It has been quite a few years since the Smith Sisters sang at the Jamestown Opera House, but if you were to visit the restored Opera House today, you just might see the spot where they signed the wall as one of the most popular singing groups ever to grace that stage.
The sisters were born near Washington Court House, but spent most of their lives in the Jamestown area. During the era of Opera Houses, with performances by traveling troupes of entertainers, these six sisters were very popular around the entire country,
They were known as the Smith Sisters, but they also known professionally as the Ariel Ladies Sextette. Their agent managed to book them for appearances throughout the country. In fact, during the 10 years they performed professionally, they appeared in all 48t states. That is quite a feat for six young ladies from Jamestown, especially during the 1890s.
They were very popular and very much in demand on the show circuits. At the time, they received $100 per performance, and are credited with 1,700 performances during their career.
After opening at Jamestown, they would travel to Washington Court House and Xenia to try out their new songs and performance before “going on the road”. Greene County residents were very proud of the local talent and often the girls played to a standing room only crowd.
They performed in other local venues as well. The Spring Valley Blade announced that the Smith Sisters would be performing in that village on April 1, 1892. This was to be a benefit for the Byrd Post G. A. R. (Grand Army of the Republic). The performance was scheduled for the Spring Valley Opera House.
The Jamestown Comet announced a performance for May 30, 1891. The advertisement assured that “throughout the land there is no family so generally talented as the smith Sisters.” And “See six sweet singing Smith Sisters Saturday night. The way seats have been selling at McGuire’s for the Smith Sisters is complimentary to the musical taste of our citizens.”
A lady in Jamestown received a letter from her friend in Delaware. “I Hope they will have a crowded house when they appear in Jamestown. They certainly deserve it. Here, where there is a great deal of musical talent, they always draw full and enthusiastic audiences.
Miss Gertrude (Smith) is credited with having the finest voice of any pupil who ever graduated from the Conservatory of Music here. She is Delaware’s favorite singer. I will vouch for it that the concert to be given in J. will be the best ever had there. Don’t fail to hear them.”
After the concert in May the following was published: “In the over-crowded condition of our copy-book last week, the mention of the Smith Sisters’ concert was smothered out of sight until too late for publication. The entertainment was so pleasing to all that it deserves special notice. It is not a usual thing to have six girls in a family, nor it is usual, when such is the case, for all of them to be songbirds but this holds good with the Smith family. They a possess a remarkable degree the gift of song… .The fact that almost everybody for miles around and many from a distance, were in attendance at their concert showed that their fame had preceded them. Miss Gertrude’s time will be duly occupied this season with managements at various prominent literary and religious assemblies by whom she is looked upon as a brilliant rising star in the world of song.”
Eventually, all but one of the girls married, so they no longer sang professionally as a group. By 1948, all five who had married were widows and all six were living together in Columbus. A Columbus Dispatch reporter asked if they would be interested in appearing on a live radio show, and if so, what show would they like. “We the People” was popular at the time and was their first choice.
They were invited to record at radio station WBNS in Columbus, where the engineers were impressed with their volume and harmony. For their radio debut they stood in the same order they had so many years ago during their stage performances. In this order with married names: Grace McKinsey 76, Emma Mason 82, Olive Smith 74, Gertrude Saint 78, Jeanette Walker 84 and Marguerite Alkire 79.
Following the show they were taken for lunch at the Southern Hotel where they had sung in the ballroom when it first opened in 1899.
When they were invited to fly to New York for an appearance on “We the People”, they were thrilled to be able to fly for the first time, and to appear in New York on the radio. One of the sisters commented that if they had been popular only a few years later, they might have commanded $25,000 a year for radio performances.
At last the big event and the first plane trip were at hand but unfortunately, the plane trip was cancelled due to weather conditions, so they took the train to New York. They hoped to fly back if possible.
The Xenia Gazette of Jan. 28, 1948 reported: “Their broadcast Tuesday night was their first radio appearance and the first time they have sung together in public after retiring forty years ago.”
Needless to say, Greene County residents tuned in their radios to listen to the Smith Sisters singing together again. One resident said she “always cried when she heard the sisters sing because their harmony tugs at her heart strings and their music over the air Tuesday might brought the same reaction.”
And so, the Singing Smith Sisters who officially retired in 1908 were once again, after a forty year hiatus, able to please their audience with their music, through the magic of radio.
Joan Baxter is a Greene County resident and long-time historical columnist.