Prying Out the Prior Pryors

There were at three generations of performing Pryors. The patriarch Samuel Pryor was a bandmaster in St. Joe, Missouri. His son, Arthur Pyror (1869-1942) was born above a theatre in that town, and went on to gain national fame as a trombone prodigy and a star of John Philip Sousa’s band, playing throughout American and Europe as such from 1892 to 1902. Pryor’s first solo with the band was played at the World’s Columbia Exposition in 1893. When his father passed in ought two, Pryor took over his band and made it nationally famous, touring with it through 1909, when he settled down to play locally at the Jersey Shore town of Asbury Park, with a second unit that played regularly in Coney Island. He kept up his activities until his death 80 years ago.

We’d be less inclined to remember him here if Pryor hadn’t accomplished a substantial legacy as a composer, arranger, and recording artist. He wrote some 300 pieces of music, the best known of which is “The Whistler and His Dog”. “On Jersey Shore” is locally popular for obvious reasons. And he did an arrangement of the traditional folk tune “Bluebells of Scotland” that is still popular with brass musicians. He also wrote operas and musicals including a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a collaboration with L. Frank Baum called Peter and Paul that was intended to star Fred Stone and Dave Montgomery, from the original 1903 Broadway production of The Wizard of Oz.

The great Rick Benjamin of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra is a scholar on Pryor, has written about him, plays his music with his band, has recorded it (although the CD he produced is currently unavailable) and is credited with discovering a trove of thousands of his scores. Our friends at Archeophone Records offer a CD of the actual Pryor ensemble called Echoes at Asbury Park: Arthur Pryor and His Band.

In later years, Pryor went into local New Jersey politics. And he left another important legacy. His son was stage, screen, and radio star Roger Pryor (1901-1974)

No longer a household name today, Pryor featured in many films we’ve written about on Travalanche or otherwise have seen or know about: they include Moonlight and Pretzels (1933), Gift of Gab (1934) with Edmund Lowe, Belle of the Nineties (1934) with Mae West, and the spook comedy Scared Stiff (1945) with Jack Haley.

Like his two brothers Samuel and Arthur, Jr (who also became a bandmaster), Roger was brought up to be musical although he would not incorporate that until the later years of his career, on radio, with his own orchestra. He started out in regional stock theatre around 1919. The Backslapper (1925) was the first of over a dozen Broadway plays he appeared in, the most successful of which was George S. Kaufman’s and Edna Ferber’s The Royal Family (1927-1928). He appeared in over 50 Hollywood films from 1930 through 1945. The Roy Rogers-Dale Evans vehicle Man from Oklahoma was his last film. He returned to Broadway one last time to appear in the play Message for Margaret with Miriam Hopkins. From 1947 into the early ’50s he worked extensively on radio, as an actor in dramas, sometimes as a host of programs, and eventually as a producer, which led to him becoming an advertising executive, as did his brother Arthur.

Roger Pryor’s first wife was Priscilla Mitchell, the daughter of vaudeville star Bessie Clayton. The union lasted from 1928 to 1933. From 1936 to 1942 he was married to Ann Sothern. In 1955 he appeared on a “Salute to Radio” on The Ed Sullivan Show.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.