Leader of the Band
Local musician and orchestra conductor Frank Bettencourt represented a long-ago era in American music.
From the time of the 1930s swing band heyday—when the nation danced to music by Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, Artie Shaw, and Tommy Dorsey—to the era of the entertainment resort/supper clubs of the 1960s, performing in an ostensibly glamorous big band was akin to being a well-dressed migrant worker. The hours were brutal, but the pay was good, the food was good, and the clientele at least appeared to have some class. Bands traveled from supper club to resort to dance hall, setting up shop for two- or four-week residencies. The band played multiple sets in an evening, often backing up a floor show, which was the main attraction, consisting of comedians (such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis) or nightclub singers such as Tony Bennett. It was a circuit traveled by almost anyone who sang or danced professionally at the time.
For seven decades, former Mountain Brook resident Frank Bettencourt (who passed away in January 2009 at the age of 93) performed in and conducted these traveling big band dance orchestras. By 1951, some of those engagements were at Birmingham’s The Club on top of Red Mountain, where Bettencourt played his last gigs before retiring in 2005.
Two years before his death, Black & White spoke with Bettencourt and his daughters, Jan Fox and Suzanne Scott, at the Scott residence in Mountain Brook. We wanted to get an idea of the family’s life during the long, lost era of the dance clubs and swing bands. We got more than an idea because, as Scott summarized the era: “We lived it.”
In the Beginning
Bettencourt, a California native, began his musical odyssey in 1936 as a college student, playing trombone in a dance band in Lake Tahoe. As Suzanne told the story: “He graduated with a degree in education, and right out of college he had a gig at Lake Tahoe all summer. He said it was the best summer of his life. The minute he heard ‘Anything Goes’ by Cole Porter played with a big band, he knew he was going to be a musician, he was not going to be a music teacher.”
A friend recommended the group Bettencourt played in at Tahoe to orchestra leader Buddy Fisher. Bettencourt recalled, “Fisher made a deal and [the band met in] Dallas—that was the summer of ’37. We toured in cars and it was pretty damn hot getting through the desert without air conditioning.” Dallas is where Bettencourt met his wife, Alice, as Suzanne recalled. “My mother was working at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, that’s where they later met. And everybody told her ‘Don’t get mixed up with those musicians.’”
After two years with Fisher, Bettencourt went on to play with the Bobby Peters Orchestra until 1942, when renowned bandleader Jan Garber hired him to be his arranger and conductor. Like the bands of Guy Lombardo and Sammy Kaye, Garber’s orchestras played in a “sweet” style—lighter than swing, less emphasis on the drums. Noting with a grin that the sweet sound was often referred to as “Mickey Mouse,” Bettencourt explained: “The drummer could have stayed home and you wouldn’t have known the difference.”
When Bettencourt was drafted into the army in 1943, he played with a military dance band until the Battle of the Bulge threatened to briefly end his musical career. (More than 600,000 American soldiers fought in the famous World War II battle.) “They were taking all the musicians and putting them in the infantry after six weeks of training, flying them over to Europe,” Bettencourt said. Before being shipped to Europe to fight, Bettencourt stopped in to visit Garber. Garber knew an army major with connections. “Soon I had a message from the major saying, ‘Report to sick call in the morning,’ and they took me out of that group [assigned to Europe for the Battle of the Bulge].”
Bettencourt’s daughter Jan Fox recalled “It was Jan [Garber, who saved him from going overseas]. Suzanne was very sick. She was a baby. And Jan Garber knew this particular general and made a phone call and said, ‘Look, I need you to make sure he stays here with his wife while his daughter gets well,’ which is what the general did. In fact, Daddy and the general stayed in touch with one another over the years.”
Bettencourt recounted his stint in the military: “I was fortunate enough to get reclassified as a medic in the hospital where they had musicians like me working in the mornings in the wards—psychotic wards, basically. Then our little group would go around and play the bases in the afternoon.”
