Orchestra leader Ben Bernie is best remembered today from his long-running radio program. Known as the Ol' Maestro, his pleasant speaking voice was his most important asset. His trademark ''Yowsah, Yowsah,'' which he often injected in the middle of his musical numbers, echoed from the radio and into American popular culture itself.
Born into a large family Bernie was a childhood violin prodigy. By age 15 he was teaching professionally. Despite his musical leanings he enrolled in technical college, where he performed in campus shows. He broke into vaudeville after leaving school, playing theaters in the East and Midwest. Though he initially featured only his violin he began to integrate monologues into his act.
Viewed as a novelty Bernie had trouble finding bookings and by 1914 was reduced to performing in some of the worst theaters. His big break finally came when New York's famed Reisenweber's Restaurant, impressed by his speaking voice, hired him as their MC. Bernie was unable to shake the show business bug, however, and later decided to give vaudeville another try. He teamed up with accordionist and comedian Phil Baker. Their act proved very successful, resulting in several recordings made prior to WWI.
In the early 1920s, impressed by Paul Whiteman's orchestra, Bernie decided to organize his own group, using musicians from Don Juelle's band. The new band debut in 1923 at New York's Roosevelt Hotel, the first orchestra to perform at the hotel, and stayed on until 1929.
Bernie's early music showed hints of jazz but by the end of the 1920s had turned sweet. Local radio broadcasts helped the band gain popularity, and they even embarked on a European tour. Bernie, however, suffered huge losses in the crash of 1929 and turned to radio to keep himself afloat. Though struggling to find a stable network and sponsor at first, he managed to keep his program on the air. Finally, in 1933, Pabst committed, and their risk paid off. Bernie became one of the most popular personalities on radio.
During his time in the spotlight Bernie also participated in a famous ''feud'' with gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Though the two were good friends in real life, the publicity helped both. Their feud even spilled over into the movies. Notably, Bernie gave Dinah Shore her first big break in show business when he hired her for his program, though he was forced to let her go when his sponsor felt she sang too softly. She was picked up by Eddie Cantor, who ended up being given credit for her discovery instead. Another Bernie discovery was saxophonist Dick Stabile.
Bernie's orchestra remained popular into the 1940s, though he resisted playing swing. A heavy cigar smoker, Ben Bernie died from a sudden illness in 1943.