Mansfield exists in a rare and unusually fertile plane of reality wherein things grow that you would never expect to find here. Not just grow, but thrive in a way as to verify the precious nature of life here.
One of those things is the Mansfield Symphony.
It gives our city a class and cultural integrity and legitimacy toward which nothing else can suffice.
It is rare to find Symphony Orchestras in cities in America with populations less than 150,000. In fact, Mansfield is among the smallest cities in the U.S. to have a symphony.
So how did this city happen to give rise to a cultural phenomenon ordinarily reserved for metropolitan life?
It was really a simple equation:
1) In the 1920s there were more than a dozen nickelodeons and SILENT MOVIE THEATERS downtown;
2) But by the mid-20s, RADIO began taking over everyone’s lives and making it really easy for folks to stay home and be entertained in their living room;
So, to attract folks back to the theaters:
3) Managers brought big-name really talented MUSICIANS to town who could play professional soundtracks for silent movies;
4) But then the motion picture industry introduced SOUND into MOVIES;
5) Putting the really talented MUSICIANS out of work.
What can a town do with a few dozen really talented musicians?
This is how it happened:
1) Silent Movie Theaters
Silent movies, in actuality, were anything but silent. Once the film started rolling, people were laughing and shouting at the screen, reading out loud and stamping their feet.
Nevertheless, every movie house had someone playing the piano to amplify the action and mood of the story. A few of the theaters had a small live orchestra to add depth of emotion and entertain between reels.
Within a few blocks downtown there were movies showing at the Alvin, the Park, the White Way, the Royal. The Majestic and the Opera House in addition to movies also had vaudeville acts.
In the early 1920s, radio was a brand-new and interesting phenomenon that people could experience at various clubs around town, but it was still an odd curiosity. It could hardly be considered threatening to the half-dozen nickelodeons in town doing a brisk business at entertaining.
But by the mid-’20s, there was consistent radio programming in the air waves every night from big cities playing high-caliber orchestras. Folks in Mansfield could set up a radio and enjoy performances from the Hotel Cleveland and the Hotel Hollenden right in their own living room.
Then in 1926, Mansfield got its own radio station.
WLBV started broadcasting local talent every evening from the top of the Southern Hotel. As soon as the Richland Trust skyscraper was finished on the Square, the station went to the top of the city and changed its call letters. As WJW the station featured local programming from 6 to 9 PM every day.
At that point, it was just as easy to stay at home in the evening.
So the movie houses had to up the ante in order to compete.
The Opera House, on Park Avenue West, recognized that it seemed hopelessly old fashioned in the onrush of the Jazz Age, so in 1927 they closed down to remodel and reimagine. It reopened that fall as the Madison Theater with a brilliant marquee out front and a whole new atmosphere inside.
In addition, they imported to Mansfield two names everyone knew from the radio: the orchestra leaders from the Hotel Cleveland and Hotel Hollenden.
The music was so superb, the audience arrived early and stayed late as the orchestra played before, during, and after the movies.
4) Movies With Sound
The Talkies first arrived in 1928, and they were advertised not so much as movies, but as “Vitaphone” entertainment: the process by which sound was synchronized with film. Theaters had to have special equipment installed to show Vitaphone movies, and the first to arrive in Mansfield showed on April 15, 1928 at the Madison. According to reviews in the Mansfield News, audiences broke into spontaneous applause because the actors:
“appeared so real that the audience forgot for a moment that the actors were only appearing on the screen and not in person. Judging from the crowded house all day, the Vitaphone was what the people have been waiting for.”
That was a new beginning for Mansfield, and the beginning of the end. Within a year or so advertisements stopped calling them Vitaphone movies because nearly all the new ones had sound.
The Silents and Vaudeville faded quickly, and with them went the Theater Orchestras.
One of the musicians displaced by the end of Theater Orchestras was Eugene Weinberger.
The English language was not native to Weinberger, but he communicated better than anyone in a language with no words: music.
He was born in Hungary to a family of musicians famous in the Budapest Opera. As a child prodigy, he studied under a recognized master of Europe, and then came to America where string instrumentalists called him one of the great violinists of the world. He was a concertmaster in Chicago, then took a conductor’s baton on the radio in Cleveland.
Weinberger also toured with his Hungarian Quartet until he happened to play a gig at the Opera House in Mansfield, Ohio.
He was charmed by the place, and fell in love with the local musicians; and when they offered him a concertmaster’s seat at the Madison he took a house on Mulberry Street.
Weinberger performed all over town at any occasion, and he opened a violin studio for students of any age.
When it was clear the movie houses no longer needed him, he decided his career in America was over and he headed back to Europe.
The story he told later started with a moment of truth that came in the middle of the Atlantic during a violent storm, when the air was charged with electricity and the sea was dissolving and reforming. In a moment of clarity, he understood that his life dream of conducting a symphony orchestra could happen in Mansfield.
He spent a season performing and studying music composition from masters in Hungary, Italy, Germany and France, and then came back to Mansfield.
The first concert of the Mansfield Symphony took place four months later.
He had 35 musicians in the initial performance, and before they began rehearsals for any performance, he would memorize the entire score so he could be free to focus his complete attention upon characterization and effects.
Weinberger married a young widow who worked at Westinghouse; he taught students who went off to great orchestras around the country. When he died at the age of 42, his relatives came here from Rumania to lay him in the Mansfield earth of his home.
Images in this article come from the Mark Hertzler Collection, Hal McCuen, Art Alleshouse and Mary Koppel, Vic Day and Anne Sabri.