Bill Gutknecht and his Royal Footwarmers await the Washburn ferry en route to a 1934 band gig. From left: Jack Wilson, Art Goetz, Frieda and Bill Gutknecht, Otto Goetz, and Ford Hutchinson.
Recalling Hazen's 'Big Band' Days

Froeschle, Dr. Rudy. "Recalling Hazen's 'Big Band' Days." Hazen Star, 24 March 1988.

There is a theory that no sound is ever lost - that it reverberates through the ages, growing fainter but enduring forever.

If that theory is valid, on any quiet night in Mercer County, one should be able to hear echoes of such old favorites as "Margie," "Ain't She Sweet," or "Farewell Blues," arrangements by Bill Gutknecht and the Royal Footwarmers.

During America's Big Band years, Hazen was enjoying its own, though somewhat scaled down big band era. Bill Gutknecht reigned as the local version of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Wayne King, or at least, Lawrence Welk, for there were qualified musicians who would tell you that Bill was a better accordionist than Lawrence. He may well have been, but Bill never abandoned barbering to devote himself fulltime to music.

My involvement with Bill and the Royal Footwarmers came while I was still in high school. I had started playing an alto horn retrieved from our attic. The following year, Myron Skow came to Hazen as school principal and band director, and I moved from alto horn to baritone, on to a valve trombone, and then a slide trombone. Not long afterwards I invested in my "King" trombone (which I still play).

During a haircut session, Bill asked me if I might be interested in trying out for his band and invited me to his house for a practice session. Then came the parental negotiations, for my father was skeptical of dances and the behavior of people who went to them. But he held Bill in high esteem, and he knew that if Bill's wife Frieda was along, I was certainly in good company.

When I brought home my first earnings from a "job," there was no longer a question. My dad approved, even if I didn't get home until five or six in the morning from some of the dance dates. That was during my junior year and the summer of 1939.

We played in school gyms, theaters, town halls, Ferdinand Rahn's barn north of Hazen, the Retterath barn near Stanton, the Nordahl barn near Halliday, and in such other places as Beulah's "Sheepshed" and the Stanton Dome.

Earlier, Bill had played accordion with Christ Schmoll on banjo, soon to be joined by Roland Richter with his clarinet.

Roland Richter, who now lives in Hankinson, in time formed his own band, Roland and his Buddies. His musicians included his brother Eldor, sister-in-law Violet (nee Klundt) on the piano and her brother Victor on accordion. They became widely known and continued playing in the '50s.

Another local group consisted of Pius and Frank Usselman on accordion and banjo, and while they hardly ever qualified as a big band even by Hazen's modest standards, they held strong attractions for one segment of dance fans.

Bill taught me an attitude that has been helpful throughout my life. On one the first jobs I played with his band, I was struggling to keep up with a fast passage. Between numbers, Bill leaned over and said, "If you can't play it, just stamp your foot and keep smiling."

The dance halls we played in seldom ever had "indoor plumbing." Out houses had no electric lights, so Bill spelled out a rule of etiquette that made good sense. "You leave the outhouses to the women and find a quiet place between cars or behind the barn."

Dances usually started around 9 o'clock and featured a midnight lunch break. The band would resume playing at 1 a.m. and continued until "the last dog was hung," often around 4.

When one of the Goetz boys played with the band they usually were thoughtful enough to bring along a jug of the father's homemade wine, which we called "Gottfried's Special." It took only a sip or two to get you in a relaxed mood, and I often felt that may have been what Glenn Miller's arrangers had in mind when he came up with the song title, "In the Mood." Could it have been Gottfried's Special?

In the Big Band era we managed to respond to requests from dancers with such national favorites as "In the Mood," "Tuxedo Junction," Chattanooga Choo Choo," and others. Every drive through Chattanooga reminds me of Veona Skager singing, with Bill and the orchestra behind her.

When it came to a good schottische or polka, no one could equal Bill's speed on the accordion. He also played some of the most dreamy waltzes I have heard, and he enjoyed presenting some fine blues numbers.

