Fischer’s Exposition Orchestra: “Kalamazoo’s Premiere Band”
Kalamazoo has long had a strong connection with the production and performance of music. Since the mid-nineteenth century, local, nationally-recognized and even world-famous instrument makers, educators and performers have actively pursued their craft in Kalamazoo. Yet perhaps few were as revered during their own time as were the bands and orchestras of Charles and Burton Fischer, known throughout the world as Fischer’s Exposition Orchestra.
Charles Leonard Fischer
Born in Kalamazoo in 1879, Charles Leonard Fischer was already a success orchestra leader and business manager by the time he was a teenager. During his lifetime, one would be hard pressed to discuss anything about popular music in Kalamazoo without hearing Fischer’s name mentioned. The son of William Fischer, a prominent local butcher, Charlie was educated locally, and learned to play the violin while attending the Madam Jannasch-Shortt Musical Institute on East Main Street. He later attended Kalamazoo College, where he studied under Mrs. A. G. Slocum.
“The Man with the Million Dollar Smile”
In 1894, Charles—just fifteen years of age at the time—joined Chester Z. Bronson’s Symphony Orchestra, an early precursor to the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. Fischer would later play leading roles in subsequent orchestras that ultimately led to the formation of the current KSO.
Burton Edward Fischer
The younger of the two brothers, Burton Edward Fischer was a skilled pianist, instructor, music publisher, and prolific composer. Born in Kalamazoo in 1882, Master “Bertie” Fischer was a star pupil when Madam Jannasch-Shortt and her students gave their holiday concert at the Academy of Music in December 1892. By age fifteen, Burton was already playing for dances and other social occasions with his brother and their friends.
“The Dean of Kalamazoo Musicians”
Burton Fischer would devote his entire life to writing, performing, publishing and teaching music. Over the years, Fischer composed and published dozens of popular tunes, including pieces written specifically for the Western Normal School (WMU) football team (“The Squad”), Kalamazoo College (“All Hail to Kazoo!”), the University of Michigan’s junior dance called the “J-Hop” (“A Toast to All the Girls”), and others.
“The Symphony orchestra has lately been organized... They have been busily engaged in rehearsals lately and are now prepared to furnish music for parties, receptions, etc.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 4 December 1896
The Fischer brothers formed their first professional orchestra in 1896 while both were still in high school. The seven member orchestra consisted of Charlie Fischer, director and first violin; Burton Fischer, piano; Carey Lull, second violin; James C. Hatfield, second violin; Arthur Slocum*, second cornet; Harry B. Parker**, flute; Allen Hughes, first cornet; and Ary Bradshaw, alto. Billing themselves as the “Symphony Orchestra,” their first professional engagements were at the local YMCA. According to one band member, the young musicians were paid nothing for the first performance, and just 55¢ for the second.
“Class of ‘97”
The following summer, Fischer’s “Symphony Orchestra” performed for the Kalamazoo High School graduation exercises at the YMCA auditorium. According to the Kalamazoo Telegraph, “The Symphony orchestra played the opening march, and furnished music throughout the evening. Every seat was occupied.”
The group soon found themselves playing for dancing parties nearly every Monday evening in downtown Kalamazoo. According to Harry Parker, flutist in Fischer’s first orchestra and later a founding member of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, “Charlie got $1.50, Bert got a dollar, and the rest got 75 cents” (Gazette). Humble as it might have been, this was the beginning of one of the most popular dance bands in the Midwest at the time.
Fischer Brothers’ Orchestra
By 1899, Fischer’s Orchestra was working steadily, playing frequently for parties, dances, and other social gatherings. The band consisted of six full-time members by this time; Charles Fischer, manager, leader and first violin; Burton Fischer, piano; Fred Day, clarinet; Fred Davis, cornet; Frank Newell, trombone; and John Quintal, second violin. In June 1899, the orchestra was contracted to play for the Paw Paw High School commencement exercises, and the social dance that followed. A feature of the band’s repertoire that season was a ragtime piece called “Kalamazoo, An Original Rag-Time Cake-Walk,” composed by their good friend Eddie Desenberg.
