were known for their buck and wing dancing, a minstrel style that included elements of clog dancing, high kicks, and steps such as the shuffle and slide. The sisters also performed a sand dance, more of a soft shoe, sprinkling sand on the floor to make turns and steps more fluid. The duo regularly received rave reviews:

“The Gibbs sisters – Margie and Lulu – tots about 9 or 10 years of age – simply captured the audience with their singing and dancing, their sand dance being particularly good.” — Acadian Recorder, Halifax, Nova Scotia, July 11, 1905

“The singing and buck and wing dancing by the Gibbs Sisters met the approval of those present, and they were obliged to respond to several encores.” – The Rome Daily Sentinel, December 1905

“The Gibbs Sisters, clever juvenile buck and wing dancers, made a pronounced hit with the audience, and received no end of applause and also bouquets of flowers. They sang sweetly and danced with spirit and precision.” – Syracuse Post-Standard, March 1906

At Legg Hall, they “gave universal satisfaction.”

Note: The Gibbs Sisters of Syracuse are not to be confused with Myrtle and Mattie Gibbs, who also toured in vaudeville, or Mary and Margaret Gibb, born in 1912, “America’s Siamese Twins,” who had a career in vaudeville and as a sideshow attraction.

Gorton’s Minstrels

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In July of 1901, Gorton’s Minstrels appeared at Legg Hall. On the road since 1867, they had gone coast to coast 16 times, had been shipwrecked and nearly drowned off the coast of Prince Edward Island and parched in the blazing sun of the Yuma Desert. An 1898 account from a California newspaper describes the company of musicians and comedians who found their way to Skaneateles:

“The claim is made that now, and for very many years, this has been the only troupe giving old-time and genuine negro minstrel performances. It is represented that the ‘Gold Sextet’ is a feature of the troupe equaled by no other organization. It has comedians, specialists, solo vocalists and solo instrumentalists of a superior order. The troupe is composed of white men entirely, who, it is conceded, give negro minstrelsy better than colored men, though there are some excellent colored troupes in the country.”

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Jubilee Choirs in Skaneateles

At the end of the Civil War, the number of newly freed slaves in the U.S. was estimated at almost four million. Because the established schools and colleges of the nation were not inclined to throw open their doors to these new citizens, thoughtful individuals began creating schools especially for them.

Fisk University opened in Nashville in 1866, the first U.S. university to offer a liberal arts education to “young men and women irrespective of color.” But five years later the school was in financial difficulties. In 1871, George White, the school’s treasurer and music professor, created a choir of Fisk students and took them on tour to raise money for the school. Their early performances were met with “surprise, curiosity and some hostility” as these young singers who did not deliver the expected minstrel performance. But eventually their talent, dignity and persistence prevailed. And their success inspired legions of imitators, some from schools, others with a more commercial agenda — so many “jubilee singers” in fact that promoters went to great pains to assure the public that their particular troupe of singers was “genuine.”

Skaneateles hosted many of these choirs. The reception accorded the first few did not reflect well on the village. In January of 1884, the Skaneateles Free Press ran this article:

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In October of that year, the New Orleans University Jubilee Singers, “composed entirely of colored people,” appeared at Legg Hall. (New Orleans University was a historically black college founded in 1873.) You have to give the singers credit for courage, and the lack of newspaper accounts suggests that the village behaved itself.
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In October of 1887 and again in January of 1888, the Centennial Jubilee Singers of Storer College sang at Legg Hall. The first concert was to raise money for the college’s “Girl’s Boarding Hall” at Harper’s Ferry, and the second benefited both the college and the Skaneateles Fire Department. The troupe’s reviews from other towns glowed with praise:

“We have no hesitation in saying that they sing the religious melodies and hymns of the Southern Negro population with astonishing effect, and in a manner to challenge attention. Without doubt the alto of the troupe [Miss M.E. Dixon] could distinctly sustain her part alone in a chorus of five thousand voices.”  — The Boston Herald

