The Harp Guitar Battle of 1909:

Vardon, Perry & Wilber vs. The Three Kuhns

by Gregg Miner, January, 2016

Sidebar to the feature Vardon, Perry and...Wilbers?

(Left) The original “Vardon, Perry & Wilber”

As alluded to within the narrative of my larger story, in defending themselves regarding the “originality of their style of act,” Vardon, Perry & Wilber (“VP&W” or “the Boys” for the duration of this article) were obliged to bring up as evidence their original partner Jess Wilbur – the original “Wilber” of the act.  Until I stumbled upon that tidbit in their weekly ad in Variety, no one ever knew there was ever a “real” Wilber.

As I gradually located more VP&W notices in Variety, I never found out the name or names of the other “copy” acts, nor in fact, who was actually allegedly copying who.

When I finally received the last group of scans from the Harry Perry family, I was astounded to find this hand written letter by Harry that addressed the infamous “copycat” issue.  In it, he repeats the Jess Wilbur information and name the act in question: The Three Kuhns.  The letter was written on stationary from The New Elk Hotel, Colorado Springs, CO, where VP&W were playing in January and February, 1909 – when the feud had just begun.

Searching Variety again, I quickly located a series of ads from both the Kuhns and VP&W that documented this ongoing feud.  I include all of these below.  It also became clear that it was the Kuhns who first accused VP&W of copying their (the Kuhns) act, rather than the other way around.  However, our heroes (VP&W) soon managed to turn it around to imply that the Kuhns copied them – or at least came after them.

VP&W had begun their small weekly Variety ad run in mid-1908 (continuing for years), but the Kuhns only started advertising in February, 1909 – specifically to advertise their perceived copycat issue.  Theirs was a larger full width ad that appeared a couple pages ahead of the Boys’.

Reading through and attempting to parse all the cryptically-written “evidence,” it kept striking me that the Kuhns seemed to have the better proof and supporters.  VP&W’s sole argument was that their original trio partner – Jess Wilbur – had created the “VP&W style of act” over a decade earlier with a former partner.  They seem to thus have been implying that Jess’ original duo morphed directly into VP&W – yet we know that Vardon & Perry had already been performing on their own as the “Vardon Brothers.”  And they didn’t seem to have any actual dated provenance either.  And yet VP&W eventually “won” the battle.  No specifics are given, as you’ll see in the material below – we only know that soon afterwards the Kuhns stopped running their accusatory advertisements in Variety; they would never run another ad.

They didn’t disappear – far from it.  Mentions of their performances continued to crop up, and by the end of the year they also appear to have changed the name of their act.  Did it have anything to do with the feud and the “verdict”?  No idea.  I only know it was an unfortunate choice, as the three Caucasian brothers with the given family name of Kuhn decided upon the catchier name of “The Three White Kuhns.”  Presumably, they considered it a clever pun in that rampantly racist period of our country and the 3 White Kuhns they would remain for the rest of their career.

Transcription appears below readers have long known the group from the two sheet music titles that show them with their Regal harp guitar. 

In the 1912 title, we see the c.1900 Regal harp guitar from Wulschner & Son, Indianapolis, while the mandolinist holds a 12-string (4 tripled courses) mandolinetto (a guitar-shaped mandolin).  The upright bass appeared in the act sometime before 1910. 

The 1913 sheet music title looks like it includes an earlier photo of the group.  The Regal is the same, while the mandolin – likely another mandolinetto – has the standard 8 strings.  A 1910 reviewer listed their instruments as a “mandola,” a “cello guitar” and a “contra bass guitar” (a common alternate term for harp guitar).  They also pointed out the new “bass viol” that the cello guitarist undoubtedly doubled on.  I believe we’re looking at the cello-guitar here – a giant bodied, narrow necked instrument that may have indeed had 4 strings in cello tuning, a make and model I don’t think I’ve ever seen.

I would love to be able to see the instruments in their alleged 1894 photo (at left).  It looks like the silhouette of a mandolinetto – if so, that seems too early an appearance for this instrument.  The guitars look large – they could be the same post-1900 instruments in the sheet music images – assuming the Kuhns are fibbing about the date.

