The Czech-Slovak national group had the heyday of Sarasota

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If there was ever a musical group that reflected the era and the community in which they played, it was the colorful Czecho-Slovak National Band that performed in Sarasota during the boom years of the mid-1980s. 1920.

During their brief stay here, no grand opening or civic event was complete without an appearance by this august group of talented and colorful bohemian artists.

These musicians performed free concerts for downtown residents and snowbirds at a bandstand on Gulf Stream Avenue, another on St. Armands at Harding Circle, and the multicolored bathhouse on Lido Beach.

They performed at Mira Mar Auditorium, yesterday’s version of Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

The Czech-Slovak National Music made headlines in December 1925.

When an important character was being celebrated in Sarasota at lunch or dinner at one of the hotels, the band was called upon to play their beautiful music. Same with national conventions hosted locally.

They were on hand to impress important guests of John and Mable at big parties at Ca’ d’Zan on the ornate bay landing.

When Sac and Fox Nation great athlete Jim Thorpe was in town playing a football game with his all-Indigenous exhibition team, the Czech band provided the entertainment. Said the Messenger, “[Their] Attendance at today’s game will add significantly to the already colorful lineup that is promised to any game that Thorpe and his famous Indian players take part in.

They have become an integral part of Sarasota’s social scene.

From the beginning, the benefits of a local group were recognized as an asset to Sarasota’s growth as a tourist attraction. That and golf were seen as the two key ingredients to success.

Sarasota's first band was formed in 1910.

In 1910, The Sarasota Times had lobbied for a local marching band, editorializing, “There’s nothing that gives so much banging and going to a town as a marching band.” Soon the band was formed and playing at many local functions and receptions.

The marching band evolved into the Sarasota Band under the direction of Merle Evans, internationally renowned leader of the Ringling Bros. circus ensemble. and Barnum & Bailey. Known as “Toscani of the Big Top”, the crown playing Evans is credited with performing for the circus for fifty years, never missing a single show in thirty thousand performances. The American Federation of Musicians credited Evans with performing in front of more people than any musician in history. (When the Hartford Circus fire broke out in 1944, Evans and his men performed until the very last moment, trying to calm the panicked crowd.)

During the circus’ off-season, Evans led musical fare such as Ticke’s “The Conqueror”; “Maximilian Robespierre” by Lidoff and “Hungarian Fantasy” by Tobani. For those with less sophisticated tastes, his repertoire included such well-known melodies as Strauss’ “The Blue Danube Waltz”.

Later, Voltaire Sturgis took over the leadership of the Sarasota Band and would also form the Sarasota High School Band from 1930 to 1956.

The Sarasota gang, here led by Voltaire Sturgis, circa 1927.

As for golf, when citizens were deciding whether or not to redevelop the municipal course, it was said that “a tourist town without golf is like the play Hamlet without the main character”. The sport has since proven moderately popular.

The first word of the Czecho group’s arrival was reported on the front page of the Sarasota Herald, November 5, 1925, alongside a pen-and-ink drawing by John Ringling. “John Ringling Wires Czech-Slovakian Musicians Signed.” The newspaper reported that the 30-piece band from Prague had performed to great acclaim all over Europe in Rotterdam, Paris, Amsterdam and The Hague.

Before leaving Prague, the musicians gave a concert to their homeland’s President Masaryk “who praised the musicians and wished them success in the New World.”

The group was under the supervision of his compatriot Otokar Bartik, director and ballet master of the New York Metropolitan Opera.

After arriving at Ellis Island in New York, they were said to have charmed officials and other immigrants, themselves seeking to start a new life in America.

After Bartik heard them play, he agreed to be their sponsor and organize a tour of cities with large Czech populations. But John Ringling, who was in New York, heard them and thought they were just what he needed to bring color and excitement to his developments, which were being completed. Bartik, who knew Ringling, agreed to suspend his tour in favor of Ringling’s offer to bring them to Sarasota for the winter months.

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The Herald reported that Ringling had written to Masaryk that his compatriots had arrived safely and would be well cared for. Ringling built them a wooden quarter behind the El Vernona, later the John Ringling Hotel.

For Ringling, who was working on a million-dollar bridge for his developments on the Keys with their wide, tree-lined boulevards and European-inspired statues, the group was the perfect choice. A colorful complement to highlight the exotic charms of the old world.

The group’s concerts twice a day gave the cars and buses full of tourists and shoppers (it was said that $1 million worth of property had been sold that first day) a colorful cultural sample they wouldn’t have enjoyed otherwise.

Often the group would form downtown in their colorful old world uniforms, meet at Orange Ave. and Main St., and paraded to the flag pole at Five Points.

A two-band program for a performance at McAnsh Park Bandstand.

Writing about their reception a few years later, Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Jane Holt reported that when they gathered, office workers hanging from windows gave them wild applause and shouted demands. From there, playing soulful European and American marches, they continued down Main Street to the bandstand in Caples Park, adjacent to the waterfront.

For their introduction to “a music-loving Sarasota audience” on Christmas Day 1925, the group offered the traditional Yuletide folk songs from various European countries.

Their comprehensive repertoire was varied and reflected classical training. Throughout the season, their performance times and locations, as well as track listings, were provided in the Sarasota Herald.

A sample of their fare on March 17, 1929, with Bohumil Raban conducting:

Overture “Rienzi” – Wagner

Intermezzo “Away from the Ball” – Gillet

Song “Spring’s Awakening” – Bach

Large selection of “Bohemian Girl” – Balfe

INTERMISSION

“Unfinished Symphony” (First movement) – Schubert

Waltz “The Skaters” – Waldteufel

“Southern Rhapsody” – Hosmer

During the slump of the real estate crash, such heady deals offered a refreshing respite. Artist, Mrs. Florence Marone from New York who had traveled across the country with her husband in search of an idyllic place to call home found it in Sarasota. Writing to a friend, she noted: ‘We spent Saturday and Sunday at the [Whitfield)] country club meeting people and dancing to the Czech-Slovak band, and we were so excited we wanted to live here forever.”

During Sarasota’s off-season, the band performed for showman and Ringling friend, Sam Gumpertz at Luna Park, Coney Island, and recorded for Victor Records. The Herald reported that while they were there, tutors were hired to teach them English.

During the offseason, the band played at Coney Island.

With the Great Depression, the Czech-Slovak band stopped playing Sarasota and dispersed a few years later.

A few musicians returned, and at least one member, Eugene Pohunek, worked at the Ringling Museum.

And with a nod to his past, he played his French horn for the Florida West Coast Symphony. The colorful moments with his fellow musicians in their bohemian uniforms a pleasant but distant memory.

Jeff LaHurd grew up in Sarasota and is an award-winning author/historian.

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