Orville was an accomplished guitarist by the age of 20 and performed on the Kalamazoo stage for over twenty years. He was also a song and dance man, a baritone vocalist, and a stage prop builder. In addition, he managed a number of holiday entertainment features and a small community theater group.
Orville and his band of fellow stage brothers were a local favorite. They were often called back for an encore and were known to schedule a second performance to accommodate those who had been turned away due to a full house.
In the early days, the main theater in Kalamazoo was the small and antiquated Union Hall on Portage Street. But on May 8, 1882, the Academy of Music opened its doors with all the amenities of a modern theater.
Designed by Dankmar Adler of Chicago, The Academy of Music had a number of innovations in theater construction including the new concept of gradually raising the height of the floor from the edge of the stage towards the back, thus the back seats sat higher in relation to the front seating.
In addition, it had colored gas lighting controlled by a new gadget called a dimmer switch, a rain machine, a thunder cart, and six painted backdrops. The walls and proscenium were polished cherry and a nine foot wide, 100 light chandelier hung over the audience.
In the photo above, the entrance to the theater is in the middle with retail shops on each side.
Orville’s first known employment was at Arthur P. Sprague’s shoe store on Main Street in Kalamazoo. One day prior, this same advertisement appeared in the Gazette with the name of H. H. Baker as salesman.
It may be presumed that Orville was either promoted to a senior sales position at this time or he was newly hired to replace Mr. Baker. Orville was said to have been a ‘popular and efficient’ salesman.
In December of 1891, he resigned his position with A. P. Sprague making him an 11 year veteran of the trade.
On the left is a well known photograph of Orville wearing a band uniform with a snare drum sitting next to him. Nothing was previously known about this photo except that it was indeed Orville Gibson.
The Research: The original copy of the photograph on the left has the stamp of the Adolphus Van Sickle studio of Kalamazoo, Michigan on the back. Gibson descendants have dated the photo to around 1875.
The photo on the right was a little more difficult. First of all, the Scott & Sabin clothing store, seen in the background, ceased operations in mid-1877. So the photo had to have been taken during the time they were in business. Next, the only band in the village of Kalamazoo that actually had uniforms at this time was the Knights Templar Commandery Band. It was formed in 1872 and originally had 13 members.
The photo on the right is estimated to have been taken between 1872 (when the band was formed) and 1877 (when Scott & Sabin ceased doing business).
The uniforms in both photos are a match. The dating of each photo is consistent. And…is that a young Orville Gibson standing at the center back with his snare drum?
Both photos are courtesy of the Clarence L. Miller Family History Room, Kalamazoo Public Library, Kalamazoo, Michigan.
I call this the “Orville and probably Lovell” photograph. Here is the research: We know that the backdrop is from the Adolphus Van Sickle photographic studio in Kalamazoo because it is the same backdrop as the Orville “band uniform” photo. That original has Van Sickle’s stamp on the back.
Mr. Van Sickle owned his studio from 1873 to 1886. At the time the studio was in business, Orville would have been 17 years old (in 1873) and 30 years old (in 1886). To me, he doesn’t look over 20. So for arguments sake, let’s say the photo may have been taken between 1873 (when Van Sickle opened his studio) and 1876 (when Orville turned 20 years old). What was going on in Orville’s life at that time?
The answer may lay with the dapper attire that the seated gentleman is wearing. Orville’s older brother Lovell was married in Kalamazoo County in March of 1873. Lovell was 9 years older than Orville. In the photo, does Orville look 17 and the other guy look 26? Could be.
It’s possible that this picture was taken on Lovell’s wedding day in March of 1873, thus we have the “Orville and probably Lovell” photograph.