About The Artist
Ralph C. Vavra was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was the son of Lodge J. and Anna Lillian (Petrus) Vavra. His grandfather Josef Vavra, was born in 1863, an immigrant from Bohemia who came to Cedar Rapids in 1882. He went to work for the T. M. Sinclair packing house. He had three children: Lodge, Joseph, Jr. and Mary.
Lodge, the oldest, became a machinist and eventually the machine shop superintendent at Universal Engineering. He also had three children: Rudolph, Helen and Cyril. "Rudolph" was soon Americanized to "Ralph" by the time he entered school. Czech was the spoken language in the family and he did not learn English until he attended elementary school.
He took an early interest in music and started playing the trombone in the Van Buren grade school orchestra by age 11. The trombone was his featured instrument, although he became adept at the clarinet, trumpet and saxophone and could also play piano.
After graduation from Grant High School in west Cedar Rapids in 1933, he became a full time member of the Joe Fisher Concertina Orchestra that was based in Mt. Vernon, Iowa. He had played weekends with the band while still in high school.
He toured with the Fisher Orchestra throughout the 1930's and into World War II. The band traveled extensively throughout the Midwest and was featured on several radio stations in Iowa, including WMT (Cedar Rapids), WOC (Davenport), WSUI (Iowa City), WHO (Des Moines), KWCR (Cedar Rapids) and KTNT (Muscatine).
The orchestra signed with Decca Records and produced all ten of their Decca recordings on September 28, 1934 in Chicago. Ralph played the trombone solo for the Trombone Polka for Decca. Two waltzes and two polkas were recorded for the RCA Victor label. After the outbreak of World War II, he joined his father at Universal Engineering in Cedar Rapids in July, 1942 as a welder.
Ralph later entered the U. S. Navy in 1942 and after attending sound school in San Diego, California, became a sonar man aboard a YMS class minesweeper (YMS 329).
In the South Pacific, his ship was in action at Leyte and Lingayen Gulf, the Philippines, off Tarakan, Dutch East Indies (Borneo) and in the East China Sea.
When he returned to Iowa in early 1946, he married Marjorie L. Fisher (1923-1990) of Mechanicsville, IA. (Note: She was unrelated to Joe Fisher, who had passed away some months before).
They had three children, Alan (1947-1989), John (1949) and Marsha (1952).
Anxious to play again, Ralph initially played with a friend's band, the Jack Jaxon Orchestra. Arturo J. (Jack) Jaxon was a neighbor and co-worker, and Ralph enjoyed being able to get back into the music business. After a number of months with the Jaxon band, and frequent trips to Chicago with Jaxon to their appearances at the Aragon Ballroom, Ralph decided to start his own band.
In early 1948, he formed "Ralph and His Gloom Chasers", or simply "The Gloom Chasers". The band played mainly Czech polkas, waltzes, big band numbers and many "hillbilly" tunes. Tunes by the popular hillbilly singers such as Red Foley, Tex Ritter and Eddy Arnold were favorites.
The band began touring Iowa in a 1947 Packard Limousine, playing both large and small venues. Ballrooms ranged from the Electric Park Ballroom in Waterloo, the Crystal Ballroom in Coralville, Armar and Danceland Ballrooms in Cedar Rapids, to the Col in Davenport.
By 1951, travel slowed and engagements were limited to the Eastern Iowa area. Cedar Rapids area engagements were typically smaller audiences, like the Royale in Fairfax, Hi-Way Gardens in Stanwood, Prairie Moon Ballroom in Prairieburg, Danceland, Thornwood, CSPS Hall, ZCBJ Hall and Park in Cedar Rapids, and his favorite, the Local 100 Club in Cedar Rapids.
He cut several records with his own equipment, but was not able to land a contract with a recording company.
Vavra gave up playing and traveling at the urging of his family in early 1954. His trombone and all other equipment were sold. He enjoyed listening to music immensely, but never played again.
He passed away in 1973 at the age 58 of a heart problem.
Credits & Sources
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