Musical Rantings and Ravings

Editorials, Local Music

Searching for Madison’s String of Pearls

Stories begin in all manner of ways ~“once upon a time…” or “…a dark and stormy night…” even with a big BANG, but this story begins with an email.  The email in question arrived on the 9th of March 2012 from an Ohio researcher and collector of Glenn Miller ephemera who believed that there was a radio broadcast on March 13, 1942 in which “A String of Pearls” was dedicated to “the women of Madison College.” The dedication was made on “Glenn Miller’s Chesterfield Moonlight Serenade” radio program. The researcher asked if we had any evidence from old college newspapers or magazines that would support his findings.   The email passed through several hands before finally coming to me, and I’m glad that it did.

My mother and father loved the swing music of their time ~ music from Big Bands such as Benny Goodman (The King of Swing), Artie Shaw, Harry James, Louis Armstrong, The Dorsey Brothers (Tommy and Jimmy), Count Basie, and Glenn Miller and His Orchestra.  Before we had a television in the house, radio programs provided news and entertainment, and when the music played Mom and Dad moved the coffee table against the wall and with elegant weaving steps they danced around the room. When Mom was tired and collapsed laughing into the cushions of the big green easy chair,  Dad, still caught up in the spell of the music, asked me to dance with him, and I did so standing in my little girl socks on the toes of his shoes.  With these lovely memories brought to mind I looked forward to the discovery of the Glenn Miller Question at JMU.

I began the search with an email to both our Media and Alumni Relations Departments asking if the college magazine or newspaper contained any mention of this occurrence.  Then I contacted the Music Library Association email list (MLA) and asked if anyone knew of Glenn Miller recording and ephemera collections which might have either a copy of the broadcast itself or at least a reference to it.

As usual, MLA was replete with leads and suggestions, and a dozen email replies immediately arrived during the course of the first day although, as with any research endeavor, there were several blind leads to sort through.   For instance, someone suggested I try www.myoldradio.com  but closed apologetically with, “I don’t see the one you mention specifically, however.”  I looked too.  The mailer was correct, it wasn’t there.

Another person provided a link to Collector’s Choice, offering that when he looked there were at least two recordings from the Chesterfield show.  There were indeed several Chesterfield show recordings, but the one we were seeking was not among them.

Flute scholar Nancy Toff suggested I look into the special collections at Duke University, as they own the archives of the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency.  Ligget & Myers, the makers of Chesterfield cigarettes, was one of J. Walter Thompson’s clients.  Nancy sent me a link and offered that, while she wasn’t sure if they had recordings, their “collection of ephemera, contracts, logs, and scripts are outstanding.”

I spent some time perusing this interesting site, but unfortunately didn’t come up with any new or pertinent information specific to our question. Chuck Haddix of the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City sent me links to their holdings, and apologized for not having the specific one we sought.   Mr. Haddix included a link to the Dave E. Dexter, Jr. Collection of Photographs and a photo of Glenn Miller accepting an award (which for some reason, is no longer accessible), and he also included a link to the Miller Collection at the University of Colorado Boulder, and suggested they might have a copy of the actual broadcast recording.

The University of Colorado’s Music Librarian, Laurie Sampsel, contacted me with the suggestion to contact Alan Cass, Curator of the Glenn Miller Archive with the University of Colorado at Boulder and copied Dr. Cass on that email to me.  I sent the email.

The first actual break came from JMU’s Public Affairs Coordinator, Janet L. Smith who provided a link to the fall 2003 issue of “Montpelier” magazine which mentions the 1942 dedication.  Janet also suggested I look in The Schoolma’am, the college yearbook, and in doing so I found another reference to an article in the college newspaper, “The Breeze.”  I emailed the patron in Ohio and provided him with the information I had so far.   But the search was not completely over, nor was the mystery actually resolved as several unanswered questions still remained:  Did Glenn Miller visit campus?  Or did the salute come from afar?  Did extant issues of “The Breeze” exist in Special Collections or somewhere else on campus?  And more importantly, if archival copies of “The Breeze” were still around, was the issue carrying this story still available?

A few days later, I had brilliantly exciting news from our Special Collections Unit that they had just that week digitized archival copies of “The Breeze” (dating from 1924).   A search online through the 1942 issues brought up March 13, 1942 Volume 20 Issue 17.  There on the first page, just below the announcement of the March 20th arrival of Martha Graham’s Modern Dance Group was the lead in bold face type:  “Miller Salutes Madison at Ten.”

The full story was there before me displayed on my computer’s monitor!  I read that Madison senior Elsie Jones made the request, assisted by Physics Professor Dr. Pittman and Mr. Marshall of the Music Department, that the program lasted fifteen minutes during which the salute was made, and that it would be heard at ten o’clock over Richmond station WRVA.  It was wonderfully exciting to discover this small piece of JMU history and I could hardly contain myself!

I printed a copy of the story and mailed it to the patron in Ohio, adding my thanks for having posed the question that set this journey in motion. I sent another plea to the MLA list for information leading to an archival copy of the actual radio broadcast and received several kind replies and many suggested contacts, which I looked into but none of them proved fruitful.  Even so, discovering the many available resources was a great deal of fun and I appreciated everyone’s contribution.

