By Peter Biggins
Coni Calligaro contributed to this family history.
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My mother said her grandfather Cris Smith played violin for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I called the orchestra and they told me they had no record of him. Eventually I found out that he was a theater musician in Chicago, possibly for a type of theater commonly known as Vaudeville or Variety. Vaudeville was characterized by traveling companies touring through cities and towns. While he was in his 20s, Cris toured with a company known as The Bergers and Sol Smith Russell. He played double bass and tuba with a dozen other musicians, the majority of whom were women. The company also included a contralto and a comedian. We do not know how many times Cris played with this company. All we have is two posters.
Early Career of Cris J. Smith
My great grandfather, Crescenz Joseph Smith, later known as Cris J. Smith, was born March 21, 1852, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Cris was the second of three children of John and Mary Augusta Schickell Schmitt, both born in Bavaria.
Cris' mother Mary Augusta Schickell had come over from Bremen to Baltimore with her parents, John Adam and Maria Eva Schumm Schickell, on the sailing ship Johannes in 1834. They settled in Tiffin, Ohio. Cris' grandfather, John Adam Schickell was a music teacher.
Cris' father John Schmitt came from the same area in Germany as the Schickell's and settled in Tiffin, Ohio.
John Schmitt, 27, and Mary Augusta Schickell, 19, were married in Tiffin, Ohio, on September 13, 1847.
A page for special events in John and Mary Schickell Schmitt's family Bible states that "in the year 1849 on February 2nd Johann Schmitt traveled to California from where he returned in the year 1851 on April 7th." The dates coincide with the greatest migration of people to California for the gold rush. It is likely that John was a "Forty-Niner."
Sometime between 1849 and 1852, the Schmitts moved from Tiffin to Grand Rapids, Michigan.
In the 1860 census, the family was living in the 4th Ward of Grand Rapids, and Cris' father was listed as a saloonkeeper.
In 1861, Cris' father John died at age 41. Cris was only 9. His mother was 33. His sisters were 12 and 7.
In the 1870 census, Cris, 18, was listed as a photographer. In the 1872 Grand Rapids directory, at 20, he was listed a musician living on Front Street. In the 1873 and 1874 directories, he was listed as a clerk at the grocery store of his uncle, Peter Schickell, on Front Street. He also was listed as living on Front Street. His uncle Peter was a musician as well as a grocer. Peter and his brother had been Regimental Bandleaders in the Civil War. In the 1875 directory, Cris again was listed as a musician. He continued to work as a musician for the rest of his career.
The Bergers and Sol Smith Russell
The Bergers and Sol Smith Russell lived in Michigan and entertained audiences around the country from 1869 to 1880. Cris Smith traveled with them during this period and played double bass and tuba.
Fred G. Berger (1849-1929) was the son of Henry Berger (1820-1863), born in Hanover, and Anna Marie Blimline (1819-1904), born in Bavaria. Fred had two brothers (Henry G. 1854-1953, Bernhart 1857-1943) and three sisters (Louisa A. M. 1851-1872, Anna Teresa 1853-1925, Henrietta G. 1856-1943). The Berger children were all born in Maryland. Sol Smith Russell (1848-1902) was a comedian. He married Louisa Berger in 1869, but she died three years later.
June Lloyd wrote an article about the Berger Family in the York Sunday News Following are excerpts.
The Berger family moved to York County from Baltimore in 1855. Father Henry, mother Anna, and their four children under the age of six settled in Jefferson, where Henry carried on his trade of organ manufacturing. Two more children arrived before the family moved to York, a thriving town of 9,000, in 1859. They first lived and worked on the south side of West Market Street between Penn Street and the Codorus creek. The Bergers soon relocated to South George Street, opposite their church, St. Mary’s, and built an organ factory behind their home.
Unfortunately, an overheated stove ignited the frame building. It burned to the ground in March 1861 and three finished church organs, patterns, and tools were lost. The York Democratic Press reported that the building was insured for $500 and the contents for $600. That was not enough to reestablish the business, perhaps partly due to Civil War inflation.