During the spring of 1901, the Fischer brothers got their first big break when Charlie signed a contract with E.M. Statler to play a twenty-week engagement at Statler’s Pan-American Hotel in Buffalo, New York, in conjunction with the 1901 World’s Fair, known as the Pan-American Exposition. With accommodations for more than five thousand, Statler’s hotel provided an ideal venue where hundreds of thousands of guests could see and enjoy Fischer’s Orchestra. “It is a well deserved honor,” applauded the Telegraph, “and is a credit to [Fischer] as well as a compliment to the musical talent of Kalamazoo.” As a special honor, Fischer’s Orchestra was selected to perform at the Michigan Building on the Exposition grounds during Michigan Day, August 20th. Thereafter, the orchestra became known as Fischer’s Pan-American Orchestra, and later, Fischer’s Exposition Orchestra.
“The orchestra has met with splendid success at Buffalo, having played at some ultra-swell social maneuvers at Statler’s and been the recipients of many compliments.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 1 September 1901
“Back to Old Kazoo”
Following the orchestra’s successful run in Buffalo, Fischer immediately began to receive additional offers, including a request to perform at the Charleston (SC) Exposition later that same winter. Fischer declined, however, saying “I wanted to get back to old Kazoo and our friends” (Gazette).
University of Michigan “J-Hop”
After the 1901 Worlds Fair, the band returned to Kalamazoo and enjoyed several seasons of steady employment at area hotels, colleges and resorts. With the success of their first World’s Fair engagement, an opportunity of special merrit came along in December 1901 when Fischer’s Orchestra was selected to furnish the music for the University of Michigan’s annual junior dance known as the “J-Hop.” This was the first time an orchestra from outside of the Detroit area had been chosen to perform, so Fischer assembled a full fifteen-piece orchestra for the occasion. The event was a hit, and the Ann Arbor J-Hop would become an annual tradition for Fischer and his orchestras. In all, Fischer’s bands would be featured some sixteen times at this yearly event.
“Meet Me in St. Louis”
In 1904, another big break came when Fischer again contracted with E. M. Statler for a five month stint at the St. Louis World’s Fair, playing daily at Statler’s famed Inside Inn. The prestigious 2,257-room Inside Inn with dining room and restaurant seating for 2,500 was considered the “official” hotel of the Exposition as it was located right on the Exposition grounds. “We recognized the orderly and gentlemanly conduct of the boys,” stated E. M. Statler in a letter to Charles Fischer, “and will pay you more than was asked by another organization, equally as good but the members of it we do not know.” Fischer packed up his finest ten-piece orchestra and boarded the train for St. Louis on May 16th. Once again, Fischer’s musicians would be able to showcase their expertise in front of the millions who flocked to the World’s Fair.
Fischer’s ‘World’s Fair’ Orchestra, May 1904
- Charles Fischer, leader, volin (Kalamazoo)
- Burton Fischer, piano (Kalamazoo)
- Harry W. Morrill, clarinet (Brockton, MA)
- G. Borch, cello soloist (Detroit)
- Harry P. Barbour, flute, picollo (Providence, RI)
- Dan W. Barton, drummer (Oshkosh, WI)
- William Addison, trombone soloist (Detroit, Chicago)
- Charles Wolfe, violin, cornet (Kalamazoo)
- Harry B. Jay, cornet (Kalamazoo)
- Frank A. Newell, trombone, bass (Kalamazoo)
“An Organization of Merit”
Thereafter adopting the name of Fischer’s World’s Fair Orchestra, the band again returned to Michigan and performed tirelessly throughout the summer months at entertainment hot spots like the Allendale resort on Gull Lake, Kalamazoo’s Oakwood Park, the Imperial Hotel in Petoskey, and the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. Additionally, Fischer’s Orchestra was engaged for multiple tours of the Midwest and South with Redpath Chautauqua, Community Chautauqua and others. For its 1906 season, the orchestra logged nearly 15,000 miles. Reports of audiences numbering in the thousands—even tens-of-thousands—were not uncommon.
