Timothy Arends is a writer, graphic artist, and technology maven.
Family Photo Album leads To a Detective Story
I found it while going through boxes of old family photos.
It was a picture of the Frohne sisters, but it was not an ordinary photo. It was a halftone image, obviously printed in a magazine or similar publication, and glued to a piece of cardboard. It looked like a publicity photo, a professionally-taken studio shot of the kind used by entertainers. It showed the faces of four sisters —the Frohne Sisters—taken as a group.
I had been scanning my family’s photos into the computer for safekeeping when I found it. Digitizing was a wonderful way of reconnecting with the past, but this was something different.
I recognized the name Frohne, having heard it over the years from my grandmother and other family members. It was my great grandmother‘s maiden name. I also recognized the first names of the sisters printed underneath the photo, having heard them mentioned by my grandmother many years earlier. But the purpose of this apparent publicity shot was a mystery to me.
Had my great aunts at one time been professional entertainers, and if so, why did I not recall hearing about this? I didn’t even know where the picture had come from. Perhaps it had been in the possession of my grandmother or, more likely, my aunt Laura? I didn’t know for sure.
Had the sisters sung as a group in high school or college? Perhaps the picture was from a school yearbook? Being glued onto cardboard, it was impossible to look at the back for further information. So I decided to turn to Google.
I expected to find nothing about it, but it was worth a try. The name Frohne is not an extremely common one, and if I searched for the phrase “Frohne Sisters“ in quotes, that would narrow it down further. Finding nothing would be a negative result, of course, but I didn’t want to bring up a bunch of irrelevant and misleading results that had nothing to do with the subject of the picture.
I needn’t have worried. Typing “Frohne Sisters“ into Google brought up a wealth of results—newspaper archives, book references, record labels and more. So my great aunts had indeed been singing stars! What started with scanning in my family photos had turned into a journey of discovery!
Midwestern Girls of a Christian Background
Hailing from the era of big families, there were actually six Frohne sisters — four of whom went on to form the singing quartet. The girls’ father came from a family of 11 children, one of whom was my great grandmother, Martha Frohne (so that makes the Frohne sisters my great aunts).
The four girls all had “old world“ style names: Frieda, Alma, Hilda and Leonora, but they went by the nicknames of Bunny, Billie, Fritzie and L respectively.
Born in Henderson, Kentucky, the girls moved to Indianapolis with the family when they were small children. A picture of the sisters taken around 1919 shows them wearing long dresses. The roaring 20s, however, were a decade of rapid change, and the look of the Frohne sisters updated to fit the times.
During the flapper era, they adopted short hairstyles each with a different style of bob, from Hilda’s longer waves to Frieda’s short, curly crop. According to one newspaper article, “There isn’t a real beauty in the bunch, but there are voices to spare.“
The Girls Get Their Education
Most of their musical instruction came from their father, John C. Frohne, (brother of my great grandmother) an Indianapolis minister and accomplished pianist, and they started out singing in the church choir. Their's was a family of ministers; Bunny, the youngest of the quartet, estimated that there were something like 12 ministers in the relation.
They never received professional singing lessons. Fritzie however, did receive some musical education at the Metropolitan School of Music at Indianapolis.
The girls had two brothers who were musically inclined and sang in their college’s glee club. When they returned home, the boys brought along quartet arrangements of songs that they had sung at school. This sparked an interest in the girls, who practiced their brothers’ arrangements.
The girls went on to sing at church socials, junior church societies and Sunday school picnics. Frieda carried the first soprano, Alma the second, Hilda the first alto and Leonora the second. Frieda also sometimes played accompaniment on the piano.
The girls graduated from Arsenal Technical High School. According to a 1929 article in the Ottawa Citizen, they enjoyed sports, all of them engaging in swimming, horseback riding and tennis.
Artistic Publicity Picture of the Frohne Sisters
The Frohne Sisters Appear on Radio
The sisters made their first radio appearance in Indianapolis, followed with a short stint at WFBN. Soon, they found themselves and their voices in Cincinnati, where they enjoyed a year-long stay on radio station WLW.
Although they started out singing religious and semi classical songs, according to a 1930 article in the Milwaukee Journal, by the time they got into radio it was “the time of jazz and there was nothing they could do but follow suit“.
The Frohne Sisters Go To New York
Desiring a taste of the “big time,“ with their parents blessing, the four Frohne sisters decided to go to New York in a broken down 1924 jalopy, where they arrived with $50 in cash among the four of them.
