Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Almost famous

The other day I wrote about a Hall, today we’ll learn about a van Zanten

If there’s one relative that I’ve been accused resembling, it’s my grandfather, Pete. Which is kinda strange in a lot of ways because I never really knew the guy. He died when I was 10 years old and I only have vague memories of a visit that he paid our family when I was maybe 3 (although he did visit before then, but I was only just born). For most of my life I felt a kinship with him. I had no real reason for this that I could figure but there it was. So, when I first started this research, he was an early project.

First, a little background. My grandfather’s father, also called Pete (well, Pieter) was a painting contractor and semi-professional musician in Bussum, Netherlands. In fact, he and his half-brother, Dirk-Pieter, were founding members of the Harmonie Cescendo Orchestra in Bussum which was (and is) sort of a local civic orchestra. But, more on that later … Anyways, my great-grandfather Pieter played woodwinds, particularly clarinet, so it followed naturally that his son (and his son’s son, and his son’s son’s son) would pick up woodwinds as well. They came to the United States in 1907 (after spending a year in Winnipeg) and settled in Minneapolis where, when he got into his 20s, my grandfather joined the musician’s union and played in various theaters and for a while in the early 40s with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now the Minnesota Orchestra). 

Now, the next part of this story is a bit apocryphal and I’ve never been able to find any evidence that it is 100% factual. On the other hand, there’s really no evidence that points to it being untrue either. I’d like to think there’s at least a bit of truth to it.

In 1923 a guy called Ted Weems formed an orchestra which enjoyed quite a measure of success during the 20s recording popular dance music and novelty songs. In 1929 they recorded a #1 hit written by Phil Baxter called Piccolo Pete (Real Player plugin required for that link). Growing up my dad always told us that this song was inspired by his dad. I don’t think there’s really a way of finding out whether or not this is actually the case but, for me at least, it’s evidence that my grandfather was almost famous. Not that anyone at the time even knew who the actual “Piccolo Pete” was or if they even thought about whether it was a real person or not as they did the Charleston across the dance-floors of America. Probably not quite 15 minutes but the closest thing I’ve got.

Update 11/3/2008: I saw my dad over the weekend and he says that his dad actually played with Phil Baxter’s and Ted Weem’s orchestras when they came through Minneapolis. Guess that makes this whole thing a little less mysterious …


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