I’ve written plenty of articles in the past that I started by stating that the featured artist was not a household name, but today might be the least householdy name of them all. Bandleader Ernie Heckscher found plenty of success over his half-century career, but it was mostly as the leader of orchestras playing in some of the country’s biggest and most prestigious hotels, not by becoming a familiar part of the average family’s listening experience. But in all fairness, he did generate a number of easy listening albums later in his career that probably found their way into quite a few households.
It’s pretty rare these days but in the early years any big hotel worth its salt had a ballroom — the grander the better — and kept it staffed with either a house orchestra or a series of touring bands, which might include some of the biggest names in the business. Of course hotel ballrooms weren’t just for formal balls, especially if the owners wanted to consistently cover the overhead. They became something closer to big, fancy nightclubs that competed to be the ‘in’ spot for all the coolest cats around — or at least those who thought they were.
This was the environment that would eventually become the focus of Ernie Heckscher, who was born in London but mostly raised in San Francisco. The son of poet Robert Valentine Heckscher, he was considered a musical prodigy at one time — on the banjo, oddly enough — and by the time he was in his teens had even played briefly on the vaudeville circuit while still attending school. By the time he entered Stanford in the mid-1930s he’d moved primarily to piano, and while there he organized and led dance bands. After graduation he hit the ground running, leading an ensemble for balls and cotillions in the San Francisco area, before finally settling in for an ongoing gig at the Palace Hotel. It proved to be a big success, drawing large crowds on a regular basis.
Over the next few years Heckscher followed in the footsteps of many bandleaders of the era by doing some national touring, but periodically returned to his home base of San Francisco for stints at other big hotels. Unfortunately World War II threw a monkey-wrench into his career path. Drafted into the army, Heckscher lost some momentum for a couple of years but after his discharge in 1945 he soon began organizing a band and making new connections. A long stint at Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel got him off to a good start and he eventually relocated to the familiar scene in San Francisco, where he and his band had an extended stay at the Mark Hopkins Hotel before later moving to the Fairmont. It would be there that his band would settle in for a long time, becoming an iconic part of the city’s nightlife for decades. He also found time to generate several albums of sweet music before retiring in the 1980s. He was 79 when he died in 1996.