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Seattle's star Hawaiian guitarist, Helen Louise Ferera, mysteriously disappears from a steamship on December 12, 1919.
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On Friday December 12, 1919, while en route from Los Angeles to Seattle for a visit back home, Helen Louise Ferera (1887?-1919) vanishes from the Pacific Steamship Company's SS President. The famed musician had recently returned to the United States after spending most of the previous year with her husband and musical partner, Frank Ferera (1885-1951), residing in the warmer climes of his native Hawaii in an attempt to recuperate from her health ailments.
The Fereras boarded the SS President and their northbound voyage began well. They retired to their room that Thursday night. Ferera left the room at 4:00 a.m. After she failed to return, her husband notified the ship's officers who searched the vessel unsuccessfully and concluded that she had been lost at sea.
One mysterious aspect of the affair revolved around conflicting testimony about that night's weather: The Pacific Steamship Company's superintendent, A. J. Storrs, claimed that the ship "was sailing in fine weather with the sea as smooth as a mill pond." However, the missing woman's father, Seattle businessman Albert E. Greenus, stated -- with information that he presumably got from his son-in-law -- that "There was a strong wind blowing ... when my daughter left her stateroom and we believe she was washed overboard" (The Seattle Daily Times).
The dangers of such sea travel are reinforced by considering that the SS President had been involved in an incident six years prior when -- en route from Seattle to San Francisco, and as The New York Times reported -- two crewmen "were drowned fifty miles off Coos Bay [Oregon] last night when they attempted to rescue an unidentified steerage passenger, who had been swept overboard by a heavy sea."
The Hawaiian Craze
Helen Louise Greenus and her sister Irene Lilliam Greenus were Seattle girls whose childhood home was on the West slope of Capitol Hill (1616 Summit Avenue). They were among the many American youths who took a keen interest in Hawaiian music at the outset of that exotica craze. Helen Louise learned to play both the ukulele and steel guitar, and somehow met up with Palakiko "Frank Ferera" Ferreira, a native of Honolulu who had arrived stateside in 1902 and today is credited as the very first Hawaiian music star.
In time he became the ace steeler with the most prominent island band of the day: Keoki E. Awai's Royal Hawaiian Quartet -- the ensemble who gained fame by performing "to an estimated 17 million people in a seven-month period" at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 (Gold Coast). One attendee that enjoyed their sounds was the famed inventor, Thomas A. Edison (1847-1931), and in September Edison issued two solo songs by Ferera: "Ua Like No Alike" / "Medley of Hawaiian Hulas."
It was apparently at the Expo's end that Ferera and his wife began performing on their Martin guitars as a duo -- Helen Louise and Frank Ferera -- and touring the nationwide vaudeville circuit. Over the following four years they enjoyed fabulously successful music career, traveling widely and recording many good-selling discs for a series of record companies. Indeed, "more than any other artists, they supplied what the record-buying public wanted in the way of Hawaiian music" (Gracyk).
Signed to Victor Records, their first 78 rpm single -- "On the Beach at Waikiki" / "Moe Uhane Waltz" -- was issued in November, 1915. Then in 1916 their "Drowsy Waters" developed into a smash hit, selling more than 300,000 copies "or nearly twenty times the amount of a typical release of the era" (Garrett). Several other discs followed -- including "Maui Aloha," "Everybody Hula," "Hawaiian Hula Medley," and "Hawaii I'm Lonesome For You." That same year the duo signed briefly with Edison, who issued two discs including "Song To Hawaii" and, with the backing of the Waikiki Hawaiian Orchestra, "Somewhere In Hawaii."
Roll On Columbia
The year 1916 also saw them working in New York City with Columbia Records, which in July issued two discs -- "Honolulu Rag" and "Medley of Hawaiian Waltzes." Over over the next few years the label released seven more records by the duo including: "Hawaiian Dreams," "Palakiko Blues," "Along the Way To Waikiki," and "Aloha Land." The duo's tunes were also released by the Victor, Gennett, Paramount, Lyric, and Pathe Records.
In 1917 Helen Louise and Ferera added her singing sister, Irene Greenus, and began recordings as a trio for Imperial, Pathe, Empire, and Columbia Records. The Columbia label issued three discs by Louise, Ferera, and Greenus including: "Hawaiian Echoes" (as written by Seattle songster, James W. Casey), "My Hawaii," and "In the Heart of Hawaii." Interestingly, that latter disc featured a new duo on the flipside: Ferera and Anthony Franchini with their tune "My Hawaiian Melody."
In the wake of Helen Louise's death, Ferera and Franchini began a long musical partnership. Of the many Hawaiian musicians who were active up through 1930 (when Ferera stopped recording), it was he who probably had the greatest public exposure -- indeed, it has been estimated that "Of all Hawaiian recordings made between 1915 and 1930, it is said that Frank Ferera appeared on at least a quarter of them" (Ruymar). Some of the estimated 2,000 discs he cut – including tracks with Helen Louise -- remain available on various Hawaiian CD compilations to this day.
"Seattle Musician Lost at Sea: Versions of Mystery Conflict -- Helen Louise Ferera, Noted Guitar Player in Vaudeville, Vanishes From Ship on Way Home," The Seattle Daily Times, December 19, 1919, p. 17; "Rescue-Crew Die in Gale -- Three Men of Steamship President Lost Trying to Save Passenger," The New York Times, November 28, 1913, website accessed on October 24, 2009 (http://query.nytimes.com); Gold Coast magazine, Vol. 11, No. 43 (Winter/Spring 1999), nfo.net website accessed on October 22, 2008 (nfo.net/usa/ukehist.html); Tim Gracyk, Popular American Recording Pioneers: 1895-1925 (New York: Hawthorne Press, 2000), 120-124; Lorene Ruymar, The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and its Great Hawaiian Musicians (Anaheim Hills, California: Centerstream, 1996), 86; Charles Hiroshi Garrett, Struggling to Define a Nation: American Music and the Twentieth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008) 206; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Hawaiian Music and its Historic Seattle Connection," (by Peter Blecha), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed October 23, 2009).
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Helen Louise (Greenus) Ferera, (1887?-1919)
SS President, Pacific Steamship Company, 1910
Postcard Courtesy Peter Blecha
Report of Helen Louise Ferera disappearance, The Seattle Daily Times, December 19, 1919
Courtesy The Seattle Daily Times
Frank Ferera (1885-1951)
Louise, Ferera, and Greenus, 78 rpm recording, Columbia Records (2916), ca. 1918
"Hawaiian Echoes" sheet music, 1917
Courtesy Peter Blecha collection
Frank Ferera and Anthony Franchini, 1921
Courtesy Peter Blecha