National Institute of Music and Arts, Inc. (Seattle)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 2/13/2013
  • Essay 10311
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Seattle -- already proud of its robust music and arts schools including, among others, the University of Washington's School of Music and the Cornish School -- gained for a time another ambitious educational institution with the 1932 founding of the National Institute of Music and Arts, Inc. (NIOMA). Located one block west of the University of Washington campus, NIOMA started small but, despite the bleak economy of the Great Depression, steadily gained students and additional faculty who offered instruction in instrumental music, vocals, theater arts, and dance. Among the notable instructors on staff was Seattle dance star Dorothy Fisher (1910-1988). In time NIOMA expanded operations by opening extension schools in various additional Northwest towns, and also eventually offered scholarships and spurred creativity with composition contests. Along the way, many Northwest musicians -- in particular, an entire generation of local guitarists -- were educated in the school's multiple classrooms. Among its highest profile achievements during its sixteen or so years of active operation were the many free concerts that faculty and students offered the public -- including those by its Junior Symphony Orchestra, its Guitar Orchestra, and the cute-beyond-words Seattle Baby Symphony Orchestra.


On July 7, 1932, Seattle-based attorney D. Wilbur Zundel filed, with Secretary of State J. Grant Hinkle (1866-1939) in Olympia, incorporation documents establishing a new business in Seattle: the National Institute of Music and Arts, Inc. The two individuals behind this new for-profit educational institution were the mildly mysterious Harry Baxter and Mary M. Strnad, who proceeded to open their executive offices in the University District. The premises, in the handsome 1928 Kalberg Building (4519 University Way), were replete with what The Seattle Daily Times would soon describe as "spacious, modernly equipped studios" ("Children in Big Concert ...").

Although those Articles of Incorporation stated that the two principals were both "residents of the State of Washington," a recent search of period telephone directories and newspaper archives reveals only that in 1933 a salesman named Harry Baxter resided nearby (5719 16th Avenue NE), as did a domestic maid named Mary Strnad (4022 7th Avenue NE). After that year, they both disappear from such records. It seems possible that Baxter may have been Harry V. Baxter, one-time flutist with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, longtime member of the Los Angeles Flute Club and since 1916 head of that city's Baxter Northup Music Company. It has been noted that he believed that "love for music and the desire to offer the advantages of a musical education would lead not only to the betterment of the individual, but as well to the social, civic, and moral uplift of the community" ("Baxter History"). Beyond that, a Mary Strnad appears years later as a successful racehorse breeder and owner in southern California. Perhaps the duo visited Seattle just long enough to launch their NIOMA enterprise. Regardless, NIOMA's initial Board of Trustees consisted of Baxter, Strnad, and Zundel.

The Institute

The NIOMA founders' goals were clear: to "operate, maintain and conduct for profit, schools and studios for the teaching of all classes of instrumental and vocal music ... all forms of dancing, radio broadcasting, dramatics, public speaking and all other forms of art, music and entertainment." In addition, they intended to eventually "manufacture, buy, sell, export, import, publish and deal in violins, pianos, organs, phonographs, radios, musical instruments, musical appliances, accessories, musical supplies, musical publications, and sheet music" (NIOMA Articles of Incorporation, p. 2).

Early advertising boasted that "Among Seattle's potential cultural assets ... the National Institute of Music and Arts stands as an exponent of the Damrosch philosophy. Violin, piano, cello, voice, dramatic art and the dance, each department under the tutelage of a graduate from some recognized standard institution of education, assures the highest plane of idealism, both in ethics and instruction" ("Institute's Enrollment ..."). And even though America was still suffering in the depths of the Great Depression, a staff of salesmen doggedly began going door-to-door through the town's neighborhoods attempting to recruit students by pitching lessons priced at two dollars apiece.

