As a performer, composer and director,
forty-three-year-old Ernest (Ernesto) M. Libonati
(1860-1935) had in 1903 been a fixture in Chicago musician
over a decade. It is not known if he was a regular
Iroquois Theater orchestra or a fill-in
musician for a single performance. His primary instruments
were the violin and
mandolin but he also played the flute and almost
certainly the cello,
piano and xylophone as well. That kind of
instrument versatility and his connection to many other Chicago
musicians, including family members, might have put
his name near the top of the list for Chicago
In an era with a live
orchestra in every theater, and at many social
gatherings, keeping chairs filled would have been a
challenge. The Rothschild department
store on State and Van Buren even offered live music
in its restaurant for the weekday lunch crowd.
Phonographs were popular in homes but the invention of amplifiers
for large venues was six years
For the Wednesday afternoon matinee on December 30
Ernest played the violin – alongside his college-age
son, Michael. The Iroquois orchestra's regular
cello player was absent so twenty-one-year-old Michael Ernest Libonati
filled in. Michael, who
sometimes went by his middle name, was a student at the University of Michigan, home
for the holiday, probably glad to earn a few extra
Father and son Libonati
escaped from the Iroquois without injury.
Ernest probably carried away his flute but the cello
was left in the orchestra pit. When it caught
fire, orchestra director
Anthony Frosolono decided it was time to escape.
Last from the orchestra to leave the pit, he
followed his men into the passage
below the stage. It led to the costume
department in the basement from which there were
stairs up to the back of the stage and out to the Dearborn street
exit. The basement by that time was
sufficiently smoke-filled that
some performers escaped through a coal chute and
manhole in the street. Frosolono carried
his violin so probably sought an easier exit.
Once outside he wandered around the street looking
for his men. The Libonati's by that time were
likely safe at home, about a half mile away, or at
Ernest's studio that was even closer.
A fiddler's life
Ernest and his wife, Flora (Fiora)
Pellettieri† Libonati (1863-1953), immigrated to the United
States from south central Italy with their parents in 1872 as youngsters.
Ernest's parents were Michael and Rosa de Roma
Ernest and Flora married in 1881 and by 1903
had six children aged seven to nineteen, three sons
and three daughters: Michael, Rosamond
(biography), Isabella, Elliodor, Ellinore (Mariassunta)
and Roland. A seventh, Luigi, died as a toddler.
Most of those years were lived in a flat on an upper
floor at 416 and the adjacent 420 South Clark in Chicago.‡
Other family members shared the address over the
years, including Flora's sisters and their families,
Maria Emanuello Pellettieri DeStefano and Josephine
Pellettieri Franco. Josephine, her husband
Frank, and their sons were also musicians.
In addition to hiring out to orchestras, Ernest gave
music lessons, in the 1890s directed his own
band/orchestra, and composed music. In 1903 his
music studio was in room 501 at the Handel
Hall at 40 E. Randolph, next to Marshall Field
department store and a few blocks from the Iroquois
Theater. (Handel Hall had previously been known known as the LeMoyne Building
and housed the Western News Company.)
The instrument for which Libonati was best known was
the mandolin. He gave lessons on the instrument, was director of the Chicago Mandolin
Orchestra and in 1902 three of Ernest's polka
compositions for mandolin and piano were published
as sheet music: "Jewels of Joy," "Heart's Delight" and
"Kiss in a Letter," as well as "Echo's
of the Past" for mandolin and guitar. Ernest also sat
first chair in the Bohmann Quartett, a group of
Chicago musicians sponsored by the Bohmann company,
manufacturer of mandolins and guitars. (See
accompanying advertisement.) Other members
of the quartet included Ernest's three brother-in-laws,
fellow mandolin player Charles Pellettieri, John (Giovani) Pellettieri
on flute and Francesco Franco on harp. Prior to his involvement in the Chicago
Mandolin Orchestra Ernesto was first soloist of Valisi's
Florentine Orchestra and the Tomaso Orchestra.
Ernest was a man at the right time and place to
cultivate the Golden Age of the mandolin.
In the years after the fire
Ernest's survival at the Iroquois Theater helped
ensure the education and success of his children.
