On a summer afternoon in 1992 my niece Leigh Miller—since then dubbed our family genealogist—sat on the porch next to my father interviewing him about his Life. The tape was recorded two years before his death. I listened as his voice mingled with chirping birds and cars whizzing past on the street above.
Daddy saved pieces of paper that were road maps of his life: photographs, tax receipts, fan mail, promotions for band appearances, a journal of payments to band members, a voter registration form, his baptism certificate, letters of praise, legal documents …everything and more associated with the home where he was born and died; and where our family remains today–134 years later.
His voice filled with nostalgia as he talked about “Scar of Shame”, a 1927 silent film that featured his band in a pivotal nightclub scene. Considered a classic, the film was produced by the Colored Players Film Corporation of Philadelphia with an entire cast of African American actors. My niece Leigh eventually tracked down the DVD a family collector’s item now on every family members’ shelf.
Music had been part of Daddy’s studies during his education at Scotland School for Orphans of the War, a boarding school in Franklin County for children whose fathers had served and died during the Civil War or after returning home. As a Union Navy veteran, after my grandfather Joseph B. Stratton’s death in 1900, his children were eligible to attend the boarding school. My father was four months old when our grandfather died at the age of 68.
As the last born of eight siblings, after graduating in 1917 from Scotland School Daddy returned to Doylestown where he lived with his mother Lily—our grandmother, embracing the role of Stratton Family Steward. By then his seven brothers and sisters were adults, gone from home: Inez, Harold, Joseph, Grace, James, Howard, and Charles.Jps
Hoping to benefit from his love of the written word, Daddy first applied for work in Doylestown at its two newspapers: The Intelligencer told him there were “no openings”. He was then hired at the rival Doylestown Democrat but lasted only one day. In a December 10, 1992 interview by Anne Shultes published in The Intelligencer my father said,
“When I came in the next morning, the boss told me a couple of fellows on the staff objected to me being there and threatened to quit. Because of my race, you know.”
Any thread of bias that lingered after those two rejections was erased when he applied for and was hired at John Wanamaker’s Department Store in Philadelphia. Assigned to Elevator #29, Daddy boasted on the tape, “Elevator #29 was the only elevator John Wanamaker (1838-1922) would ride up to his office on the top floor”.
My father had excelled in music while at Scotland School. When John Wanamaker’s son Rodman Wanamaker (1863-1928), took over management of the store he recruited a band among the store’s employees. Daddy was familiar with the piano but when a band member handed him a soprano saxophone a new career was born. The band performed in Wanamaker’s Grand Court of Honor, at times accompanying the famous organ. Dedicated in 1911, the organ towered above the expansive marble quad. After Rodman Wanamaker’s death in 1928 the store was sold.
Prohibition had been in effect since January 17, 1919. Daddy was 26 when he started his band, performing in speakeasies around Philadelphia. He named his group, Sid Stratton’s Four Horsemen Band. The hours in those clubs usually ran from ten at night until six in the morning, with a repertoire of “oldies dance music”. It was around this time that The Colored Players Film Corporation recruited my father’s band to perform in the classic silent film, “Scar of Shame”.
Filmed at the Roadside Hotel on Broad Street, the pivotal scene with Daddy’s band happens during couples on a crowded dance floor. For several seconds viewers can see my father’s band playing their instruments. This film received positive reviews for its portrayal of the Black Experience.
A few years ago, “Scar of Shame” was presented on Turner Classic Movies Silent Film Series. Part of the review published on TMC’s website states–
“The essential crisis of The Scar of Shame is the struggle to rise above the downward pull of the “street,” and this conflict is represented quite effectively in the film’s well-orchestrated (at times overwrought) dramatics. Just as Louise was unable to escape the influence of her stepfather, Alvin finds his promising future endangered by the secret romance of his past, suggesting that every level of black society faces obstacles beyond the obvious black/white struggle.”
Among the memorabilia Daddy had saved was a packet of Fan Mail postmarked in the early months of 1930: Every Friday for an hour, WCAU Radio would broadcast Daddy’s band live from their studio. The letters are rich with praise, asking for songs that must have brought special memories to the listeners.
One of the letters came from a distinguished Doylestown resident: Mrs. Richard Watson, wife of Judge Robert Watson. She asked for 3 songs: ‘Girl of my dreams”, “The Sweetheart of Shamokin”, and “Let me call you Sweetheart”. Before the music played her requests, my father mentioned her name. She later sent him a thank you note adding that she was giving him the saxophone she had played as a little girl.
Prohibition ended in 1933 with the 21st Amendment. The reputation of Daddy’s band flourished beyond those Philadelphia venues, expanding into Doylestown and across Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery Counties. Some of the Doylestown sites that featured the band were the Turk Tavern, VFW, Doylestown Country Club, American Legion, Doylestown Armory and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. By the 1940s into the late 1950s three continued to play with Daddy–Stephen Bullock, Jr., John Cream and Lou Stellabott.
The one image I wasn’t able to find was the tennis court on the rooftop of Wanamaker’s store. Rodman Wanamaker, an advocate for pro golf and athletics in general had ordered the court’s construction. My father was one of the employees allowed to occasionally play on the court. He described the euphoria of hitting a ball on a rooftop tennis court protected by a wire fence. That introduction to the game led him in the 1920s to construct a clay court on a vacant family parcel of land next to our house.
Our tennis court is gone, replaced with a lovely home. I often gaze where the court once was and recall how that piece of ground had reincarnated from a clay tennis court then to a grass tennis court, then a badminton court, a croquet lawn then back to a grass court.
It was for a long time, the only clay tennis court in Doylestown Borough. For multiple dozens of Summer days, feet slid across the clay surface as aces, slices, backhands, deuces or forehands lobbed back and forth over the net. Daddy also taught a lot of youngsters how to play the game. But it was the town’s lawyers and judges that relished the game, often going nose to nose or flipping coins for the thrill to play tennis on that court.
On Wednesday, February 26 the County Theater is showing “Scar of Shame”. It is a one-time only event and staff at the theater have been gracious to invite me, my brother Chris and sister Judith to share memories of our father before the film rolls on the screen. It starts at 7:30. Please join us.