“One could listen hours to those rich, mellow voices with a restful pleasure which Trovatore or Tannhauser does not give. Their voices are evenly balanced and in perfect accord for concert singing. The opening chant showed what they could do; this was rendered with an expression which many a cultivated church choir might envy. Miss Dixon has a pure alto voice, of such power as to be almost phenomenal.” – The Portland [Maine] Daily Advertiser

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The Fisk Jubilee Singers, circa 1885

In March of 1891, and again in March of 1895, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, from the Fisk University of Nashville, performed to a full house at the Skaneateles Library, upstairs in “Library Hall,” to benefit both Fisk and the library. The group was already world famous, having performed at the White House for President U.S. Grant (in 1872) and President Chester Arthur (in 1882), toured Europe and performed for Queen Victoria (in 1873). (In their second visit to Washington, the choir could not get a hotel room, but their singing of “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” at the White House moved President Arthur to tears.)

In 1893, the New Orleans University Jubilee Singers returned to Skaneateles, and the newspaper assured the public that, “The great attraction of the New Orleans Jubilee Singers is that they sing the genuine negro melodies in the genuine negro manner.”

In 1898, the Claflin University Quintette, of Orangeburg, South Carolina, performed at the Methodist church, and the Rev. L. S. Boyd afterwards noted:

“The Claflin Quintette sang here last night to the expressed delight of a packed house. It is asserted on every hand this morning that if these young men were to appear here again, no building in town could hold the audience. The boys are intelligent and cultured, and any house which entertains them will do itself a favor. I am pleased to give them unstinted commendation.”

In September of 1898, J.K. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin Co. brought its show to Legg Hall, and one of its attractions was “the original and justly famous South Carolina Jubilee Choir composed of genuine southern darkies.”  The editor of the newspaper, in the grip of some incomprehensible compulsion, continued, “To secure this attraction it was necessary to exercise a great amount of tact and diplomacy, as the true Southern darkie has a horror of being brought into notoriety or being placed in public places or made the least bit conspicuous. They claim they were aired enough during the great war on their behalf.”

In 1900, the Methodist church hosted the Thomas & Tucker Jubilee Singers, a group noted in history as having included Noble Sissle, the pioneering American jazz composer, lyricist, bandleader, singer and playwright who penned “I’m Just Wild About Harry” with Eubie Blake, and the musical Shuffle Along that ran on Broadway for more than 500 performances.

Maude Brown

In 1907, the Orpheus Jubilee Singers performed in Skaneateles at the Methodist church. Of the group, it was said that Maude Browne, a soprano, had a voice “rich, rare and full of sweetness of quality,” and that the singers had the good taste to preserve the traditions and simple beauty of their songs and “to perpetuate no travesty on the work.”

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In 1914, the Mason Jubilee Singers, a “famous colored company,” appeared at the Methodist church with a program of “Negro Life in Song and Story, Plantation Melodies and Old Folks Songs.” The next year they sang in Marcellus, where the Marcellus Observer delivered this bizarre, left-handed compliment, “You have heard a ‘culled pusson’ sing. Their voices find close harmonies not found on piano keys. A genuine southern darkie is always interesting. Add to that training, ability, stage experience, the attraction becomes greater.”

In May of 1925, the Methodist church hosted the Peerless Jubilee Singers , a quartet. They had recently sung at Cornell University, and the Cornell Sun reported:

“They give the concert In two parts. The first section will consist of songs of the days gone by. Among these, the artists will sing ‘Swanee River,’ ‘Go Down Moses,’ ‘Hand Me Down,’ and a number of others. The second part will open with a chorus ‘By the Waters of Minnetonka.’ This section of the program will be devoted almost entirely to solos by various members of the troop. They will close with ‘II Trovatore’ by Verdi.”

One can see the “Jubilee” repertoire expanding, and journalism crawling forward into the 20th century, at least in Ithaca.

Of the groups who sang here, the Fisk Jubilee Singers continue to perform.