Walter R. Haines was, by all accounts, quite a character. Arriving in Seattle as a teenager in 1923, he quickly scored his first musical gig playing tuba and string-bass with the house orchestra at the Olympic Hotel, and later found work with the prominent local dance bands led by Vic Meyers and Jackie Souders. Times got tough during the Great Depression, but when Prohibition ended, new opportunities arose, and in 1934 Haines became one of the first in Seattle to open his own tavern. His place, the Fiddler’s Inn, became a popular roadhouse -- in part because Haines entertained his patrons by playing percussive performances with a pair of hand-held metal spoons. In 1954 he published a spooning tutorial, and after winning a U.S. Patent for his "Musical Spoons" in 1958, he marketed them regionally. In time he partnered with famed TV bandleader Lawrence Welk, who financed a new factory in California to mass-produce the spoons. Eventually, Haines sold the Fiddler's Inn, moved to California, and as "Mr. Spoons," promoted the spoons widely. Seattle’s original "spoonman," Haines lived out his life in Los Angeles before his death in 1987.
Dreams of Hollywood
Born outside of Mitchell, South Dakota, on December 17, 1904, Walter R. Haines knew early on that he did not want to be a farmer. After seeing a few magazines highlighting Hollywood’s glamorous film and music industries, his imagination got fired up. Haines loved music, and like many a poor boy back in the day, he took up the inexpensive hobby of playing the "musical spoons" -- probably using a couple of mom’s old metal kitchen utensils.
The art of playing spoons is thought to trace back to prehistoric times, when people took to playing the "rattle bones" by holding two or more animal bones between one’s fingers and striking them together to effect a rhythmic clattering sound. Ethnomusicologists consider such tools to be mankind’s earliest musical instruments, emerging well prior to drums, whistles, or flutes. The ancient Egyptian, Greco, and Roman civilizations carried on using bones, wooden sticks -- and finally actual metal spoons -- for entertainment, and their armies reportedly beat them in unison while marching into battle.
Much later, metal spoons were adopted widely for music-making in England, Scotland, Ireland, Russia, Turkey, China, and Africa. In America, spooning became particularly popular when presented by minstrelsy and vaudeville era (1890s-1930s) performers. Spooning was not some sort of lowbrow musical activity, either -- among those noted for having spooning skills was theoretical physicist genius Albert Einstein (1879-1955). Nevertheless, spooning did become a sort of lost art, or at least one that maintained a rather low cultural profile, until Walt "Mr. Spoons" Haines emerged in the 1950s…
Haines had been so determined in his youth to acquire a brass wind instrument that he disassembled the family’s washing machine and sold the motor to raise funds to buy an old cornet. After accepting his punishment for that indiscretion, he took to playing his horn with natural ease. Simultaneously, he and his brother Les -- who wanted to play violin -- both harbored dreams of Hollywood stardom. They hopped a freight train in 1922, riding the rails out west as far as Portland. Taking on jobs while also studying music, they moved to Seattle the following summer and worked at a rural resort. Les shipped out on a cruise ship, while Walt edged his way into the music scene. On the advice of other players, he dropped the cornet and took tuba and bass-fiddle lessons, two instruments then in greater demand locally. And sure enough, he passed an audition with the orchestra ensconced at Seattle’s grand Olympic Hotel.
Before long Haines moved up to playing with the house band at the Fox Fifth Avenue Theater, and with the dance orchestras led by Vic Meyers (1897-1991) and Jackie Souders (1904-1968). Haines's skillful tuba blatting was featured prominently on Souders’ 1927 78 rpm record Gonna Get A Girl. "As a novelty," The Seattle Times noted, "he used to grab up two spoons and click them together in one hand, like castanets. He became very dexterous, and could rattle of any rhythm, including a drum roll" (Fish). By 1934 he was fronting his own Walt Haines Orchestra, playing all around town including at the gigantic Trianon Ballroom.
In the years following the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, the Great Depression took a heavy toll on the entertainment industry, and musicians far and wide felt the sting. Then in 1933 alcohol Prohibition was repealed, and soon after the laws were liberalized on January 1, 1934, entrepreneurs jumped at the chance to apply for a license to open a tavern or café. Haines acquired a lot on the southwest corner of NE 92nd Street and 35th Avenue NE -- a wise choice of location, just across the road from the only nearby gas station and a small general store.