In the meantime, the Berger children showed extraordinary musical talent. At the urging of friends who had heard them perform, the older four children, aged six to eleven, gave their first public concert at Washington Hall on the southwest corner of George and King streets on April 15, 1862. Henry, Anna Theresa, Louisa, and Fred Berger were joined onstage by Earnest Thiele, son of their music teacher. The York Gazette gave the young performers glowing reviews. A second concert was given a few days later, this time to benefit the Soldiers’ Ladies Aid Society. That organization provided assistance to the soldiers at the Civil War hospital on Penn Common, which was located almost in the Berger back yard.
At the end of that year, father Henry moved the family to Tiffin, Ohio for a church organ job there. Show business, however, was still very much on the horizon. By July of 1863, the family signed on as the musical component of the MacFarland Dramatic Company, touring the Midwest and into Canada. Mr. Berger died at the end of the tour and Mrs. Berger took over as manager. In 1864 she signed a two-year contract for the children with the Carter Zouave Troupe, a juvenile vaudeville company. They sang, they danced, they played instruments, and they performed military drills in miniature versions of the distinctive Zouave military uniforms.
When that contract ran out in 1866, the Bergers joined the Peak Family in a very much in vogue Swiss Bell ringing company. The Bergers became so well known that they launched their own company in 1869. Fred, the eldest at age 20, became manager and the two youngest Bergers, Henrietta and Bernhart, who had been living with relatives in York, came into the family business. They were also joined by noted comedian Sol Smith Russell, who soon married 18-year-old Louise Berger.
Etta (Esther) Morgan, the first woman concert saxophonist, also came aboard. (The saxophone had been invented less than 30 years before, and a woman playing one well was quite a draw.) The troupe toured across America, even performing, by request, in Salt Lake City for Brigham Young. Etta Morgan wasn’t the only woman playing brass in their band. At an 1877 concert in Havana, Cuba, Anna Theresa Burger was reportedly showered with money thrown on stage in appreciation of her dazzling cornet solos.
After 17 years of crisscrossing the country to great acclaim, the Bergers gave their farewell concert in May 1880 at the Academy of Music in Troy, New York. Louisa and Bernhart had died, and the others were married or thinking about it. Fred married saxophonist Etta Morgan and also, as his manager, successfully launched brother-in-law Sol Smith Russell’s solo career. After Russell died in 1902, Fred managed theaters in Washington, DC, including the Columbia and National, favorites of several presidents. He evidently kept up some of his York ties. At age 78, widower Fred Berger married native Yorker Katie Brant Thiele, widow of Earnest, the other young boy who performed at that very first concert in York 65 years before.
In 1870, the "Berger Family" including Sol Smith Russell, was living in Jackson, Michigan, 1st Ward, 100 miles southeast of Grand Rapids. Fred, 21, was living with his mother Hannah, 51, his sister Anna, 14, his brother Henry, 16, his sister Henrietta, 14, his brother Bernhart, 13, Sol Smith Russell, 22, his wife Louise (Berger) Russell, 19, a house keeper Margaretta Blymline born in Bavaria perhaps a sister of Anna), and two non-family musicians born in New York.
Henrietta "Etta" Berger married Clarence H. Bennett in 1874.
In 1880, Frederick, 31, was living at 308 Blackstone Street in Jackson with his mother Hannah, 61, his brother Bernhart, 23, his sister Etta Bennett, 24, and his niece Louise Bennett, 5.
Sol Smith Russell was closely associated with the Berger Family from 1869 to 1880. Sol Smith Russell married Louisa Berger. Her brother Fred G. Berger was manager of the group. Cris probably did not join the group until later in that period. His cousin Louis F. Boos was a cornetist with the group near the end of the period.
In the Vaudeville News for November 19, 1927, John LeClair wrote an article entitled "New England Theatres in 1872 and 1927." He describes his first trip through New England in 1872. He mentions that "the Berger family of bell ringers, with Sol Smith Russell, with his comic songs and reciting," were playing in Connecticut. He said that in "1872 there was not a real variety theatre in the whole state."
The Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library has Berger Family photos and Sol Smith Russell photos.
In April 2010, Coni Calligaro found a number of family items in a box in a crawlspace in the home of her in-laws. It turned out to be the former home of my godmother aunt Marian and uncle John Ederer on Ederer Road in Saginaw, Michigan. She found me because I had my family tree up on Ancestry.com. Among the items were two posters for The Bergers and Sol Smith Russell that included the name of my great grandfather, Cris J. Smith. Presumably, Cris gave the posters to his daughter, my grandma Drueke, who in turn gave them to her daughter, my Aunt Marian. The posters were folded up and in ragged condition, so we had them restored at Poster Conservation Incorporated.
