This post is based on the “University of Illinois Glee and Mandolin Clubs, 1889-1921” exhibit currently installed at the Urbana Free Library for the 5th annual C-U Folk & Roots Festival, November 1-2, 2013.
Mandolin, banjo, and guitar clubs were wildly popular beginning in the late 1880s. They sprang up across the country and quickly became trendy with college students. The Mandolin and Guitar Club at the University of Illinois–alternately known as the Mandolin and Banjo Club, and the Mandolin Club over the years–organized in 1889 and was one of the oldest university musical organizations, outranked only by the Band and Glee Clubs. From its inception, the Mandolin and Guitar Club united with the Glee Club in one management association for concerts. These clubs constituted a central part of student life and served as the musical representatives of the University of Illinois. The whole group frequently spent university vacations on the road performing, meeting alumni, and raising funds.
Activities included home concerts, campus dances, and tours to nearby locations such as Chicago, Savanna, Kankakee, Moline, Decatur, Arcola, Springfield, Rantoul, and Bloomington. Concert repertoire did not aspire towards fine art, but provided light social music occasionally interrupted by a vocal solo or comedic reading. Tours throughout Illinois were wildly successful through the early 1900s. In Decatur, “the concert was held in a large auditorium, which has a seating capacity of two-thousand. About twelve hundred season tickets had been sold, and with the large number of single admissions, the hall was nearly full. The audience was very enthusiastic and appreciative, and every number was heartily encored.”
Colleges and universities also produced women’s mandolin and banjo clubs. Unlike men’s clubs, they received little notice and rarely ventured beyond their local communities. Alice Zilly, a sophomore in Literature and Arts and a member of Kappa Alpha Theta, was founder and president of the Ladies’ Mandolin Club in 1900. The Club participated in several benefits throughout the spring and fall. Upon Alice Zilly’s unexpected death in December, 1900 at the age of twenty-one, the Ladies’ Mandolin Club lacked the leadership to continue and quietly disbanded.
Fretted instrument clubs continued in a variety of altered forms into the twentieth century. Collegiate banjo clubs lost popularity the late twentieth century, but mandolin clubs did well until the mid-1910s. Originally equipped with mandolin, banjo, and guitar, the University of Illinois Mandolin Club grew to include the mandola, mando-cello, cello, flute, clarinet, and drums. This changing instrumentation indicated a movement towards the dance orchestra of the jazz age and a breakup of the fretted instrument orchestra.
World War I took a toll on University enrollment and severely curtailed participation in the Mandolin Club, which had only four members in 1917-18. Upon War’s end, the Club struggled with waning student interest, difficulty in securing directors, and poorly-attended seasons. In 1921, the Glee and Mandolin Club was placed under Illini Union supervision for financial reasons and quickly faded into antiquated obscurity.
This exhibit will remain at the Urbana Free Library until November 3, 2013 if you would like to learn more about the Glee and Mandolin Clubs from 1889-1921.