by Marshall Lustig
The era of the "Big Band" coincided with jazz and swing music and talented musicians. For Billy Lustig, a decade of this music started at the close of World War I and concluded in 1928. During that period, he was leader and violinist of the little-publicized Scranton Sirens that introduced many talented instrumental artists and a type of music that would become famous in the entertainment spotlight. Lustig, the twelfth of thirteen children, grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and was designated by his family to be its professional; it was during the First World War that he entered Dickinson College with intentions of becoming a lawyer. Lustig also brought his violin to college and organized a small student band to play weekend dates to earn spending money. It was at one of these weekend stands in nearby Harrisburg that he met his wife-to-be.
The war was taking its toll of eligible doughboys, and Lustig was obliged to leave college in 1916 to serve his country. He never returned to become a lawyer, trading the sheepskin for a career in music. His first band was named the Scranton Sirens for its place of origin and was organized in 1918. It featured dance music in the form of jazz and played the "Tiger Rag" as its theme song. Appearances were in one-night stands through the anthracite coal mining towns in eastern Pennsylvania. Featured were Patsy Raymond on the banjo and a one-armed Irish tenor by the name of Jack Gallagher, who filled the hills and valleys with his beautiful voice through a megaphone. Many miners and their families would become an admiring hillside audience in the night.
In the summer of 1919, members of the band heard a saxophone player from Grove Park and recommended him for an audition. It was Jimmy Dorsey who was to join the Scranton Sirens, having split with his brother Tommy and dissolved their own Wild Canaries band. A short time after, he asked Billy Lustig if Tommy could join the band. Tommy auditioned by playing "When You and I Were Young, Maggie" without accompaniment and immediately became a member of the Scranton Sirens. A month later, Fred "Fuzzy" Farrar auditioned in Hazelton and was added to the Sirens on trumpet. He was previously a member of a five-piece theatre band in Hazelton and was later to become a member of the Max Schhilkraut orchestra. Billy Lustig, leader and violinist, now had the ''original" nine-piece Scranton Sirens which included Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey playing sax and trombone, Fuzzy Farrar on trumpet, Irving "Izzy" Riskin (later to become staff arranger for B.A. Wolfe and then on to Hollywood) on piano, and Sid Trucker (also to join B.A. Wolfe) on sax. There was many a night when Ma Dorsey would feed the musicians her Irish stew after a session. The band finally moved into the spotlight in 1923 when it opened Crystal Gardens, also known as St. Nicholas Rink, in New York City. Offers poured in for billings in vaudeville, and the Sirens played in the Keith Circuit theatres that brought them to Times Square. They moved to the vaudeville circuit in Philadelphia and also played on Sundays in Atlantic City, where they appeared at the Beaux Arts Night Club during the summer of 1923. It was there that Jean Goldkette saw the band and pulled the talented Dorseys, Buskin, Trucker and Farrar for his own orchestra. During that same period, the Sirens featured a pair of sisters, Hannah and Dorothy Williams, 8 and 10 years old, as dance soloists. Hannah Williams was later to marry heavyweight-boxing champion Jack Dempsey.
The Sirens were reorganized in 1924. Lustig was an expert on talent and brought together Alfy Evans on sax, Mike Trafficant (later to join "Paul Whiteman" on bass, Eddie Lang (eventually with Bing Crosby) on guitar, Victor D'Apollito (who went on to Paul Whiteman) on trumpet and Russ Morgan to play trombone and arrange music. Morgan was Welsh, came from Nanticoke (near Wilkes Barre) and was said to be a descendent of the family about whom the movie "How Green Was My Valley" was based on. The core of the band was from Philadelphia, and it played at the Beaux Arts and at the Pekin Cafe in Philly that was owned by Mike Duffy. Eddie Davis of Leon and Eddie's fame was the headwaiter.
The band played In Philadelphia again in 1924, but the musicians did not want to travel to New Orleans the following year when a contract was signed to follow Ted Black's society orchestra into the Little Club. With a new group of musicians, Lustig changed the dance tempo to swing that featured Ray Bauduc (later to play with the Bobcats, to lead his own band on the West Coast and to play for movies) on drums.
In April of 1928, the Sirens traveled to Chicago to play at the Rendezvous Restaurant that was owned by Al Capone. Tommy Dorsey returned to the Sirens and was joined by Chubby McGregor (later with Glenn Miller) at piano.
Music Corporation of America was being created at that time in the Midwest. Billy Stein asked to borrow the Sirens for one night to play for one of its guest bandleaders and later called on Billy Lustig to help MCA sign the Ted Fiorito - Russo orchestra for the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. Once this was accomplished, Lustig was offered the position of head talent scout with MCA but declined the offer.
The Sirens followed Duke Ellington into the Club Kentucky in New York City late in 1927, featuring Wingy Manone an trumpet, Tommy Dorsey on trombone and Pee Wee Russell on clarinet. However, when Paul Whiteman took Tommy Dorsey for his own orchestra, Wingy Manone recommended an unknown trombonist from St. Louis, Missouri. That was Jack Teagarden's introduction to New York and the big band. The Sirens opened at the Roseland Ballroom, featuring Teagarden on trombone as soloist for eight weeks and gained immediate prominence. Then Teagarden was hired away by Ben Pollack's Orchestra when the date concluded.
The big band era of the '20s had come to a close for Billy Lustig and the Scranton Sirens when they closed at the Roseland Ballroom. The band had reached the pinnacle of success by playing the most sought after dance locations. Lustig had other bands and played at the Maxim Club In New York, where Jackie Miles was comedian, after promoting the movie career of Gloria Jean, who starred in the "Underpup" for Paramount Studios. Gloria, the former Gloria Schoonover, sang with the band at benefits in Scranton when just a five-year-old child prodigy. She had a beautiful voice, and Billy Lustig brought her to New York City under contract at the age of 13 for voice lessons with a Metropolitan Opera coach and for movie auditions that eventually led her to Joe Pasternak at Paramount. Pasternak gave her the screen name of Gloria Jean and began management of her movie career. The contract with Lustig was abrogated by Gloria's mother and aunt, but ensuing litigation induced Paramount to drop its option on Gloria. She was to make other movies but not with top billing, as she had in her first three movies to reach the silver screen.
Lustig also worked with Russ Morgan on the Philip Morris radio show that featured the original Johnny in pageboy uniform. He organized a band that broadcast on NBC's WEAF from the bandstand at the Kenmore Hotel in Albany, New York, in 1929. One evening, he held this author (his then one-year-old son) in his arms while leading the orchestra. He was invited to be an honorary pallbearer at the funeral of his long-time friend, Tommy Dorsey, and finally succumbed to the effects of heavy smoking at the age of 66 while residing in Forest Hills, New York.
Billy Lustig was first a showman, always to and for his audience. One of his successful summer engagements was at the Summit in Maryland. A number of America's business tycoons owned estates in Chevy Chase during the 1920s, entertaining socially by bringing friends for an evening of dining and dancing.
The Alka Seltzer magnate would confidently assure his guests upon their arrival in his chauffeur-driven limousine that the orchestra would be playing "his song." Billy had arranged with the doorman to spot the limo as it was nearing the building and signal him on the bandstand. He would then quickly lead the orchestra into the appropriate music, and the important patron could confidently predict that "his song" would greet the party on arrival.
Lustig also amused the younger set by sitting with the violin bow between his knees, and, holding the end of the fiddle with each hand, play, "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
Scranton's gift to the music world was as a student of talent, entertainment and the type of music that would be most appropriate for various settings.