The posters are not dated, but they must have been created between 1878 and 1880. As indicated above by June lloyd, the Bergers played from 1863 to 1880. The first poster took place in Grass Valley, California, which was not accessible by rail until 1876. It took place on Saturday, June 21st. The only June 21st that fell on a Saturday between 1876 and 1880, when the tours ended, was 1878. The second poster mentions that one performer received an award in 1879. So, it must have been created in 1879 or 1880.
The first poster has eight lady musicians, including a singer. The second has seven, including a singer. According to Interlude, the late-19th century "saw a new phenomenon: all-women orchestras. Kept out of the traditional orchestras by reason of gender (it certainly wasn’t because of talent), women musicians came together to form their own orchestras. There had been women’s orchestras in New York and Boston from the early 1870s, including such groups as the Vienna Damen Orchester, the Berlin Lady Orchestra, Marie Roller’s “Elite Kapelle,” the Ladies’ Philharmony, and The Women’s String Orchestra of New York, to name just a few, usually associated with local theatres. "
Hamilton Hall Posters
The first poster (27.5" x 10.5") promotes the celebrated Berger Family Troupe and Sol Smith Russell in a new programme at Hamilton Hall in the mining town of Grass Valley in Nevada County, California--the triumphal return east of an electric and unparalleled success in San Francisco and throughout California and Oregon. See: Restored Hamilton Hall Poster below.
Grass Valley was a gold mining city. It was connected to the Central Pacific Railroad at Colfax in 1876, with the completion of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad. The Central Pacific was part of the first transcontinental railroad, having connected with the Union Pacific Railroad in Utah in 1869.
The date of the performance is Saturday, June 21st. The year is not given. The only June 21st that fell on a Saturday between 1876 and 1880, when the tours ended, was 1878.
The entire company comprises 15 talented artists of vocalists and instrumental soloists, including a Ladies' Silver Cornet Band:
Hamilton Hall was erected by Garvin Hamilton, a native of Maine, who had emigrated to Louisiana, and then to Texas, and finally to California in 1852. He was a contractor and builder in Grass Valley, and a somewhat prominent citizen. He died in Grass Valley in 1864, at the age of 69. Mark Twain entertained at Hamilton Hall on April 21, 1868. (See: Mark Twain.)
The poster was printed by Francis, Valentine & Co., theatrical printers, 517 Clay Street, San Francisco.
11th Annual Tour Poster
The second poster (32" x 12") promotes the Eleventh Annual Tour of the World Famous Bergers and Sol Smith Russell. (See: Restored Eleventh Annual Tour Poster below.)
The poster is not dated, but it mentions that one performer received an award in 1879. And the tours ended in 1880, according to June Lloyd above. So, it must have been created in 1879 or 1880.
They are assisted by the Following Brilliant Array of Artists:
The poster was printed by the Forbes Co. Boston. The company was founded by William H. Forbes in 1862 and was known as a producer of theatrical posters, among other items. In 1875, the company became known as Forbes Lithograoph Company, and in 1884 it moved to Chelsea.
Later Career of Cris J. Smith
Cris J. Smith, 28, and Christine Koch, 19, were married in Grand Rapids in 1880. Following their marriage, they lived in Grand Rapids with Christine's parents.
In 1882, Cris and Christine had a daughter, Rose Viola, my grandmother.
In 1882, Cris' younger sister, Rosa Wilhelmina Smith, married Charles Andrew Hauser.
Cris continued to work as a musician. The 1882 Grand Rapids directory lists him as a musician at Smith's Opera House. Perhaps he had started his own opera house. According to Grand Rapids As It Is, published by the Board of Trade in 1888, Smith's Opera House was located at the corner of Waterloo and Louis streets and was a "model Vaudeville playhouse." It cost $40,000.
The 1883 directory shows Cris as a partner with James W. York in Smith & York, a new company that imported and sold musical instruments.
Cris was a euphonium soloist with the Patrick Gilmore Band. Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore (1829-1892), a cornetist, immigrated from County Galway to Boston in 1849. Gilmore was a regimental bandleader during the Civil War and wrote "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again." In 1873, Gilmore left Boston to accept a position as director of the 22nd Regiment of New York Band, which served as one of the most famous American professional bands. Gilmore toured extensively throughout the United States until his death in 1892.
