Ask just about anybody over the age 60 about the Bell Telephone Hour, the popular television musical program of the late 1950's and early 1960's and the first image that will pop into their heads will be of a stately conductor in formal attire with a magnificent white/ gray pompadour, waving his baton to the show's memorable theme song, "The Bell Waltz."
That conductor was Allentown's Donald Voorhees and in that era his image was as well known in television music circles as Lawrence Welk's champagne bubbles and Mitch Miller's sporty goatee. But long before he became known to a national audience, Voorhees was a local figure of note. And even after his success he never forgot Allentown and the Lehigh Valley.
Music making seemed to come naturally to Voorhees. Born on July 23, 1903, he started taking violin lessons at 5. By 10 he could play the piano and organ. Voorhees was also drawn to conducting. While still an Allentown High School student, he was conducting part time at the Lyric Theater, now Symphony Hall, and had his own dance band.
Voorhees did not confine himself to popular music. He was the prize pupil of Bethlehem's Bach Choir founder J. Fred Wolle. Voorhees assumed he would follow the same career path of many local musicians, making a modest living as a church organist, giving an occasional concert and teaching music lessons.
But, in 1920, four days after he graduated from high school, Voorhees got the phone call that changed his life. William Baker, a Broadway orchestrator had a friend who had just hired an orchestra for a new show, "Broadway Brevities" starring Eddie Cantor and Bert Williams. The show was set to open in two days but the new conductor had never conducted a theater orchestra before. Could Voorhees come to New York and conduct on opening night?
Without missing a beat Voorhees threw some clothes into a suitcase and caught the midnight train for New York. Soon all thought of a demure existence working for wages that would keep him as poor as a church mouse was forgotten. By the early 1920s Voorhees was a conductor for the popular music revues "George White's Scandals" and "Earl Carroll's Vanities." These shows featured a variety of talent and music from the likes of Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin.
By 1924 Voorhees had broken into the then new medium of radio. In 1927 he was hired by the new Columbia Broadcasting System, CBS, and the following year was the conductor for the Atwater Kent Radio Company's popular program.
The 1930s were the decade Voorhees conducted for a radio program sponsored by General Motors. It featured some of the leading singers of the Metropolitan Opera Company. And in 1940 he began the radio version of the Bell Telephone Hour.
Voorhees' program was as eclectic as he was. In that era when classical music was a staple of radio programming, Voorhees could conduct it with the best of them. At the same time he valued popular music. In 1949 Voorhees had this to say to those in the classical music community who found his approach too low brow for their taste.
"Many people look down on the so-called popular music while extolling the works of the masters. What they really mean is that popular music has no meaning for them, any more than the musical idioms of Japanese or Indian music would have meaning for them," he said. "But that doesn't mean that Cole Porter's 'Begin the Beguine' may not be just as good music in its way as a Beethoven symphony and a Bach fugue are in theirs. A great many different types of music have meaning for me--the classics, jazz, popular music too. I think there is good music in all of them."
In 1959 the Bell Telephone Hour made a seamless transfer from radio to television. Milton Focht, who played bassoon for the Allentown Symphony, remembered going into New York to watch the program in the studio. One of the things he remembered vividly from that era of black and white television was how the orchestra would wear blue shirts with their tuxedos to prevent the glare white shirt fronts would have caused. "I remember thinking how strange it looked," he said.
Along with his program Voorhees had many other interests. The Allentown Symphony during the 1950s, thanks at least in part to Voorhees' reputation, was able to bring in some of the best known singers of the day. Among them in 1953 was Enzio Pinza, the male lead in the first Broadway production of "South Pacific." Although he sang music by Mozart and Italian folk songs, it was Pinza's rendition of "Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific that drove the crowd at Symphony Hall wild.
Over the years Voorhees, who had homes in New York and Stone Harbor N.J, was not forgotten in his home town. It was reported in the local press that he was an excellent cook and raised scotch terriers as show dogs, having up to 150 of them at one point.
On April 26, 1968 Voorhees conducted the last program of the Bell Telephone Hour. With Woodstock just about a year away, his type of music was no longer attracting the younger generation. But he stayed musically active, giving his last concert with the Allentown Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall on November 20, 1983. The hall was packed.
Voorhees died on January 10, 1989 at the age of 85. Summing up his career in 1949 he had said "I just like music and got some good breaks." Along the way, he delighted and entertained millions.