At one point, Fischer split his musicians into at least six different ensembles just to fulfil an ever-growing list of commitments throughout the Midwest. For example, on a single evening in 1919—New Years Eve—Fischer’s Exposition Orchestra (under the direction of Charles Fischer) played for a dance in Battle Creek, while Fischer’s Jazzadores (directed by Burton Fischer) were in Lima, Ohio. At the same time, Fischer’s Novelty Orchestra (directed by Peter Houtsema) was in Holland, Fischer’s Banjo Phiends (directed by Jim Johnstone) were in Niles, Fischer’s Jazz Orchestra (directed by Burt Reeves) was in Kalamazoo with Godwin’s dance assembly, and Fischer’s Jazz Band (directed by Mrs. R. Briggs) entertained the hometown crowds at the Park-American Hotel, also in Kalamazoo. A typical week might see Fischer’s “First” Orchestra performing in Jackson on Tuesday, Grand Rapids on Wednesday, Saginaw on Thursday, Lansing Friday and Saturday, then back in Kalamazoo on Monday. According to an April 1907 report, the band performed every single night (except three) for seven months in a row, and was still booked to play every night for at least another month after that.
Fischer’s schedule included engagements at some of the finest resorts in the Midwest and many prestigious special events, including a performance for President Roosevelt during a reception in Lansing in 1907, which was said to be “the swellest event of the season” (Gazette).
Jamestown Exposition of 1907
In the fall of 1907, Fischer again packed up his orchestra and headed to Norfolk, Virginia for a extended run at the Inside Inn during the Jamestown Exposition, Fischer's third World’s Fair engagement. From mid-September until mid-November, Fischer’s World’s Fair Orchestra entertained guests inside the massive hotel and during specially scheduled concert performances on the exposition grounds, where as many as four thousand were in attendance.
912 South West Street
In 1908, Charles Fischer and his wife purchased a stately home at 912 South West Street (now 914 South Westnedge). Aside from being his family residence and orchestra business office, the Fischer home served as a rehearsal space where band members could work out the intricate arrangements of their latest compositions, and an instruction room for band members who gave music lessons to supplement their orchestra commitments and various “day jobs.” 912 South West Street would remain the primary address and business office of Fischer’s many orchestras and ensembles for some 22 years.
In addition to their orchestra work, the Fischer brothers were both active music merchants in the local economy. Charles Fischer owned and operated a retail music store (Fischer’s Music Shop) in downtown Kalamazoo from 1911 through 1919, where the latest popular music sheets (including Burton Fischer’s compositions), Victrolas, and 78rpm records were sold. Fischer’s Orchestra performed at the store on special occasions, including a concert performance during the grand opening in June 1911. Burton Fischer formed his own music publishing company (The Burton E. Fischer Publishing Co.) as a commercial outlet for many of his own compositions and the work of others.
“The Bee Ne’er Returns...” by Burton Edward Fischer, 1910
Midi sequence by James Pitt-Payne, London, UK, 2004
Today, we enjoy music by our favorite artists in a variety of formats; streaming off the Internet, on the radio, on CD, on mobile devices, etc. A century ago, sheet music was all the rage. While the recording industry was in its infancy, fans without the desire or ability to acquire an actual recording simply bought the music sheets and attempted to recreate their favorite tunes for themselves.
Word of Burton Fischer’s music began to spread. “You have quite a famous composer right here in Kalamazoo,” said John Philip Sousa during a local visit in 1912, “I know from what I have heard here in Kalamazoo that Mr. Fischer is all right. That ‘One Little Dance’ sounds awful good to me” (Gazette). Sousa’s band reportedly featured the song as an encore during the tour.
As Fischer’s orchestras grew more and more popular, fans combed the music shops for copies of the latest pieces that the bands were playing, many of which were composed by Burton Fischer himself, with words by leading local and regional lyricists.
The Fischer brothers were driven to keep their organizations up-to-date, and always at the forefront of technology for their time. In October 1917, the orchestra traveled to Camden, New Jersey, to make a few test recordings for Victor Records. According to Victor ledgers, the band cut at least a half-dozen sides on 10 October 1917. These included “Casino Jazz” (a Burton Fischer composition) (two takes), “Vienese Melodies” (one take), “Oodles of Pep” (another Burton Fischer composition) (one take), and a Burton Fischer arrangement of “Annie Laurie” (two takes), a trombone and cornet duet by Edward Snuggs and William Reifsnyder, both members of Fischer’s Orchestra. Unfortunately, it appears that none of these recordings were ever issued commercially and apparently no future contract with Victor resulted.