Could it have partly been the instrumentation that the Kuhns were accusing VP&W of copying?  Both groups used a mandolin and two large, low-pitched guitar variants.

I have found no mention of the act originally called The Three Kuhns before December, 1905.  They seem to have become popular on the West Coast a year after Vardon, Perry & Wilber had begun.  However, in their fight, the Kuhns list performance dates – and show pictures allegedly from – as early as 1894.

Try as I might, I can’t figure out what exactly the Kuhns were accusing VP&W of copying – they both keep repeating only “style of act.”  What does that even mean?  Clearly, both groups were mining the same territory – popular songs by singers/instrumentalists on guitars and mandolins (dancing seems only to have been a VP&W feature).  Was this form of entertainment really that unusual and “original” at that time?  There seem to be dozens of similar-looking acts (with harp guitars, no less) in my Iconography pages.  To me it sounds simply like competition and professional jealousy.  

Vardon and Perry were apparently dumbstruck as well, as their handwritten letter attests.  It explains how in the two months before the Kuhns went public with their accusations they had written the Boys several letters while starting to spread rumors amongst their fellow Vaudevillians.  Perry’s letter reads like personal brainstorming, or a first draft of a letter intended for their agent or perhaps Variety management.  Found with the Perry family material, this original was never sent – how fascinating that Perry preserved it!

I have corrected the many typos and punctuation but not grammar.  It reads:

“There is a trio called The Three Kuhns, I think they are present playing in Frisco. They have written us several letters & also telling other acts that we have copied their act.
I think they are White Rats but am not positive.
(GM: The “White Rats” was a vaudevillian organization/labor union for male only performers started in 1900.)
Now I would like to know what it is we are doing that they claim belongs to them.
We claim & can prove that the act we are now doing was originated by Lou Barron & Jess Wilber known as the Wilbur Bros. & Jess Wilbur is the original partner of the trio now known as Vardon, Perry & Wilber.
We have been playing as a trio for 5 years & are pretty well known from coast to coast & it seems strange to me that if we had been doing a copy act for that length of time that the 3 Kuhns never discovered it until the last two months.
Every detail we are now doing even to wardrobe, musical instruments, etc have been originated by us & ideas have been taken from no one.
It has been our aim to get as far away from other acts as possible.
There is nothing in the act that can be copyrighted excepting the title & that has been applied for at Washington, D.C.
Namely, Vardon, Perry & Wilber, ‘Those Three Boys.’
If I understand it right, singing, dancing or any stage business cannot be copyrighted.
We are at present gathering data, programs, etc. to prove that the Wilbur Bros. are the originators of the idea of our style of act & it has been copied from no one.”

The fact that VP&W were eventually vindicated – “judged” possibly by Variety’s management – suggests to me that they indeed must have come up with programs or other dated material that showed the Wilbur Brothers performing similarly earlier than the Kuhns’ 1894 claim, while also convincing the mediators that the Wilbur Brothers and Vardon, Perry & Wilber were one long unbroken continuation.


The Variety Feud
The Three Kuhns versus Vardon, Perry & Wilber

The Kuhns first hinted at someone copying their act in the Oct 26 1907 issue of Variety, though they didn’t notify VP&W until late 1908.

Vardon, Perry & Wilber were then gaining attention in “The Cracker Jacks,” which played throughout the country.

At this time, Vardon, Perry & Wilber were running their small weekly ad.

The public battle began in 1909 in the February 6 issue when the Kuhns ran the ad above, repeating it the following week.  They didn’t waste any time, incorporating promotional photographs depicting themselves in 1894, 1904 and 1902 (or 3).  The point being that this was when their act allegedly started.  They pointed out that they were the “originators of all they do” and “a distinct instrumental singing novelty.”  Perhaps this last description points to the similarity between the two groups.  They both sang popular songs, did light comedy and played three similar stringed instruments.  Each used a mandolin and two oversize guitars (two harp guitars or harp guitar and cello-guitar).  “Which is the ‘copy act’?” was directed (anonymously, for now) at VP&W; the Kuhns had likely learned that VP&W started around 1904/1905 – long after their own alleged 1894 beginning.  Again, if that’s a mandolinetto (guitar-shaped mandolin) in that first 1894 image, it would be the earliest example I’ve heard of – so their date may be suspicious.

