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Do You Remember “Music Under the Stars”?

In 1935, a few local musicians joined forces to form a summer orchestral group. It lasted well into the 1970’s and was considered one of the best semi-professional symphony orchestras in the Midwest.

In 1935, Theron McClure was a young, promising bass violinist. However, he and a group of other Western Springs youths felt they needed an opportunity during the summer months to hone their musical skills. So, young McClure approached a local piano teacher, Lela Hanmer, who was also on the faculty of the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. He asked her help in forming an orchestra comprised of local area residents.

With Miss Hanmer’s encouragement and leadership, the group approached the School Board and received permission to construct a band shell in the wooded area just north of Grand Avenue School. They then approached residents requesting one dollar per household to pay for construction materials. With $606 in hand for materials, they were able to get the school district’s architect to donate his design services, as well as several out-of-work carpenters to build the structure, including benches. See first photo.

On June 16, 1935, the new group, known as the Symphony Woods Orchestra, made its debut before a standing room only crowd.  And, from that point onward, weekly Sunday afternoon concerts became the norm. The orchestra averaged about 30 to 35 members from not just Western Springs, but many adjoining suburbs as well.  No one received any remuneration. The resulting performances were billed as “Music Under the Stars”.  See second photo.

Soon after the opening, Wednesday evening chamber music began being offered, along with small ensemble groups. Miss Hanmer, who was serving as the orchestra’s conductor, even persuaded the Western Springs Music Club to loan their Steinway piano to the orchestra, which kept it behind the band shell in a locked room when not in use. 

The scope of musical performances went far beyond orchestral offerings. Each year, various soloists, choral groups, string quartets, ballet troupes, and even folk singers contributed their talents. In addition, with her numerous contacts in the musical world, Miss Hanmer was able to attract many prominent national and local artists. Significantly, support for the orchestra spread far beyond Western Springs, with attendees coming from many nearby towns and suburbs.

In 1960, a new 400-seat amphitheater was constructed at McClure Junior High School, on the Johnson Avenue side of the school’s new 2-story north wing. This became the new home of the Symphony Woods Orchestra.  See third photo.

Lela Hanmer was the energy behind the Symphony Woods orchestra.  And, in 1956, the Western Springs Chamber of Commerce recognized her contributions by naming her a “Citizen of the Month”.  In 1967, the Village also honored her with a reception held at McClure Junior High School.  See fourth photo.  And, in 1971, the LaGrange Business and Professional Women’s Club named her as its “Woman of Achievement”.  Tragically, Miss Hanmer was killed in an automobile accident in 1977.

While the Symphony Woods orchestra continued for a time, its days were numbered, a victim of other forms of entertainment and changing tastes in music.  Today, the site of the original 1935 band shell is occupied by a small neighborhood park. See fifth photo

And, the McClure amphitheater was also removed as part of the school’s last major building renovation. See sixth photo. 

Despite this, Lela Hanmer and the Symphony Woods orchestra left Western Springs a great musical heritage.

Do you have a favorite memory of the Symphony Woods orchestra?  If so, please post a comment!

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Joseph R. Martan December 19, 2012 at 06:28 PM
Two comments. First, for those interested in outdoor musical entertainment, the West Suburban Concert Band has done summer concerts at Springdale Park and Ridgewood Park annually for many years. Concerts are free and theband plays a diverse selection of music from big band arrangements, broadway showtunes, American band classics and marches - including always something by Sousa. Second, why was the amphitheatre done away with at McClure? From what I observed, it was deliberately neglected over the last years - perhaps a self-fulfilling justivfication to do away with it?

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