Over the years Seattle's NIOMA facilities featured numerous esteemed instructors including musical director Charles F. Hodell (1899-?), who had studied at the prestigious Ithaca Conservatory in New York and Boston's New England Conservatory; Russian recording artist and violinist Josef Piastro Borisoff (d. 1964); Belgian violinist (and onetime concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic Society, the Minneapolis Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic) Alfred Megerlin (1880-1941); German-born New York composer and concert violinist Herman Bueller (1903-1986); and, as dance instructors, Seattle's own Nelle Fisher and her sister (and fellow former Cornish School student), now freshly back from Hollywood, dance department head Dorothy Fisher.

In Concert

By early 1933 Harry J. Ryan was serving as NIOMA's manager (later Director of Administration) and the organization had established various branch schools all across Seattle. On March 5 a recital was held at the Masonic Auditorium (E Pine Street and Harvard Avenue) and among the performers were soloists from the voice, piano, woodwinds, and dance departments. But the highlight must have been the finale provided by a gigantic orchestra comprised of approximately 400 children. Among the songs performed during this period were typically sentimental pop standards such as "I Love You Truly," "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes," "All Through the Night," "At Dawning," and "Believe Me If All Those Enduring Young Charms," as well as the sacred gem "Rock of Ages."

Then on June 17 NIOMA presented a "free-will silver collection" fund-raising benefit for the Children's Orthopedic Hospital at the Civic Auditorium (225 Mercer Street). The show, hosted by Washington Lieutenant Governor Victor A. Meyers (1897-1991), featured 1,000 children in performance. Three days later, on June 20, the Portland branch of NIOMA held a free concert there with the students being led by their instructor, Julius A. Brander. A few months later Dorothy Fisher was featured in a NIOMA recital at the University District's Seattle Repertory Playhouse (4045 University Way).

The Music Makers

NIOMA presented an "Open Air Musical Festival" on August 20, 1933, at Volunteer Park on Seattle's Capitol Hill. Nearly 3,000 attendees witnessed 400 students play "with fine precision and good tonality a wide variety of concert numbers, evoking enthusiastic applause from their audience." Led by Hodell, the students acquitted themselves nicely, with a review stating that, given the short length of time they'd been learning, "their performance ... without any previous ensemble rehearsal seemed little short of phenomenal" ("Children in Big Concert").

The community must have been impressed -- the following month it was reported that, even in those harsh economic times, enrollment was up at NIOMA. Ryan, the school's manager, stated hopefully that, "There is no better harbinger of deepening optimism than this increasing return to the cultural side of life by expenditure for these finer things" ("Institute's Enrollment ...").

Another of the numerous different ensembles associated with NIOMA was the Philomel Singers, led by R. H. Kendrick with musical accompaniment by John Hopper. In January 1935 the group offered a concert spotlighting the compositions of several American women -- including a nationally renowned guest pianist, Elinor Remick Warren, who had earlier dedicated a new song to the Philomels titled "We Are the Music Makers."

Junior Symphony Orchestra

By 1934 a NIOMA branch was opened in Los Angeles, and that same year Herman Bueller took charge of NIOMA's Seattle-based 30-member Junior Symphony Orchestra, which presumably featured more advanced players selected from the overall pool of students. One standout performance by the Junior Orchestra came on June 8, 1934, when it backed a recital at the Moore Theatre (936 Second Avenue) by approximately 150 dance students of Dorothy Fisher, who also performed a "specially arranged ballet" ("NIOMA Troupe of Dancers ...").

Also in 1934, NIOMA launched a new program to help inspire composers, offering a $100 prize "to any musician, music student, or individual who chooses to try his hand at composition of an orchestral work for junior orchestra" ("Contests in Composition "). The announced judges were UW associate professor of music George Francis McKay; David Sheetz Craig, editor of Music and Musicians magazine; and Seattle public schools' orchestral supervisor Edwin C. Knutzen. From thirty entries, the winner chosen was "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Seattle's own William B. Coburn. His song was performed by the Junior Orchestra at NIOMA's "University Studio" on March 10, 1935.

