ONE WOMAN IN A HUNDRED
EDNA PHILLIPS AND THE PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA
By MARY SUE WELSH
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter One In the Lions' Den
Leopold Stokowski wasted no time on idle words in his rehearsals with the Philadelphia Orchestra. By the fall of 1930, he was forty-eight years old. He had taken over the orchestra in 1912, when he was thirty, and within a few years transformed what had been a stiff, undistinguished ensemble into one that enraptured audiences in Philadelphia and beyond with its striking virtuosity and rich, vibrant sound. Tall and slender and very much in command, he engineered this transformation with remarkable vision and determination.
Knowing exactly what he wanted to accomplish in rehearsals, he drove his players forward with relentless intensity to achieve it. He spoke little. Instead, he communicated his wishes to his players with his riveting blue eyes and expressive hands so masterfully that they were able to respond to the nuances of his direction instantly, almost as if they could read his mind. He expected total concentration, and he got it.
Nothing interrupted the progress of a rehearsal—no unnecessary pleasantries from the maestro, no comments from the players, no excuses, nothing—except for the rare occasions when Stokowski chose to break into the rigorous routine he had established with a comment that might stray somewhat from the serious music making at hand. Those interruptions were much appreciated by the musicians. They usually introduced a bit of humor into the proceedings and lightened the intensity of a session for the moment, even though the humor could, and frequently did, come at the expense of one or the other of them. That's what happened during a rehearsal early in the orchestra's 1930–31 season when Stokowski said something that might have amused the orchestra as a whole but that caused sharp discomfort for a particular player, who remembered the incident vividly and told it to me sixty years later.
It began when Stokowski signaled a halt to the playing during a rehearsal one morning in mid-October. "Violas," he said in the immediate silence that followed, "you make me think of the Parable in the Bible about the Foolish Virgins." Then he stopped and glanced to his right, where a new member of his orchestra, a young woman of twenty-three, sat in accordance with his seating plan, which called for the harps to be placed in front of the orchestra, parallel with and not far to the right of the podium. Smiling a sly smile, he looked back at the men of the orchestra seated before him on the stage of Philadelphia's Academy of Music with a question.
"But then, aren't all virgins foolish?"
After allowing a few seconds for the import of his comment to sink in, he appeared to catch himself and turned to face the young woman full on, clasping his hands to his chest in an extravagant show of remorse. "Oh, I beg your pardon," he said, hanging his head in mock contrition as all eyes turned toward her.
The mortified young woman, grasping for a way to hide her dismay, kept her head close to her harp's soundboard and pretended to be intent on adjusting the tuning, which was something she had to do often, sitting as she did at the front of the stage where strong drafts from the wings swept across the instrument and played havoc with its tuning. If ever she needed a moment to think, now was the time. The last thing she wanted was to let the maestro and the men of the orchestra see how embarrassed and vulnerable she felt, but what was she to do?
"Some instinct told me to deflate that balloon as quickly as possible," she would later say, and an idea came to her. Following its dictates, she focused on her harp's strings, pretending to be busy tuning them for as long as she dared. Then she raised her eyes to meet Stokowski's with an inquiring look, as if she wondered why he seemed to be beseeching her so plaintively. After all, she had been concentrating on her tuning while he dealt with the viola players and hadn't been listening to what he said. At least that's what she hoped he would think.
Stokowski held his contrite pose a moment longer, waiting for the blushing, girlish reaction he expected. Then, realizing that the young woman wasn't going to fall into his trap, he drew up to his full height once again and snapped back into his usual role of fiercely focused leader, returning the full force of his attention to the viola section. When the problem there was resolved—if there ever was one—he drove the rehearsal forward at his usual rigorous pace with no further mention of foolish virgins, and the young woman breathed a long sigh of relief.
* * *
Edna Phillips was the player Stokowski put on the spot that day. Just two weeks earlier, she had entered the Philadelphia Orchestra as its only woman. She was young and very much alone among her male colleagues, but that didn't mean she was without resources. As a member of the Roxy Theatre Orchestra three years before, she had learned what troubles could stalk her if she let down her guard, and this time she was prepared to be vigilant. If she could help it, there would be no missteps on her part that might send the wrong signals to the men who surrounded her. The last thing she needed was to have any of them think of her as an object of interest. What she desperately wanted at that point was to be allowed to find her way in the strange new world of a major orchestra with as little notice as possible. She knew that her position as a newcomer in such a prestigious organization was precarious enough without the added pressure of undue attention being focused on her because she was a woman.
But avoiding attention had been difficult from the day the Philadelphia Orchestra announced her appointment. At a time when orchestras all across the country barred their doors to women, the news that such an august ensemble had hired one intrigued the press, and a rash of stories soon broke out, turning a spotlight on her that added greatly to her anxiety. An article in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin topped the lot. "Miss Phillips," it said, "looks more like an illustration on a magazine cover than a member of an orchestra. She might be the typical American girl with plenty of light, golden curly hair, shining brown eyes, the peaches and cream complexion of sixteen, and full red lips."
