Until the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music acquired the Anna Fay Herron Bush music and papers in 2017, records documenting Bohumir Kryl’s Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago were hard to find.
Unlike the original Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, founded in 1924 and well-documented, Kryl’s ensemble only functioned between 1943 and 1948. The Sousa Archives’ new exhibit, “Anna Fay Herron and Bohumir Kryl: Mementos from the Kryl Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago,” which was curated by Nolan Vallier and myself, provides an engaging snapshot of Herron’s experiences performing with Kryl during World War II.
All-women music ensembles first appeared as novelty acts on America’s stages during the country’s suffrage movement between 1848 and 1919. During this time, major symphonies regularly denied positions to women, so these ensembles provided the musicians their only professional jobs.
After ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, numerous all-women bands and orchestras performed around the country to celebrate women’s voting rights. These included the U.S. Talma Ladies Military Band, the Los Angeles Women’s Orchestra and the Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago.
During WWII, many all-women symphonies in America disbanded because their members left to fill positions in national orchestras as the men went off to war. Kryl, a nationally recognized cornetist and bandleader, saw the loss of these all-women ensembles during the 1940s as an opportunity to continue his career and formed his own Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago in 1943.
Born in 1875 in Horice, Bohemia (present day Czech Republic, near Prague), Kryl first started playing the cornet at the age of 11 after joining a traveling circus, and in 1889 immigrated to the United States and eventually took cornet lessons with the Sousa Band’s Albert Bode.
In 1898, Kryl briefly joined the Sousa Band as its cornet soloist and librarian. After leaving, he performed with several other bands before forming his Bohemian Band in 1906, which regularly recorded under the Columbia, Victor and Zonophone labels and twice performed at the University of Illinois. Later in his career, he formed his Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, in which Anna Fay Herron played.
Herron (1921-2016) was born and raised in Windsor and attended Illinois Wesleyan College as a music student and oboist. After attending a 1944 performance of Kryl’s orchestra in Effingham, Herron auditioned for the ensemble and Kryl hired her for its 1945-46 tour. Herron served as the orchestra’s principal oboist and its stage manager. In addition, she drove both the tour bus and instrument truck, distributed weekly paychecks, and occasionally conducted the ensemble’s rehearsals.
The orchestra’s 1945-46 tour began in late September with a series of performances in Chicago. The ensemble then traveled to Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania before returning to Chicago in 1946. In a 2014 interview, Herron remarked, “We weren’t women. We were young sprouts. ... The orchestra was all girls. A few of the orchestra’s musicians were much older, like Isabelle Lloyd, but most of our members were still in college or recent high school graduates. For many of the musicians, this was our first professional ensemble.”
Life on tour was constant travel, performance and cheap hotels. The orchestra typically gave two to three concerts per day, often in different cities. They traveled like a circus caravan, with most of the performers riding in the tour bus, one member driving the instrument truck and Kryl following in his own car driven by another musician.
Frequent mechanical problems with the bus and equipment truck made each day an adventure, and Herron’s letters and photographs during this tour provide colorful documentation of her experiences performing with the all-women orchestra.
For further information about this exhibit, contact the Sousa Archives at either 217-333-4577 or firstname.lastname@example.org.