Snapshot in Prose: Phil Spitalny

Phil Spitalny was a very popular orchestra leader who experienced success as a recording artist, on the radio (his was the house orchestra on The Hour of Charm, a program hosted by Arlene Francis that aired on CBS and then NBC from 1934 to 1948), the movies (he appeared in a number of musical shorts and in two features), and even television.

But he achieved his biggest success based on what some considered a gimmick: Beginning in 1934, his orchestra (and later an added chorus) was composed entirely of women.

This profile, from 1935, captures Spitalny just months after he first launched his all-girl outfit, which he would lead successfully for twenty years. And if you read all the way to the end, there’s an historic epsiode of the Hour of Charm awaiting you. It’s the broadcast from the evening of Dec. 7, 1941—the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The sound quality’s not ideal, but we think you’ll agree it’s well worth a listen.

WHY do all the girls love Phil Spitalny? Why do they rave over this adventurous maestro in an especial, possessive way?
One reason is because however “modern” a girl appears to be, there is still something down deep inside that responds to chivalry as quickly as sunflowers turn to the sun. Phil, in blazing the trail in radio with his all-girl band, dared battle for Every Girl. So she looks at him in his plain business suit and sees her shining knight in armor.
Of course our trailblazer is a great director possessed of distinguished musicianship, but there is still another big reason why the women love Phil.
He first loved them. He believed in them; in their common sense and in their musical ability. They had often been told before how beautifully they played. Oh, many times! But when a girl had tried to make her living with her trombone or bass violin, she had soon realized that the boys didn’t want her playing in their ball game.
So in the beginning the girls only shrugged their pretty shoulders and smiled when Phil said that he was going to organize a big woman’s band. The men laughed scornfully at his idea.
“A woman’s band! Why, where could he find professional women musicians to play all the instruments that men play in band? Impossible,” said the know-it-all men. “Women would quarrel, display temperament, and all that! No, Phil, don’t be ridiculous!”
Some of the wise ones said it was born of a commercial sense, while others grinned and remarked, “Find the woman!”

“I was born in a little Russian village,” began Spitalny when interviewed. “There were, father, mother, and three sons in our family. My parents wanted me to be an artist—you know, a concert violinist. They were very poor. But they manaaged so that I had study in Odessa.
“I came to America in 1917. At first, I played in orchestras in Cleveland. Then in various other cities. Finally I gathered together an orchestra of my own. It was a big thing for me when we finally got an engagement at the Pennsylvania Hotel. We stayed there for two and a half years.”
When asked about the search for girl musicians, Phil answered:
“I travelled for eight months, from the pine woods country of Maine to the small towns in the Rocky Mountains, looking for them. They came from 17 different states. I listened to 1100 girls play and sing. There are 30 in my band.
“At that time every one I knew discouraged me. When I had found the right girls, I would have to pay their transportation to New York and rehearse them.
“It was L. K. Sidney,” said Phil, “who at last gave us work in the Capitol Theatre. He helped us to keep together until we got an engagement on radio.”
“How do you find the girls to work with, as compared to men musicians?”
More business-like and more intelligent to handle than any men I ever had,” he replied promptly. “They take more pride in their work.”
The girls in Phil’s band all sing and most of them play two or more instruments. They are as lovely to look upon as a Ziegeld chorus.
“Why was this idea—this band of women—so vital to your happiness?”
“I have two brothers,” Phil began slowly. “They are both orchestra leaders. My father was a violinist who had the pleasure of expressing his talent. But, my mother, a pianist and the best musician of us all, never got anywhere—never got anywhere.
“It was only because she was a woman. I always knew that. And how much it hurt her. This rankled in me. I made up my mind I’d do this—for her—.”

The Hour of Charm—Dec. 7, 1941 (29:45)