IN the days before television, many hotels and restaurants offered live performances of light music by trios, quartets or slightly larger ensembles. Usually the room would be adorned with palms and aspidistras, and the style came to be known as Palm Court.
There were many composers filling the need for short pieces, such as Eric Coates, Robert Farnon, Vivian Ellis, Ernest Tomlinson, Ronald Binge and Percy Fletcher, and once 78rpm records came in the musicians were household names because the four-minute length of many of the compositions fitted the format.
Most of the names have been forgotten but many of the melodies are still familiar, especially to listeners of the long-running BBC radio series Grand Hotel.
The BBC started to broadcast live performances from the Great Hall of the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, in 1924, and they went out every Sunday night until 1939.
For most of that time the players were Tom Jones and his Orchestra. According to this Radio Times listing from January 1934, Jones was born in Birmingham in 1902 into a large family of musicians – his father’s generation formed a complete family orchestra.
Here is a Pathé News film of a performance by Jones in 1933:
And here is a record of Jones and his orchestra playing In the Shadows, composed in 1910 by Herman Finck (1872-1939) as a skipping-rope routine for the Tiller Girls.
The orchestra leader at the Grand, Eastbourne, was Leslie Jeffries, and here he is in a 1938 Pathé film.
The BBC series called Grand Hotel began in 1943, and far from coming from a Palm Court it was usually broadcast live from the concert hall at Broadcasting House.
The theme tune was an excerpt from Roses from the South, a waltz medley composed by Johann Strauss II in 1880. Always preceded by the announcement ‘Now we’re taking you into the Palm Court of Grand Hotel’, here it is.
The Palm Court Orchestra was actually a unit of the BBC London Studio Players, a pool of musicians put together in 1941 to form ensembles of different sizes as and when required, and including many of the best known names of the day (there is an article about the Players and a list of the many groups they formed on the brilliant website Masters of Melody). One of the London Studio Players was violinist Albert Sandler, who became the first host of Grand Hotel and the leader of the Palm Court Orchestra.
Sandler (1906-1948) was one of seven children of a Lithuanian Jewish father and Russian Jewish mother, being born one year after the family fled the pogroms of Lithuania. He grew up in poverty with his older brother Jack describing a family that knew ‘more dinner times than dinners’. Somehow the family scraped together 11 shillings to buy a violin from a pawn shop for Abraham, as he then was, on his 11th birthday, and he was able to make a living from it from the age of 12.
He became a leading name in the field of light classical music between the wars, working his way up to becoming musical director at the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, just as the BBC broadcasts were starting in 1924. Then he moved to the newly opened Park Lane Hotel in London.
He became a fixture on the radio, and also became familiar to listeners on records from late 1920s. During this period, performing with cellist Reginald Kilbey and pianist Jack Byfield as the Albert Sandler Trio, Sandler continued working for the BBC.
I believe it is Kilbey and Byfield performing the Russian song Black Eyes with Sandler in this Pathé film from 1932.
This is another recording from 1937:
Sandler’s appearances on radio, film, and early television made him a household name, and he was able to buy a £2,000 Stradivarius.
The outbreak of war interrupted his work at the Park Lane Hotel. He continued recording for Columbia and also played extensively for British armed forces personnel via the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). In 1943 he was asked by the BBC to organise the new Grand Hotel series. The first programme went out on March 28, 1943.
Sandler had a tangled private life. In 1935 he divorced his wife Raymonde on the grounds of her adultery with Clarence Johnstone, a black singer who formed half of the popular vaudeville act Layton and Johnstone. He was awarded custody of their daughter and £2,500 damages. He remarried in 1944.
Perhaps strain over this, his impoverished childhood or his chronic tendency to overwork took a toll on his health, for he died in 1948 at the age of 42.
Not long before his death he had passed the Grand Hotel baton to Tom Jenkins (1910-1956), another previous director of music at the Grand, Eastbourne.
Yorkshire-born Jenkins was a child prodigy, making his first radio broadcast at the age of 14.
In his twenties he was billed as ‘The Amazing Violin Virtuoso, Tom Jenkins, considered the Greatest British Soloist of his Generation’. He made headline news when he insured his hands for £10,000. In 1936 he secured a recording contract with His Master’s Voice.
Here is a film of him in 1937. I’m not sure how enjoyable it is, but he is certainly a virtuoso.
During the war Jenkins served with the Royal Army Service Corps, then picked up his career again. At the same time as leading the Palm Court Orchestra from 1948 he took Sandler’s place with his trio partners Reginald Kilbey (cello) and Jack Byfield (piano). The trio and orchestra produced many recordings.
Here is the Meditation from Massenet’s Thais:
And Mortensen’s The Laughing Violin:
In the 1950s Grand Hotel had an audience of 15million, and during this period Jenkins also bought a Stradivarius. He continued to broadcast almost continuously until July 1956 when ill-health forced him to give up the leadership of the Palm Court Orchestra. He died the following year, aged 46. In 1995 his widow decided to sell his Stradivarius. It was the centrepiece of an auction of musical instruments at Sotheby’s and after fierce bidding it was sold for £375,000. The money was used to fund an annual award for the best stringed instrument manufactured by a student at the Guildhall University (subsequently London Metropolitan).
After the departure of Tom Jenkins in 1956, the Grand Hotel story becomes a bit cloudy. Both Reginald Leopold and Max Jaffa are cited by different authorities as the leader of the Palm Court Orchestra and I just can’t pin it down. Does any reader know?
Max Jaffa (1911-1991) was the son of Israel Jaffe, an immigrant from Latvia, and his London-born Russian wife, Millie. As a student at the Guildhall School of Music Max won the principal’s prize awarded to the student ‘most likely to distinguish himself in the musical profession’. At the age of nineteen, he was appointed leader of the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. During the Second World War he joined the Royal Artillery and then trained as a bomber pilot. After the war he joined the Mantovani Orchestra, eventually becoming its leader. He also succeeded Jenkins in the trio with Byfield and Kilbey, which became the Max Jaffa Trio.
Here are the Trio with the Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffman:
In 1960 Jaffa put on a season of 17 Palm Court-style concerts in Scarborough which turned into an annual event running for 27 years. Many of these shows were broadcast by the BBC so I wonder if that is the connection with Grand Hotel?
Here are Max Jaffa and the Palm Court Orchestra with Schubert’s Ave Maria (I don’t know if this is the BBC Palm Court Orchestra or his Scarborough one):
This is Waltzing in the Clouds, from the film Spring Parade:
Reginald Leopold (1907-2003) was yet another violin prodigy, He formed his own orchestra in 1932 at the Dorchester Hotel and in the 1940s he joined the London Studio Players. He is credited with being the ‘director’ of the Palm Court Orchestra, but at some stage pain in his hand forced him to give up playing. He doesn’t seem to have made any recordings, or none that have made it to YouTube at any rate.
Undoubtedly both Leopold and Jaffa were leading parts of the Grand Hotel programmes until the BBC ended the series in 1973.
There was a short-lived revival in the 1980s under Max Jaffa, but there the hotel drew its blinds for good.
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