The Great Artists Course: A Golden Age of Music

In Search of Old Shamokin, August 2020 edition

In a city founded on industry, best known in its heyday as the commercial metropolis of the coal region, it is easy to overlook the role of the arts in Shamokin’s history. Nevertheless, music, dance, and theater were enthusiastically promoted in the community from its beginnings.

In the early years of the borough, musical selections were presented in concert and meeting halls in the upper floors of local businesses, or at the Academy of Music located at the current site of the American Legion Memorial. For the classically inclined, the G.A.R. hall at Independence and Cleaver Streets offered operas and ballet. Popular music also thrived with the formation of a number of brass and marching bands. But it was in the 1920s that Shamokin experienced what later authors would term a “Golden Age” of music in the history of the city.

From 1920-1925, a program of classical music known as the Great Artists Course brought world-famous performers to downtown Shamokin, drawing audiences from throughout Northumberland County. Headliners included Amelita Galli-Curci, widely considered one of the world’s leading sopranos of the day; soprano Rosa Ponselle of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera; and contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink, who had previously appeared at Covent Garden and the Met. Ukrainian pianist Vladimir de Pachmann, advertised as the world’s greatest player of Chopin, was featured in the program in 1924 while on his farewell tour of the United States.

The Great Artists Course was conceived and organized by Conrad “Con” R. Graeber and Eugene Zartman, both employees of the First National Bank on Sunbury Street. Although he pursued a lifelong career in finance, Graeber was an ardent follower and critic of classical music, and spoke with authority on the finer points of the art while addressing local functions.

Shamokin was not a community founded around a college or university; no institute of higher learning existed to attract artists to the city—instead, this was accomplished through the efforts of individuals like Graeber and Zartman who promoted the arts by means of private funds, making it possible for Shamokin to enjoy a cultural presentation which rivaled those of larger cities. The undertaking was not an easy one—nor inexpensive. Contemporary accounts relate that violinist Fritz Kreisler was paid $2,200 for his 1921 appearance in Shamokin—the equivalent of about $30,000 today.

“Viewed from a financial standpoint,” wrote the Shamokin News-Dispatch, “the enterprise was conducted on a non-profit basis, a few seasons closing with a small profit that was utilized in meeting the discrepancies of other seasons.”

Presented at the opulent Victoria and Majestic Theatres, the Great Artists Course was the society event of the year in Shamokin. Describing Galli-Curci’s visit to Shamokin, the authors of the 1964 Centennial history wrote: “It was 1921, when automobiles were still something of a rarity here, yet Independence Street that evening was jammed with cars on the way to the theatre. It was a festive atmosphere, with many people in formal attire.”

For some, the Great Artists Course also promised musical opportunities beyond gala night. One aspiring Shamokin soprano, Mrs. Arthur Geist, was introduced to Rosa Ponselle after her 1923 performance here and through her acquaintance with the soprano was afforded an opportunity to train in New York City with Ponselle’s private voice tutor.

The Great Artists Course was ultimately discontinued in 1925, having enjoyed a popular and successful run despite occasional conflicts with the acquisition of performers, and lack of cooperation from subscribers. Con R. Graeber continued to promote the arts in Shamokin in the years following, being credited with securing the noted San Carlo Opera Company for a sold-out performance of “Carmen” at the Capitol Theatre in 1927.

According to contemporary accounts during the era of the Great Artists Course, neighboring communities such as Sunbury and Pottsville also offered concert programs, yet the talent presented in Shamokin remained unsurpassed. One of the few comparisons to be found in the region is the modern-day Celebrity Artist Series of Bloomsburg University.

“Stars of the musical world,” wrote the Shamokin News-Dispatch in 1925, “deemed it no small honor to be invited to appear in this city, for they knew that they had been preceded by only the best, and where only the finest of the musical world were desired.”

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