Entertaining the Pekinese

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The metropolitan areas and larger cities of the U.S. naturally serve as the nation’s cultural centers. These are the kinds of places that can support a philharmonic orchestra, and that are always included on the itineraries of musical groups when they plan concert tours.

Smaller cities, however, or towns lacking a suitable venue for a concert, or that are unlikely to draw a sufficient audience to make a concert stop worthwhile, tend to get overlooked. Pekin is one of those cities. Pekin has never had its own philharmonic, but we do boast the Pekin Park Concert Band (successor of the Pekin Municipal Band) that presents summer concerts in Mineral Springs Park on Sundays. Further in the past, Pekinites were also entertained by Gehrig’s Band, and Pekin’s local theaters also regularly staged plays and hosted vaudeville acts.

For about seven decades, popular bands and singers and classical performers were also brought here by the Pekin Concert Association, which until it disbanded recently would book and finance an annual concert series. The decision to disband, according to former PCA member George Beres, was regrettably made due not only to declining membership but to difficulty in securing a suitable venue. In the past concerts would be presented in the Pekin Community High School theater – originally in the former West Campus, later in East Campus’ F. M. Peterson Theater. Within the past decade, though, reserving the PCHS theater became impractical, since acts had to be secured well in advance. In its final seasons the PCA sometimes hosted concerts at a local church.

PCA records kindly supplied to the Pekin Public Library by George Beres listed all of the musical acts in every concert series from the 1948-49 series until the 2006-07 series. The acts’ names, however, are usually abbreviated and not always easy to interpret for those not familiar with popular serious musicians of the past.

Thus, the records show that the first Pekin Concert Association concert series in 1948-49 featured “Templeton, Lloyd, Dilling, Col. Operatic Trio.” A notation on the record indicates that “Dilling” was Mildred Dilling (1894-1982), a renowned harpist. “Templeton” is probably the pianist and composer Alec Templeton (1909-1963), while “Lloyd” is possibly the British composer George Lloyd (1913-1998). “Col. Operatic Trio” refers to the Columbia Operatic Trio, whose members varied over the years.

Subsequent PCA concert series brought such musical performers to Pekin as the Tucson Arizona Boys Choir, the Angelaires, David Bar-Ilan, The DeCormier Folk Singers, Guy Lombardo, The New Christy Minstrels, Serendipity Singers, The Four Freshmen, Chanticleer, The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, The Brothers Four, and The Cornet Chop Suey Jazz Band. Several of the artists and groups made more than one return visit to Pekin courtesy of the Pekin Concert Association.

One of those musical groups that came to Pekin more than once during the PCA’s early concert series was the de Paur Infantry Chorus, an all-male, all-African-American choral group that was organized and conducted by Leonard E. de Paur (1914-1998), a gifted conductor and composer who founded the Lincoln Center Out of Doors programs in New York City. While serving in the U.S. Army infantry in World War II, de Paur was assigned to an all-male chorus – that experience led to de Paur’s founding the de Paur Infantry Chorus after the war. The chorus’ members initially were 35 men from the Army’s 372nd Glee Club, though later on men from other branches of the Armed Services and even civilians were included. The chorus performed a repertory of art songs, military songs, Caribbean folk music and traditional spirituals. Signing with Columbia Records in 1946, the chorus soon began a 10-year reign as Columbia’s top-performing group. Following that success, de Paur decided to discontinue the chorus in 1957, producing the de Paur Opera Gala in its place. In the early 1960s, however, de Paur formed the de Paur Chorus, which toured worldwide until it was disbanded in 1968.

Leonard de Paur, founder and conductor of the de Paur Infantry Chorus, directed his choruses in concert in Pekin three times, courtesy of the Pekin Concert Association.

Leonard de Paur brought his Infantry Chorus to Pekin twice – first during the PCA’s 1950-51 concert series, and again during the 1952-53 concert series. The de Paur Chorus also performed in Pekin during the PCA’s 1963-64 concert series. George Beres attended their concerts here and says they put on an extremely good show.

A number of fascinating and enlightening anecdotes of the de Paur Infantry Chorus’ visits to Pekin in 1950 and 1952-3 may be gleaned from an article from the Winter 1954 issue of “Etc.: A Review of General Semantics” (Vol. XI, No. 2, pages 144-147), a copy of which may be found in the archives of the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room. The article, entitled “Educating the Pekinese” and written by Clotye Murdock, associate editor of Ebony magazine, sheds a revealing and edifying light on the racial attitudes of the residents of the then-all-white city of Pekin. Included in Murdock’s article are the following excerpts from a letter by Leonard de Paur in which he sketched the chorus’ visits:

“We have a date coming up which suggests an interesting angle in the area of race relations. It involves a town highlighted by Life magazine about a year ago as a center of gambling and assorted other shocking vices. The town is Pekin, Illinois (near Peoria), where there is no discernible Negro population. Pekin has no decent hotel, and it is around this lack that the story revolves. We first performed in Pekin during 1950. In the routine booking of hotel accommodations it became evident that we would have to stay in Peoria, where we were housed at the Marquette Hotel when we earlier gave a concert for Bradley University. As a matter of general information, we advised the concert committee in Pekin of our plan to hotel in Peoria . . .

