Don Bestor by Ruth Ann Montgomery


Maple Hill Stories
Researched and written by Ruth Ann Montgomery

The remains of famous musician and orchestra leader Don Hubbard Bestor lie in Maple Hill Cemetery.  In life
he was a talented pianist, song writer, and orchestra leader.   His final address is the Mitchell addition, Block
4, Lot 62.

It’s the dash that tells the story, according to a popular poem, the dash that is printed in an obituary or
carved between the dates on a tombstone.    On either side of the dash for Donald Hubbard Bestor are the
dates 1889 and 1970 and quite a dash it was.

Donald Hubbard Bestor was born in South Dakota.  His family moved to Mazomanie, Wisconsin in 1896.  His
father, Robert Griffen Bestor, was a traveling salesman for a piano company.  His mother, Carrie Elizabeth
Hubbard Bestor was the daughter of Alva Beach Hubbard and Clara Force Hubbard.

Donald’s brother, Vernon Bestor, was a popular orchestra leader, piano player, arranger and composer and
gave Don his start in the orchestra at Madison’s Majestic Theater.  Both Bestor brothers made big names for
themselves in the music business.   Another brother Alva Leroy Bestor, was an orchestra leader in
Madison.

Young Don became interested in playing piano and writing music in his teens.   At the age of 16, Donald was
composing music.  Vaudeville, orchestras and the early years of radio were venues for the talents of
young  Bestor.

On September 12, 1908, Donald Hubbard Bestor married Harriet Agatha Cyrier, a vocalist, both were in their
late teens.  When the 1910 census was taken, Hattie (age 20) and Donald were living in a boarding house
on East 55th Street in Chicago.  Donald listed his occupation as arranger and musician.

Seven years later, he was receiving rave revues from a Madison newspaper: “Irving Berlin had better watch
out; he is likely to get keen competition from Don Bestor, Madison boy, who ‘has made good’.  Bestor, who
got his start in music in the orchestra at the Majestic in 1917 has composed some song hits, such as
‘Dimples and Dollars’, ‘Won’t You Try to Love me’ and ‘The Katzenjammer kids’.”

The songs were composed for a musical “Maid To Order”  at Madison’s Orpheum Theater.   It was described
in the Wisconsin State Journal advertisement as “The Merry Musical Comedy Tabloid in 3 scenes, new
songs, new music, new dances.  Special Scenery and Electrical Effects.”   The musical was booked for four
nights in Madison, then scheduled to go on a vaudeville tour.

The Evansville Review announced that Donald’s mother, Carrie Bestor and sister, Helen, Evansville
residents, were planning to attend one of the Madison performances of the show.   Carrie and Helen lived
with Carrie’s elderly parents, Alva & Clara Hubbard at 114 South Third Street.  Helen worked in the
Evansville telephone office and also played piano for silent movies at the Magee Theater.

Three years later, according to the 1920 federal census, Donald and his wife were living in Kankakee,
Illinois.  He listed his occupation as theater proprietor.    However, he had larger ambitions and within a few
years became a national figure in the music industry.

Bestor formed his own dance band, then had an opportunity to lead one of Chicago’s best known
orchestras.  Bestor took over conducting the Benson Orchestra.  This well known group played in Chicago
at the Marigold Gardens.  It was a popular hangout for Chicago gangsters.

The new communication device, the radio extended Bestor’s music to audiences well beyond the walls of
theaters and hotel ballrooms.  In addition to his radio work, Don made recordings under the Victor label in
the early 1920s.

Music was his first love and in September 1920 he made his first recording with the Benson Orchestra at the
Victor studio in Camden, New Jersey.   A few months later, in April 1921, the orchestra again recorded at the
Victor studio.

By 1922, Donald Bestor had left the Benson Orchestra and was conducting his own orchestra.    Bestor’s
orchestra was playing at a hotel near one of the early radio stations, KDKA in Pittsburg.  The station decided
to try a remote broadcast from the hotel and strung a wire from the hotel to the radio station.  Bestor would
later boast that he had one of the longest records in radio broadcasting.

Bestor’s personal life was not so successful and in 1923, he was divorced from Hattie.  She remained in
Kankakee with their son Bartley and remarried.   By 1925, Don Bestor was married to dancer, Frankie
Klosse.

His composing was having some success.  In 1925, he collaborated with Roger Lewis and Walter Donovan
to write “Down By The Vinegar Works”.  It was sung by Johnny Marvin, “The Ukulele Ace”.

