Thursday, August 12, 2010

Schmaltz In The Air

Art Kassel did not start out in radio, he just got there in a hurry. He began in Chicago playing in dixieland bands around 1923.  It was a struggle. Eventually he found his way into playing "sweet" ballroom dance music. It was pure schmaltz. There's no other word for it. It was not the music of a serious musician, as it tended to bore real jazz men. But it paid well.

He started his own ballroom dance band in 1926. His orchestra started playing the venetian room of the Southmoor Hotel in Chicago. That was significant. Ballrooms were a good gig, but hotels were a regular paycheck. In 1928 his band began playing at the Metropole Hotel.  (This venue was also the headquarters for Al Capone.) In 1929 he broke into radio. His own Castles in the Air program debuted live at Al Tearney's Grand Auto Inn.  It was at Grand Boulevard and 35th street on the South Side of Chicago.This was a live broadcast for WBBM

That attention got them a gig at a bigger venue before the end of 1929.  They were playing at the Terrace Casino room of the Morrison Hotel, still on WBBM. In 1930 they moved to the even bigger place, the Walnut Room at The Bismark Hotel. But I feel the need to remind you that the music was lame. In his book That Toddlin' Town: Chicago's White Dance Bands and Orchestras, Charles Sengstok described the situation thus:
"Since most dance bands sounded alike in those days the challenge for an orchestra broadcasting frequently from one dance venue or another was to develop a special sound that would quickly identify it to listeners.  bands introduced theme songs and tag lines The Musical Gems Of Ray Pearl" or "Art Kassel And His Kassels In The Air." But more than that, they hired arrangers to give their music a distinctive sound, which often resulted in music with more style than substance."
In 1933 they were playing twice a day on 670 WMAQ-AM; once at 7:15 and again after 12:30 PM. That show was carried on the NBC Red Network. In the 1940s they moved the show to The Aragon Ballroom and WGN-AM carried the program. Then on tour in 1940 they did a set of shows on WOR-AM. On December 22nd, 1944 they returned to the Bismark Hotel still live, but still with WGN-AM. But that was just home base, they toured every year not taking a break until 1952, that's 25 consecutive years. In that time it's also worth noting that one of his vocalists, Billy Leach had his own radio career that took off.  I'll have to write about him another day.

In 1951 Art moved to Encino California where he appeared for two years with a new orchestra on a local television program, The Gloria Hart Show. He never went back to radio. He died in 1965 of cancer.