Found at Last: The Orloff Trio

The Orlaff Trio played on this side and three other Rainbows, but were never credited on the label. Author's collection,
The Orloff Trio played on this side and three other Rainbows, but were never credited on the label. Author’s collection.

It has been more than ten years since I went through the Rainbow Records catalogs of the 1920s, looking for a way to reconcile the confusing number series that Homer Rodeheaver employed, a mystery to that time that no one seemed able to unravel. One important clue to the answer was the listed accompaniments; Rainbow catalogs were quite careful in connoting the specific kinds of accompaniments on records, if not the people playing them. In the 7 or 800 Rainbow records that I have handled since that project, I found only one instance where the catalog listings were in error in regard to accompaniment. I deduced that if the accompaniment had changed, then the record had been remade, and this has helped to open the door to understanding the Rainbow label’s output as a whole.

In some instances, the accompanists were identified by name. It was relatively easy to find the Smith-Spring-Holmes Orchestral Quartet, a busy instrumental act on the Chautauqua circuit of the 1920’s that featured cellist Lotus Flower Spring, a sort of a sex symbol to the religious-minded of that era and a figure that elicited much gossip in sacred magazines of that time. Clay Smith, her husband, was a noted composer and a legend in the field of saxophone pedagogy. So these folks were pretty easy to research, and it was fruitful, as they played on many Rainbow Records; their odd blend of instruments was easy to identify.

Not so the “Orlaff”, or Orloff, Trio. They were only listed in Rainbow catalogs, and not on record labels so far as I could tell. Their few recordings belonged to a tight group of Rainbows made during the Billy Sunday Crusade in Cincinnati in April, 1921. I was able to confirm their presence at this event from local newspaper coverage of the crusade, but I did not learn much else; not for years, though their standard instrumentation was evident from the first: violin, cello and piano.

Last night, I was going through my Rainbow catalog for the gazillionth time, examining the Cincinnati section towards a project intended for the Public Library of Cincinnati and making small corrections. I realized for the first time that in copying out the Rainbow catalogs that I had two spellings for the group: “Orlaff” and “Orloff.” It occurred to me that I had only ever looked up the “Orlaff” spelling, so I tried “Orloff” instead and discovered that the “laff” was on me. There, from an obscure 1920 issue of the John Herron Art Institute Bulletin of Indianapolis was mention of a Sunday concert series given by the Orloff Trio: Jean (or Jeanette) Orloff, violin; Genevieve Hughel, cello and Mrs. Clarence Coffin, pianist.

This would not be the end of my spelling bee; I found that Genevieve was also spelled “Geneve” with any number of variants for her last name, and that Mrs. Clarence was either Leonora or Lenora, though the spelling of “Coffin” was pretty persistent. I figured that I needed to call RS Forste onto the case, and that was the right thing to do, as she swiftly found dozens upon dozens of newspaper articles on the Orloff Trio for me, including this:

January 16, 1921. Courtesy of RS Forste.
January 16, 1921. Courtesy of RS Forste.

These ladies were not amateurs, playing for pleasure at the church social or at vacuous dinners held by prominent Indianapolis housewives. Jean Orloff had studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and then went to England to learn with the great German violinist and teacher, August Wilhelmj. Although I do not know yet where Lenora Coffin studied, it was away, as a 1918 article mentions that she has just returned from abroad, and was setting up in Indianapolis as a piano teacher. Genevieve Hughel, or “Hueghel” is mentioned as “a real Indiana gal” of Dutch ancestry, which meant a lot in the context of the cello of that day; it still does today, in fact. Considering her company, I’d be willing to bet that Hughel also had European training. The Orloff Trio began in 1918 with another cellist, but Hughel made such a difference in their sound that when she joined in 1919, Jean Orloff announced her trio as a “new group.”

May 28, 1919. Courtesy of RS Forste.
May 28, 1919. Courtesy of RS Forste.

They were very busy, from the start, playing up to three times a day in different locales. Newspaper advertising places them nearly every day at the Rainbow Room of the Hotel Severin, in addition to the bi-weekly concerts at the Herron Institute through which I found them and appearances at the Teachers College of Indianapolis. RS Forste turned up so many newspaper items on the Orloff Trio that we couldn’t ingest them all; their concert programs were routinely published in the newspaper! Generally, they played pretty lightweight stuff; Greig’s short pieces were often on their programs, as was the “Méditation” from Thaïs — a common violin showpiece — and other bon mots that the audience in Indianapolis would’ve found easy to take. However, they did play a lot of current music of their time; Victor Herbert was a favorite, and they played a wide variety of his pieces, and on one “Scandanavian” concert they played works of Jean Sibelius and of Finnish composer and cellist Herman Sandby, a close friend of Percy Grainger whose work isn’t heard much today. They’d play a “Minuetto” of Haydn, but as far as I could tell, none of his great piano trios whole. Yet, occasionally on special concerts they would program long works, such as the “Dumky” trio of Dvorák.

