Popular Songs of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition


Popular Songs of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition

James M. Keller

The Panama-Pacific International Exposition was teeming with music. Its concert calendar included appearances by some of the nation’s most renowned musical ensembles, including the Boston Symphony and Sousa’s Band; concerts on the exposition’s mammoth organ, which comprised some 6,500 pipes; and a stream of famous singers and instrumental soloists, choral groups, military bands, and performers from exotic climes.

Hello Frisco Columbia932Popular music was flourishing as a colossal industry at the time, with sheet music sales near an all-time peak even as phonograph records began to displace the parlor piano as the prime means of conveying popular music. Dozens of songs and instrumental pieces celebrating the P.P.I.E. sprang into existence, their popularity benefiting from the nation’s obsession with the fair while providing a barrage of publicity and boosterism in return. One of the top-selling recordings of 1915 was a Victor release by the concert singers Olive Kline and Reinald Werrenrath of “Hello, Frisco!” (lyrics by Gene Buck, music by Louis A. Hirsch), introduced that year in the Ziegfeld Follies. It spent ten weeks at the top of the Billboard chart, a sales-monitoring tool that magazine had established two years earlier. In the song, two lovers—one in New York, the other in San Francisco—make use of the newly established transcontinental telephone service to exchange sweet nothings. It was a topic of great fascination to Americans just then, as the official inauguration of coast-to-coast long-distance service had been timed to coincide with the opening of the P.P.I.E., in January 1915.  Scroll down to hear “Hello, Frisco!” and other songs written for the P.P.I.E.

Few songwriters could hope for the magnitude of commercial success “Hello, Frisco!” achieved. In fact, most of them could not realistically expect their P.P.I.E.-related songs to make much impact at all, let alone graduate from sheet music to sound recordings. Of the 17 sheet music covers included here, a handful were issued by the songwriter himself —essentially “vanity publications” of the sort that could be produced at the corner printing shop—or by strictly local enterprises (such as the Florintine Music Company of San Francisco or the Southwest Music Publishing Company of Oakland) that were a small step up in mercantile standing. Even in these cases, one can only be impressed by the effort songwriters put into the presentation of their minor masterpieces.

A case in point is the cover design of “San Francisco Panama 1915 March,” by Damasus G. Gallur (and published by “Gallur & Co.” in 1911, in anticipation of the event itself). There the year of the Exposition boldly overlaps a pair of photographic images of San Francisco’s Market Street, by then already rebuilt since the destructive earthquake and fire of 1906. In 1912, Gallur issued another “advance song” titled “Just Like Old St. Louis Louis, Take Me to the Frisco Fair,” the sheet music of which includes an advertisement for “San Francisco Panama 1915 March,” which is characterized as “the most valuable composition in years, sold by the composer for $52,000.00”—a claim that invites a raised eyebrow. As things turned out, Gallur did not have many years in which to enjoy his presumed fortune. In the summer of 1915, while the P.P.I.E. was in full swing, the Oakland Tribune carried a series of lurid reports such as: “The stone walls of San Quentin prison may drop like a pall over the souls of some men, crushing the spirit and searing the imagination. But the soul of Senor Damascus [sic] Garcia Gavieres Gallur, one-time Oakland musician and former lifer of San Quentin, soared higher than prison walls. It built melodies by the hundred; it created a huge bank account: it maintained a prison romance with a former pupil, and now it has created an estate in Spain, with Gallur as co-heir. But, says State Parole Officer Ed Whyte, Gallur’s melodies never sold; he never had any money; the romance with his student-sweetheart is dead, and now his claim to be a sharer in the Spanish estate is under investigation.” He was convicted of murdering a man to whom he owed money. “When arrested the professor declared that he had intended to hang the body to a telegraph pole ‘as an example to usurers,’” stated the Tribune. Though sentenced to a life term, Gallur was released in 1929, at the age of 49, having been incapacitated by a stroke. In 1918, the San Quentin Prison Band had premiered a composition of Gallur’s incongruously titled “Pride of the Nations.”

At the other end of the spectrum, several firms of more widespread prestige issued sheet music pegged to the P.P.I.E. Here we see such examples as Norman Studer’s “Panama Pacific Exposition March,” released by the regional Homer Tourjée Publishing Company of Los Angeles, and Leo Friedman’s “Exposition March San Francisco 1915,” from the Chicago firm of Frank K. Root (whose uncle, George F. Root, had published some of the most famous songs of the Civil War).

The most famous songwriter who surfaces in these selections is George W. Meyer, who for years was a respected figure on Tin Pan Alley but whose name is rarely invoked today. Born in Boston in 1884, he fled early bouts as an electrician and an accountant, became a song plugger promoting new tunes by other writers to vaudeville performers, produced the first of his own hit songs in 1909, and went on to gain stature as a composer and publisher (in both of which capacities he is represented in this exhibition). He worked repeatedly with a small coterie of lyricists, including Sam M. Lewis, with whom he also collaborated on such short-lived hits as “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday on Saturday Night” (introduced by Al Jolson in 1916) and “Tuck Me to Sleep in My Old ’Tucky Home” (1921, a three million-copy seller championed by Eddie Cantor). The only one of his songs that remains familiar a century later is “For Me and My Gal” (1917), which sold two million copies when it was new and got a second wind through a 1942 Judy Garland/Gene Kelly movie of the same name. In 1951, The Blue Book of Tin Pan Alley reported that “the top-selling songs he has written have piled up a total sales record of 25,000,000 copies.” “What makes George Meyer’s record as writer of sensational sellers all the more remarkable,” it continued, “is the fact that it was hung up before the advent of the radio and the movie sound track, the most potent agencies of song plugging today and for the past twenty years.” His song “San Francisco (At That San Fran Pan American Fair)” was published in 1914, a year before the P.P.I.E. opened, just as The Great War was beginning to consume Europe. Meyer’s cheerful syncopations join forces with Lewis’s hopeful lyrics to put an optimistic spin on current events:

… Send out your invitations,

Don’t forget the foreign nations,

Make them stop their plottin’

All will be forgotten

When they’re turkey trottin’

To a Yankee melody.

We’ll mend the map of Europe,

We’ll end that scrap in Europe,

At that San-Fran-Pan-American fair.

Scroll down to hear “San Francisco (At That San Fran Pan American Fair)” and other songs written for the P.P.I.E.

~ James M. Keller, the long-time Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic, curated the exhibition Singing the Golden State, which ran at the Society of California Pioneers in 2012-13 before embarking on a statewide tour of regional museums.