Fischer’s ‘Exposition’ Orchestra, June 1921
- Charles Fischer, leader, volin, banjo
- Burton Fischer, piano, clarinet
- Teddy Fugman, clarinet, saxophone
- Jack Robinson, banjo, saxophone, piano
- Will Greene, trumpet
- Harry Barbour, flute, saxophone
- Charles Barbour, trombone, violin
- Harry Bernstein, drims, marimba
During the infant days of radio, Fischer’s orchestras were “on the air,” as well. In 1922, Fischer’s “Full” Orchestra became the first band outside of Detroit to broadcast over WCX (now WJR), just days after the station first went on. On Sunday evening, 28 May 1922, the orchestra performed before a crowd of some five thousand in Milwaukee, which was, in turn, broadcast live over the radio and played for the band’s home audience at a special Oakwood Park “Radio Dance.”
Fischer Jazz Band
After the First World War, musical tastes began to change and audiences were drawn to newer, more modern “jazz” arrangements. Always eager to be up-to-date, the Fischer brothers formed a host of touring jazz bands during the nineteen-teens and early twenties, just to meet the growing demand for a “peppier” syncopated sound. These included the Fischer Jazz Band, Fischer’s Jazzadores, Fischer’s Banjophiends, and Fischer’s Serenaders. And Fischer had no trouble keeping all of his bands busy. During the summer of 1920 while Fischer’s Exposition Orchestra kept the folks dancing at the “Big Casino” in South Haven, Fischer’s Jazz Band (featuring James “Jazz” Johnstone) entertained the crowds at Kalamazoo’s Oakwood Park, Fischer’s Jazzadores played concert and dance engagements at the resort hotels in Charlevoix and Petoskey, and Fischer’s Banjophiends filled engagements in Kalamazoo and elsewhere around the state.
James H. “Jazz” Johnstone
Fischer’s star banjo player, a long-time Gibson employee named James H. “Jazz” Johnstone, made quite a name for himself during the early twenties as a music instructor by teaching eager students how to “jazz” on the tenor banjo and mandolin. At the same time, several other members of Fischer’s Orchestra were part of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra’s 1921 inception, including Frank Newell, Charles Brocato, and William Reifsnyder.
In 1922, the Fischer brothers tried again to capture the sound of their orchestra on record. This time, they traveled to Richmond, Indiana, for a session at Gennett Records, now legendary for the many famous names that recorded there (New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, William Jennings Bryan, and others). According to discographer Brian Rust, two pieces were attempted during the October 7th session; “Maggie Blues” (no. 11198) and “Faded Love Letters” (no. 11199). Unfortunately, it appears that, like the previous attemps with Victor, neither of these recordings were ever issued commercially.
“Dancing ‘Round the World with Charlie Fischer and His Music”
For many years, the Kalamazoo Gazette ran a column called “Twenty Years Ago,” which culled interesting tidbits from the daily papers published two decades earlier. In January 1909, a forward-looking counterpart called “Twenty Years From Now” took readers on an imaginary journey into the future to see what Kalamazoo’s leading residents might be doing by then. In a lighthearted jab at Fischer’s then exploding popularity, the columnist fantasized that “Charles Fischer and his Famous Exposition Orchestra [had just] returned from Europe where they played with great success before the crowned heads of Europe” (Kalamazoo Gazette, 30 January 1909). Who could have imagined that those very words would indeed prove surprisingly accurate... almost exactly twenty years later?!
In 1926, the band had yet another big break when Fischer contracted with Belgium’s Red Star Line for a four-month around-the-world cruise as the official shipboard orchestra aboard the SS Belgenland, advertised as “The Largest Ship to Circle the Globe.” During the 29,000 mile, sixty-city journey (the ship’s third world cruise), Fischer’s Orchestra performed while on board and in many of the ports they visited along the way, including luxury hotels in Tokyo, Peking, Bombay, Cairo, and Naples.
