Surreal perhaps but nontheless true — John Philip Sousa trod the vaudeville stage. Thoughts of a uniformed marching band in variety inevitably conjure visions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Remember, too, that vaudeville coincided with the Spanish-American and First World Wars. No doubt Sousa’s blood pumping musical artistry was at its apex of demand in such periods.
Sousa was born and raised in our nation’s capital. His father had been a trombonist in the U.S. Marines. Born in 1854, John Philip was a prodigy. He studied at a Washington music conservatory, where he developed his intense love for military bands during the Civil War.
Sousas fils and pere were an intense couple of dudes. Once, when Sousa’s mother wouldn’t give him enough donuts, he sat outside in the rain until he caught pneumonia. He was laid up in bed for one and a half years. When the lad was 13, his father caught wind that he intended to run off and join the circus. The next morning, dad walked him down to the Marine recruiting office and signed him up for a 7 ½ year hitch. I want to party with these fellahs. These are boys who know what they want.
Upon emerging from the Marines well on the other side of childhood, Sousa played as violinist in various orchestras and wrote numerous Broadway operettas. In 1880, he was appointed conductor of the U.S. Marine Corps Band, and reenlisted. Of course he did! He’s John Philip Sousa! For the corps, he composed many of his famous marches: Stars and Stripes Forever, Semper Fidelis and innumerable others. He was with the Marines until 1892, then toured with his own band. The band played the Palace on numerous occasions and in 1927, played the Paramount for ten weeks straight. See Eva Tanguay’s entry for an anecdote that tells us more about her than it does him.
Starting in 1912 Sousa made his home in Sand’s Point, Long Island. I happened to be in Port Washington the other day, and noticed that they had named a local bandshell after him. Nothing was playing there at the moment:
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, including musicians like John Philip Sousa, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever terrific books are sold.