Monday, February 10, 2020

Arnold Hager and His Famous Band

by Erin Doane, Curator

In June 1906, Hager’s Band of Elmira was the official band of the State of New York at the gigantic Old Home Week Celebration in Auburn. In just four years under the leadership of Arnold Hager, the band had gone from playing small, local performances to being one of the most celebrated musical groups in the state.  

Hager’s Band, early 1900s
Arnold Hager was interested in music from a young age. He was born in Elmira on November 26, 1873 to Frederick and Ida Hager who had come to the United States from Switzerland. His father was a musician, so it was natural for him to start taking piano lessons at age eight. He went on to learn the cornet and played with the 26th Separate Company Band before he was even a teenager. At 14 he started violin lessons and played in the YMCA orchestra. At age 17, he played his first theater engagement at the Madison Avenue Theater.

In 1892, Hager’s father died suddenly. So, at age 19, he took his music on the road to help support his family. He took a job as cornet player with the Sig Sawtelle Canal Boat Circus which traversed the Erie Canal. A year later he joined Lee’s London Circus out of Canton, Pennsylvania. Over the next few years he jumped from job to job playing music for theaters, circuses, and minstrel shows. Finally, in 1896 he returned to Elmira, took the civil service exam, and got a job as music instructor at the Elmira Reformatory.

Arnold Hager, c. 1936
When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Hager joined the Thirtieth Separate Company and was appointed leader of the regimental band. When asked by a newspaper reporter why he enlisted, he answered, “To charm or rather hypnotize the Spaniards with my reformatory band.” After his service, he returned to the Reformatory and was promoted to director of the music program.

In 1902, Hager got the opportunity to become leader of his own independent band. Ten years earlier, Haytt’s Military Band was popular around the city, playing at grand receptions and balls. In 1894, there was a schism in the band. Some members wanted Ralph Mulcare to become leader rather than Professor Haytt. So, Haytt and several of his most devoted followers left and the remaining musicians became Mulcare’s Band. The new band was very active through the late 1890s and early 1900s, but finances were a persistent problem. In 1902, Mrs. Julia S. Reynolds sued Mulcare for not paying rent for eight months on a room the band used for rehearsals. Mulcare settled the case out of court, but resigned as band director.

Program from a Mulcare’s Elmira Band concert, 1901
Hager was a member of Mulcare’s Band and when Mulcare stepped down, the other band members elected Hager as their new director. Thus, Hager’s Band was born. Their first engagement was playing at the annual military ball of the Thirtieth Separate Company on Thanksgiving night, 1902. From then on, Hager’s Band grew in popularity. They played at conventions, parades, parks, and fairs throughout the state, including their highly-lauded performance at Auburn’s Old Home Week Celebration. Under his direction, Hager’s Band became recognized as one of the foremost musical organizations in the country.

Hager’s Band, early 1900s
While Hager was leading his own band, he was also a member of the Grotto Band, and offered private musical lessons on the side. And on top of all of that, he was still musical instructor and director of the Elmira Reformatory Band. In order to devote more of his time to what would become a 40-year career at the Reformatory, Hager pulled back slightly from his outside musical interests. In 1922, Hager’s Band became the Elks’ Band. The Elmira Elks Lodge took over management of the band while Hager continued to carry the baton as leader. He remained director of the 35-person band until his death.

On April 13, 1936, after several months of ill health, Arnold Hager passed away. He was 62 years old. Hundreds of people came out for his funeral including family, friends, officers of the Elmira Elks Lodge, fraternal brothers, members of reformatory staff, former music students, and members of the general public who may not have known him personally but were touched by his music. Musicians who played under his direction in Hager’s Band played a funeral march as the procession moved through Woodlawn Cemetery to his family’s plot. It was a fitting tribute to the man who had devoted his life to music.

Members of Hager’s Band leading Arnold Hager’s funeral procession into Woodlawn Cemetery, Star-Gazette, April 17, 1936

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