“Shortly thereafter, we received an invitation from the committee to stay in Pekin as house guests of some of the town’s leading citizens. We wanted to decline at first, because the routine of the road is designed for hotel living. We avoid house-guesting, because of the headaches involved in dispersal and collection, so we tried a gentle demurrer. They persisted, and assured me that all we need to do would be to arrive in the town. They would take over from that point. And they did just that.

“Our bus pulled up to the site of the concert to find a fleet of cabs ready to taxi us to our respective homes. A leading lawyer [Note: this was Grace United Methodist Church member Bernard F. Hoffman, 1912-1972, a founding member of the Pekin Concert Association who for most of his life was one of Pekin’s most active community leaders] had organized things and hovered by making sure things moved on schedule. Supper found us the guests of the Methodist Men’s Club. The post-concert reception was held at the YWCA. Next morning, it developed we were truly ‘guests’ – our money was absolutely no good, breakfast, lunch, and the like for 34 men notwithstanding. Along the streets we were lionized to the hilt, so much so that my curiosity boiled over. This was too good, too organized. I sought the answers.

“They were simple and enlightening. Peoria has had, as you know, its racial difficulties (schools, restaurants, etc.), and Pekin had them in even more virulent fashion. There was an organized effort made, some years ago, to keep Negroes out of Pekin, and the one family which dared move to the town finally gave up and fled. There have been no Negro residents since that time.

“But God bless ’em, there are people of conscience in Pekin, and this racial ‘void’ had obviously troubled them. Our appearance proved to be an opportunity for them to use our visit as a ‘demonstration of democracy’ project. I also suspect they wanted to see some colored folk close-up.

“The result was that this year when we were asked to return to Pekin, housing needs were oversubscribed. And the people involved are the ‘leadership’ element in the town – the thinking and acting and policy-forming group. As a symptom of what may well be an ever-widening turn of mind, I find it heartening . . . .”

The de Paur Infantry Chorus’ experiences of Pekin serve to illustrate what popular singer Billy Joel once said about some of the most beneficial qualities of music: “I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.

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Gehrig’s 7th Regimental Band played in Pekin

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

One of the landmarks of arts and entertainment during Pekin’s bygone days was a military-style orchestra called “Gehrig’s 7th Regimental Band.” Gehrig’s Band is important in Pekin’s history because it was the first community band ever to be formed in Pekin, having a history that begins around the time the Civil War ended. The band’s founder, Edward Gehrig, was himself a veteran of the Civil War.

Gehrig’s 7th Regimental Band is shown during a performance in Mackinaw in this 1909 photograph reproduced in “Pekin: A Pictorial History.”

Here is the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial’s summary of the history of Gehrig’s Band, from page 156 of that volume:

“The first Pekin band was organized in 1865 by Edward Gehrig, Sr., a Civil War veteran and a reknowned (sic) cigar maker. Before moving to Pekin, Gehrig had organized and directed Spencer’s Military Band in Peoria, which was often hired to play at dances and other Pekin functions since there was no orchestra in the city. Finally, Pekin lured Gehrig away from Peoria in 1865 to establish his cigar factory and, incidentally or not, a community band. In 1880 this band assumed the title of Gehrig’s 7th Regimental Band. At the death of leader Gehrig in 1901, his son Charles assumed the role of conductor, serving for the next 20 years.”

This 1902 portrait of band director Charles F. Gehrig was reproducted in the Nov. 2017 Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society Monthly.

The Sesquicentennial goes on to explain that during the 1920s Gehrig’s Band and Bauer’s Military Band used to play Tuesday and Thursday nights in the bandstand that once stood in front of the Tazewell County Courthouse. Other community bands from that era included the Roehrs & Dietrich Union Band, the Pekin Opera House Band, Peobel’s Band, and the Hal Jones Band.

All of those bands consolidated to form the old Pekin Municipal Band in 1925 “as a result of Illinois legislation allowing municipal bands to levy a tax for concerts.” The Pekin Municipal Band in turn is the predecessor of the Pekin Park Concert Band.

The Nov. 2017 issue of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society Monthly is devoted to local veterans, and features reproductions of portraits of the 24 members of Gehrig’s Band that were taken on or around Jan. 1, 1902, including a portrait of the band’s director and manager, Charles F. Gehrig, who also played the cornet in the band.

#charles-f-gehrig, #edward-gehrig-sr, #gehrigs-7th-regimental-band, #gehrigs-band, #pekin-history, #pekin-municipal-band, #pekin-park-concert-band

Jerry Sea and Pekin’s pro baseball history

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The death of retired physical education teacher and coach Gerald R. “Jerry” Sea at the age of 76 on Feb. 12, 2016, was not only a loss to his family and friends, but also marked the passing of a Pekin sports historian who chronicled and preserved the memories and records of the Celestials, a professional baseball team that made Pekin its home in the early 20th century.

