A Documentary Film by Camilo Silva

The Cocoanut Grove Ambassadors

Posted by on May 21, 2012 in Ambassador Blog, Slider | 0 comments

The Cocoanut Grove Ambassadors

The Cocoanut Grove Ambassadors of 1930’s

When those who celebrate the Golden Age of Hollywood reflect back on the halcyon days of the early 1930s, one particular nightspot comes immediately to mind: the Cocoanut Grove at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel. This lavishly appointed club, part of the massive 23-acre Ambassador resort that also included four restaurants, a bowling alley, a billiard room, and even a movie theater, was decorated in Moroccan style and featured full-sized palm trees reportedly salvaged from Rudolph Valentino’s “The Sheik.” In addition to the decor, which also offered a night sky filled with stars (thanks to about 1000 small light bulbs), an elevated stage, and both dining and dancing room for several hundred patrons, customers came for the smooth musical entertainment provided by a series of dance orchestras and their popular vocalists – many of whom would later go on to star careers in radio, recordings, and the film industry.

Thanks to the foresight of Abe Frank, the manager of both the hotel and the Grove, in the mid-1920s the Ambassador had been equipped with a small radio studio, allowing the orchestras to be enjoyed well outside the confines of the nightclub. From the late 1920s well into the 1960s, live remote broadcasts from the Cocoanut Grove were a popular feature of nighttime radio, allowing millions of people to enjoy and even dance to the music they would otherwise be unable to afford to hear in person. These broadcasts, aired live nightly for two full hours, only increased the reputation of the Grove as “the place to be” when it came to top notch West Coast entertainment.
From the beginning, the Cocoanut Grove’s glamorous atmosphere attracted the top names in Hollywood for dining, dancing, and mingling between tables. This celebrity connection was always well-publicized by the Ambassador – and for very good reason: tourists coming to Los Angeles for a vacation wanted to see the stars and there was no place where the stars came out quite so regularly as the Ambassador Hotel. On an average evening, it was not at all uncommon to see such well-known celebrities as Joan Crawford, Jack Oakie, or Jean Harlow coming to see Bing Crosby or Russ Columbo sing with Gus Arnheim’s Orchestra or dance to Jimmie Grier’s band as they accompanied popular tenor Donald Novis or The Three Ambassadors (Martin Sperzel, Jack Smith, and Al Teeter). Even though there was a nationwide depression, Hollywood stars and executives still needed to be entertained — and the Cocoanut Grove was usually their first choice.

In this collection, Radio Archives offers you the chance to hear what an evening at the Cocoanut Grove was like from 1931 thru 1934, complete with many of the musical talents that so frequently filled the floor with dancers. Thanks to Transco (The Transcription Company of America), which chose to pre-record and syndicate one hundred or so quarter-hour shows in the style of the live remote broadcasts of the time, we can here experience four of the Grove’s top orchestra leaders of the early 1930s: Gus Arnheim, Jimmie Grier, Phil Harris, and Ted Fio Rito. Their smooth and melodic performances, epitomizing the “West Coast Style” that would soon become prevalent in popular recordings and motion pictures, is matched by vocal performances by Loyce Whiteman, Leah Ray, Dave Marshall, Harry Barris, Dick Webster, Jean Schock, and many others.

An impressive feature of this collection, particularly for those who associate the 1930s with scratchy old 78 RPM recordings, is the amazing audio quality of these restored syndicated broadcasts. Working with a series of beautiful 16″ shellac Transco originals, these full and rich electrical recordings have required very little digital restoration to make them sound as if they were recorded just yesterday, rather than well over seventy years ago.

Aside from the obvious rarity of these now impossible-to-find recordings, another benefit is the extended length accorded to most of the musical selections they contain. Where most commercially released 78s of the period ran just a little under three minutes per ten-inch side, requiring the musicians to edit their arrangements to fit, a great many of these programs offer numbers running four full minutes or more – just as they would have sounded if you had been lucky enough to dance to them at the Cocoanut Grove.

So, put on your tuxedo or evening gown, slip on your dancing shoes, and spend a few hours dancing to the infectious rhythms of the Cocoanut Grove Ambassadors. It’s a trip through time that we know you’ll want to take again and again.

Gus Arnheim And His OrchestraGus Arnheim and his Orchestra
“The Star of Entertainers and the Entertainer of Stars”

Best remembered today as the man who, in recordings and remote broadcasts, first brought superstar Bing Crosby to national attention, Gus Arnheim was born in Philadelphia and received his musical training at The Chicago Conservatory of Music. Throughout much of the 1920s, he played piano in the orchestras accompanying Broadway shows, then came west late in the decade to join Abe Lyman’s Californians. When Lyman left the Grove to tour, Arnheim formed his own orchestra and took his place.

During Arnheim’s early years at the Grove, he established a reputation for both discovering and nurturing young talent; it was said that a singing job with Arnheim was a likely stepping stone to success in motion pictures or radio. In his autobiography, Bing Crosby credited the publicity he and his fellow Rhythm Boys (Harry Barris and Al Rinker) received at the Grove as being the major contributor to his solo success. Russ Columbo became a recording star in his own right as a result of the same exposure, singing in a style that so closely resembled Crosby’s that when Crosby occasionally failed to appear for the broadcasts, Arnheim usually had Columbo fill in. Other vocalists such as Joy Hodges, Shirley Ross, Fred Mac Murray (who also played clarinet), and Donald Novis went on to motion picture and radio success and The Sportsmen Quartet, who sang with Arnheim in later years, were later featured on Jack Benny’s top-rated radio program.

