Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Hark! Do I Hear Music?


It was years ago—now that I think of it, perhaps decades ago—when a fellow Aktabowski researcher shared a photograph with me. It wasn't the usual type of family portrait you'd expect to see from a fellow family historian; it was actually a shot of a theater's marquee. The main point of sharing the photo was the name on the marquee: Hark.

Hark was the surname several of the Aktabowski brothers, Uncle John's in-laws, chose to use when they reinvented themselves from children of Polish immigrants to New York City entertainers. My understanding was the reason their name merited this placement was that they were musicians. I wanted to confirm that family's music legacy.

Certainly, with such a history, the Hark names would merit placement in the typical publications reviewing the many performances around the big city. After all, the Hark brothers would have been right in the middle of the vaudeville era, I reasoned. There had to have been some mention of their act if this were indeed a valid family recollection.

Where do you go when you want to find such reportage? Since nothing had been coming up on searches through Newspapers.com, I switched to seeking answers on the obvious choice for New York newspapers: the website known for the longest time as "Old Fulton New York Post Cards." 

Now located under the more streamlined name and URL, Fultonhistory.com, this website started as the creation of one man scanning one newspaper in 1999. Since then, it has blossomed into a collection of nearly sixty million newspapers, not just from the New York area, but from all along the eastern seaboard and reaching into the midwest and even Canada. The website has merited a Wikipedia entry as well as one in FamilySearch.org's own wiki.

Because of the immensity of the site—three times the size of the Chronicling America project at the U.S. Library of Congress—experienced researchers recommend that those new to the collection review the site's FAQs page, or take the time to read other articles on tips about using the site's search engine.

With that, I launched into my search for the Aktabowski, er, Hark brothers in New York City show biz. I was, unfortunately, less successful than I hoped I would be. One early entry—in The Daily Standard Union for May 24, 1918—did include a mention of music being provided by Benjamin and Frank Hark, but the event was a farewell party at the Saint Aloysius Young Men's Association for four members being sent to train for military service at the close of the World War. While this was most likely a memorable evening for many, it was not exactly the type of music performance I was expecting.

There was one other search result which seemed promising, though. Published in Billboard on July 3, 1909, under the heading for "New York Vaudeville Notes" came a long listing of acts currently showing at several venues. By the time I reached the bottom of the column and the heading for the Fifth Avenue Theatre, unfortunately, the ink on the corner of the page faded so badly that I could only make out the name William Hark. Was that our William? It would be hard to know with just that one, nearly obliterated entry.

While I may not have found the entries I had hoped to find on the Hark brothers' show biz careers, the Fultonhistory.com website did not disappoint. I did find several articles on the Hark family members for two different generations among the hundreds of hits reviewed so far. And I am far from done. With more mundane topics such as graduations, weddings, and funerals, the entries give me substance on the full spectrum of life for family members beyond their theoretical few minutes of fame—if there ever were any such moments. We'll take some time this week to review what I've found so far.

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