Bettencourt’s daughters remember the pervasive influence and importance of swing music during the Depression and war eras. Jan recalled: “Music during the war was very important because you had to keep the spirits up. They used the music to keep people supporting [the war effort] despite what they were doing without. The car manufacturing companies had to turn their cars over—cars weren’t being produced for all that time, they were making tanks and things to ship overseas. The music is what kept people’s spirits up. These were farmers that were coming to hear the music. They were not fancy folks. They’d come from as far as a hundred miles around to dance to the music. They’d wear their very finest clothes.”
Suzanne continued: “People wanted to get out and be seen, they wanted to dress up. And remember the women couldn’t wear nylon stockings [because of rationing]. Well, hell, they could wear silk stockings. . . . It wasn’t all about rich people dancing; everybody wanted to dance. And they could dress up and dance. And they could eat and dance. And they could drink and dance! What’s better than that? This supper club life we’re talking about was almost an ‘in-your-face’ during the Depression. It was like, ‘Here we are, living in this awful Depression,’ and then after World War II, everybody wanted to dance. Everybody wanted to celebrate. And people who had really lived that hard life, this was all about that. They wanted to dance.”
On the Road
After the war, Bettencourt returned to work for Garber, a partnership that lasted until 1961. “We played all over the United States, all the major ballrooms and hotels and things, so I saw the country pretty well,” he recalled. “I remember doing Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine, during a six-month span. Old bandleaders like Garber, in those days that’s how they made their money, really, doing one-nighters. They didn’t have to report it [to the IRS].”
The orchestra traveled mostly by bus but occasionally took planes and trains. “In the summertime, those of us who had families or liked to have their wives with them would drive their own cars,” said Bettencourt, whose wife and daughters often traveled with him. (The family lived in Waco, Texas, while Bettencourt was on the road.) Suzanne remembered the family’s extended summer vacations:
“In the late ’40s, Jan Garber was in L.A., and to sell your records, you had to go on the road. So he went on the road, plus it was a lot of money. They played one-nighters. That was the first part of the era. The second part was the resorts when you had lengths of time [in one place]. In the ’70s, and this was the tail end of it, Daddy played the Shamrock Hilton. And you had a ballroom, which was the way you would see celebrities—not in a big arena like today. You would see first-class celebrities entertaining. Once they got to know [Dad], they used him [as] musical arranger and director. He worked with Mitzi Gaynor, Dinah Shore, Carol Channing, Florence Henderson, and Shari Lewis [puppeteer/ventriloquist who performed with Lamb Chop]. When I was 12 years old I’d been to every state in the United States but Maine, and I just thought everybody else had as well.”
Jan also recalled some unique benefits of those extended stays: “That’s where we learned to dance. And my mom loved dancing, and Daddy couldn’t dance with her, so she’d get us out on the floor and teach us to dance.”
Among Suzanne’s fondest memories is meeting Bob Hope in Omaha. “Dad took Jan and me to rehearsal with him when he played with Bob Hope. We got to sit down and have a casual conversation with [him]. That night we went to the show, and Daddy had us on the front row. Bob Hope said something to me [during his performance] and I felt like I was a movie star.”
Listening to Nat King Cole recording sessions was a favorite memory of Bettencourt’s. He recalled finishing a session in Hollywood for Capitol Records with the Garber Orchestra, then lingering at the studio just to listen to Cole record. Bettencourt recalled some of his headier private engagements.
“When I was with Garber, we played the Biltmore in Los Angeles. They would have certain nights that they would honor some celebrity and the room would be closed to the public. On this night they were honoring Al Jolson—the Friars Club or something. So anybody who was anybody at that time was there that night. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were still together and they performed. ‘Schnozzle’ [Jimmy] Durante performed. We were at rehearsal that afternoon and the conductor says to the guys in the Garber band, ‘Take everything off the piano because Durante will tear it up!’ But the guy that stole the show that night—and he was a newcomer, so you can see how far I’m going back here—was Danny Thomas. When they came to Al Jolson, he said, ‘You ain’t heard nothing yet!’ That was his big line.”
The Bettencourt sisters remember that being the daughters of the band’s arranger held certain advantages, including the camaraderie of the band.
