Shows from John Philip Sousa linked old and new Corn Palaces
A continuing series on the 100th anniversary of the current Corn Palace in Mitchell
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the current Corn Palace building, which opened in 1921.
By 1925, John Philip Sousa had learned to love coming to Mitchell, South Dakota.
He was the most famous musician to play at the Corn Palace in the early days and the most notable to play at all three iterations of the Corn Palace.
He famously had to be coaxed to feel that way. Sousa first appeared in 1904 and was skeptical about visiting rural South Dakota. The legend is that he didn’t get off the train until he had his $7,000 appearance fee in cash. But Mitchell locals turned out for all six days of shows and he later added a third show each day when he was impressed by the attendance.
He later wrote “The Diplomat” march, and said he dedicated it to “the unseen cook who prepared that tenderloin” steak he had while in Mitchell.
Sousa played the Corn Palace Festival again in 1907 and then would go a decade without visiting Mitchell. He had a world tour in 1911 in which he caught malaria, slowed down for the next three years and Sousa, then 62 in 1917 when the U.S. entered World War I, was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve and led the Navy Band during the war. (He would continue to wear his Navy uniform for performances for the rest of his life.)
As Paul Edmund Bierly wrote in his book “The Incredible Band of John Philip Sousa,” Sousa was thrown off a horse and broke his neck in September 1921 but the bandleader forged ahead. He was blunt about his potential retirement, saying, “Some day you’ll pick up the paper and see ‘Sousa Dead.’ Then you’ll know I’ve retired.”
Sousa would make two more appearances at the new Corn Palace, making trips separate from the festival. That included Nov. 26, 1921, just days after his return from the horse-riding accident. Mitchell leaders had wanted Sousa to come and play for the festival, but the band was busy, but Sousa directed his band to make a showing at the new Palace a few months after the festival and nearly 5,000 people were in attendance.
He was back four years later on Nov. 20, 1925. He played two shows — the best tickets were $2 plus tax — for Mitchell citizens who “appreciate high class band music,” performing many of his patriotic marches that made him famous.
As this newspaper wrote in recapping his performance, it predicted that children in attendance would later appreciate the “wonderful privilege” of hearing Sousa’s band. But Sousa only directed on a limited basis during the 1925 appearance, saving his leadership for “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
“To those who had the opportunity of hearing Sousa in the day of his famous whiskers and the famous strut and in the heyday and the fire of his vigorous younger days, it was quite another story,” the Mitchell Evening Republican reported on Nov. 25, 1925. “One saw the steadying, calming toning down effect of age, yet accompanied by a spirit of youth and idealism which defied the advance of years which enable this remarkable man regardless of his years to continue to bring joy and uplift to the hearts of men through his heaven sent gift as a musician.”
That was Sousa’s last time in Mitchell and he was right: Mitchell residents learned of his retirement on the front page on Monday, March 7, 1932. Sousa died at 77 of a heart attack.
This story was published with the research assistance of the Carnegie Resource Center in Mitchell, located at 119 W. Third Ave.