THE VASS FAMILY on Dreams of Long Ago
The talent exhibited by radio's Vass Family was amazing in every respect, and it explains the fact that they worked non-stop throughout the Depression - on radio, on stage, and in motion pictures - from the time they officially entered show business until the outbreak of World War II. The fact that they excelled in so many different ways, that they performed virtually every type of music and did dramatic parts with equal success, and that they worked in New York, Chicago, and Hollywood, causes the Vass Family to defy simple categorization. They shared Ethel Park Richardson's love for mountain songs, as well as her interest in dramatic acting and writing. They beautifully sang the antiquated popular songs Ethel also cherished, and - when sponsors requested it - they could perform the current pop hits of the day with clever arrangements and intricate harmonies. With never a lull in their career as a group, the sweet singing family from South Carolina achieved remarkable success, and yet their versatility and their constant movement from one assignment to the next have probably contributed to the lack of attention they've received from historians and chroniclers of that era in radio, in country and popular music, and in the Depression-era entertainment world.
The story begins with a history professor and Baptist minister, Dr. James Leland Vass, and his wife, Hallie - a former teacher - both of South Carolina. Dr. Vass taught at Furman University in Greenville, where all his children were born, beginning with James Leland Jr. in 1908. Several months later, Dr. Vass' older sister, Lula, left South Carolina for New York City, to continue her career as an actress. Seven more children were born to the Vasses: Frank (in 1911), Harriet, Sally (in 1912), Virginia, Louisa, Emily, and Susanna.
Moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, Dr. Vass opened a private school. As the Depression was getting underway and economic conditions were unfavorable, the school burned to the ground - and there was no insurance to cover this tragic loss. Trying to come up with a viable plan of action, the Vasses were contacted by Aunt Lula. Her second husband, Christian Railing, had died. At the time, Lula was managing a large and beautiful inn and resort called Green Pastures, on the Post Road in Darien, Connecticut. She suggested that her brother and the family come to help her run the place. It was a large property, at one time in the news as the proposed site of a small airstrip to transport commuters by air from Darien to New York City. North to Darien, Connecticut, went the Vass Family, to help run the inn.
The Vasses loved to sing. In the evenings, after attending to tasks at the inn, the young people would harmonize. Their aunt, who had been in show business and still occasionally did some work on NBC radio, took them to Radio City for an audition - and NBC hired the gifted group. They were first placed on Madge Tucker's "The Children's Hour," a very popular broadcast which featured many juvenile performers who went on to achieve considerable success in the entertainment field. By the autumn of 1932, The Vass Family had its own quarter-hour morning series on NBC. Mrs. Vass played the piano, Aunt Lula played character parts, and Frank, Sally, Virginia, Louisa, and Emily sang songs and portrayed themselves in brief sketches. Originally heard from 10:00 to 10:15 in the morning (following a quarter-hour by hillbilly singer "Pie Plant Pete"), The Vass Family was first billed as "Seven North Carolina children, singing in harmony." Leland and Harriet dropped out of the group, and the mother eventually ceased playing piano for them. Frank became adept at the harmonica, and Virginia played ukelele and guitar for accompaniment.
As far as may be determined, the Vass Family first worked with Ethel Park Richardson in 1934, when Madge Tucker invited her to do a brief "Hillbilly Heart-Throbs" sketch on NBC's "The Children's Hour." Ethel regularly worked with such juvenile performers as Florence and Billy Halop, Jackie Kelk, Charita Bauer, Walter Tetley, Jimmy McCallion, and Laddie Seaman - all of whom were likewise frequent members of the cast of "The Children's Hour." Emily Vass, youngest of the family, was a very gifted dramatic performer as well. Ethel would go on to write a number of parts for her after her splendid performance in the "Charmin' Billy" sketch presented on "The Children's Hour." Frank, Sally, and Virginia - while young people - were not really children when they first met and worked with Ethel Park Richardson. They provided the musical interludes between dramatic scenes on that first sketch, as Frank Luther's Trio was then doing on the regular "Hillbilly Heart-Throbs" broadcasts, and they were already extremely polished and highly professional. With beautiful voices, a wonderful blend, and possessing sophisticated musical skills, The Vass Family wrote and re-arranged their material so that it splendidly suited every application.
Ethel Park Richardson's NBC shows were sustaining. In those grisly Depression years, few sponsors came along. Frank Luther found himself too busy with commercial shows to continue doing the "Heart-Throbs of the Hills" series (the title having been changed from "Hillbilly Heart-Throbs"). Carson Robison carried on for a time, but he likewise found himself in demand on commercial programs and had to bow out. At this point, Ethel changed the show's title and concept. "Heart-Throbs of the Hills" ended - and, with it, the show's basic premise: the dramatization of hillbilly or country ballads. The series became "Dreams of Long Ago." Songs were still dramatized - but they were now old songs...old popular songs, some country songs, and various time-tested standards. With the new series title came a new musical group: The Vass Family.