Then, on March 27th, 2012 an email arrived from Dennis M. Spragg, Senior Consultant for the Glenn Miller Archive in the University of Colorado at Boulder.   Our request was passed to him by his colleagues and he understood our connection to the 1942 broadcast.  Mr. Spragg explained that the program aired on a Friday evening and that the band was in Chicago “for a three-day stay before traveling west to Hollywood.”  He apologized for not replying sooner citing scheduling difficulties.   He wrote that at the conclusion of his email he included a copy of the program script.  Then he wrote that he could “clean up an audio copy of the broadcast from the reference tape….if you are interested….”

I nearly fell off my chair. I forwarded Brian Cockburn Mr. Spragg’s email with Brian’s name in large font followed by several exclamation points.  Brian replied, “Wow!”  I pushed down high enthusiasm in an attempt to reply to Mr. Spragg with a modicum of poise…. On May 16, 2012 another email came from Dennis Spragg, saying the recording had been mailed and to let him know when it arrived.  This piece of JMU history arrived in the Music Library’s School of Music mailbox on Friday, May 18, 2012.  I couldn’t stop grinning as I opened the envelope.  I called Music Library student assistant Sarah Wilson into my office, and together we listened to Glenn Miller’s salute to “the women of Madison”  and the special rendition of “A String of Pearls” for the first time since that Friday evening in 1942.

String of Pearls — Keep ’em flying

As the music swelled I imagined once again my mother and father elegantly fox-trotting across the living room floor as they did so long ago.  It is just a small little bit of sound, no more than a brief few minutes and then it’s done, but oh, what a treasure we have here in the Music Library!

There are times when working in a university library with generous people who share in the joy of discovery  is an incredibly rewarding endeavor.  I am sure everyone here at JMU is most grateful for the kindness of Dennis Spragg and all the lovely people who assisted in bringing an historic moment home.

(There is yet a lingering unresolved mystery ~ does anyone know of a Madison College hangout around during the 1940s and known as “James?” If you do, please contact Lynne Moir at moirla@jmu.edu)

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4 thoughts on “Searching for Madison’s String of Pearls
  • Social says:

    Armh1p Appreciate you sharing, great blog. Really Great.

  • Ralph Alberico says:

    What a fascinating story and an interesting piece of detective work. It could really serve as a case study for how research has changed over the years. At the same time it highlights the fact that true discovery rarely follows a linear path. Instead it involves following multiple leads, going down false trails and backtracking. Persistence, tapping into multiple communities and knowing what questions to ask and who to ask really paid off on this one.

  • Esther Stenson says:

    An impressive piece of research here, Lynne. Your exhaustive search for the goldmine reminds me of the hours we spent together in Dr. Bankert’s research methodology class–hours that sometimes felt interminable, but were ultimately rewarding! Keep up the good work!

  • Brian Cockburn says:

    James was a short order restaurant…sandwiches, cokes, shakes, old-fashioned sodas, sundaes, etc. Mainly in existence in the 1940s.

    It was in downtown Harrisonburg on the east side of Main Street between Newman Avenue and Water Street, one-and-a-half blocks south of the court house. Address: 120 South Main Street (Currently Earth & Tea Café). Notably in those days, it was directly across the street from the then-existing Mick or Mack…the main grocery store in town at that time.

    Before James came into existence, this storefront had the name of Hershey’s, which I vaguely remember. I don’t know the year when James opened…it was in existence during my high school years, 1945 to 1949. We referred to the place as James’…in the possessive sense…James was the last name of the proprietor.

    The place was the main downtown hangout for our high school crowd. In particular, as was the custom of the day, we would go downtown on Monday evenings to take in a movie, usually at the Virginia Theater (unfortunately, now razed), then afterwards go hang out at James’ for shakes, etc.

    As you came in James’ front door, a counter with the cash register was located to the left. There were glass display counters in this part of the store. I don’t remember much about what was for sale in these counters…mostly uninteresting stuff to high school students. I do remember pipes for smoking being there. The rear two-thirds of the place consisted of about 10 wooden dining booths. The surfaces of these booths were completely defaced with scratched-in names, initials, etc. This activity did not seem to bother Mr. James.

    Mr. James was most tolerant of us. As one can imagine, we were sometimes loud and rowdy. He was not particularly friendly, being of a somewhat dour demeanor…very seldom smiled or spoke to us. One unusual incident for me personally was at a particular time when he gave me too much change. When I came back and corrected the situation, he smiled and thanked me. After that, he smiled and spoke to me every time I came into the place.

    Some years after I left town in 1949, James’ closed. Later, the place opened under new management with the same sort of operation with the name of Hershey’s…as it had been known prior to the James years.

    During the James years, there was a constant flow of Madison girls walking back and forth between the downtown and Madison College. I enjoyed the parade.

    From Charley S., 84 years old. Currently a resident of Sunnyside Retirement Community, Harrisonburg, Virginia