Roads in those days were often a problem. There was a night at the Stanton Dome when our group was accompanied by a violent thunderstorm. We were still pulling and shoving the car when the sun came up.

One thing that kept Bill's big band from becoming a bigger band was the size of his car. It held six people, so that was the usual contingent. The money was split 40/60, with 60 percent going to the band, and 40 percent to the people who were running the place. I don't recall anyone ever questioning the honesty of the management as to the number of tickets sold. In dividing the money, Bill got two shares, and each of the other members got one, a fair enough arrangement considering that Bill furnished the car and band management and such auxiliary equipment as amplifiers. Bill was overly generous, but he ran a "happy ship."

Playing for dances did not lead to riches (or fame, for that matter). Eldor Richter, who now lives in California recalls that "on an average night you made three bucks and on the best night you got ten." My best earnings came after three nights at a Killdeer Mountain Roundup when each playing got $25. Times were tough, "but the music sure was good."

Vocalists started playing a big role with the advent of the electric amplifier. One of the earliest was Jack Wilson. He sang at the time Otto Goetz was on the drums, Ford Hutchinson on sax, Art Goetz on banjo, and Frieda on piano. (It could be regarded as a touch of nepotism that Otto and Art were Frieda's brothers and therefore Bill's brothers-in-law.) It also could be mentioned that with six passengers in Bill's Willys, instruments and equipment filled every bit of space, including the roof.

Among others who sang with the band were Joe Schwartz and Ruth Vreeland, as well as Mercer County's first black entertainer, Frank Mann. Frank was not only a good singer but also tap danced, adding a new dimension to the band's entertainment. He claimed to be a former army pilot and had a photo of himself standing by an early airplane. Some doubt surrounds his claim. The army was not integrated in those days and the first black pilots were not trained until World War II. Frank was becoming established as a local fixture by the time the federal authorities showed up to escort him back to some prison that had a claim on him.

In 1938 Veona Skager joined the band as a vocalist and continued until the group disbanded (good word) during World War II.

Bill's daughter, Marion, counts among her fond memories the band rehearsing in the Gutknecht living room after she was sent to bed, and hearing Veona singing "Hutsut Rawlston on the Rillera," a big hit of the late '30s. At that time, Wally Stoelting was on clarinet, Frieda's brother Leo was on trumpet, Edgar Gutknecht on bass, and Ronald Keeley on the drums. After Wallace left town, Carolyn Bohrer played clarinet and the piano as well. I was playing trombone, but we didn't make all the band trips. There wasn't room in Bill's car.

Tommy Dorsey was my musical hero and the main reason I bought a King trombone which cost the princely sum of $95 at $20 down and $5 a month for what seemed like the rest of my life. At the time I was getting $1 a week working most of my spare time for Butch Schwartz at the meat market. The alligator case cost me another $20, but after 50 years it's still in great shape and has proved to be a real eye-catcher among Florida's environmentalists.

It was not only important to have a King trombone like Dorsey's, but also to be able to play his theme, "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You." I have struggle to match the Dorsey technique ever since and I get some satisfaction from hearing the lead trombonist of the Milwaukee Symphony struggling in the same manner on "Big Band Night."

I still have a soft spot in my heart for the owner of the dance hall in Halliday. She always requested that I play the Dorsey theme.

I continued to play with Bill's band until I joined the air corps in 1942, and there I had the opportunities to play with bands on different bases.

After I was shot down over Germany and became a prisoner of war in 1943, one of the first requests I made (of the YMCA, which was offering recreation equipment to POWs) was for a slide trombone. The horn didn't last too long. It may have been a musical critique by my fellow prisoners, or merely a passion for liquid refreshment, but my horn became a vital part of a still, which provided booze for our 1943 and 1944 Christmas celebrations. The horn won fame of sorts in the movie "The Great Escape," in which it was prominently displayed on top of the still that bolstered a Fourth of July celebration.

Reprinted with permission of the Hazen Star.

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