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Rediscovering George Garner, March 5, 1939

March 5, 2009 |  6:00 am


From The Times, Feb. 12, 1933.
1939_0305_garner Seven lines of type in the March 5, 1939, issue of The Times unspooled into quite a story. If the beginning of the tale is a bit unclear, the end is even more enigmatic. All we're left with is the great middle.

The focus of our story is the Rev. George Robert Garner III, who achieved so many firsts in his lifetime that it's remarkable so little has been written about him:

Garner was the first African American to solo with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, c. 1927.

He was the first African American teacher in Pasadena.

He was the first African American lead in a production at the Pasadena Playhouse.

1934_0701_george_garnerAccording to a 1933 interview in The Times, Garner was born in Chicago and his father was the longtime butler of the Timothy Blackstone household. According to a 1932 Time magazine feature, Garner sold papers, worked as a bellhop and sang in the choir at Olivet Baptist Church as a young man.

Although Garner was clearly talented, his father opposed a career in music, insisting instead on something more practical. Garner eloped with a young musician (presumably pianist Netta Paullyn/Paullyin Garner) and eventually won the financial support of Mrs. Blackstone and other arts patrons so that he was able to study in England for six years.

By 1933, Garner had arrived in Pasadena. The next year, he became the first African American to star in a production at the Pasadena Playhouse, "Finder's Luck," by Alice Haines Baskin. By that time he had established the George Garner Negro Chorus, which performed concerts at the Rose Bowl and took part in the first performances of a choral symphony by David Broekman titled "Harlem Heab'n." The chorus was also recognized for performances at expositions in San Diego and San Francisco.

Garner also began the Negro Music Research Foundation, 470 Blake St., Pasadena. Unfortunately, The Times wrote very little about it except to say that the goal was to preserve spirituals. The group later opened a center at 440 N. Westmoreland, Los Angeles.

According to a 1938 article in The Times, Garner received a bachelor's degree in music education at USC and became Pasadena's first African American teacher.

There's very little about him in The Times in the 1940s except that he led an interracial chorus that performed Dubois' "Seven Last Words of Christ" for Palm Sunday, 1947. The Times critic described Garner as "one of the city's outstanding Negro choral directors."

1953_0531_george_garner Interesting enough, by 1949, he appears as the Rev. George Robert Garner III in The Times, which says he was regional director of the National Assn. of Negro Musicians. He delivered the invocation at a 1953 Republican fundraiser and campaigned in Illinois for the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket.

In the 1950s, he was music critic and arts editor for the Los Angeles Sentinel, a weekly serving the African American community, and the conductor of an interfaith chorus sponsored by the Pasadena YMCA.  He was also a leader in the Los Angeles County Forum Lyceum.

In 1959, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors honored him as executive vice president of the George Garner Music Research Center of Pasadena. He was also recognized as the founder of the Pasadena Assn. for the Study of Negro Life and History, which was founded in 1937 and met at First Methodist Church, 500 E. Colorado Blvd.

What became of him after that is unclear. California death records list a George R. Garner dying Jan. 8, 1971, but it's not certain if this is the same man. The only current reference I can find is a chapter of the National Assn. of Negro Musicians in Altadena that's named for him.

One nice thing about history blogging is that questions can be open-ended. I've asked the Chicago Symphony Orchestra about Garner's historic performance and I'll be interested to see what else turns up. And then there's the citations at the Pasadena Public Library. If I get a chance I'll take a look and see if I can fill in some of the blanks.