That was not the kind of attention an untested player entering one of the world's finest orchestras needed. Nor was it helpful to a woman stepping into an organization that in its entire history had never allowed a member of her sex to play in the orchestra in an official capacity. Ever since 1903, when the various U.S. musicians unions were incorporated into the American Federation of Musicians under the American Federation of Labor, qualified female as well as male instrumentalists who were members of the AFM were eligible to play in professional symphony orchestras, but that fact had little effect on orchestral hiring. "It would be like oil and water to put men and women in the same organization," one irate music director complained at the time. "Women musicians alone might be alright, but they don't belong with men." That attitude had prevailed in the orchestral world for decades. Little had changed by 1930.
According to Christine Ammer in her book, Unsung: A History of Women in American Music, the foremost reason for the exclusion of women from traditional orchestras was economic. Hiring women threatened the jobs of men, but there was more to it than that, Ammer explained. Women had been excluded from performing in public for centuries, and they were not encouraged, and often not allowed, to play instruments other than those considered suitable for the home, such as the piano or harp, until late in the nineteenth century. The idea of including women in symphony orchestras was anathema. Many musicians and much of the public thought women lacked the talent and musical training to hold their own in an orchestra, let alone not having the stamina, power, and reliability to do so.
With so many perceived problems, a woman's chances of being hired by a professional orchestra were slim, so slim that no woman other than Phillips held a principal position in any of the major U.S. orchestras in 1930. Below the major orchestra level, which was then inhabited by the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, a scattering of less prominent orchestras such as the San Francisco Symphony and the relatively new Cleveland Orchestra included a small number of women in their overwhelmingly male rosters, and surprisingly, the New York Philharmonic employed one woman, Stephanie Goldner, as second harpist, but those appointments were true rarities. In most cases, the best way for a woman to be hired by an orchestra on a professional basis was to join an all-female ensemble. "In the first half of the twentieth century, especially during the 1930s and early 1940s, women's orchestras in the United States offered skilled female players and conductors experience and employment in the symphonic world. Women created their own opportunities because they could not obtain positions in all-male ("standard") orchestras," J. Michele Edwards writes in Women and Music: A History.
Thus Phillips was a true novelty in the traditional orchestral world, especially at the major orchestra level. Having chosen the harp, an instrument that women played in drawing rooms in the Victorian era and one that was associated with ethereal, feminine attributes (wrongly, Phillips and her teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music, the brilliant French-born harpist Carlos Salzedo, would insist), she was more easily accepted into an orchestra than a player of another instrument might have been, but that did not mean her colleagues or the orchestra's audiences accepted and welcomed her arrival. As a woman invading a male bastion, she was just that, an invader, a pioneer in uncharted territory, and her arrival was met with curiosity at best and hostility at worst.
Phillips understood that her life in an all-male orchestra would be full of challenges, but that was not her primary concern when she entered the Philadelphia Orchestra. Her biggest fear was that she wouldn't be able to hold her own as a musician among the orchestra's superb players, not because she was a woman, but because her training had been cut short. In a move that shocked and surprised both Phillips and her teacher, Stokowski had appointed her to the first-chair position in his orchestra rather than choosing her for the second harp position she thought she was auditioning for. The added responsibilities and exposure that came with the first chair, or principal, position gave her no time to continue her studies with Carlos Salzedo at the Curtis Institute and forced her to go forward in the professional world as a novice in a key position among giants.
Whether or not she could survive in such a competitive arena was very much in question, and Stokowski hadn't made her situation any easier with his sardonic comment about foolish virgins. But then, the maestro wasn't much concerned about making things easier for his players, be they male or female.
* * *
When Salzedo, first suggested that Phillips audition for the Philadelphia Orchestra in December of 1929, she declined in unequivocal terms. "I'd feel like a ewe lamb in a lion's den," she told him, and she knew what she was talking about.
In 1927, when she was just twenty years old, Phillips had joined the orchestra of the Roxy Theatre in Manhattan as second harpist under the auspices of her teacher at the time, Florence Wightman, a talented young woman from Philadelphia who had become the Roxy's principal harpist. The Roxy was New York's newest movie palace. Its symphony orchestra, an important component of the era's larger movie palaces, contained many fine players, but as the times ordained, no women. Dire predictions about the likelihood of women ruining orchestras or orchestras ruining women abounded, and it took courage for Wightman and Phillips to challenge those prejudices.
One person who might have kept Phillips from making such a daring decision was her mother. The prospect of having a daughter join an orchestra, especially one along Manhattan's Great White Way, might have daunted a less determined woman, but Anna Phillips had great faith in her daughter's talent and dreamed she would have an important career in music someday. Not one to be intimidated by the raised eyebrows of her neighbors in Wyomissing, a small borough sixty miles northwest of Philadelphia near the city of Reading, she saw that her daughter's appointment was announced in the Reading Times in glowing terms. "Edna Phillips, Reading's distinguished harpist and musician, has been selected as harpist of Roxy's great orchestra of 110 artists, New York city [sic], and will begin her duties next week," the story began. It went on to heap copious, and as yet unearned, praise on both the Roxy orchestra and its fledgling second harpist.