It was there that he built a log cabin-type structure and the Fiddler’s Inn tavern (at 9219 35th Avenue NE) became a popular roadhouse. Haines and an employee named Sid Lee ruled the roost. "Walt hired a bartender named Sid," Wedgwood neighborhood historian Valarie Bunn wrote, "who lived just a few doors away from Fiddler’s Inn. Walt and Sid were a real show-business team, and they used to clown around and entertain the customers at the tavern. One of the entertainments Walt used to conduct ... was the playing of musical spoons. He kept a box of spoons behind the counter and would teach the customers to play. Evenings at the Fiddler’s Inn were lively with singing and playing, with everyone joining in" (Bunn). Some of the clientele were likely drawn to the Inn after listening to the Walt Haines Orchestra’s regular "Musical Comedy Moments" program on KOMO radio, starting in July 1935. By September they’d moved to KXA radio, where they shared the 9:30 p.m. timeslot with a band led by Perl Maurer, owner of Perl’s Ballroom in Bremerton.
In 1950 Haines opened a children’s bookshop, the Story Book Store, in his home at 11006 34th Avenue NE (today the site of the North Wedgwood Montessori school building). Situated near Jane Addams Junior High, he occasionally entertained teen customers with his spoons. "The youngsters tried it, too, but, naturally, they could not keep up with an old pro. Repeated failure upset one girl so much, she burst into tears. 'I’ll make you a pair you can’t drop,' Haines promised. He fastened two spoons, back-to-back, on one handle. With an infallible sense for a fad, the youngsters all had to have a double spoon. Soon Haines discovered he had a small craze going. In his neighborhood it was like yo-yos" (Fish). Before long Haines was performing at a Maple Leaf PTA variety show with his "original spoon band" ("PTA Plans").
With his wooden-handled prototypes now a hit, Haines began exploring how he could make and market them. The initial production run was reportedly produced with the help of a crew of friends and neighbors. In 1954 he published an instructional tract titled "Join in the fun – Six Easy Lessons," and on April 22, 1955, Haines filed a utility patent application for his Musical Spoons with the U.S. Patent Office. His preferred design now consisted of two metal spoons – situated with the back of the bowls facing each other – and held with some space between them via a plastic handle.
Meanwhile, Haines had proved himself capable of playing the electric organ; in October 1956, Seattle’s Cox Music Center retail shop and the Estey Organ company launched an outreach campaign, sending Haines out on the road in their new Musicmobile bus. Their ads invited people to: "See, Hear, Enjoy Walt Haines. He will be visiting many of Washington’s cities and towns within the next three months ... he will be bringing the Musicmobile to your door on his touring schedule ... Estey Organ Man will be there to demonstrate and give you first-hand information" ("Here Come The Estey Musicmobile").
Two years later, on August 26, 1958, Haines successfully won a U.S. Patent for his invention – "an amusement device of the musical-rhythmic type ... In general the invention provides a pair of specially constructed spoon-like objects closely resembling tea-spoons, held together at their outer ends by a suitable grip" (U.S. Patent No. 2,848,839). Haines’s real breakthrough was the molded plastic grip or handle, which could be efficiently produced in a factory setting. The Musical Spoons themselves would be 8 inches long, and their handles -- which had his brand, "Haines' Musical Spoons," embossed on them -- would come in a variety of colors: red, pink, yellow, white, blue, or green. Still others came in multi-colored halves, including pink & black, black & green, purple & gray, blue & green, blue & white, red & blue, red & green, red & yellow, and yellow & green.
As assembled by Haines’ new home-based company, Spoons, Inc., this commercial version went into production. Each set, which cost 98 cents, was packaged for retail sale in a plastic bag that also contained an instruction sheet. The packaging invited buyers to "Form A Spooning Party — Play With Your Favorite Records." The written instruction avowed that one could play all sorts of music with the instrument, including Fox Trots, Marches, Soft Shoe, and even Rock and Roll. Haines’s early promotional slogan pitched a "New All Family Musical Toy."
Meanwhile, with product in hand – pun intended! – Haines began making appearances to demonstrate the spoons in action at all sorts of toy stores, variety shops, and at numerous county fairs. In November 1960, Seattle’s beloved department store, Frederick & Nelson, advertised that Haines would be appearing in the toy department with his spoons. "The spoons, made in Seattle, are for youngsters as well as adults who enjoy good, old-fashioned spoon rhythm" ("Mr. Spoons ..."). Before long he was successful at selling thousands of units all across the Northwest.
