One of the world’s finest violinists performed in Bisbee in 1920 to a packed house. A recording of his work from that era is included below.
As the superior court in Tombstone was in the final stages of selecting a jury for the kidnapping trial of Harry Wootton in early March 1920, Bisbee was being soothed by the music of world-famous violinist Jacques Thibaud.
In what was a century-earlier version of today’s For the Love of Music classical music series held at the Bisbee Woman’s Club, this event was part of the season for the local Musical Events Club.
On the Lavender Jeep Tour, I often point out to visitors that Opera Drive got its name from the former presence of the Opera House, which did sponsor some opera, but was mainly a vaudeville house, among other more plebeian activities.
Similarly in 1920, when the columns were filled with ads for minstrel shows, this event was unusual enough to justify listing in the news article the specific music that he would be playing.
Thibaud, who later in life would play with the likes of the virtuoso cellist Pablo Casals, already had a top reputation, both at home and abroad. He had extended his tour of America and that, reported the Bisbee Daily Review, “has been a source of widspread gratification. Thibaud is the one great representative of the fine French school of violin playing and his following in this country has assumed extraordinary proportions.”
The local newspaper quoted extensively from the Chicago American about the musician and his work.
Tickets on sale 3 days before performance
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Tickets for the performance at the Grand Theatre went on sale three days before the event at Reynold’s Music Shop, and business was “brisk.” Show-goers were encouraged to buy as soon as possible.
The Review promoted the event for several days before the performance. On the day prior to the performance, it called Thibaud “an artist in the strictest sense of the term. He has demonstrated this to the critics and musicians in the East and this tour of the West promises to add to his vogue materially.”
The morning of the performance, the Review pointed out he had played in the great concert halls of continental Europe as well as in the biggest cities of this country and “has been met everwhere with praise and acclamation.” On this day it quoted from the Boston Post.
The paper praised the Musical Events Club for “a musical season of the highest merit.”
It also reported that Thibaud had arrived in Bisbee the prior night and was staying at the Copper Queen Hotel. With him, the paper said, was his accompanist, Louis Grunberg. If it was Louis Gruenberg (1884-1964) who accompanied him, [which is likely; Musical America in 1921 links the two men], he too was a premier musician of the age. Gruenberg often worked as an accompanist, but made his mark as a composer, even writing a concerto commissioned and debuted by Jascha Heifetz, regarded as one of history’s finest violinists.
Thibaud (1880-1953) gained fame in France beginning at age 16, when he won the Paris Conservatoire’s violin prize. He was injured during World War I and had to rebuild his technique. He toured as a solo act and with groups.
In a brief article after the Friday night performance, the Review noted that “Thibaud delights music lovers with mastery of violin.” A capacity audience was present for the show, it said.
“To describe the playing of the French master is beyond the ability of one unfamiliar with violin technique,” the reporter said, “but the obvious pleasure with which the audience listened to the music was sufficient tribute to the artist.”
A subplot of the war tax
Every article seems to have an interesting sidebar, and the story of a violin performance in Bisbee is no different. In the ad for tickets for the Thibaud performance, the prices are quoted as $2, $1.50 and $1 “plus war tax.”
Though the war had been over for a couple of years at the time, it was still being paid off, and one source of revenue was the War Revenue Act, which included (Article VII) the War Tax on Admissions and Dues.
For events such as this, or any of the other entertainment taking place in Bisbee, low-brow or high, the tax was 1 cent on each 10 cents of price, or fraction thereof. That means the tax on an 11-cent admission would have been 2 cents. It was just charged on those 12 years old and over; kids paid a flat 1 cent, regardless of ticket price.
As enacted, the bill was designed to bring $50 million a year into the federal coffers. (State sales taxes were still quite a few years away.) That’s more than the tax on automobiles enacted at the same time, which was to bring in only $40 million. A tax on booze was far bigger, at $193 million, while tobacco was to add another $63.4 million.
And just so nothing was left untaxed, chewing gum was expected to raise all of of $400,000 a year.
The 1917 revenue act would be superseded by another in 1918, which kept the tax on admissions pretty much the same, but increased the complexity of the overall law at least 10-fold, as would be expected. It’s so complex that the paragraphs of the law go up in fractions: It starts, for example, at § 6309 5/8 a.
I tried to find when this tax was repealed, but had no luck. Even though the Republicans under Warren G. Harding cut taxes in 1921, the admissions tax was still bringing in $80 million a year in 1923, but that was down from $95 million in 1922.
Thibaud music from 1923
Just a couple of years after he played Bisbee, Thibaud and accompanist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962), another world-class musician, made a recording of César Franck‘s violin sonata in A major. Though there is some scratchiness, the recording is generally of very fine quality, especially considering its age.