Many years ago, when I was helping my grandmother decide which records to donate to the New York Public Library from her extensive collection, I found a set of fragile shellac discs protected by brown paper sleeves. They were old dance records from the 1920s that had belonged to my grandfather Joseph Follmann Jr., who passed away in 1989.
These were 78s, and thus could fit only one song on a side. The songs included “Say That You Love Me” by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians and “Old Man River” by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra. All were recorded at the Victor Studios in Camden, New Jersey. Among them were two discs of songs from old Mask & Wig productions.
My grandmother had a 78 setting on her record player — or as she called it, a “victrola.” We put on a record of “Gems from ‘Hoot Mon,'” from the 39th annual production of the Mask & Wig Club, which included the foxtrot “We’ll Paddle Our Canoe” recorded by Nat Shilkret and the Victor Orchestra and the Mask & Wig Glee Chorus. Then there was “I Live the Life I Love” from a record labeled “50/50,” the name of the 1937 show. According to alumnus Don Fisher, my grandfather was credited as the conductor and rehearsal pianist — he loved the Club so much he came back seven years after graduation to assist with the show.
The sound was scratchy and thin, the voices high pitched and nasal.
We saved the records.
I was only ten when Grandpa died, yet I knew that he loved the Mask & Wig Club, that legendary theatrical troupe started by a group of University of Pennsylvania students in 1889 and whose song-and-dance antics have been delighting Philadelphia (and American) audiences ever since. Among the group’s notable alumni was Bobby Troup, who composed the jazz standard “Route 66.”
Among the pictures in my parents’ home is a photograph of Grandpa Joe seated with the West Philadelphia High School orchestra. He was a pianist, so unlike the other members who are proudly holding their flutes, violins, and trumpets, he is sitting hands folded next to the portly, mustachioed conductor. There is also a framed certificate of his election to the Club dated May 1, 1929, and his Club rosette sits in an old Penn shot glass. “Made in France,” the rosette’s brass clasp reads.
Grandpa served as music director of the Club his senior year, composing many of the songs and the pit band. In those days, the Club toured around the country in a special Pullman train, graciously provided by the Pennsylvania Railroad. He graduated from the Wharton School in 1930 with hopes of becoming a professional musician. According to family lore, he even played piano at the Folies Begere in Paris and recorded with dance bands such as Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, whose most famous song was “Collegiate,” a hot jazz riff on the carelessness of Roaring Twenties college life: “trousers, baggy, all our clothes look raggy, but we’re rough-and-ready. Yay. Rah Rah. Very, very, very, seldom in a hurry. Real collegiate are we.”
Yet the life of a professional musician is always tough, and during the Depression it was nearly impossible to be “seldom in a hurry” to make ends meet. He went into the insurance business and married a stage actress, dividing his time between New York and Philadelphia. He became close friends with a number of people in the Philadelphia arts scene through his involvement with the Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley, befriending actors such as Richard Basehart (who played Ishmael in the classic movie Moby Dick, starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab) and Eleanor “Siddy” Wilson (an actress and artistic polymath from the Wetherill paint family, who created abstract canvases well into her 90s).
Grandpa Joe lost his first wife to cancer in the 1950s, and took a cruise on the Holland-America liner Maasdam. It was onboard this ship that he met my grandmother, tragically widowed at a young age with two children — my uncle and mother. The two were married shortly afterward, and Grandpa Joe moved permanently to New Rochelle, New York. Grandpa retired from his job as an insurance executive in the 1960s, taught as an adjunct at NYU’s Stern School of Business, wrote a few business books, and continued to play the piano, both jazz and classical.
My brother Andrew and I spent a lot of time as young children at our grandparents’ Upper East Side apartment. The piano was at the center of the living room, a 1926 Steinway that Grandma and Grandpa had purchased together. A two foot high statue of Beethoven, painted to look like bronze, sat on the piano case, along with two brass candlesticks. Grandpa loved playing the Peter’s theme from Serge Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” for my brother and me, and we could not get enough of it. Sometimes, he would put my hands over his as he ran his fingers over the keys.
I never learned how to play. I tried the oboe instead. “That’s one difficult instrument,” Grandpa scoffed. He was right. After I had braces put on, I got lazy, stopped practicing, and that was the end of that.
In his early 80s, Grandpa Joe began suffering from memory problems. One day, he sat down at the Steinway and started to play a piece he had composed many years ago, according to my grandmother a short “filler” piece for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Yet he could not remember it. My grandmother said he closed the piano, walked away, and never opened it again. He died soon after from a heart attack.
The Mask & Wig records are now at my parents house, locked away in a case along with other records from Grandpa Joe’s extensive classical library that did not get donated to the New York Public Library. Yet there is no turntable to play them now, either at 33 or 78 RPM.
Beethoven is there too, standing with his arms folded amidst a forest of houseplants. He did, after all, like taking afternoon walks in the Vienna woods.