Los Angeles-based Orville Knapp Orchestra performs a Seattle concert -- featuring what is almost certainly the local public debut of the electric guitar -- on September 13, 1934.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 10/12/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20161

On Thursday evening, September 13, 1934, nationwide radio stars the Orville Knapp Orchestra draw an excited crowd to a show at Seattle's ritzy Cafe Club Victor. The popular ensemble is a particularly snappy one, but it is guitarist Jack Miller who most impresses the audience, with his skillful playing of a new-fangled instrument -- one likely not seen before in Seattle: a solid-body electric lap steel guitar. The event will have further historical impact because one attendee is local music teacher, shopkeeper, radio singer, acoustic-steel guitarist, electrical experimenter, and inventor Paul H. Tutmarc (1896-1972) -- an enthusiastic fan who makes a point of connecting with Miller after the show so he can learn more about that electric guitar. Duly inspired, Tutmarc will go on to launch his own Audiovox brand of early electric guitars and amplifiers.

The Sound of Tomorrow

The Los Angeles-based Ro-Pat-In Corporation -- with its odd moniker likely derived from the phrase "Electro Patented Instruments" -- was incorporated in October 1931. The firm had a goal of manufacturing and marketing an unprecedented new musical instrument: an electrified guitar that a musician would play Hawaiian style -- resting it horizontally on the lap and sliding a steel bar up and down the strings. Beyond the technological advances required to amplify such an instrument, Ro-Pat-In's Electro guitar boasted an oddly shaped cast-aluminum body, thus earning its popular nickname the "Frying Pan." Ro-Pat-In would by 1934 be reconstituted as the Electro String Instrument Corporation and then finally as Rickenbacker Inc.

Before that, Ro-Pat-In kicked things off by seeking out one of the highest profile steelers on the Hollywood scene to help draw attention to its new instrument -- Jack Miller, who had become quite the attraction in his regular gig at the famed Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Rickenbacker's corporate records show that Miller received his Electro guitar on October 30, 1932 -- and, by the way, that he failed to ever pay for it, and the company ended up writing that $65 off as bad debt!

But then, Miller and his Electro "Frying Pan" really became the talk of the town after he joined the orchestra led by Orville Knapp (1904-1936) in May 1934. When he did, the group's most unusual use of an organ and an electric guitar forged a unique sound featuring "sudden, exaggerated brass segments and unison saxes" that was presciently billed as the "Sound of Tomorrow" ("Orville Knapp"). Knapp's band was based out of the swank Silver Palm Room of Santa Monica's Grand Hotel, where it began broadcasting a national weekly radio show that gained widespread attention.

"Subsequent national tours with this well-received band led to national notoriety for Jack Miller. The tours also brought attention to the electric steel guitar he was playing. With tasteful arrangements Miller established the electric guitar in a popular music orchestra. It was exactly the kind of exposure the new guitar needed" (Smith).

Indeed, even the famously credit-grabbing electric guitar pioneer Les Paul (1915-2009) once credited Miller as the first electric guitarist that he had ever heard. And other guitarists were taking note as well.

North to Seattle

Music fans in Seattle had been hearing the Orville Knapp Orchestra playing live from the Grand Hotel on a weekly basis -- via Seattle's KOMO radio -- since June 11, 1934. And the exciting sounds the band produced, including the hit records it began cutting for Decca Records in August, soon inspired Seattle's Active Club bring Knapp's crew to town. The orchestra was booked to perform a formal dance/concert at the Cafe Club Victor, a tony downtown room at 2221 Fourth Avenue run by longtime-bandleader -- and the state's recently elected lieutenant governor -- Vic Meyers (1897-1991).

According to news coverage, among those in attendance that night of September 13, 1934, were future Seattle mayor and Washington governor Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966) and his wife. Also in attendance was prominent Seattle musician/teacher Paul H. Tutmarc (1896-1972), who, in an evident instance of independent cogeneration, had also created a unique electro-magnetic pickup and had been electrifying various musical instruments in the basement workshop of his home in the Maple Leaf neighborhood (8217 8th Avenue NE) since 1930-1931. Knapp's orchestra provided an evening of splendid dance tunes for the Seattle crowd. Afterward, Tutmarc introduced himself to Miller and invited him over for a home-cooked dinner the following day.

Dinner and a Frying Pan

As it happened, Miller gratefully accepted the invitation and showed up at Tutmarc's house with his "Frying Pan" and a small Rickenbacker amp in tow. That Tutmarc was thrilled by this encounter -- and the chance to play the little metal guitar -- is apparent in surviving photographs from that day and from testimony offered decades later by both his son Paul H. "Bud" Tutmarc Jr. (1924-2006) and his daughter Jeanne Tutmarc Crapo (1922-2003). Crapo once recalled:

"My dad looked Jack Miller up and they got to be friendly ... And then he came and spent the day with us at our house. I remember that day. They sat in the yard and talked. My mother cooked dinner, and he and my dad visited. And oh: it was really a big day for my dad. The guitar that Miller had was just a little [thing] with a neck on it. I remember that my dad was so intrigued with it. ... My dad was so fascinated with this ... You see, up to that time I think he had used his pickup [only] on an ordinary hollow-body guitar. Up until that time I don't think that he was aware of how small [an electric guitar] could be. How easy to work with and how simple to manufacture a small guitar" (Crapo interview).

Audiovox Emerges

As intrigued as Tutmarc was with the "Frying Pan's" shockingly short 22-inch length and tiny seven-inch round body, as a shopkeeper who sold guitars he must also have been struck by the fact that both the Electro String Instrument Corporation and the Los Angeles-based Dobro company were now marketing electric guitars. Tutmarc soon launched his own Seattle-based Audiovox Manufacturing Company and over the following decade and a half would design, build, and market several different models of electrified Audiovox brand guitars.

In November 1934 .the Orville Knapp Orchestra was rewarded further for its ongoing successes and accepted a prestigious gig at Hollywood's fabulous Beverly Wilshire Hotel. But then, after a couple more years of recording sessions, hit records, and national tours, Knapp was killed in an airplane crash in 1936. That same year, Jack Miller evangelized in support of electric guitars via enthusiastic essays published in the jazz-oriented music periodical Down Beat. Paul Tutmarc Sr. sold Audiovox guitars up through about 1950, and Bud Tutmarc himself would make and sell his own Bud-Electro brand of electric guitars between 1945 and 1950 and go on to become a widely respected Hawaiian steeler/performer and recording artist.


Peter Blecha interviews with Paul "Bud" Tutmarc Jr., May 1984, October 1996; Peter Blecha interviews with Jeanne Crapo, October 1996; Lynn Wheelwright, email to Peter Blecha, September 30, 2016, in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle, Washington; "Seattle Active Club to Hold Formal Tonight," The Seattle Times, September 13, 1934, p. 18; "Orville Knapp," Solid! website accessed October 25, 2010 (http://www.parabrisas.com/d_knappo.php); Richard R. Smith, The Complete History of Rickenbacker Guitars (Fullerton, CA: Centerstream Publishing, 1997), 11; Robb Lawrence, The Early Years of the Les Paul Legacy: 1915-1963 (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corp., 2008), 12; Peter Blecha, Wired Wood: The Origins of the Electric Guitar (Seattle: EMP, 1996), 7-13.

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