Thursday, March 5, 2020

Theolene Pohlson - A Woman Violinist and Conductor of the 1920s

image source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection

Theolene Pohlson was a teacher, conductor, chamber and orchestral musician active in the San Francisco Bay Area during the mid-twentieth century. In the early twentieth century, it was very rare for a woman to work professionally as a classical musician.The San Francisco Symphony when it was founded in 1911 originally only employed women as harp players. They were actually on the cutting edge of gender equality when they hired five women as members of their string section during the 1924-1925 season.

The Pohlson family were immigrants from Norway who lived in Springfield, Illinois, a city with a long-standing Norwegian community. Theolene Pohlson was born in Springfield on March 27, 1889. City directories (found in show that her father worked a variety of menial professions such as laborer, custodian, elevator operator, feed yard, and coachman. The same directories show Theolene employed as a teacher at the Enos School and the Teachers Training School in Springfield.

Coming from a humble family background, Theolene Pohlson must have had considerable musical talent and drive. A San Francisco Examiner article published not long after she moved to California in 1922 gives us some information about her musical education. She had studied with Luigi von Kunits in Toronto and with Leon Sametini, the director of the violin department of the Chicago Music College, as well as Adolph Rosenbecker, the concertmaster of the Chicago Grand Opera. In a 1943 newspaper feature she recounted that she had been also a member of the "Chicago Opera Company" (which probably was the Chicago Grand Opera). While living in Chicago she married Norman E. Marshall who is listed in the 1920 Census as an orchestra musician. She also taught for a time at the State Normal School (today known as Illinois State University).

Around a year later she moved to San Francisco. In the September 16, 1921 issue of Music News she started advertising herself as a violin and voice instructor teaching from the Paisley Hotel (now the Union Square Plaza Hotel) and later the Hampshire Arms Apartments. Within a year she was head of the violin department of the Manning School of Music and the Fairmont Hotel School of Music.

By the following year she was concertizing all over the Bay Area with performances at San Francisco's Granada and Fairmont Hotels, and in Pinole and Alcatraz. Her October 17 program featured a "ladies' orchestra of eight pieces."

On October 26, 1922 she married Samuel Payne Reed, an electrical engineer and teacher at the Heald's Business College. For a time she was listed on concert programs as Mrs. Samuel Payne Reed or Theolene Reed. By early 1924 they were divorced not long after she gave birth to a son. In a San Francisco Examiner article she was quoted:
My husband and I were out of tune, so I must go back to my trusty violin, breadwinner and unfailing companion. High strung husbands are interesting -- by my fiddle is my best beau after all.

She was a very active musician. During the silent film era it became common for movie theaters to employ a small orchestra to perform in between features.  In late 1924 Theolene Pohlson was hired as the conductor an all-woman orchestra that performed before movie features at the Capitol Theatre (the former Cort Theatre at 64 Ellis Street).

The ensemble was made up of Theolene Pohlson, violin; Lillian Swaey, violin; Augrey Munroe, cello; Elsa Melville, double basso; Ethel Guyon, flute; Muriel de Vaughn, clarinet; Mae Franchi, cornet; Sadie van der Hoff, trombone; Alvina McLaughlin, piano, and Hazel Field, percussion.

source: "Theater Orchestra by Girl Musicians a S.F. Novelty, San Francisco Examiner (December 28, 1924)

A San Francisco Chronicle article said of her and her ensemble:
Theolene Pohlson, the San Franciscan violinist and director of the Capitol Theater orchestra, has the distinction of conducting the only women's orchestra regularly employed in a local playhouse and one of the few existing in the United States. The organization is now in its twelfth week and has met with the approval of patrons. The music is well selected from the classical, with enough contemporary flavor to keep in touch with popular songs and dances, and is presented with technical proficiency.
This ensemble also had the distinction of performing live on the radio airwaves of KPO.

Their hour-long segment, sponsored by the George W. Caswell Coffee Company, featured the women as an ensemble and as soloists.  Their repertoire spanned light classical music (Schubert and Saint-Saens) and current show tunes (Berlin and Herbert).

Theolene Pohlson came to our attention attention at the Library because a set of parts that she once owned a performed from turned up in one of our unprocessed collections.  This an arrangement of Anton Rubinstein's "Romance" that was published by G. Schirmer. This was one of countless stock arrangements, arrangements for reduced orchestras with flexible instrumentation, available to the hundreds (maybe thousands) of theater orchestras performing across the United States.  The pieces listed on the radio program were probably performed from similar published arrangements.

Theolene Pohlson continued to work on and off as a director and performer at the Capitol Theater until 1930.  She also led orchestras in Oakland at the Franklin Theater. After that she was mostly active as violin soloist and as a chamber musician in the San Francisco Concert Trio with pianist Guyala Ormay and cellist Elsa Melville. She was a frequent performer at the Denmark Pavilion during the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1940.

During the Second World War she contributed to the war effort working as a drafter at the Marinship shipyard.  The Chronicle reported, "Theolene Pohlson Reed, violinist symphony player and orchestra conductor, has exchanged her fiddle and bow for a drafting board in the marine drafting of a San Francisco shipyard." During this time she wrote a song entitled "Marinship" that was performed at the Curran Theater.  She registered another composition entitled "Marching On" with the Copyright Office. Pohlson-Reed also performed for servicemen at the Stagedoor Canteen of San Francisco.

A 1948 article in the Berkeley Daily Gazette mentioned that Theolene Reed-Pohlson was a member of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra. At this point she was 59 years old and after this she is no longer prominently mentioned in the newspapers.  She died at the age of 89 on February 27, 1979 in Alameda after playing a significant role in the Bay Area's musical life.


Anderson, Helene, "Notes, Cues," Berkeley Daily Gazette (September 18, 1940).

"Author's Wife Seeks Decree," San Francisco Examiner (February 1, 1924).

"Capitol Features Ladies Orchestra," San Francisco Examiner (December 18, 1924).

Eads, Jane, "Women At Work: There'll Be 18,000,000 by End of '43, Says War Manpower Commission," San Francisco Chronicle (February 21, 1943).

Estcourt, Zilfa, "Women in War: How Mr. Karstensen Trains Workers for the Shipyards," San Francisco Chronicle (January 20, 1943).

"'The Gorilla Hunts' Closing at Franklin," Oakland Tribune (February 24, 1927).

"KPO Features Women Singing," San Francisco Chronicle (July 2, 1925).

Neuls-Bates, Carol, "Women's Orchestras in the United States, 1925-1945," in Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950, edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick (University of Illinois Press, 1986).

"Patrons Approve Women's Orchestra," San Francisco Chronicle March 6, 1925

"Pohlson Recital," San Francisco Examiner Sept. 24, 1922

"San Francisco Musician Is Ogden Visitor," Ogden Standard Examiner (March 28, 1943).

"Sorority Group to Entertain Pledges," Berkeley Daily Gazette (June 14, 1948).

"Theolene Pohlson in California," Music News vol. 14, no. 45 (November 10, 1922).

"Theolene Pohlson," Music News vol. 14, no. 44 (November 3, 1922).

Waterstreet, Mary, "Goings On," San Francisco Chronicle (March 17, 1943).