As Seen On TV!
On the evening of July 20, 1959, the nationally famous Hollywood-based television star Lawrence Welk (1903-1992) brought his Champagne Music Makers stage show to Seattle’s Civic Auditorium. ABC-TV’s musical variety show The Lawrence Welk Show, which began its three decade-long run in 1951, was extremely popular and when he toured, Welk drew capacity crowds. So it was in Seattle that summer night when Welk’s dance orchestra performed, and then, "He also introduced Walter Haines, a Seattle salesman, who, with his daughter, a friend and five small neighbor children demonstrated and played 'musical spoons' he has invented" (De Yonge).
Welk toured through the Pacific Northwest fairly regularly, and he helped the careers of a few other locals including Seattle’s Scandinavian humorist, KING-TV’s KING Klubhouse kiddie show host and recording artist Stan Boreson (1925-2017), and much later the town’s nightclub chanteuse, Pat Suzuki (b. 1930). As it happened, Welk also hit it off with Haines, a fellow farm boy from the Dakotas. Welk was impressed by Haines's device, and he himself performed with a pair of the spoons on his TV show, and later invited Haines to appear as well.
Eventually an East Coast-based toy manufacturer took notice and convinced Haines that he needed a much larger organization to make, market, and distribute the spoons. In short order, Haines signed a contract, partnering up in an effort to push the musical spoons up to the next level of commercial viability. About this point Haines was sent out on the road to demonstrate the spoons far and wide, and sales picked up nicely. But by 1962 the partnership contract had expired, and Haines regained full control of his patented gadget. It was reported that an estimated 120,000 pairs of spoons had been sold by then, but Haines believed there was still room in the marketplace for more. Thus, when Seattle’s Century 21 World’s Fair opened on April 20, 1962, Haines donned his straw hat once again, set up his sales booth on the fair’s campus, and spent the next six months making his pitch — "Musical spoons! Anybody can play them. Here, try it!" — to the hordes of tourists passing by all day (Fish).
Meanwhile Welk had hired an Indiana player named Jack Imel (1932-2017) to perform as "Professor Spoons" on his show, and Imel even recorded a few tunes for the Lawrence Welk Musical Spoons record company, including "Spoon Boogie." That’s about when Welk and Haines struck a partnership deal. A new manufactory would be built in Santa Monica, California, and production begun on what would now be marketed as "Lawrence Welk Musical Spoons."
The retail packaging was redesigned from scratch by Seattle sign-painter and KING-TV "cartooning weatherman" Bob Hale. A caricature of Welk’s face appeared on the package’s front and side, along with encouraging slogans like: "Family Fun!," "Get On The Beat!," "Be A Champion!," "Fun For All Ages!," "The All Family Musical Toy!," and "The International Pastime – SPOONING!" The Musical Spoons box also bragged "As Played On The Lawrence Welk Show." In November 1970 a news account explained that: "One of [Welk's] latest ventures, the $2.50 set of chrome-plated Lawrence Welk Musical Spoons, which are played like castanets, is expected to bring in $250,000 by Christmas" (Shearer). For his part, Haines must have done alright – in addition to having married five times, and fathering five daughters – he spent his final two decades living in sunny Los Angeles.
Other Mr. Spoons & the Spoon Lady
Haines’s stage persona of "Mr. Spoons" should not be confused with later entertainers who adopted the same stage name. One was an African American player, Lucius "Mr. Spoons" Talley Jr., who according to a 2017 YouTube posting, "definitely has the rare rhythm and the touch that add up to a wondrous talent that he loves sharing at retirement centers, churches, bowling alleys, libraries, restaurants, schools, and more" (Tennessean). Another was Joe "Mr. Spoons" Jones, who in the 1960s set about entertaining people at Aunt Maudi’s Country Garden, a tavern in Cincinnati, Ohio. In one YouTube video it is explained that spooning was "a skill he learned as a child from an old entertainer, and developed it into an art" (Schlatter). Jones went on to busk on the streets of New York City, performed on the America’s Got Talent TV show, and made cameo appearances in the Married to the Mob and Sweet and Lowdown movies.
Then there was Martin "Sam Spoons" Ash (d. 2018) of England’s wacky Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, and Viet Nam’s "spoon king" Tran Quang Hai (1944-2021). Duncan Campbell of English reggae band UB40 also played the spoons. Notable women players include Jo May, Deb "Spoons" Perry, and "The Spoon Lady," Abby Roach, a street musician from Kanas who has hosted the Busker Broadcast radio show.