Radio and Victor records raised Bestor’s musical career to new heights in popularity.  When the Bestor
orchestra appeared at the Orpheum Theater in Madison, with the Orpheum Circuit Vaudeville, in January
1928, he was billed as the “internationally famous Don Bestor and his Victor recording orchestra, a talented
aggregation of syncopating harmonists. ”

Several articles about Bestor appeared in the Capital Times and Wisconsin State Journal in January 1928.
The January 8, 1928 Capital Times said:  “Bestor has led his orchestra through a career that embraces
many of the great theaters, cabarets, ballrooms and amusement palaces in the country.  The Bestor
orchestra has played at Young’s Million dollar Pier at Atlantic city, the Drake Hotel, Marigold Gardens, and
Terrace Garden, Chicago.”

Fans of the radio show also increased Bestor’s popularity.    A Pittsburg newspaper ran a contest to
determine the most popular entertainers on the KDKA radio station in Pittsburg in 1930. Bestor was first with
the Pittsburg fans.

Many Evansville fans stayed up until 11 p.m. on a Thursday evening in February 1930 to hear the music of
Bestor’s Orchestra, broadcast from the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburg.   The Review noted that Bestor was
“a former Evansville resident and nationally known orchestra leader.  Besides recording for the Victor
Phonograph Company, Mr. Bestor and his orchestra have played permanent engagements at Dallas, Texas;
St. Louis and Kansas City, Chicago and Pittsburg. ”

It was the era of ballroom dancing and there was plenty of work for the big bands and orchestras in hotels
and dance pavilions throughout the country.  In September 1930, Bestor’s 11-piece orchestra was playing a
two week engagement in Milwaukee at the Hotel Schroeder.  The orchestra was also scheduled to broadcast
over the Milwaukee Journal radio station, WTMJ.

In the early 1930s, Bestor and his orchestra were featured on the Jack Benny Radio Show.  Bestor had met
Jack Benny when they were both touring with the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit in the late 1920s.
The show was broadcast at 7 p.m. on the NBC station in New York and could be heard at 6 p.m. in
Evansville.  The show also featured Mary Livingston and announcer Don Wilson.

Carrie Bestor and many of her Evansville neighbors turned on the radio every Sunday evening to hear the
Jack Benny Show.   Benny’s famous introduction for the orchestra was “Play, Don, Play.”
It was during his time with Jack Benny that Bestor wrote one of his most popular jingles.  One of the
sponsors of the show was Jello and Bestor wrote the famous J-E-L-L-O song.

In the 1930s, Bestor recorded under the Brunswick label.  Under this label, Bestor wrote and recorded,
“Singing A Song”, “Teach Me to Smile” and “I’m Not Forgetting.”  Some of Bestor’s best known recordings of
songs written by other artists from the 1930s were “Shuffle Off To Buffalo” and “Forty-Second Street.”

After he was released from the Benny show, Don continued to tour with his orchestra.   The Bestor orchestra
also played background music for movies including  “Animal Crackers In My Soup” with Shirley Temple in
“Curly Top” in 1935 and “Let’s Sing Again” in 1936.

As Bestor seemed to be at the top of his career, his ex-wife Hattie once again appeared.  In November 1937,
Hattie had Donald Bestor arrested in Joliet, Illinois for unpaid child support for their 16-year-old son,
Bartley.   He spent  two days in a Kankakee jail before giving a $3,000 paid-up life insurance policy to Hattie,
to compensate for his lack of support.

A newspaper photographer took a photo of Hattie sitting beside a photograph of her son, and reading a
book.    The Associated Press wire photo appeared in newspapers throughout the United States with the
headline “Divorced Wife Jails Don Bestor.“

Bestor had also gotten into trouble with the union  in New York, and could not play in the city for two years.
In September 1937, he was allowed to return to the city and played for two weeks at the French Casino, a
famous night spot with a restaurant and theater.

Bestor continued his career as an orchestra leader until 1943.  For a short time he served as Musical
Director at a New York radio station, WHN.

His personal life continued to be bumpy.   His second marriage to Frankie Klossen ended in divorce in 1944
and he married his third wife, Beulah Pinbell, in 1945 and they separated in 1958.  He had children by each
wife, including his sons, Bartley and Donald H. Bestor, a talented pianist;  and daughters, Mary Ann and
Robyn.

Donald Hubbard Bestor died at the age of 80 in Metamora, Illinois.  He was living near his sister, Helen.  His
funeral was held at the Mason Funeral Home in Metamora and he was brought back to Evansville for burial
in Maple Hill Cemetery.  He was buried beside his mother, Carrie Hubbard Bestor and his grandparents, Alva
B. and Clara A. Hubbard, who were, no doubt, his greatest fans.

Bestor’s obituary listed him as a one time resident of Evansville, “whose career as a dance orchestra leader
reached a peak in the 1930s when he was music conductor for comedian Jack Benny’s radio network
shop.”

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