October 27, 2010

Sing a song of old Detroit, for she's the flashing, dashing pioneer of motor glory

Here's something interesting: the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Chief Operating Officer, Patricia Walker, talking (back in July, I'm guessing) about the importance of getting everybody on board when implementing organizational change.

Now, 20/20 hindsight and all that, certainly. Still, mentally replace every instance of the word "change" with "a salary cut of a third and a pension freeze" and it turns into a masterpiece of deadpan comedy.

The Detroit Symphony owes much of its prestige to half of the auto-building Dodge brothers, John and Horace. It was Horace, the more mechanically-inclined of the two—and a decent enough amateur musician, by all accounts—that elevated the DSO into a first-class ensemble by making a hefty contribution to the group when Ossip Gabrilowitsch was hired as music director, and leading the fund-raising for Orchestra Hall, which Gabrilowitsch had stipulated as a condition of his accepting the job.

The Symphony was what finally smoothed the way into Detroit high society for Horace. Prior to that, the brothers were repeatedly blackballed—they were hard-drinking brawlers who didn't much care what other people thought of them. (Their first major success was in manufacturing parts for Henry Ford's assembly line. John Dodge was asked why the brothers abandoned that lucrative work to make their own cars. "Think of all those Ford owners who will someday want an automobile," he snarked.) By the time the brothers suddenly died in 1920—both from complications of the influenza then raging world-wide, although Horace's condition was precipitously undermined by John's death—such was their renown that none other than Victor Herbert paid tribute with "The Dodge Brothers March." The Dodge Brothers company distributed both the sheet music and, according to one source, 100,000 recordings of the piece.

It's a lot of fun, actually. Here's the first couple of strains:

The brothers may have maintained their salt-of-the-earth ways, but they still spent money like water. Horace Dodge had a particular penchant for yachts; his final commissioned vessel, the Delphine, was big enough to be appropriated as a flagship during World War II. The Delphine was restored a few years back and is currently for sale. The asking price? 38 million Euros.


zorach said...

I love the March, and the history behind it. This is such a typical success story of the early part of the 20th century that it sounds almost like hackneyed fiction. Incidentally, does anybody have one of those 100,000 records of the March? I'd sure love to hear one!

Phil K said...

Actually the Horace Dodge you mention who spent all the money on yachts was a rascal son of the Horace Dodge of Dodge Brothers auto fame.