Being general appreciators of antiques, it should come as no surprise that my wife and I have one of those ubiquitous (yet still charming) stereo-viewers of yore (at left). And of course, I’ve tried to acquire a few music-related cards with which to enjoy it. My “holy grail” would be to find an authentic stereo card that includes an actual harp guitarist – but so far, no dealer I’ve asked has ever recognized the Gibson or Dyer photos I’ve shown them.
The closest I’ve gotten was this one that depicts some strange costume drama, with the fellow playing a harp-lute of some sort (as I can’t find any match for the instrument in my archives, I wonder if it is actually someone’s later reproduction, rather than a “then-antique instrument”).
Well, I must be getting eBay-lazy lately, because I totally missed this next prize a few weeks back. Thankfully, my Weissenborn/Knutsen pal Ben Elder had won it, and sent it over for me to include on the site (sadly, I have to give it back after reproducing it).
The listing photo was terribly blurry, but not so much that Ben couldn’t tell that it was some sort of Weissenborn-style steel guitar, perhaps even an obscure Knutsen.
And so it was! Not only a Knutsen, but rope-bound, and a harp steel ! Yes, though the bass arm extension had already been removed (as is not uncommon to find), the white pins for the extra two sub-basses are still in the bridge! So, technically, this is the first harp guitar ever seen in a stereo card (it’s just been temporarily decommissioned).
But how utterly cool that it’s an identifiable Knut, and even better, not only a new specimen for the Archives, but one we can almost “examine” in 3 dimensions! I was briefly worried that this might turn out to be a “dummy” stereo card, with two duplicate film stills used, but no, this was definitely a still that was shot with a stereo camera, and the effect is wonderful (the Knutsen “floats” in the room in front of you, the viewer). Unfortunately, try as I might, I can’t seem to get the effect to work on a computer screen, at any size or focal distance (you?). This didn’t appear to be one of those staged shots so common in the stereo card medium, but a still from an actual silent film of the ‘twenties (the Knutsen being built sometime in the late ‘teens to late ‘twenties). After Ben’s initial guess at the instrumental weapon-wielding woman, he suggested I try contacting (among others) the Way Out West Tent – the Los Angeles chapter of Sons of the Desert, the international Laurel & Hardy appreciation society. I did, and they kindly (and quickly) answered.
Turns out that it was not Ben’s guess (Patsy O’Byrne), nor from a Laurel & Hardy short, but from a silent comedy short by the Christie Film Company. Jim Wiley was able to identify them as “Bobby Vernon, his mother Dorothy, and Florence Lee.” I see Vernon was in many shorts by Christie – it would be nice if someone could pin down the year. This would have been anytime from 1917 (when Vernon signed up with Al Christie) to the date of whatever film he and his mother (and Ms. Lee) last appeared in. The Knutsen has the classic bridge and unusual body bordering of a c.1916-1920’s Los Angeles instrument.
I asked my writer/collector/geek/raconteur friend Ben to share his thoughts about the discovery, to which he replied:
“Several years ago, by a complete search accident online, I stumbled across a souvenir photo of a beautiful cowgirl performer named Mary Lou sporting what was at the time a spanking-new pre-war Martin D-28 herringbone. (I’ve since accumulated a virtual shrine to her and her husband, known professionally as Uncle Jack and Mary Lou [Nelson]). They were radio performers and operated an outdoor concert venue in Himmelreich’s Grove, Pennsylvania.
In the meantime, I’ve been searching out other vintage guitar photos – vintage photos of vintage guitars. (Not to mention old catalogs and songbooks.) So it was in pursuit of this obsession that brought me to this stereo image of the Knutsen of Mass Destruction on that online auction site that once was fun. My first impression of the guitar was that it was a Knutsen (the dark veneer by the sides of the fretboard), although the online image was pretty fuzzy and indefinite. Could it have been a Weissenborn, Hilo or some other make? From what little sharpness the auction offered, quite possibly. (Only when the photo arrived in the mail did I even notice that it was rope-bound – and definitely a Knutsen.)
In a manner similar to my Knutsen snap-judgment, I thought I’d seen the woman wielding the Knutsen – and recently. As a longtime Laurel & Hardy aficionado, I have recently re-joined the Way Out West Tent of Sons of the Desert, the international L&H appreciation society. When I saw the photo, I was reminded of a silent short that Way Out West had screened earlier this year: “Their Purple Moment” from 1929. “Their Purple Moment” turned out to be a red herring, but it did prompt me to refer Gregg to Jimmy Wiley Jr. of “Sons of the Desert” whose learned identification of the Vernons and Florence Lee was confirmed by Richard W. Bann – renowned Laurel & Hardy and vintage-comedy author and scholar.
At least in referring Gregg to the experts I feel I have answered Babe (Oliver) Hardy’s oft-uttered plea: “Why don’t you do something to help me!?!”
That’s my story and, as the guy who remembered, fifteen years after the fact seeing a gurgantuan Knutsen-like guitar in an old Wheeler & Woolsey movie on AMC (remember when AMC was nothing but old black-and-white B movies?), I think it’s a theory that befits my past track record of observation.” – Ben
Ben’s last statement is referring to another Knutsen wild goose chase he sent me on that panned out to be pretty interesting, the story here: A Knutsen Bass Guitar?
And, Ben – fantastic find…thanks for being a sharer (rather than a hoarder). We’re once again in your debt.
PS: LEGAL DISCLAIMER TO WIVES OF GUITARISTS: The posting and celebration of this image is not intended in any way to condone the beaning over your husband’s head with his valuable vintage guitar (even though we might often deserve it).