Four of six graduated from college – a major
accomplishment in an era when fewer than ten percent
of the population did so. Three became attorneys and politically
active, Ellidore as an outspoken opponent of communism
and fascism, Roland as an elected official and
Michael with a run for an assistant judgeship.
represented his Illinois district in the House of
Representatives from 1957 to 1965. A colorful
character, nicknamed "Libby," Roland served in the
86th Division Infantry during World War I. Afterwards
he graduated from the University of Michigan and
Northwestern, passing the bar in 1924. (The Libonati
focus on scholarship was continued when his son,
Michael E. Libonati's namesake, became a law
professor.) In a 1977 interview Roland briefly
mentions his father's music studio. (Family
remarks start around 6:42.)
Substitute cello player
at the Iroquois, Michael E. Libonati (1882-1919), the oldest of Ernest and Flora's boys,
graduated from the University of Michigan and became
an attorney. He started a wholesale poultry
business in Curryville, Missouri and experimented
with politics, but in 1918, with his two younger
brothers overseas in World War I combat, he put
his legal career on hiatus.
Too old to enlist, he joined the Knights of Columbus
in France as an "overseas secretary" to
Expeditionary Forces fighting in Europe. Known as "Caseys,"
K of C volunteers operated clubhouses for soldiers,
delivered supplies, performed first aid to the wounded
and visited them in hospitals to provide stamps,
stationery supplies and letter writing help.
It was in that last service where Michael may have
contracted the illness that took his life in March,
1919, four months after wars end.
According to a
1921 Knights of Columbus history by Joseph J.
Johnson, Michael contracted
influenza during the worldwide 1918-1919 pandemic that killed over one
million American soldiers (about 1/3 from doc
top). His funeral service was held
in France, led by Chaplain
Arthur L. Girard, a Chicago clergyman, known
attendees being Chaplain John O'Hearn and James Daly,
also Chicago men, Daly a fellow Casey. Michael's grave marker states
he died in Coblenz (Koblenz) Germany but his college
alumni newsletter reported that he died at the
Evacuation Hospital at Wolferdange, Luxembourg,
about two hours away, of
Another Libonati made it big in Ragtime
In the early 1920s the
musician in the family with celebrity recognition
was ragtime xylophonist Caesar Jess Libonati
Ernest's younger half brother. Jess recorded
several records and toured the country. Prior to his
success with the xylophone he performed as a
drummer in the Buffalo Bill Wild West show. A
charismatic and colorful fellow into old age.
Discrepancies and addendum
* Back in Ann
Arbor, when school was in session, Michael Libonati
worked as a part time waiter at "Prets," formally
known as the Campus Club and
Boarding House, where he served the athletes who
made it home – Michigan Wolverine's varsity football
and their legendary coach,
Fielding Yost, who led them to six national
championships and ten Big Ten Conference titles
during his twenty-five years coaching the team.
† Sometimes misspelled as Pelletire
‡ According to a biography
about daughter Rosamond, among the ground and
basement level retail businesses below their
family's flat was a bakery owned by her uncle DeStephano and for a time a restaurant or bar with
which Ernest was associated as owner or manager.
I failed to find anything about Ernest and a bar or
restaurant. The Rosamond biography relegates
Ernest to a near footnote: "Rosa Libonati's
father was also a musician who played for the
family's parties. Eventually he played music in a
small Italian orchestra in halls and restaurants."
As though music were Ernest's hobby, a diversion
from his restaurant business. The evidence
reveals a much different picture. From his
arrival in Chicago in 1888 until his death, the only
newspaper references to the man other than his
obituary were relative to his musical career.
For U.S. Census reports he described his occupation
in 1900 as a music teacher, in 1910 as a violin
professor and in 1920 as a musician in a cafe.
In Chicago city directories for twenty-three years,
1888-1911, he described himself as a musician and/or
music teacher. For many years he ran
classified advertisements in the Chicago Tribune for
mandolin lessons and rented a studio in which to
conduct those lessons. Rosamond described her
mother as the ambitious disciplinarian in the
family. Perhaps Flora's ambition and Ernest's
passion were not always aligned.