Jimmie Grier Cocoanut GroveJimmie Grier and his Orchestra
“The Musical Host of the Coast”

Hailing from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, bandleader Jimmie Grier grew up in California and first worked at the Cocoanut Grove in association with Abe Lyman’s orchestra. Musically gifted, Grier played alto and tenor sax, clarinet, bassoon, and a bit of violin and guitar as well — but it was as an arranger that he made his mark on popular music. His inventive and exhilarating charts for the Gus Arnheim orchestra were one of the primary keys to that group’s success – but, throughout their relationship, Grier and Arnheim seldom saw eye to eye on what was reasonable compensation for Grier’s work.

In early 1932, when Arnheim decided to take advantage of the publicity he’d received from his two-year stint at the Grove and make some money on the road, Jimmie Grier proceeded to form his own band with the intention of taking over for his former boss. An excellent musician, as well as a friendly and gregarious fellow, Grier fronted a colorful and extremely musical band that reflected his relaxed and outgoing personality. Like Arnheim, Grier’s orchestra featured outstanding vocalists – including Dick Webster, Larry Cotton, and a musical trio known as The Three Cheers – as well as Grove holdovers Donald Novis, Loyce Whiteman, and former Rhythm Boy Harry Barris.

Following his time at the Grove, Jimmie Grier became one of the busiest bandleaders in the Los Angeles area, playing six nights a week at the Biltmore Bowl, writing and arranging for motion pictures, recording not only under his own name but also leading the orchestras accompanying Bing Crosby, Russ Columbo, and the Boswell Sisters, and even scoring two weekly radio shows at the same time.

Phil Harris and his Orchestra

After so many years, it’s hard to think of Phil Harris outside of his long-time association with Jack Benny’s radio program or starring with his wife Alice Faye on their own popular comedy series. But though he will probably be best remembered as a vocalist and all-round personality, in his earlier years, he was a very successful and popular bandleader.

Born in Linton, Indiana, Phil Harris came from a musical family – including a father who played piano for the Ringling Brothers Circus. As a teenager, he and four other high school classmates formed a jazz band called The Dixieland Syncopators; with Harris on drums, the group was soon touring with singer Ruth Stone and even made it as far as a successful theater engagement in Honolulu before returning home. Harris’ strong outgoing personality destined him for some form of show business and by 1928 he had teamed up with Carol Lofner to form an orchestra. Under their co-leadership, and with Harris’ increasingly popular vocals, the Harris/Lofner Orchestra spent three happy years at San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel before Harris left to go south in 1931.

Harris formed his own orchestra specifically for a Cocoanut Grove engagement in 1932, bringing with him some of the Harris/Lofner arrangements and hiring vocalist Jimmy Newell and a seventeen-year-old beauty from Norfolk, Virginia named Leah Ray. (In a nod to her heritage, Harris frequently referred to Ray as “the dimples from Dixie.”) At the Grove, The Three Ambassadors remained the house vocal trio, but Harris also introduced The Three Rhythm Kings as an additional feature.

By 1934, Harris was firmly established as a top name and went on an extended tour of the East Coast, returning in 1936 for repeated engagements at the Los Angeles Palomar Ballroom. Out of this later engagement came an invitation to become the house bandleader for comedian Jack Benny’s weekly NBC radio program for Jello…and, for radio fans at least, the rest is history.

Ted Fio Rito and his Orchestra

If Ted Fio Rito hadn’t decided to become a bandleader, he could easily have made a comfortable living as a songwriter; among the titles to his credit are tunes like “I Never Knew,” “Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye,” “Laugh, Clown, Laugh,” “Roll Along, Prairie Moon” and “Alone at a Table for Two.” Born in Newark, New Jersey, he began his career as a pianist with a series of bands led by Harry Yerkes, then moved to Chicago in 1921 to join Dan Russo’s band. The following year, he joined with Russo to become the co-leader the Oriole Terrace Orchestra, which he eventually took over when Russo departed in 1928.

Before coming to the Cocoanut Grove in mid-1933, Fio Rito had spent a number of years touring the East Coast and Midwest, including many engagements in Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City and Cincinnati. An early radio enthusiast, Fio Rito’s band was frequently heard on the air from various nightspots – preparing him well for the regular broadcasts scheduled to emanate from the Grove during his stay.

Musically, the orchestra that Fio Rito brought to the Grove was smooth and clever, playing highly danceable music accented with temple blocks, rapid triplets, and even an occasional solo on the Hammond organ by its talented leader. Due to an existing recording contract, Transco was not allowed to use Fio Rito’s name in association with their pre-recorded “Cocoanut Grove Ambassadors” radio series and some of his featured vocalists were given pseudonyms as well. Thus, on the early shows presented here, Fio Rito (born Theodore Salvatore Fiorito) is referred to as Vincent Valsanti, Muzzy Marcellino (Fio Rito’s guitarist and primary vocalist) sings as Jack Howard, Howard Phillips sings under the name of Bill Thomas, and Fio Rito’s vocal trio The Debutants appear as The Three Keys. (Gee, no wonder discographers have such challenging jobs!)

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