The following is the first in an occasional series of posts drawn from Generation to Generation, a website I helped compile for the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. The website profiles more than 150 Jewish families in Western Pennsylvania.
If newspapers notices are any indication, a good singer could scratch out a living in Pittsburgh during the most meager Depression years. The “Bright Spots After Dark” column in the Pittsburgh Press listed nearly two-dozen nightclubs where live bands played most nights. Among them was the Union Grill, just down from the courthouse. That’s where, in the mid-1930s, Freda Lazier sang with Jean Wald and her “all girl orchestra” every evening, at a quarter to eight. Anyone too young, too broke, too busy or too reclusive to catch her act in person could hear it live, over the radio, on WWSW.
Lazier had been paying dues for years before she got the gig. She was the youngest child of Lithuanian immigrants, the first born in the United States. City directories list her father as a granite peddler. He died when she was in high school. Her older siblings supported the family as clerks and salesladies. Lazier took piano lessons as a child and caught the singing bug at Schenley High School, performing in operettas. “She couldn’t afford to study voice,” Si Steinhauser wrote in the Post-Gazette, in 1936, as Lazier was in New York City, rehearsing for what promised to be her big break. “So she went to a small Pittsburgh station the day after she graduated from high school, and asked them for an audition.”
The program manager let Lazier sing on air, which led to gigs throughout the city. Some were at nightclubs. Many more involved singing for Jewish communal groups, especially congregational Sisterhoods and Brotherhoods at synagogues throughout the East End.
Even though WWSW used her likeness in newspaper advertisements, Lazier was still angling for stardom when Jack Lavin quietly staked out a corner of the Union Grill during the chilly first week of February 1936. The promotion manager had stopped through Pittsburgh on behalf of his boss, Paul Whiteman, a popular bandleader who regularly introduced the country to new talent through his Sunday night radio program “Paul Whiteman’s Musical Varieties” on the NBC Blue network. Eager for a break, Lazier and another young singer had waited around the William Penn Hotel in 1933 to pester Whiteman for an audition after a set. He gave the other singer a job and gave Lazier “a few pointers in stage presence,” according to Post-Gazette Radio Editor Darrel V. Martin.
By early 1936, Lazier had apparently learned what she needed to learn. When the Whiteman scouting crew returned, in early April — they had intended to come through town sooner but the St. Patrick’s Day flood intervened — they gathered Lazier and a handful of other singers in the studios of KDKA to audition through a private radio hook-up for a three-judge panel in New York. The judges were Whiteman, composer Deems Taylor and famed songwriter George Gershwin, and they unanimously chose Lazier.
She appeared on Whitman’s show on April 26, 1936 and sang “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” her voice containing a hint of opera and a hint of jazz. Those two and a half minutes — five minutes, if you count her late performance for West Coast listeners — were perhaps the pinnacle of her singing career. She left with a $200 honorarium, which she used to by a baby grand piano. The gig opened a few doors. The next day, a Pittsburgh record producer invited her to stop by the studio, although little seems to have come from the introduction. Over the next few years, Lazier sang in Ohio, Michigan and New York, collecting a small circle of admiring fans, who would send her flirtatious or admiring telegrams and letters. She stopped singing professionally in 1941, after she married an Army physician and started a family in Pottstown, Pa., near Philadelphia. She later gained prominence as the president of the Jewish War Veterans Ladies Auxiliary, which took her across the country in the late 1960s, visiting aging veterans. But, according to her daughter, “her happiest years were when she was performing in Pittsburgh.”