The Orloff Trio toured, providing incidental music for a play produced by Stuart Walker called “The Book of Job” which is where I think Homer Rodeheaver must’ve encountered them. They are heard on at least four Rainbows; it is “at least” because not all of the 1921 Rainbows have turned up, and the Orloff Trio may also be on items not yet located. They provide two accompaniments to legendary Welsh tenor Dan Beddoe (1863-1937), probably the most famous singer the other side of Kathleen Battle to be resident in Cincinnati, then the head of the voice department at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Beddoe was a big name, and Rodeheaver was lucky to have him on the label; Beddoe’s recording career began in 1911. The other two accompaniments back up Homer Rodeheaver in his duo with Virginia Asher (1869-1938), a key figure in evangelism (and feminism) who was a popular personality in the Billy Sunday campaigns.

Orloff Trio Gennett Records card, courtesy of Gennett Collection at the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers – Newark.

In July and October 1922, the Orloff Trio made six further recordings at the Starr Piano Company studio in Richmond, Indiana. Unfortunately these recordings were made at a time when Gennett really wasn’t doing a good job of filling in their recording cards, though none of the Orloff cards indicate that any of the takes were mastered. Nevertheless, these still could survive as Personal recordings, which is what they probably were, sold hand to hand or given away, made in tiny quantities. Most discs of this kind ended their short lives on the shellac scrap heaps of World War II, but there is always reason to hope.

September 3, 1921. Courtesy of RS Forste
September 3, 1921. Courtesy of RS Forste

In 1923, Genevieve Hughel left the Orloff Trio and was replaced by another cellist; newspaper mentions of the group continue through 1930. Jean Orloff is still listed a professional musician in Indianapolis in 1943, and she died there in 1967 at the age of 87. Although Mrs. Coffin’s husband appears to have died in 1944, by 1947 she was writing the program notes for Indianapolis Symphony concerts. She ultimately did marry a man named Smith and moved to San Diego where she died in 1958.

Cup my ear and strain, as I may, I cannot hear the public clamoring for Hoosier female classical musicians of the 1920s. Nevertheless, these women were central to the cultural life of Indianapolis in their time, and very popular; a benefit they played for the Public Library in Indianapolis to raise money for the book budget brought in 600 1919 dollars, $8,568.31 today. The urgency and drama found in their Rainbow accompaniments suggest that their Gennetts might be a good deal more exciting than typical salon records like those of the Taylor Trio or the various “Florentine” groups on Victor. I for one shout “hip! hip! Hooray!!” that the Orloff Trio have been found; from here there is nothing left but discovery, and I’m happy to ring the curtain down on the wonder and nagging mystery of it all. — Uncle Dave Lewis

May 24, 1919. Courtesy of RS Forste
May 24, 1919. Courtesy of RS Forste

I would like to thank RS Forste and Charlie Dahan for their help with this article, but also Chris Zwarg whose Trusound Transfer this is. He sent it to me via email a number of years ago, and while I have the disc I don’t do as good a job as Chris. 

Dan Beddoe and the Orloff Trio – Gethsemane


4 thoughts on “Found at Last: The Orloff Trio

  1. Genieve Hughel Lewis is my paternal Grandmother. It is wonderful to read about her in this way. My sister Nancy Genieve Lewis bears her name and is also a cellist. Grandfather Lewis was a pianist with Juilliard training, as Genieve was a Juilliard-trained cellist. Our family is musical. My father, Gerald Marvin Lewis (the only offspring of Genieve and Harold) was a trombonist (as am I) and graduated from Northwestern University with an MA in Music Ed, as did my mother, Elizabeth Koelling Lewis. It is heartwarming to see Grandmother’s name and history here. Thank you.

  2. Genieve Lewis was my cello teacher for five years when I was growing up on the North Shore of Chicago 1963-1967. She insisted i had no future music so in the last years she never made me do scales or boring exercises we just played cello duets for the full hour. Perfect!. She was in her mid 60’s and thats my age now 50 years later. I’m glad to have found info about her here.

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