From the beginning, Sally sang the lead in the trio, with Virginia singing harmony and playing guitar, while Frank sang the third part and played harmonica. Louisa and Emily played character parts. On a few occasions, Ethel had "Mama Vass" written into the scripts. Virginia was then known as "Jitchie" and Louisa as "Weezy." Ethel began to write dialogue for Virginia, Frank, and Emily, who played dramatic roles in many of the stories. Week after week, month after month, Ethel and the Vasses did "Dreams of Long Ago." At the same time, the Vass Family continued with its own quarter-hour NBC morning series. Initially, Mrs. Curtis Burnley Railing (The Vass' Aunt Lula) wrote the scripts for the Vass Family series. Sally took over the writing after her Aunt Lula left to do other projects, showing considerable talent and ability in that field. Their mother, who served as their manager, was also heard on the show - but their father did not perform with them.
On August 4, 1937, the Vass Family made its only commercial phonograph recordings, for Decca in New York City. The session consisted entirely of Ethel Park Richardson's collected versions of a variety of old songs. One wonders whether she might have been in the studio with them when the session was done. The Vasses sang the songs precisely the way Ethel liked to have them sung.
62495 A Paper of Pins Decca 5425
62496 Soldier, Won't You Marry Me? Decca 5432
62497 Deep Blue Sea Decca 5432
62498 Hawg Foot unissued
62499 Blue-Eyed Ellen unissued
62500 My Grandmother unissued
62501 Jimmie Randall Decca 5425
62502 Skip to My Lou unissued
Although their Decca session focused on hillbilly songs the family performed with Ethel, the Vass Family saw their career taking a different direction within the next few weeks. Soon after their Decca session, the family did a remote broadcast from New York to be used "live" on "The National Barn Dance," originating in Chicago. They were signed to appear on Ben Bernie's popular half-hour network show. They appeared in a remarkable sequence in the RKO motion picture, RADIO CITY REVELS, singing "There's a New Moon Over the Old Mill" with Kenny Baker. They found themselves with commercial engagements, and they left "Dreams of Long Ago."
In 1938, Alka Seltzer signed The Vass Family to do a thirteen-week series of "guest appearances" on "The National Barn Dance" in Chicago. They relocated to the windy city, doing their morning shows from there, appearing as guests on "The National Barn Dance" and also doing a number of sustaining programs on NBC. Before long, they became cast members of Don McNeill's popular "The Breakfast Club." They also appeared with pianist Alec Templeton on his series.
Journeying to Hollywood with Alec Templeton, the family did a screen test for Universal Pictures.
Back in Chicago in 1940, The Vass Family joined the cast of a stage musical, "Hold On to Your Hats," with Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler, and Jinx Falkenburg, on a Broadway try-out. They left the show before it moved to New York, where it ran only a few nights.
In 1941, the Vass Family appeared in Republic Pictures' COUNTRY FAIR, with Eddie Foy, Jr., Lulu Belle & Scotty, Hal Peary, Whitey Ford, June Clyde, Guinn "Big Boy" Williams, William Demarest, Harold Huber, and Ferris Taylor. A musical comedy directed by Frank McDonald, COUNTRY FAIR has not been shown anywhere in recent years - but the Vass Family had a good sequence in which they sang their own arrangement of "Sierra Sue."
It should be noted that the Vass Family did not have formal vocal instruction as such, but that - when sponsors wanted more intricate arrangements of pop songs in the earlier part of the Vass' career - they turned to Dr. Harry Wilson, of Teacher's College, Columbia University, who assisted with the more complex harmonies and critiqued their voices.
Virginia Vass wed Robert Scott in 1938. Sally Vass and Richard Waters were married in 1941. By 1942, The Vass Family closed its performing career.
Virginia, however, had married an actor. She continued her career as a soloist, singing for several weeks on Gene Autry's CBS Melody Ranch series, and appearing on a number of dramatic serials, such as "Buck Rogers in the Twenty-First Century" and several popular daytime "soap operas." In 1943, she joined the cast of the Broadway play, "The Home Front."
After the war ended, Virginia Vass continued her career as a musical entertainer, dramatizing the mountain songs in a way similar to what she and her family had done on "Dreams of Long Ago." In the 1950s, she and Ethel Park Richardson met again, in Los Angeles, and Ethel enthusiastically wrote a couple of scripts for a series she called "The Patchwork Quilt," in which she hoped to star Virginia Vass. The series proposal found no willing producer or advertiser, but the reunion was a happy one.
Today, Virginia Vass - still full of talent, still lively and attractive - remains active, performing frequently in the community where she resides. Some years ago, her beautiful voice was showcased on a series of splendidly entertaining CDs of dramatized folk songs, with her own autoharp accompaniment. Emily Vass is likewise active today, residing in Oregon. It is most unfortunate that The Vass Family made few commercial recordings. A few airchecks of their radio work remain as evidence of their artistry. Theirs is an important place in the Ethel Park Richardson saga, and they are remembered today as a wondrously gifted family with astonishing versatility and charm.