Sea was a P.E. teacher for 30 years in Pekin Public Schools District 108 as well as a teacher and coach for Tremont High School, and a member of Sunday morning baseball leagues for more than two decades, pitching for and managing three Illinois Valley Glass Championship teams in the 1970s. In addition, he spent more than 25 years in the Mackinaw Valley League and Kickapoo Valley League.

To earn his master’s degree, he researched and prepared a history of the Pekin Celestials. This column has twice previously featured Sea’s baseball history, first on March 24, 2012, and again on April 27, 2013. In Sea’s memory, following is a reprint of the From the Local History Room column from three years ago.

*****

We’re a month into the 2013 major league baseball season, so this is a good time to take another look back at the history of professional baseball in Pekin.

As we recalled in this column on March 24, 2012, for a three-year period a little more than a century ago – from 1909 to 1912 – Pekin had its own minor league baseball team, named the Celestials. In pursuing his master’s degree in 1972, now-retired Pekin physical education teacher Gerald R. Sea prepared a history of the Celestials, “The History of Professional Baseball and Professional Baseball Players from Pekin, Illinois,” a copy of which is part of the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection.

As we noted last year, one of Sea’s chief sources for his history was Walter “Spider” Diehl, outfielder with the Pekin Celestials all three years of its existence. Sea interviewed Diehl when the former Pekin outfielder was in his 90s.

Sea has recently supplied the library with copies of vintage photos from the Celestials’ three-year run, as well as some old newspaper clippings from a series on Pekin’s professional baseball history that Sea wrote for the Pekin Daily Times. In one of his articles in that series, Sea tells the story of the Celestials’ first game in Pekin on May 11, 1909, against Canton’s minor league team.

The photograph, provided courtesy of Gerald Sea, shows the Pekin Celestials professional minor league baseball team in 1909.

The photograph, provided courtesy of Gerald Sea, shows the Pekin Celestials professional minor league baseball team in 1909.

The game drew a crowd of more than 2,000 fans, including Mayor William J. Conzelman, who threw the first pitch. The mayor had declared the day a public holiday, and all the schools and the city offices had closed at noon. A grand parade preceded the game, with the members of both teams, city officials and community leaders marching behind Gehrig’s Band up Court Street, and then back to the P & PU railroad station at Third Street, where a special train took the teams and coaches to the ball park.

“The great day was made a complete success when the Celestials defeated Canton 5-2 behind the pitching of Joe Jenkins, who was to compile a minor league career pitching record of 200 wins and 75 losses and have brief stays with the immortal manager John McGraw’s famed New York Giants in 1911 and 1914,” Sea wrote in Part Five of his Pekin Daily Times series.

In the same article, Sea tells a story from the career of Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. It’s an episode from 1909 that was dramatized in the 1952 movie, “The Winning Team,” starring Doris Day and future U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who played the role of Alexander.

“It was the day, July 27, when the young Alexander, only 22 at the time, was almost killed by a thrown ball,” Sea wrote.

“The game that day was a wild one. Earl ‘Shakey’ Hill, a native of Tremont, was pitching for Galesburg and had hit three Pekin batters with pitched balls. Several other players have received serious spike wounds. These were the days when the game was played, as they say, for ‘keeps.’

“Alexander, playing right field instead of pitching, led off the eighth inning with a single and the next batter hit a ground ball to second. Chief Edwards, the Pekin shortstop, took the throw to get the force at second but on his relay throw to first in a double play attempt hit Alexander, running to second, square in the temple.

“Alex shook off the effects of the blow and staggered to his outfield position where he promptly collapsed.

“Pekin’s Walter ‘Spider’ Diehl, noticed that the future baseball immortal was turning blue in the face, caused by strangulation from blood running into his throat.

“Diehl picked Alexander up by his feet and a ball of blood regurgitated, enabling him to breathe. He was taken to the hotel, where the old Pekin Post Office now stands, and laid there, bed-ridden, for seven days.

“Alexander’s condition was so grave that his father came all the way from Nebraska to be at his bedside. At first it was thought Alex would lose the sight in one eye. He didn’t, but altho he recovered, Alexander played no more baseball that season.

“However, it was from this injury that Alexander was to suffer severe headaches and eventually epilepsy. Had it not been for the injury, perhaps ‘Old Pete’ would not have almost been washed up before his time by imbibing alcohol in order to ease the pain from his headaches. And, had it not been for the quick thinking of ‘Spider’ Diehl, there may not have been any Grover Cleveland Alexander around to strike out Tony Lazzeri and be the hero of the 1926 World Series,” observed Sea.

#baseball, #gehrigs-band, #gerald-sea, #grover-cleveland-alexander, #joe-jenkins, #pekin-celestials, #pekin-history, #spider-diehl, #william-conzelman