Unfortunately, it didn't take long before Phillips began to rue the naive enthusiasm with which she and her mother had embraced her new position, for the haute vaudeville world of the Roxy Theatre proved to be far more perilous and complicated than they had imagined.
Built by noted radio and theater impresario Samuel L. Rothafel, aka Roxy, with the backing of a Hollywood film producer who almost went bankrupt in the process and had to be rescued at the last minute by William Fox of the Fox Theater chain, the Roxy Theatre was located on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Fiftieth Street just off Broadway. It opened with much fanfare on March 11, 1927, and was widely touted as the grandest of the movie palaces built during the Roaring Twenties. At a cost of twelve million mid-1920s dollars and with the help of a leading theater architect of the day, Walter W. Ahlschlager, and a famous decorator, Harold W. Rambusch, Roxy created a lavish Spanish Baroque palace inspired "inside and out ... by an exuberant grafting of Renaissance details on Gothic forms with fanciful Moorish overtones."
Exuberant also describes the entertainment Roxy offered in his palace. At the top of Roxy's roster of performers stood the Roxy Theatre Orchestra, billed as "the largest symphony orchestra in existence." It was followed by a chorus of one hundred singers; a ballet corps of fifty dancers; three organists who played a massive pipe organ with three consoles; a sensational high-kicking dance group called the Roxyettes (which five years later moved on to Radio City and enduring fame as the Rockettes), and an assortment of individual performers. To top off this bulging bill of fare, Roxy installed an impressive set of cathedral chimes and called his creation the "Cathedral of the Motion Picture." The pièce de résistance—a motion picture straight from Hollywood featuring Roxy's friend Gloria Swanson or other stars of equal magnitude—completed the bill.
Apparently, Roxy had gauged the tastes of his audiences correctly, for day after day, show after show, four times a day, seven days a week, people lined up, often around the block, to fill his theater's six thousand seats. He had created a marvel of flamboyance in a flamboyant time.
When Phillips arrived at the Roxy, she found it to be just as glamorous as she expected it to be, but she quickly discovered that her dreams of an exciting life as a member of the Roxy orchestra were much inflated. While audiences luxuriated in the theatre's plush seats under a glowing bronze dome, surrounded by rich paintings, profusions of gold leaf and elaborately festooned velvet draperies, Phillips and the rafts of other performers on the docket spent their days assigned to different levels of the theater's basement in what felt like the inside of a battleship or, better yet, a submarine beneath the sea.
Other than a few hasty forays into the Roxy's marble and gold rotunda (never to be called a mere lobby) to catch a glimpse of the famed changing of the usher ceremony that was staged in full military style on the grand staircase each evening, Phillips found herself confined in a subbasement, three levels below the stage. There she and the other members of the orchestra rehearsed between performances or whiled away their time waiting for the next show.
When it was time for a performance, the players would take their places on a huge platform that was then propelled upward three levels by a giant hydraulic lift into the darkened auditorium above, where they would materialize as if by magic before the waiting audience. After performing a program of light classical music, sometimes in conjunction with famous singers like Nelson Eddy ensconced in pulpits above the stage, they would slowly disappear from view as mysteriously as they had appeared, descending on their magical platform deep into the bowels of the theater and leaving behind a mesmerized audience to be further dazzled by the rest of Roxy's extravaganza.
The subterranean space that Phillips and her colleagues inhabited between shows consisted of various rehearsal rooms and a bewildering maze of battleship-gray corridors. At the time, a joke about the enormity of the Roxy stage made the rounds among the performers: "never be caught onstage without bread and water." But the stage was nothing compared to the vast area beneath it, as far as Phillips was concerned. Her level alone was so big and confusing, someone had painted red lines on the floors to help performers negotiate their way through the warren of corridors and passages confronting them. But the red lines didn't help much. Bewildered and overwhelmed, Phillips felt lost most of the time.
It was in those mystifying, labyrinthine corridors that her troubles began. That was where the Lotharios in the orchestra came out to prey. And who better to prey on than the two attractive young women in their ranks?
To Phillips these men were a slick, unappealing bunch. Although they didn't represent the majority of the orchestra's members, there were enough of them to make her life miserable. She was used to the attentions of young men when she was growing up on the outskirts of Reading and at nearby Mt. Gretna, where her family spent the summers, but she soon discovered that the easygoing friendships and flirtations she had enjoyed with the boys at home didn't work with this cohort. In fact, the slightest smile or comment seemed to provoke an unwanted overture from within the group, and it quickly became obvious that these men had more serious business on their minds than did her hometown boyfriends.
Excerpted from ONE WOMAN IN A HUNDRED by MARY SUE WELSH Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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