Seattle Baby Symphony Orchestra

By mid-1933 NIOMA staffers had conjured up what was perhaps the ultimate ploy to attract new students, that of launching an ensemble that would be populated by youngsters -- an idea almost certain to spark the interest, and dues-paying, of proud parents. Initially the Seattle Baby Symphony Orchestra was led by noted child educator Margaret Gribbin, but in 1935 she moved to Oregon to found the Portland Baby Orchestra (which debuted at the Pythian Temple there on October 20, 1935) and Mary L. Barbour took over in Seattle. Efforts were taken to import an array of specially made small-scale musical instruments, and NIOMA planned to provide them to students at no additional cost. As word spread of the group's existence, NIOMA asserted of the tiny musicians that there was "a great demand for their appearance and they are looking forward to making a number of public appearances in the near future" ("Baby Orchestra" advertisement).

NIOMA's advertising pitch was cast in self-flattering and now-humorous "scientific" terms:

"By practical experiment, fascinating courses of study and competent instructors, The National Institute of Music and Arts has settled quite decisively the much debated question as to what could be accomplished by the average child of three-and-a-half to five-and-a-half years, in music. A group of children were chosen at random. No attention was paid to natural talents, inclinations or aptitude. They were just average babies ... For some three months they were instructed on a special plan that had been carefully worked out by the Institute. Every move and every action was charted; progress was checked against that of older children; reactions to the various minor plans carefully noted. ... At the end of fifteen weeks these babies were playing in an orchestra of their own with a surety, tone and rhythmic instinct truly amazing. The experiment was a success -- the babies actually played" ("Baby Orchestra" advertisement).

Guitar Orchestra

The NIOMA branches offered instrumental instruction on many instruments including violin, viola, cello, clarinet, trumpet, piano -- and by 1935, guitar. A 40-plus member ensemble, the Guitar Orchestra, was formed and it featured scores of Spanish-style guitars along with even more Hawaiian-style lap-steel guitars. The organization published a series of sheet music folios (the NIOMA Modern Plan of Hawaiian Guitar Instruction) along with an individual song series (NIOMA Hawaiian Melodies) that included such island classics as "Aloha Oe," "Akahi Hoi," and "Ahi Wela."

In the 1935 Polk's Directory for Seattle, NIOMA's listing mentions that it now has "branches in most communities of the West," and it also had acquired a telephone (EVergreen 0373). In time NIOMA broadened its reach by opening extension schools in additional Northwest towns including Aberdeen, Bellingham, Bremerton, Camas, Port Townsend, Tacoma, Vancouver, Wenatchee and Yakima, Washington; Gresham, Hillsboro, Oregon City, and Salem, Oregon; and Boise, Idaho.

Then over the following few years even more branches were launched, in El Paso, Texas, and in Calgary, Alberta. NIOMA apparently contracted with the Regal Musical Instrument Company of Chicago -- same company that produced custom branded instruments for the nationwide Montgomery Ward department store chain and for Los Angeles's Dobro Company. Various NIOMA-brand acoustic guitars (including one with a Dobro-style metal resonator cone) were manufactured for student use, and at some later point at least two different models of solid-body electric lap steel guitars, sold with matching amplifier for about seventy dollars, were also produced.

NIOMA's Final Years

Over the years NIOMA began offering particularly promising students scholarships, and at some undetermined point in time it became affiliated with the national Junior Musicians of America non-profit organization. By 1940 the Los Angeles branch was being referred to as the "main School." On August 29, 1941, NIOMA's then-President and Director A. W. Ryan (and Secretary Strnad) signed legal documents from California changing NIOMA's Seattle office location to 4719 University Way. Later that decade Leslie C. "Tiny" Martin was hired as supervisor at NIOMA. He came with a fine pedigree: in 1937, at the tender age of age sixteen, he had been hired as principal bassist with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. When he took the reins, NIOMA had twelve chapters of Junior Musicians in Seattle alone, including a nearby branch (4224 University Way NE) managed by Edith Woodward, with an instructor named F. D. Storz.

