Snapshot in Prose: Richard Himber

Richard Himber‘s not as well remembered today as other band leades of the 1930s, but he was plenty big in his day. His music certainly stands up, and we regularly feature his recordings on Cladrite Radio. When this Snapshot in Prose first saw the light of day, in 1935, his orchestra was holding forth from New York’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, and his popular radio program was flying high.

As the story reveals, though, Himber’s origins were more modest than that. A precocious youth, he got his first professional gig playing violin for a Coney Island dance orchestra at the dewy age of 13. Not a bad jump, from Coney Island to the Ritz-Carlton.

P.S. Read all the way to the end of the story, and you’ll find a couple of our favorite Himber recordings awaiting you.

In the best Horatio Alger tradition, the young hero always trudged along a dusty road armed with a knapsack and the grim determination to (a) make his own way in the world; (b) pay off the mortgage on the old homestead; and, (c) always be valorous in his endeavors.
The only difference between the Alger character and Richard Himber, young composer-conductor of the Studebaker Champions program, is that there was no dusty road and Himber carried a violin in place of a knapsack.
Leaving his home in Newark, New Jersey, at an age when most youths are deciding whether to take algebra or commercial arithmetic in the first year at high school, Himber decided that music needed him and that he could get along very well without an academic education.
Apparently he was correct, for at the age of 13 he strolled down to Coney Island, played his fiddle for a cafe manager and, presto, was hired to play with the orchestra. The summer of 1920 over, Dick Himber came to New York with three months of orchestra playing under his belt and very little else.
He was broke, 13 years old, and in a strange town. His pride prevented him his returning to his home in New Jersey. By nocturnal visits to small restaurants where he played for the diners, he managed to pick up enough money to exist. It was while playing at a small restaurant for whatever change the patrons cared to give him that he was heard by Sophie Tucker.

Shortly afterward the famous Sophie went on a vaudeville tour, taking with her the original “Five Kings of Rhythm,” destined to set a new style of music making. Richard Himber, 14 years of age, was the conductor and violinist!

During the several years of trouping that followed, Himber became interested in, of all things, magic! Whenever his act was on a vaudeville bill with some magician, Dick would study the tricks of the illusionist. After a while he lost interest in most types of magic but became extremely fond of legerdemain. Soon he acquired a knowledge of and ability at sleight-of-hand that was then (and still is) nothing short of amazing.
In New York again after his stage tour, Dick tried unsuccessfully for months to get into the pit of the Paramount theatre, as violinist. The Paramount then was the peak for a musician and every music maker in New York tried to crash into the orchestra there.
Undaunted by his failure to show his talents, time and again Himber went backstage of the noted showplace and finally hit upon the happy idea of showing the individual in charge of hiring musicians a couple of his best card tricks. The contractor, like most of us, was greatly intrigued by Dick’s legerdemain and a bargain was effected whereby Himber was to disclose his card tricks to the contractor in return for a note to Paul Ash, musical maestro at the Paramount theatres in New York and Brooklyn, who had the final say-so about the men to be engaged. Himber got the note and—P.S. : he got the job.
One day, several years later, a young lad with curly hair and a crooning style took his band onto the Paramount stage and proceeded to revolutionize show business. Himber immediately sensed the potentialities of the lad who, of course, was Rudy Vallee. When Vallee brought his own orchestra into the Paramount for an extended run, replacing the regular pit band, Dick joined Rudy and thus began an association that lasted for several years. Himber became office manager for Vallee and also had charge of all outside activities for Vallee orchestras. Rudy decided to concentrate on his broadcasting exclusivelyl so Dick in turn became associated with Buddy Rogers and several other orchestra directors, for all of whom he was eminently successful.
Then he decided that if he could make money for other orchestras leaders, he certainly could for himself, should he become a conductor. So he organized his own orchestra, but here’s a world of difference between organizing an orchestra and doing something about it after it is organized. Himber found that out.
A little thing such as no reputation didn’t cause him to falter, though. He was living at the Essex House and sold the manager o the hotel on the idea of putting the Himber orchestra in the dining room. Then he petitioned the National Broadcasting Company for a radio outlet and started to make his programs different, which he did with a vengeance.
It was at the Essex House that Richard Himber originated the harp interludes between dance numbers—a musical creation which has since been copied by a dozen of the better band leaders.
The listening public took kindly to the music made by the young maestro and it wasn’t long before the Essex House gave way to the swanky Ritz-Carlton and his sustaining programs ceded their places to commercial broadcasts.
His contemporaries insist that there’s something magical about Richard Himber’s sudden rise to prominence. Most of them would probably tell you that the magic is in his hands which hold the cue, fire the gun and manipulate cards and coins with marvelous exterity. But the real magic of Richard Himber is in his agile mind, which seizes an opportunity when it sees one!

Richard Himber and His Orchestra — “Gather Lip Rouge While You May”

Richard Himber and His Orchestra — “Our Big Love Scene”

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