“The other band members, if their kids weren’t with them or if they didn’t have kids and we were along, they did things with us,” Jan recalled. “And they would take us places and they would play with us. We’d end up on the bandstand, especially when they were doing their Dixieland routine. I was very short, and I would stand on the chair behind the trumpet players, and Suzanne would be up there—that was the fun part of it.”
Suzanne chimed in, “Oh yeah, we weren’t put in the corner. We’d go to cocktail parties. I remember Rusty Draper was the most fun at cocktail parties. He was a character. We were included. It was not an era of ‘get rid of those kids’ or nannies or anything like that. I grew up thinking that everybody lives like I did.”
In the early 1950s, Bettencourt worked at The Blue Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, where Tony Bennett sat in with the Garber Orchestra one night that Suzanne recounted fondly.
“There was nothing more glamorous, more beautiful than The Roosevelt’s Blue Room in New Orleans at Christmas. They made an arch in the hallway of angel hair, so you floated in there. . . . One year they had birdcages with live birds. There’s no telling how much money they spent on the decorations, old Southern money. Mr. Billups [Billups Oil Company] was a friend of Daddy’s. ‘Fill up with Billups.’ He’d walk into the lobby of that hotel and he’d go, ‘Fill up with who?’ And everybody knew to say, ‘Billups.’ And if they said ‘Billups,’ they got a $100 bill. I’ll tell you another fabulous place, Elitch Gardens in Denver. It had a ballroom and a live theater. They had an amusement park, with a rollercoaster. Daddy met Cesar Romero there. Cesar Romero was sharp. Of course, my Daddy would like him, because of the way he was dressed.”
Bettencourt’s time with Garber led to work with The Mills Brothers [a 1930s, '40s, and '50s jazz and pop quartet]. “Oh yes, they were the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet,” Bettencourt recalled. “What they would do, to avoid things that would happen with them being black, they made Kansas City their hub, so to speak. And every night they would fly to the engagement so they wouldn’t have to be checking into hotels and things like that. They’d have their food brought in. . . they were the nicest fellows. The Mills Brothers were gentlemen, and just the nicest friends we made in the music business.”
Suzanne recalled the difficulties for black performers before the civil rights movement. “The Mills couldn’t stay in the hotels that Daddy’s band stayed in. It always made Daddy feel bad. Daddy brought a Mills Brothers album home, and I pulled it out—because Daddy spoke so highly of them—and I said, ‘That’s the best looking one of all of them.’ And my uncle almost killed me. . . . Even though we grew up in the Deep South and there were bigots, we didn’t have that [racist view] because of Mother and Daddy. Our parents were pretty liberal. And my mother was from the South. When you meet other people and travel other places, you’re just more broad-minded.”
After leaving Garber’s employ in 1961, Bettencourt turned down an invitation to play with Lawrence Welk so that he could form his own orchestra. In 1963 the Frank Bettencourt Orchestra had booked a stint at Houston’s palatial Shamrock Hotel. “The Shamrock was the place to go in those days,” Bettencourt recalled. “The movie Giant was basically filmed there. It was a fabulous hotel. My orchestra soon began backing up Mitzi Gaynor, who was breaking in an act to take to Las Vegas.” Bettencourt worked with other singers of the day such as Dinah Shore and Carol Channing.
Jan recalled her father’s relationship with celebrities of the day: “Even though they were big-name people, their bond was their music and their talent and their entertainment. So you were treated as an equal, and the families were as well. I was at rehearsal [once] and my Dad had said repeatedly, ‘Don’t you dare interrupt rehearsal. Just sit there and behave yourself.’ And so I did, and Bob Hope was like, ‘Come over here.’ And I’m looking at Daddy and he went, ‘Alright.’ So I went over and [Bob Hope] was always chewing gum. So he gave me some gum and we sat and talked. And that’s when they got the picture of me sitting on his lap. And Suzanne was swooning over the Everly Brothers, because she was older.”
Suzanne remembered: “I thought that Daddy was finally cool because the Everly Brothers were playing with him. But I’ll tell you who impressed Daddy more than anybody was Dick Van Dyke—he and his brother started out with a road show, the two of them as comedians, doing standup. They’d come out of the Roosevelt Hotel and Daddy said they’d be walking along and one of them disappeared, and you’d walk a little farther and they’d come out of a trash can and scare you. They never were off their comedy. The band would go out [after playing] and socialize with other musicians and actors at bars outside of the French Quarter. Daddy said there was pot then—minimal—but that was before the drugs. Musicians were ‘out there,’ they were thrill seekers, and they drank, but it wasn’t like they laid around the hotel and drank and drank.”
