Column: An overlooked record by the Olson Sisters of Clarks Grove

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 13, 2002

They weren’t sports stars, yet Ethel and Elnora Olson, who grew up in the Clarks Grove area, made an unusual record in 1918. In fact, this was a real 78-rpm record, the circular kind which was only playable on a windup Victrola 84 years ago. And for these sisters there may been another record. They could have the distinction of being the very first recording artists in this part of the state.

I became aware of this particular situation while doing research in the newspaper’s microfilms for the Tribune’s &uot;Peek at the Past&uot; feature which appeared in the Sept.10 issue. On page 3 of the Sept. 16, 1918, issue was a large ad for Skinner Chamberlain and Co., then the city’s premier department store. In the ad was this announcement:

&uot;This will interest many people in Albert Lea and throughout this section that have heard, the Misses Ethel and Elnora Olson at their several appearances before Albert Lea audiences. These clever entertainers have attained great popularity throughout the country as Norwegian dialect and comic monologists. And what makes it intensely interesting to all of us is that these two artists were raised right here in Freeborn County, at Clarks Grove, and have relatives and many friends here.

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&uot;The fact that the Victor Company has added their names to the world’s most famous list of artists is in itself sufficient proof of their ability. This must be highly gratifying to the Olson sisters as well as their friends here in Albert Lea. The first record, out this month, is produced by Miss Ethel and for a clever rendition of Norwegian dialect it is a most unique one. … Come and hear it. The laugh it will produce Will be hearty one, one that will do you good.&uot;

This humorous offering by the Olsons was on Victor record No. 72060. One side was &uot;A Norwegian Woman Using the Telephone for First Time,&uot; and on the other side was &uot;A Norwegian Woman at the Beach.&uot; It was available in the Victrola and Victor Records Section on the fourth floor of the Skinner Chamberlain and Co. store on South Broadway Avenue.

For many decades the most prestigious record label in the world was Victor. Thus, Ethel and Elnora Olson were recording for a firm which in that era featured Sousa’s Band, Pryor’s Band, Enrico Caruso and so many other famous musical artists on its records.

With all this mind, I do have several questions and comments.

First, does a copy of this particular old record still exist anywhere in the region?

Second, the Skinner ad implies with the words, &uot;first record,&uot; that there could have been more of these Norwegian dialect records produced at a later date. Were those other records ever issued?

Third, is there any information at all regarding the lives of Ethel and Elnora Olson available? Anyone who can furnish this information can call me at the Tribune, or send a letter.

Fourth, up to the time I found this 1918 ad I was under the impression that Skipper Berg and the Viking Accordion Band was the first local musical group to make phonograph records.

Skipper and his musical group went to the Starr Piano Co. studios in Richmond, Ind., on Dec. 13, 1933, and recorded four tunes for the Champion label. There were two Norwegian melodies, Motor Boat Waltz and Livet I Finnskoggorna, and two Bohemian (Czech) favorites, Rain Polka and the Musiky Musiky March.

The Viking Accordion Band had their second session at the Brunswick Recording Co. studios in Chicago on Oct. 22, 1934. They produced 12 tunes on six records and added several German and Austrian tunes at this session.

Now, here’s a special offer. If someone can produce this 1918 record, and

it’s still playable, we’ll try to base a future column on the Norwegian dialect humor of Ethel and Elnora Olson.

Tribune feature writer Ed Shannon’s column appears Fridays in the Tribune.