I first came across the memorable name of Florian ZaBach (1918-2006) while researching my upcoming book on television variety shows. Though not as extraordinary a professional handle as “Engelbert Humperdinck“, it’s up there, and has the added virtue of having been his own given name. He is representative of a time when someone who was a musician — only a musician — could be a variety star, putting him in a class with the likes of Miss Patricola, The Incomparable Hildegarde, and Liberace. Given that he was a child prodigy, it was technically possible for him to have played vaudeville, as he was already performing publicly when the circuits were still going, but most of his early dates seem to have been in concert halls. The most populist of his early venues seems to have been the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair when he was 15.
Zabach was the only child and namesake of Florian ZaBach, Sr, a concert clarinetist from Vienna. Born and raised in the Chicago area, the son studied at conservatories at home and in Europe, and first made his name playing on national radio, often broadcasting from residencies at places like Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC, and the Strand Theatre in NYC. He was especially known for his speed on the instrument; “Flight of the Bumblebee” was his showstopper. Appearances on Arthur Godfrey’s radio show amplified his reach still further.
In 1951 ZaBach had a #15 pop hit with an instrumental called “The Hot Canary”, and this is what made him a pop culture phenomenon for most of the decade. He appeared on the television variety shows of Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jackie Gleason, Bob and Ray, Ken Murray, et al. He also briefly had his own CBS TV variety show, which was later syndicated. What does a variety show hosted by a violinist look like? Well, you can watch an episode of it here. The presenter comes across as surprisingly engaging, certainly no worse and perhaps a little better than most of the professional announcers of the period.
But before, during, and after this television bonanza he was popular in live performance and on record albums. He continued to play his mix of classical and pop favorites, from Mendelsohn to “Turkey in the Straw” before delighted audiences all over the world well into his 70s, not retiring until the 1990s. The Library of Congress has his papers. And if you want to hear him scratch his fiddle, there are scores of his vinyl performances on Youtube.
To find out more about the history of variety entertainment, including TV variety, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,
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