The 1926-27 excursion proved successful enough that the Fischer Orchestra was again engaged for three subsequent world cruises; 1927-28, 1930-31, and a fourth in 1931-32—the SS Belgenland’s final cruise around the world.
During the 1930-31 cruise, actor Douglas Fairbanks and his wife Mary Pickford were passengers aboard the SS Belgenland, as was professor Albert Einstein. According to one newspaper account, Einstein borrowed Charlie Fischer’s hat during the trip when they went ashore for a stroll, only to have the hat stolen by an apparent souvenir hunter. Amused by the incident, Fischer told the reporter, “I still laugh when I think how someone must be treasuring that hat. I wonder what they’d do if they knew who really owned it.”
In addition to his scientific mind, Einstein was a great lover of music and he enjoyed playing the violin. After an afternoon of rehearsing with the orchestra, Einstein borrowed Charlie’s violin and joined the band for a few selections during a special Christmas Eve program while en route to California off the west coast of Central America. “After a few minutes,” commented Fischer band member Carl Kay, “we were listening to one of the world’s greatest scientists doing a good job of playing the violin.” Einstein was featured in three selections; Beethoven’s 5th violin sonata “Spring,” “Berceuse” by Benjamin Godard, and as requested by Mrs. Einstein, Handel’s “Largo.” “We were all glad that Einstein asked to play with our orchestra,” noted Kay, “and I think he enjoyed it too.”
Live Radio Broadcasts
Fischer’s musicians had numerous opportunities to show off their talents during their four world cruises. They performed live radio broadcasts for KGU in Honolulu, JOAK in Tokyo, JOBK in Osaka, Colombo Broadcasting Station in Sri Lanka, and the Indian Broadcasting Company in Bombay (now Mumbai). Following their 1931 broadcast in Tokyo, Fischer’s Orchestra performed for three consecutive nights at the lavish Florida Ballroom in that city, where they were awarded a silver cup for winning a “battle of the bands” contest against another American dance orchestra. Later in the same trip while en route from Hong Kong to Bangkok, Fischer’s Orchestra was featured during a special party held in the ship’s Tea Room for Douglas Fairbanks.
Carl Kay’s Journal
During the 1930-31 world cruise, Fischer’s bassist Carl Kay kept a detailed journal about the places they visited and the experiences they had. In his journal, Kay noted that the Japanese audiences loved American jazz, and were enthralled with Kay’s “slap string bass” style of playing, evidently the first time those audiences had seen, as Kay described, “such a queer method of playing.”
Fischer’s SS Belgenland Orchestra, 1930-31
- Charles L. Fischer, director, violin
- Burton E. Fischer, piano
- Ted Fugmann, alto sax
- Tom Johnson, trumpet
- Harold Stoddard, drums
- Fritz Waldron, tenor sax
- Carl Kay, banjo, basses
Columbia Recording Company
While in Osaka in January 1931, the band spent the better part of a day at the Columbia Recording Company’s “laboratory,” where they cut four songs – two popular jazz pieces (Phil Baxter’s “Harmonica Harry” and “Ding Dong Daddy”), plus two Japanese folk songs—“jazz style.” (It is not yet known if these were ever commercially released.)
For more than fifty years, Fischer’s motto was “You Don’t Have to Dance To Fischer’s Music, Just Get On and Ride.” Even in later years, the Fischer name continued to be an important part of the Kalamazoo music scene. Charles Fischer, Burton Fischer and Ed Snuggs performed frequently during the forties as the “Twilight Serenade Trio” and were often broadcast locally over WKZO radio.
Fischer’s “Globe Trotters,” including long-time Fischer alumni Ed Snuggs and Will Reifsnyder, continued to perform locally and around the region until Charles’ death in 1948. Burton Fischer continued to write and perform right up until his death in 1965, as did fellow bandmate Edward Snuggs, who led a popular series of Sunday band concerts in Milham Park until his death in 1971.
Like many of our Local History essays, this article is by no means a definitive study; rather it may be viewed as a work-in-progress. If you have new information, corrections, or items to share, please contact the author or the Local History Room.
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