Suzanne moved to Birmingham, in the early 1960s after her husband found work here. Her parents eventually followed. In Birmingham, Bettencourt’s first gigs at The Club were with the Jan Garber Orchestra back in 1951. The venue was the city’s top choice for couples out for an evening of dining and dancing. By the late 1990s, Bettencourt was working The Club with a seven-piece combo, leading the band on piano. Prior to his passing, Bettencourt reflected on how The Club had changed since that time: “They have to cater to the younger members because the older members are dying. I guess that’s what the squabble is about now. Maybe they want to modernize it, more or less. But business is not that great. During the week, people don’t stay out late anymore. They don’t go out much during the week like they used to.”
Bettencourt also reflected on the social and political changes that the nation was undergoing during the 1960s. “The whole year of 1968 I was playing at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago. That was the year of all the trouble—the Democratic Convention. We were right in the middle of it because we had complimentary accommodations at the hotel. It was unimaginable what they were doing, that hippie group [the Chicago Seven]. . . . That’s when I really became against Walter Cronkite because he was putting down Mayor Daley for what he was doing [to maintain order]. The hippies would come in that hotel with Limburger cheese and rub it on the walls—unimaginable things going on. Throwing bricks through windows, starting fires. It was terrible.”
Though the Bettencourt daughters often missed their parents due to their father’s work, they say they admired him not only for living his own life but also for the devotion to sharing that life with their mother. “In the year 2000, The Club wanted him New Year’s Eve. But he got a gig in Houston and took it,” Suzanne recalled. “They cut him back a little bit at The Club after that. That was stupid on his part. I said, ‘You’re in Birmingham with your family. You’re going to drag Mother to Texas.’ The millennium. He thought this was going to be his big night. He can honestly say he did things his way. Good for him. . . . He was a good father and he was a good man. But we were kind of bystanders sometimes.” Jan added, “Well, music was his life. And my mother enjoyed every minute of it and loved being a part of it. They were together for 67 years. . . . He was first on stage at five years old in Oakland, and they had Vaudeville acts. Then he played The Club when he was 90 years old. So he had an 85-year career.”
Bettencourt spent his final years living at Suzanne’s home in Mountain Brook. A piano occupied one corner of his downstairs living room, the wall behind the instrument lined with framed, autographed photographs of the stars with whom he played during his career. “I still keep late hours. I put the light out about 1 in the morning, and I eat breakfast around 11 in the morning. Little things pop into your mind at my age,” he said as he flipped through photograph albums that spanned his decades in music. He agreed that people were much more conscious of dressing well when going out for the evening when he was younger. “To see the way the world has become [fashion-wise],” Bettencourt said, shaking his head. “No class . . . people buy clothes today to make them look ragged.”
Stopping at a photo of himself playing a trombone with his bare toes, he recalled the comic skits that were a part of his orchestra act. “One bit we did was where I would holler, ‘Burlap, oh Burlap!’ One of my band members would then ask, ‘Who’s Burlap?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, she’s an old bag from such and such a town who’s supposed to meet me here tonight after the show.’ Well, there was a guy at the show from that little town I referenced in my joke who wanted to beat me up because he was from that little town and he thought I was talking about his wife!”
Bettencourt’s wife, Alice, who passed away in December 2006, is in many of the photos. “I really miss my wife,” he suddenly sighed. “She would have turned 91 the day after Valentine’s Day. We were married 66 years.” When asked if the couple had a favorite song, he began playing a heartfelt rendition of the 1932 Irving Berlin classic “How Deep Is the Ocean?” Asked if he would accommodate a recent request from The Club that he return to the bandstand, Bettencourt shook his head and replied, “I’ve had a great life, and I’m not up to it anymore.” He stared out a window, paused for a second, and then grinned: “I’m 91 years old, damn it!” &