“The Right Time, The Right Place”
Martha Wolohan is a self-described local girl. A multi-instrumentalist who played for some of the biggest names in show business, she is the mother of six and a grandmother of six. Her husband, Maury Wolohan, was also a professional musician.
Martha as a little girl.
Martha was born into a musical family in Oakland (her uncle was a cellist in the London Symphony). She began playing piano when she was 6 and at 10 started on the trumpet. She remembers performing in the orchestra for the College of the Holy Names where her mother worked as an art teacher. They sat her behind the piano with the lid up so the audience could not see that the trumpet player was a little girl with a bob haircut. At age 12 she took up the cello and remembers riding the Key Route train to San Francisco for private lessons. She remembers playing both cello and trumpet for Pierre Monteux conducting the William Tell Overture. “The piece starts with a cello solo,” she says, “so they hid me behind the piano for the cello part, and then I raced around the orchestra to play the trumpet part at the end.” Monteux was impressed. In high school, Martha played trumpet and cello in the band and orchestra, and piano for the glee club, choir, and all of the school theater productions. She says she owes so much to the Oakland Public Schools.
In 1939, she went to college at UC Berkeley and played in the NYA Orchestra (the equivalent of the WPA for young people)..As graduation drew near, Martha’s father wanted her to take an extra year of classes and become a teacher, but she wanted to be a professional musician. “Because of the war, the men were going away,” she says. “There were more openings for women, especially a woman who could play a trumpet.”
Martha playing cello in a late 40’s casual at a hotel with the Maury Wolohan Orchestra.
Martha joined Local 6 in 1943. She played in the Oakland Park Band, the Oakland Symphony, and for church services but soon realized she wanted to branch out of the classical genre and play popular dance music. Recommended to a Latin band led by Merced Gallegos, she worked at Sweet’s Ballroom in Oakland for over a year, playing both trumpet and cello in the group. She also subbed on piano and trumpet one night a week at Wolohan’s Ballroom in San Francisco, and eventually worked there full time. “I had to ask my friend Roberta Mandel to write a fake book for me because I didn’t know any of the pop tunes!” she recalls. It was here that she met her future husband, Maury, whose uncle John was the leader and piano player for the orchestra. A year later, in 1945, they were married. Maury became a popular local bandleader for 50 years.
Originally from Berkeley, Maury played saxophone, clarinet, oboe, and violin. He joined the union in 1932 at 14, playing for the movies and shows at the Golden Gate Theater where his oboe skills made him invaluable. During the war he was stationed at Fort Mason. He played in the army band and in string quartets for the general’s wives tea parties. The young couple had an apartment in San Francisco near Grace Cathedral, so Maury could come home at night unless he was on call. In 1946, The Wolohans had their first child. Two years later they bought a house in the West Portal District of San Francisco.
Martha in the 40s.
Through the late 40s and 50s, Martha played cello in the theaters as a regular and sub in shows that featured stars like Rita Moreno. As her family grew she continued to keep a full calendar, playing funerals, conventions, concerts, ‘dollar operas’ (discounted traveling operas that hired local musicians and ran for two weeks or so) and New York Ballets. Highlights of this period include playing Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite with Stravinsky himself conducting, and dressing up as an Egyptian to play one of the specially made long Aida trumpets for the SF Opera Company’s production of Aida.
In the 50s and 60s, Martha played cello in the City Orchestra, which performed at City Hall for the mayor’s inauguration and for film festivals at the Legion of Honor (where she remembers shaking hands with Mary Pickford at a midnight performance.) She also played trumpet in the Municipal Band, which serenaded the mayor each year on his birthday. “That was when Elmo Robinson was the mayor,” she recalls. “He would always come over and shake my hand for playing a trumpet solo because he had put himself through law school by playing the trumpet as a young man.”
The SF Municipal Band under Phil Sapiro.
Martha played cello in the Oakland Symphony for a few years, and subbed with the SF Symphony for the Standard School Broadcasts, pop concerts at the Civic Auditorium under Arthur Fiedler, and concerts at Stern Grove. Of the many conventions she played, Martha says the Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace in 1956, when Eisenhower was nominated, was the most memorable. During a local big band revival which started in the 60s, the Wolohans ran a ballroom in the California Hall (which later became the California Culinary Academy) for fifteen years. Martha played regularly in the band. She also played cello on commercials and recording sessions and did a sound track for a Francis Coppola movie called The Rain People on which she still receives residuals because it became a cult movie.
The Musical Wolohans in the 60s.
What do two professional musicians with six kids do? “We had a little orchestra,” recalls Martha. “All the kids played. We sang, the kids danced.” They called themselves The Musical Wolohans. Every summer from the late 50s through the late 60s they entertained the guests and employees at different resort areas, such as Yosemite the Grand Tetons, and the Grand Canyon, performing 30 minutes each night and enjoying the great outdoors during the day. They would stay for a week and then move on to the next resort. “The whole family traveled,” she says, “all such good kids, piled into the station wagon–six kids, two parents, twenty-one instruments–all our clothes.” Two of her children later became Local 6 members.
In the 60s and 70s, Martha played cello for many of the shows at the Circle Star Theater. For the first year she did mostly grand operas, and then light operas for several seasons, including the Sound of Music, Carousel, and Call Me Madame (with Ethel Merman). When the Circle Star began featuring headliners, she played for Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., The Nicholas Brothers, Tony Bennett, Sergio Franco, and Tom Jones. She also played the North Beach clubs, Fairmont Hotel, and Masonic Auditorium for top acts such as Harry Belafonte, Liberace, Wayne Newton, The Righteous Brothers, and Glenn Campbell. Martha says the headliners usually brought a conductor, percussion, and guitar player, but Tom Jones traveled with a whole orchestra. When his cello player got sick, she was called in. “I had to go in and sight read. They asked me to go on to Vegas, but I didn’t want to leave home.” The next time Tom Jones came, he didn’t bring a band because he knew he could get good local musicians.
Maury and Martha in the 80s.
In the late 70s, 80s, and 90s, Martha played piano for Maury on casuals and eventually switched to accordion. They were popular as a strolling violin and accordion duo during dinner before dances. In 1995, Maury passed away. Martha continued to play casuals and today still enjoys playing the occasional gig. “It’s been a marvelous life,” she says. “I was just lucky. I was here at the right time, at the right place.”
published in the March – April 2007 Musical News