The Midwest Experience: Ormandy in Minnesota
Early Days in New York City
Ormandy was born in Budapest in 1899 and entered the Budapest Conservatory as a violinist at the age of five. After graduating in his midteens, he was poised for a career as a soloist and embarked on a series of European tours. The promise of a $30,000 fee for an extended American tour of three hundred concerts led Ormandy to immigrate to the United States in 1921. Upon his arrival, the tour did not materialize, and he was left to take whatever playing job he could find. He settled for a $60-per-week position playing violin in the back row of the orchestra of the Capitol Theater, a Broadway movie house. The eighty-five-piece ensemble accompanied silent films and played classical music between screenings. His skills as a violinist were recognized quickly, and within a week he had been promoted to concertmaster. The orchestra played four shows a day, seven days a week, and Ormandy had few days off.

In September 1924, he arrived at the theater one day for a matinée show and was told he would need to fill in for the regular conductor. With fifteen minutes' notice, he conducted from memory a performance of an abridged version of Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 4. Two years later, when one of the Capitol's two associate conductors moved to another theater, Ormandy was appointed as his replacement, and from that point he shifted his focus to conducting. His work became known outside the movie house through broadcasts of the Capitol Theater Orchestra on the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network.

Eugene Ormandy, New York City, 1923
H. Tarr Co. Inc.
Eugene Ormandy Collection of Photographs, University of Pennsylvania Rare Book and Manuscript Collection

This publicity photograph was taken two years after Ormandy's emigration from Hungary

"Ormandy to Play at N.Y.U."
New York Times, 2 November 1927

During his first decade in the United States, Ormandy was active as a violin soloist and was frequently heard in recitals and radio broadcasts.

Detail of Marquee

Capitol Theater, southwest corner of Broadway at 51st Street, New York City, 1929
Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy, New York Public Library

The movie advertised on the marquee, "Single Standard," was released in July 1929, close to the time Ormandy left the Capitol Theater to pursue his conducting career. He left just as sound films-"talkies," with music included on the soundtrack-were growing in popularity, and movie houses were disbanding their house orchestras. The Capitol Theater was demolished in 1969.

From Movie House to Concert Hall

Ormandy's reputation grew through radio broadcasts and occasional performances with New York orchestras. In January 1929, he was hired to conduct an orchestra to accompany a dance recital by Anna Duncan, daughter of Isadora Duncan. In the audience was Arthur Judson, one of the most powerful men in American classical music. Judson was manager of both the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra and a large stockholder in CBS. As founder and president of Columbia Concerts Corporation (now Columbia Artists Management), he was also the artistic manager of most of the prominent conductors of the era.

Judson was Anna Duncan's manager, and he had attended the recital to see her perform, but as he said later, "I came to see a dance, but instead I heard a conductor." Ormandy was soon under his management, and he arranged summer engagements for Ormandy with the New York Philharmonic beginning in 1929 and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1930.

"Ormandy to Conduct"
New York Times (1857-Current file), Jul 12, 1931
Substituting for Toscanini

In fall 1931, Arturo Toscanini was forced to cancel a two-week engagement with the Philadelphia Orchestra because of a joint ailment. Judson contacted a number of prominent conductors to fill in for Toscanini, but according to a 1969 interview with Ormandy, "They were to follow Leopold Stokowski and replace Toscanini. You could not be in a worse position, and they were not going to take that chance." Although Ormandy had conducted both the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, he was still best known for his weekly performances on CBS radio. As Ormandy put it, he was a "radio conductor." "I had nothing to lose and everything to gain, . . . even though my manager [Judson] said, 'If you listen to me, I wouldn't do it, but you are the only one left, and here's your chance if you want it.' . . . Luckily, in three days' time I had to prepare a program that Stokowski made me learn." Since he was still relatively untested, Judson engaged him for only the first week.

For his first concert, Ormandy conducted the Brahms Symphony no. 4, Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche and Rosenkavalier Suite, and the "Polka and Fugue" from Jaromír Weinberger's operetta Schwanda the Bagpiper, "a new work not previously heard in regular concerts of the Orchestra." During the intermission of the first concert, Judson, pleased by what he had heard and reassured by the audience's enthusiastic reception, invited Ormandy to continue with the orchestra through what would have been Toscanini's second week. At the end of this second week, a review published in the 8 November 1931 Philadelphia Record bore the headline, "Will Phila. Jilt the Stokowski for Ormandy?"

"Toscanini to Begin Season Here Nov. 26"
New York Times, 20 October 1931
"To Replace Toscanini"
Philadelphia Record, 21 October 1931
Eugene Ormandy Papers, University of Pennsylvania Rare Book and Manuscript Collection
Beginnings Minneapolis Appointment On Tour In Concert Guest Artists 1934 Recording Sessions 1935 Recording Sessions Move to Philadelphia Home Page