On February 20th, the Kuhns offered $1000 (deposited with the San Francisco Variety office) to anyone who could prove their claim invalid.  They listed six owners of theaters where they had played as witnesses.

In this issue VP&W finally replied with their “First Answer,” which revealed that there had been an original Wilber – Jess Wilbur – who with his earlier partner had created the VP&W “style of act.”  This was rather cryptic, as it gave no date.  But it did give us the information about there being an original Wilbur.  In fact, their “Wilber” had 

The Boys repeated their “First Answer” ad.
The Kuhns’ next week ad (Feb. 27) advertised three new “song hits written and sung by The Three Kuhns” with the admonishment “Steal these, pirates.”
The Kuhns skipped their ad the next week (March 6)...

...while VP&W gave their “Second Answer,” providing the date of 1892 (in Australia) as the start of “this style of act.”  I wonder if they had any means of confirming that date?

VP&W’s ad that week was a generic one listing their current gig at the Lyric.

The next week (March 13) the Kuhns upped their challenge offer to $2000, with a subtle tag of “Remember the 7th Commandment” (Thou shalt not steal). They included a new photo, this one from 1902 and the note “particular attention is called to the initials on the caps.”  VP&W did have their initials on their caps in the original 1904/1905 photo, so the similarity is indeed suspicious.

The following week brought the same image and more of the same “demands of proof.”

VP&W did not rise to the bait (I don’t think they bothered with the $2000 challenge), simply stating “We do not follow the leaders. We lead the followers” and “Originality means success.”

VP&W ran variations on the “leaders” blurb

A week later the Kuhns’ laid on the “original” claim a bit thick with “Imitators Only Advertise Us” – a rather tepid statement.  Here, we learn the brothers’ names – Paul, Charlie and Robert.

Variation on the “leaders” blurb

On April 3rd the Kuhns seem to have finally had enough and named names: “We mean nothing personal. Vardon, Perry and Wilber are not the only pirates. There are two others out here on the Coast, playing the ‘rinky dink’ time like they all do.”  At least the Boys were no longer the only culprits!

Variation on the “leaders” blurb

The following week the Kuhns included the interesting tag line “Three Real Brothers” – was that fact intended to help their case?  Note their “White Rats of America” (Vaudeville union) address.

The Kuhns sat out the next week (April 17)...


...while VP&W pointed out “Those Three Boys” with “You all know this trade-mark.”  They were in fact registering it at the time.

They also ran this second, larger ad, calling on one of their previous agents to supply a testimonial letter that provided – vaguely – an earlier time frame for their “style of act,” specifically, 1893, meaning the Wilber Bros.  This doesn’t seem to be a smoking gun, and Mr. Levy only stated it as an “opinion” – (bold mine >) “I consider Vardon, Perry and Wilber, or the act known as the Wilber Bros. during the years of 1893-1902, as the originators...”  Curious how he lumped the two together as one entity.  He used the San Francisco earthquake as his excuse for not having records of any exact dates of his bookings, and again ended rather lamely with “To the best of my knowledge...”-

That’s V&P standing in front of the Grand Opera House, city unknown.

The next week both Kuhns and VP&W repeated previous ads, with the Boys taking out another larger second ad (looking for a better agent/manager it seems).  Subtle references to the feud included “The old adage ‘every knock is a boost’ has come true again” and “Gee, but some people are jealous."

VP&W returned to generic ads

May 1 and the Kuhns were not remotely impressed with the Boys’ efforts, stating “It is the unsupported word of a dissatisfied booking agent against the leading vaudeville managers of the Pacific Coast. We repeat – we want proofs, not statements. Our proofs were not destroyed by the earthquake. Archie Levy, take notice.”  Ouch!  For some reason their $2000 was back down to $1000.

