Milwaukee, Chicago and Franks Drum Shop

23 Aug

In 1965 I was playing percussion in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra with Bob Ayers and John Wyre.   The orchestra was new and I was on its first Player’s Committee. The president of the orchestra’s board of directors and its manager were doing everything they could to discourage our committee from writing a master contract: a document binding the players, the local musician’s union and orchestra management in a legal relationship that would enhance the musician’s working conditions and cost management more money.

At that time, the Chicago Symphony was playing ten concerts a year in Milwaukee’s old Pabst Theater, and occasionally, I’d meet their cymbal player, Sam Denov, in the boiler room just before his concert, for a lesson.  Sam had authored a book on cymbal playing, but he was also something of a legal expert and had helped write his orchestra’s Master Contract, the first such document to be ratified in the United States.

After our lessons together, Sam and I would sometimes talk shop, and on one occasion, I told him about our struggles with management. He offered to give me a copy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Master Contract.  This was a big deal.  A volatile atmosphere had for years, permeated the lives of symphony players. Unhappy with being ignored by the American Federation of Musician’s (A. F. of M.), representatives from orchestras met and formed their own organization.  At first, the A. F. of M. actively worked to subvert this quasi union. When they finally realized the vast sums of money they could get by collecting work dues from well paid symphony musicians, they quickly absorbed the player’s fledgling organization.

Sam had experienced all of this, and more. Though I was an orchestral player during this period, my only involvement in the player’s movement was a subscription to their news letter. Now ‘the troubles’ had come to Milwaukee.

Troubles, is not an overstatement. The Milwaukee Symphony was an orchestra in transition. Young professionals had been hired to beef up the local talent and a couple of highly paid ringers from Chicago were brought in to keep watch on everyone and everything, including the young, very inexperienced, and malleable conductor. The orchestra’s board of director’s and manager were controlled by their president. In retrospect, I’m sure he thought he had the perfect balance of temperaments to control events for years to come: a local union president, susceptible to flattery and experienced mainly in dealing with an elderly membership of friends who played week-end polka gigs; a personally appointed chain smoking personnel manager, whose vocabulary was limited mostly to grunts; a young svelte conductor, with a pair of pure white Samoyed dogs to charm Milwaukee Gold Coast residents out of their money; local musicians whose main concern was the extra money earned playing in the orchestra; the two hand picked old pros mentioned earlier; and his own ruthlessness.

Most of the young pros were ambitious and wanted change. Hence, the formation of our player’s committee. The need for change was not shared by everyone. There were a few pros who feared they’d be rocked overboard. They saw Milwaukee in their future, and wanted the committee to wait, even when we learned the local union President was reporting our ‘secret’ discussions to management. (He innocently believed he was doing everyone a favor by smoothing the path ahead of us.) We also discovered spies on our committee, and they too, were regularly reporting our discussions to management. With the help of Chicago’s master contract, pro bono advice from a Milwaukee labor lawyer and an A. F. of M. representative who flew in from New York City, we wrote, negotiated and ratified our orchestra’s first master contract. Then, almost all of the youngest and brightest resigned from the orchestra and went forth into the world to better jobs.

Many years later, Nexus played with the Milwaukee Symphony. The moment I walked on stage, a veteran from those days stepped forward, shook my hand, and said simply, “You were right”. Where was he when he was needed?

One good break from Milwaukee was a trip to Franks Drum Shop with my Daughter, Dorothy Anne. Its late, great owner, Maurie Lishon, sold me a fine sounding Ludwig snare drum that someone had jerry rigged into a Super Sensitive look alike. During that visit Maurie excitedly showed me Ludwig’s latest marvel, the Keylon xylophone. He told me it was indestructible, and to prove his point, thrust a brass headed glockenspiel mallet into my hand and said, “Go ahead. Hit it as hard as you can. Nothing can hurt it”. I aimed for one of the bars and creamed it dead center.  A chip the size of the beater flew off leaving a cream colored hole where a brown plastic coating had been. There was silence for a while and then Maurie, bless him, gave a bemused shrug and said, “Hmm”.  His wife Jan took the Polaroid photo below.1 A cherished treasure from an otherwise irksome era.

1. See:


3 responses to “Milwaukee, Chicago and Franks Drum Shop

  1. Bill

    September 4, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    “Hmm.” Maurie Lishon, 1965.

  2. Sam Denov

    March 6, 2011 at 11:42 am

    Hi Robin,

    I just recently ran across your article about our meetings in Milwaukee. It brought back many memories.
    powered by cformsII

  3. rich johnson

    November 15, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    I remember the chipped bar. He never did that again with a brass mallet.


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