On May 19, 1947, NIOMA again changed its Seattle headquarters location, to 4205 University Way. Meanwhile, in what may have been a capping achievement for the school and its students, about 200 Seattle students traveled to Los Angeles where on August 15, 1948, they joined thousands of other young musicians in a mass concert at the Hollywood Bowl that was broadcast nationally on radio.

On August 31, 1951, the National Institute of Music and Arts named the 4224 University Way location as its headquarters with one last change (to 1001-5 New World Life Building, Seattle) on August 25, 1952. Finally, on December 12, 1955, NIOMA's directors and stockholders met in Los Angeles to sign a "Resolution to Dissolve" document. Those who signed included President A.W Ryan, Vice President Rose McNeil Stromberg, Secretary M. M. Strnad, and shareholders J. H. Ryan, W. C. Gebs, and Wilbur Zundel. Zundel and Stromberg also signed a notarized document in Washington, on December 19, and that same day voluntary dissolution papers were filed with the State, with a certificate of final dissolution being issued on December 29, 1955.

That same year also saw Tiny Martin being elected head of the Seattle Musicians' Union AFM 76. Earlier, in about 1951, Dorothy Fisher had founded her own Dorothy Fisher Ballet Ensemble and the Dorothy Fisher Ballet Center in Edmonds (which was finally sold off in 1981). Fisher remained active in association with the Cornish School well into the 1980s.

Sources: "Incorporations," The Seattle Daily Times, July 8, 1932, p. 23; "Pictorial Notes on Current News," Ibid., September 20, 1928, p. 23; "Huge Class in Student Recital," Ibid., February 26, 1933, p.13; "Children in Big Concert Win Praise," Ibid., August 27 1933, p. 12; "Institute's Enrollment Sets Record," Ibid., September 24, 1933, p. 21; "Miss Warren Will Assist Philomels," Ibid., October 7, 1934, p. 18; "NIOMA Troupe of Dancers to Be at the Moore," Ibid., June 3, 1934, p. 14; "Week Brings Dance Students in Recital," Ibid., June 23, 1935, p. 34; "Seattle Youths Will Perform In Hollywood," Ibid., July 24, 1948, p.5; NIOMA Articles of Incorporation, pp. 1-20, July 7, 1932, Domestic Corporations, Articles of Incorporation Files, RG Secretary of State and Territory, Corporations and Trademarks (AR3-3-8), Secretary of State, Washington State Archives, Olympia, Washington; " Baxter History," Baxter Northrup website accessed December 4, 2012 (; Robert Russell Bennett, The Broadway Sound: The Autobiography and Selected Essays of Robert Russell Bennett (New York: University of Rochester Press, 2002), 119; Willey Francis Gates, Who's Who in California Music (Los Angeles: Colby and Pryibil, 1920), 12; "Contests in Composition of Music On," The Oregonian, July 29, 1934, p.30; "Baby Players Will Make Debut Today," Ibid., October 20, 1935, p. 39; "Stage Concert Sunday Feature," Ibid., June 21, 1941, p.17; "Song Concert Sunday Event," Ibid., June 22, 1941, p.37; "Dorothy Fisher, Longtime Ballet Dancer, Teacher," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 3, 1988, p. D-15; Polk's Seattle City Directory, 1935 (Seattle: R. L. Polk & Co., 1935); "National Institute of Music and Arts," advertisement, The Seattle Daily Times, September 24, 1933, p. 56; "Open Air Musical Festival," advertisement, The Seattle Daily Times, August 18 1933, p. 30; "National Institute of Music and Arts Presents Miss Dorothy Fisher," advertisement, The Seattle Daily Times, November 19, 1933, p. 17; "Baby Orchestra and Miss Margaret Gribbin, Directress," advertisement, The Seattle Daily Times, January 28 1934, p. 45; "National Institute of Music and Arts Presents an Instrumental Ensemble -- 1,000 Children," advertisement, The Seattle Daily Times, June 17, 1934, p. 26.

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