While the Boys’ weekly ad was back to being generic, they sprung again for a second large ad that announced that both “Vardon, Perry and Wilber” and “Those Three Boys” (and apparently the “cut” of their image?) had been “registered as a trade mark and protected by the U.S. Patent office.”  Further, they were now going on the offensive, directed at the Kuhns (and others?), saying “We have all your numbers; now you know the consequences of an infringement.”

Generic VP&W ad

Things continued to heat up the next week, as the Kuhns appeared unimpressed with VP&W’s trademarks and posted a lengthy threat: “To Whom It May Concern: Since some have seen fit to question the originality of our act, we have forwarded by registered mail to the Editor of Variety copies of our earlier programs, and insist that those whom we openly charge with being a copy, submit theirs, so that the question be settled on bona-fide evidence and not on vague statements. We have submitted our proofs. Pirates, do likewise, or plead guilty.”

The Boys’ small ad remained generic but they took out a second large ad displaying their confidence: “When you have them talking about you then you are popular. Do we look worried? Professional jealousy has the love game beat to death.” They included an interesting caption to their photo – “We may look like brothers, but there is no relationship whatsoever.” This, combined with the Kuhns’ frequent allusions to the fact that they were three brothers makes me wonder if this was part of the “copying” issue – yet how could anyone think VP&W, with three different last names, were attempting to appear as brothers?  They concluded with the reminder “Remember the title and cut are copyrighted, so look out!” Note the fine print advertising to booking agents about “an entire new setting of scenery and electrical effects are now being prepared for us by the Daniels Scenic Studios of Chicago.”

Generic VP&W ad

Next week (May 15) the Kuhns printed testimonial letters from two heavyweight theater circuit managers – Sid Grauman and Alex Pantages.  Grauman went on record with “I know positively that they are the originators of their style of work...” with Pantages stating I have no hesitancy in saying you certainly originated your act.”  Grauman gave a date for his first booking (Jan. 23, 1900), Pantages only remembered “some seven or eight years ago.”

On May 22 the Kuhns simply verbally stuck their tongues out at the Boys: “We have added some new ideas to our act. Pirates, get out your glasses, may help your new act.”

VP&W now included a mysterious blurb in their running ad – “Watch this space next week.” Hmmm... what was coming...?!

While the Kuhns presented the simplest of blurbs on May 29, VP&W revealed their bombshell:

“It has been proven that this act is the original one of its kind.”  Did they win the battle?  Did the Variety editor or some group of arbitration judges finally side with VP&W?  It would seem so, and the Boys rubbed it in: “The attempt of a four-flushing trio, who tried to explain their act by mentioning our name, also to question its originality, has resulted in bringing to light the greatest attempt to secure free advertising known to the profession.”

The Kuhns repeated their previous ad for two more weeks – I imagine they were investigating the judges’ decision and regrouping...

...while the Boys included a subtle victory lap with “We are still leading the followers,” repeated the next week.

Now June 19th, the Kuhns repeated the previous ad with “Oh! Did you hear them squeal.”  I have no idea what this was supposed to infer.  

This ran another week, while VP&W were back to generic ads.

July 3rd, 1909, and the 3 Kuhns disappeared.  Most likely they were embarrassed by the long-running public feud that somehow had now ended with their defeat.  Off they went to lick their wounds... VP&W’s final ad to address the topic closed with “I guess we made them take some notice of the leaders, didn’t we?  If a certain act breaks the Eight Commandment every week (Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor), how long did it take them to copy our advertising ideas? Answer – 5 minutes.”


The Kuhns never advertised in Variety again.  But they cropped up in listings of performances, soon with their modified name “The Three White Kuhns.”

They quickly received this nice Variety review in the April 2, 1910 issue. 

After this, Vardon, Perry & Wilber continued with their normal run of ads

Soon, they began to appear on several sheet music releases from 1912 to 1920.  In addition to the two earliest titles at the top which pictured their instruments, releases included “Good-Night Little Girl Good-Night” (1914), “To Lou” (1915), and “Oh What A Dance” and “I'll Be With You When The Clouds Roll By” from 1920.

I couldn’t help noticing that while VP&W managed to look like “Boys” for the majority of their careers, the Kuhn brothers had aged into something less photogenic...

Congratulations, Vardon, Perry & Wilber!

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