There have indeed been plenty of notable spoon players over time, on the vaudeville theater circuits of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and onward through time. But there is only one who gained worldwide fame since the 1970s -- a percussive Seattle artist named Artis, known as "Artis The Spoonman." Born in California in 1948, Artis and his family moved to Seattle’s Crown Hill neighborhood in 1949. In 1958, when he was 10, his mother bought him a pair of Haines’s Musical Spoons -- with a blue & white handle -- from the nearby five & dime store. He was further inspired by Russian performers doing the Slavic prisyádka squat-dance while playing spoons on CBS-TV’s Ed Sullivan Show.
By 1972 Artis was living in the funky Fremont neighborhood, where he began playing spoons along with the jukeboxes at the Too-High Tavern and Fremont Tavern and earned an appreciative following. That led to countless days of busking in the University District and at the Pike Place Market, where on one particularly memorable day in the early 1990s, he and his frequent collaborator, Seattle folkie Jim Page were performing.
The duo had set up outside The Mexican Grocery shop, and as Artis recalled, it was during a break between songs that, "This older couple — they were probably in their seventies at the time — they were walkin’ by and they stopped right in front of my spoons on the sidewalk there. My little kit. And she says: 'Did you ever play the kind with the handle attached?' And I said, 'Nah. I just play these.' And she says, 'Well, my father invented the ones with the handles' [Laughter]. And they started to walk away and I didn't say more. We were about ready to do another song and I said, 'Woah, woah. Wait, wait, wait, wait!' I said, 'Your father was Walt Heinz?' (I had a high school friend named Walt Heinz – it was the first name that came to mind. I knew it was incorrect when I said it, but Haines didn’t come immediately to mind.) 'No, Haines,' she said. [I said] 'Walt Haines was your father! Amazing!'" (Artis interview).
"So, I used to carry my business card," Artis continued, "and she was already 30 or 40 feet away, and I walked over there and gave her my card. And, fer-cryin’-out-loud, she got back in touch with me and, over a couple months, she was contacting me and told me quite a bit of the story about her dad and the Fiddler’s Inn, and what she called a 'cottage industry' of employees. People he had help make the spoons" (Artis interview). Beyond all that, she then brought him a gift: "Bless her heart. She gave me a prototype" that her father had made out of wood way back when (Dudley). "And, you know, I played those for whatever period of time. I’d play them along with my collections, and the next thing you know, I’m the Spoonman" (Artis interview).
Artis was becoming an iconic figure on the street-music scene, and some of the players he regularly jammed with at the Pike Place Market eventually coalesced into a legitimate band, the Dynamic Logs, who Rolling Stone magazine once pegged as "The Street Band of the Galaxy." Later, when they became a popular tavern act, the Spoonman often joined them onstage. Thus over time did Artis's profile rise to the extent that he ended up jamming, and/or performing onstage with Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Utah Phillips, k. d. lang, Ani DiFranco, Itzhak Perlman, and the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra. On the more rocking side of things, he also performed with Aerosmith and Phish, and recorded with Frank Zappa and Seattle grunge masters Soundgarden.
The song Artis cut with Soungarden was written in his honor by lead singer Chris Cornell (1964-2017) and titled "Spoonman." In 1992, Artis played a gig opening for Soundgarden, and as he recalled, "their manager at the time, Susan Silver, she told me Chris [Cornell] is writing a song, 'Spoonman,' and would I like to record on it when it’s done. And so in '93, almost a year and a half later, they called me, and we went in the studio that day and recorded it" (Artis interview). Artis also appeared in the video that Soundgarden produced for "Spoonman."
In 1994 Cornell explained the song’s meanings: "It’s more about the paradox of who he is and what people perceive him as ... He’s a street musician, but when he’s playing on the street, he is given a value and judged completely wrong by someone else. They think he’s a street person, or he’s doing this because he can’t hold down a regular job. They put him a few pegs down on the social ladder because of how they perceive someone who dresses differently. The lyrics express the sentiment that I much more easily identify with someone like Artis" (Songfacts.com). Fans of Soundgarden also identified with the tune, and upon release the single skyrocketed to the No. 3 slot on Billboard magazine’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. There's no doubt that the "Spoonman" song singlehandedly brought more global exposure to the art of spooning than anything else in the art form’s history.