In 1887, Cris' wife Christine died. Cris and daughter Rose Viola continued to live with Christine's parents, the Kochs.
Cris continued to work as a musician. In the 1889 Grand Rapids city directory, he was listed as a musician at the Redmond Opera House. According to Grand Rapids As It Is, published by the Board of Trade in 1888, Redmond's Grand Opera House was located on Canal street, near East Bridge, and was a "handsome and modern play house with a seating capacity of 1,200." The building and furnishings cost upward of $100,000.
A 1928 letter to his cousin Mort Smith says Cris played in theaters in Chicago from 1889 to 1922.
In 1889, Cris married Mary A. Hauser. Cris continued to work as a musician. In 1890, they had their first child, Crescenz L. Smith.
In 1893, Cris and Mary Hauser Smith moved to Chicago to further Cris' career as a musician. Rose, 11, and Crescenz, 3, stayed in Grand Rapids with with their aunt Tante and Uncle Charlie Hauser.
In 1894, Cris and Mary Hauser had their second child, Leroy A. Smith. In 1896, Cris and Mary Hauser had their third child, Karl H. Smith.
Cris' children Rose and Crescenz were included in the 1900 census twice: once with the Hauser household in Grand Rapids at ages 18 and 9 and once with Cris' household in Chicago at ages 17 and 10.
In 1906, Cris' daughter, Rose Viola, 24, married William Francis Drueke, 22 in Grand Rapids.
Cris was widowed for the second time in his life upon the death of his second wife Mary Hauser Smith in 1907. She was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Grand Rapids.
On February 24, 1909, Cris and his son Karl were on a trip to Brooklyn, where they were visited by Cris' sister Rose and her husband Charles Hauser. The Hausers were in New York to take a cruise to the West Indies. See 1909 Hoboken to West Indies Cruise.
Sometime between 1910 and 1920, Cris J. Smith married Mary. The 1920 census shows Cris and Mary married, Mary born in England, and Mary age 65, the same age as Cris. It also shows Cris as a theater musician.
A 1928 letter to his cousin Mort Smith says Cris played in theaters in Chicago from 1889 to 1922.
The American Federation of Musicians was founded in 1896 with 3,000 musicians. Ten years later, it had 45,000 members. New technologies in the 1920s "challenged live music for the first time. The advent of recording and radio forever changed the landscape of musician employment. . . . About 22,000 theater musicians lost their jobs when “talkies” entered the scene in 1927. . . . While musicians flocked to Los Angeles hoping for high-paying recording work, fewer than 200 new jobs were created by the technology."
Cris was widowed for the third time in his life upon the death of his third wife Mary sometime between 1920 and 1932.
In 1925, Cris moved from Chicago to Kansas City, Missouri, to live with his son Karl. In 1926, Cris moved from Kansas City, Missouri, to Wichita, Kansas. On Jan. 20, 1928, Cris, age 75, wrote a letter from Wichita to his cousin Mortise Smith in Alden, Michigan, a small town near Traverse City.
My Dear Cousin Mort Smith,Mort Smith died on November 6, 1930, in Alden, Michigan. He was 82. He was survived by his wife Margaret Jane Abrushaby Kincaid, whom he had married in 1879 in Newago, Michigan, and his daughter Mary Elizabeth (Breece). His parents were Henry S. Smith and Catherine Smith. Catherine died when Mortice was 4. He was sent to live with the Freeman Mathews family in Newago and never saw his father Henry again. The letter was provided by Barbara Lockrey, granddaughter of Mary Elizabeth Breece. Her grandmother also gave her Cris Smith's obituary and a photo with the name "Tante Hauser" written on the back. We have not been able to find records that confirm the relationship between Cris' father John Smith and Mortise's father Henry S. Smith.
Sometime between 1920 and 1930, Cris' third wife, Mary, died in Chicago or Kansas City.
Cris died November 17, 1932 in Kansas City. He was 80 years old. His body was brought back to Grand Rapids and buried in Greenwood Cemetery with his second wife, Mary Hauser Smith. He was survived by his daughter Rose Viola Smith Drueke, his sons, Crescenz, Leroy, and Karl, and his sister Rosa Wilhelmina Schmitt Hauser.
Restored Hamilton Hall Poster
Restored 11th Annual Tour Poster