Mossback's Northwest: The 1941 Seattle 'insult' that still stings

Sir Thomas Beecham came to conduct the Seattle Symphony and uttered a sentence that has never been forgotten.

Knute Berger "conducts" with a top hat and baton, a gesture to the English culture that gave rise to the aristocratic and wealthy conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. Beecham was the Seattle Symphony's conductor during the WWII, from 1941-1943. (Resti Bagcal/Crosscut)

A little bottle played a huge role in shaping Seattle’s artistic life. This is how a 19th century cure for constipation left its mark on Seattle’s culture.

The bottle was a small vial containing Beecham’s little pills — an 1800s remedy for a common problem, constipation. Ads claimed it also cured scurvy, headaches and “female problems.” It was hugely popular and the Beecham family of England that invented and sold these pills made a fortune. The heir to that fortune was a man who spent it to become one of the most important symphony conductors of the 20th century — the legendary, self-taught, self-financed Sir Thomas Beecham, who founded the London Symphony and the London Philharmonic, and who guest-conducted all over the world.

At the outbreak of World War II in Europe, Sir Thomas found himself in Seattle, where he was enticed to become the conductor of the small Seattle Symphony. It was a daring challenge for a man of Beecham’s credentials: to turn a provincial American orchestra into something world class. Beecham brought talent to Seattle, but he also brought something the cultural scene had not quite seen before: big ego and attitude.

Beecham conducted fall seasons in Seattle in 1941, ‘42 and part of ’43. In one performance, he stopped the show to bawl out — and throw out — a newspaper photographer whose camera’s click had interrupted the performance. He brought the orchestra to an immediate halt. “Leave the hall,” the imperious conductor demanded of the embarrassed shutterbug, adding that his gaffe was an “insult” to the audience and symphony itself.

Beecham also railed at local critics for their failure to recognize his genius and the symphony’s improved performance. At one point, he played recordings of works performed by major symphonies and his own behind a screen to see if the critics could pick out the best. His with the Seattle Symphony were chosen. He said this proved the critics didn’t know what they were talking about. One columnist later wrote that the tempestuous Beecham entertained with “baton and tongue.”

But he is best remembered for a comment he made at a local club speech in 1941 to boost support for the symphony. “If I were a member of this community,” he said, “really I should get weary of being looked on as a sort of aesthetic dustbin.” The line made headlines. While Beecham had meant to be encouraging to the arts community’s ambition and was pleading for greater financial support, the comment was widely taken as a slam on Seattle’s cultural and artistic status. Over time, the quote morphed into Seattle being a “cultural dustbin,” and effectively branded Seattle as such worldwide, especially as it was misquoted in widely reprinted obituaries in national and international newspapers when Beecham died in 1961.

Beecham did do very positive things while in Seattle. He put on the city’s first Mozart festival. He put on performances for working people, initiated pop concerts and toured the symphony throughout the region. He also generated interest in and publicity for the symphony and classical music. During the war, he made recordings for the troops. But by the 1943 season, he was in ill health and had had enough and left town.

The dustbin had lost its biggest catch, a man who had both boosted its image and inadvertently destroyed it.

Beecham came back for a brief visit in 1960 — he conducted the symphony at the Orpheum Theater downtown. He was supposed to do several performances, but fell ill and left town before finishing his performances. When he died months later, his widow said he had come down with his fatal illness during that brief Seattle visit.

Beecham still makes cold and flu products sold in Britain today. They apparently didn’t help Sir Thomas.

Seattle, the aesthetic dustbin, apparently got its revenge.

About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.