Realizing they needed to make some money quick or go home, they headed to Newark and asked for an audition at radio station WOR, where such requests were no doubt common. But George Shackleyl, the music director at the station, perhaps hailing from the bluegrass state himself, reportedly shed tears at their rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home.” That same night, the girls’ voices appeared on air.
The next day, fan mail started arriving, along with offers for sound movie tests, vaudeville appearances and more radio work. In New York, they sang on radio stations WJZ, WOR, NBC and CBS, appearing as guest stars on such shows as the Van Heusen Hour.
18-year-old Alma, the youngest girl, wondered why New York was considered an unfriendly place. “Why, it’s been wonderful to us!“
By 1929, the sisters had made at least three appearances as guest artists on Major Edward Bowes Capital “Family“ on New York’s WEAF radio. Bowe’s The Original Amateur Hour eventually went on to become the best known talent show on radio during its 18-year run on NBC and CBS.
Major Bowes, whose catchphrase was “Round and round she goes, and where she stops nobody knows,“ also introduced such stars to the world as opera singer Beverly Sills, comedian Jack Carter, pop singer Teresa Brewer, ventriloquist and voice actor Paul Winchell and, in 1935, a fellow who fronted for quartet The Hoboken Four by the name of Frank Sinatra.
The Frohne Sisters Record for Edison and RCA Victor
By 1930, the Frohne Sisters were singing in Milwaukee over radio station WTMJ. According to The Milwaukee Journal, the girls made “all their own arrangements and sang without accompaniment. The voices range from a deep rich contralto to a mezzo soprano and the blend is very melodious.“
The Frohne Sisters also appeared on record labels, such as those by Thomas Edison and RCA Victor, as backup singers. For Edison, they backed up violinist Waldo Mayo and His Ensemble In Love Divine and My Dream Memory. For RCA Victor, they appeared with Johnny Marvin in Singin’ In The Rain.
Incidentally, Johnny Marvin recorded 49 platters for Victor Records from 1926 to 1930, according to Wikipedia. Marvin introduced Gene Autry to his friend at the American Record Corporation, a move that launched Gene Autry‘s career. Autry returned the favor by introducing Marvin to motion pictures and radio as a musician, and Marvin and his brother often appeared in western movies. Marvin was inducted in 2003 to the Ukulele Hall of Fame.
The Great Depression Arrives
I don’t know when the Frohne Sisters’ career finally wound down, but I suspect the Great Depression had a major impact on them, as it did on so many others. However, in the 1930s, they continued to sing at dances, ballroom openings and other events.
Although we are said to live in a litigious age, the filing of lawsuits is not exclusive to the modern era. In 1934, a newswire from Acme Newspictures Inc. read as follows:
“Daughters of a clergyman and descended from a long line of pastors, the four singing Frohne sisters were mortified beyond imagination when they saw their pictures … adorning the billboard of a Detroit burlesque theater. They have filed a $107,000 damage suit against the offending playhouse for unauthorized use.” According to the wire report, “The harmony quartet have appeared on stage and radio for several years but not in burlesque.“ I do not know how their lawsuit turned out.
Hear The Frohne Sisters Sing in 1929 With Johnny Marvin!
After their professional singing career ended, the sisters no doubt continued to sing for church events and other local activities. I have in my possession a color Polaroid of the Frohne sisters with my great grandmother taken in the late 1960s, perhaps at a family reunion, long after they retired from their singing career.
It is possible that I might have personally met one or more of the sisters, but, if so, it was most likely under unhappy circumstances – at the funeral of my great grandmother, which I attended with my grandmother in Kentucky.
Being only six or seven years old at the time, I was too young to remember much about it. But the memory of the Frohne Sisters will live on forever, both in the music they recorded and as part of the legacy of American musical radio broadcasting.
The Frohne Sisters Around 1969
Some of the Places the Frohne Sisters sang Live and on Radio
© 2019 Timothy Arends
Timothy Arends (author) from Chicago Region on February 17, 2020:
Thanks, Victor, so happy to hear from you! I am making a correction to the photo right away. Sounds like a simple mixup buy whoever wrote the annotation on the back. I would be happy to receive any further recollections or info you may have!
Rev. Victor M. Frohne on February 17, 2020:
Pastors' picture: names should be Armin frohne and Arnold Schultz..The Frohne Sisters had "perfect pitch." They could start singing without a pitch pipe first.