W. S. Ellis and His Hawaiian Orchestre

Here’s a rare photograph taken in Lakemont Park, Pennsylvania in September, 1914.

It was brought to my attention by Les Cook (whose name has cropped up multiple times in my blog), who ran across it on the Blair County, PA GenWeb Archive site.  It took some time, but after writing them, and them forwarding my note to the photo owner, Gene Warner, he kindly dug it out and provided this scan to share with us.

My obvious interest was what Les spotted – a Knutsen harp guitar, and certainly a new specimen.  In fact, it seems to be a new custom bass head – the 5 subs are going downhill!

No, I don’t think it’s a repair or modification.  For one thing, this black-top Seattle Knutsen probably wasn’t built until 1912 or after, so was pretty spankin’ new in 1914.  Additionally, you’ll see that the arm-to-head inlaid binding transition line is also going downhill.  Knutsen absolutely never did this.  Even on his reverse-strung 3-bass “Short Arm” late Seattle harp guitars, the line is straight.

I have never properly addressed these strange Short-arm Seattle instruments in the Knutsen Archives, but now that we have several examples of them (10th row in the Seattle section), we can see that Knutsen was surprisingly consistent; he was giving players an option of just 3 basses, seemingly tuned in reverse.  In every one, geared tuners are on the left side, and the screw post “nuts” which the strings wind around are always in reverse order.  The logistics of the arm tip/tuner set-up apparently caused  him to create a severe angle on the threading of the first bass (the 7th string of the instrument), so that it would be the longest (even with, or a bit longer, than the neck’s low E string).  The 8th and 9th then each become shorter still.  The arm is deliberately short as well, while the neck scale length remains normal at 24-1/2” to 25”.  The whole package seems to imply an intent to create a completely different sounding and playing instrument.

In light of the short-arm Knutsens, my guess is that this new discovery was a variation on that theme – the customer wanted 5 bass strings, but shorter and “backwards.”  Were they higher pitched? – or pitched in reverse?  The first sub certainly looks heavy!   (as does the fourth…?)   Hey, he wouldn’t be the first to play backwards subs!

Don’t know if Les has dug up any recordings of the group, but let’s hope!

  1. Darrell Says:

    Great find from Les, as usual!

    The name WS Ellis sounded familiar, so I did a little digging through my hard drive. We alreay know him, Gregg, from here:


    Looks like Ellis is the guy playing the HG in the Chautauqua picture. He’s seated, center in the Knutsen picture. I think the two women are also in both pictures (perhaps one is Ellis’ wife?), but I may be wrong. Can’t tell if there are any other men common to both pictures. I would guess Ellis picked up the Knutsen player in Washington State or San Francsisco (where Ellis played the PPIE, according to the calling card).

    You have to love Knutsen! Is there ANY form factor the guy didn’t try?

  2. Darrell Says:

    (Sorry, forgot to put this in my original post) Ellis does not show up in my LA Times, AT, or KHJ searches, which is why I don’t connect him to Knutsen in LA. But of course, I could be wrong there too.

  3. Gregg Says:

    Good job, Darrell! I knew that name sounded familiar (to Readers: they’ve been on this Iconography page for ages). I would’ve guessed that Ellis would have been the central figure in the Chautauqua pic, but you’re right – only the Stella HG player seems to be in the orchestra (seated grandly in the center). Maybe Les can help shed some light. I can’t see similarities in the women or other men, but not easy to tell, as you say.

  4. Les Cook Says:

    You’re right Darrell …it is Ellis with the HG in the Chautauqua picture. There’s another photo of him in Dr Kanahele’s out of print book “Hawaiian Music and Musicians” and also one of his brother John Ellis. William’s full name was William Kualii Sumner Ellis and he was one of the first, maybe the very first, Hawaiian to record Hawaiian music … in 1899! Also among the earliest Hawaiians to tour the mainland. He made quite a few records for Victor in NYC in 1904 as “W.S. Ellis and the Ellis Bros Glee Club” and also appeared on records with Madam Nani Alapai at the same time. However as far as I’m aware he didn’t record again after 1904.

  5. Gregg Says:

    Thanks, Les! Les subsequently kindly scanned for us the relevant book entry, and says: “Some of the info in there is a little out of date now…for example it is known that the Victor sessions 1904 and one cylinder from the 1899 recordings are known to have survived. Topolinksi, the guy who wrote the piece for Kanahele seems to be the expert on the Ellis ancestry (see: http://apps.ksbe.edu/kaiwakiloumoku/kaleinamanu/mele-hou/mele_pua_panese)

  6. Darrell Says:

    Ah, well turns out I WAS wrong about Ellis not showing up in the Times.. Lots of ads for recordings of his composition, Ellis March. I thought it might be the same Ellis, but Les’ scan confirmed it. I wonder if any of those recordings have been digitized (likely) and if the Knutsen can be heard on the recording (not likely)..

    I still need to run all the other band/band member’s names to see if any ended up playing in LA or on KHJ (had to have – + some names sound very familiar). I’m kind of intrigued by the claim in the Chautauqua flyer of Ellis’ band having the “best steel guitar player” in the land. I wonder who that was, and whether he’s in any of the pictures.

    There’s a copy of that book in the UCLA Music Library, but it is on room reserve and can’t be checked out. Probably lots of potential Knutsenage lurking within, but probably obscured by three or four degrees-of-separation. Who could’ve predicted Ellis would have a Knutsen in his band? I suppose you could trace everyone who played the PPIE, had ties to the PNW, or who may have toured LA.. But that would be everybody!

  7. Julie Says:

    Hello! I stumbled upon this entry researching the WS Ellis Glee Club. Thank you for all the information!

    If you’re still looking for the Victor recordings, there are 8 of them on the Library of Congress website. You can hear them online!


  8. Darrell Says:

    Wow, I hadn’t checked this page in awhile and missed Julie’s post. Those recordings are amazing – chicken skin music! If you are still reading these boards, Julie, is your research posted anywhere? I would love to know whether the Glee Club ever toured Los Angeles.

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