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About The Artist
Helen and Ralph Sternard were not hillbilly or country music performers per se, but their names came up while we were documenting other aspects of data on our web site. That in turn, triggered some research to determine who they were. As they say, one click leads to another
The Sternards came to our attention due to being listed in the back of the old WLS Stand-By publications where WLS would list personal appearances by WLS artists. Some may not have been radio station or National Barn Dance performers that we can tell, but they appeared with the more country acts of WLS.
In June of 1936, the Sternards were listed as part of a group of WLS artists that appeared in Havana and Gibson City, Illinois. The WLS acts included such mainstays as Patsy Montana with the Prairie Ramblers, Winnie, Lou and Sally, Max Terhune, Bill McCluskey, Pat Buttram and the Hoosier Sod Busters. And in those two listings was the unknown name "The Sternards".
We think we have determined who they are and it rather fits with the mixture of musical entertainment that WLS was known for back in that early era - mostly country mixed with some popular influences. The Indianapolis Star in October of 1932 told its readers "...Helen and Ralph Sternard, America's permier xylophohnists..." were appearing at the Lyric theater. This brings to mind another person who played the xylophone for WLS - Billy Woods.But their careers span even further back in time. The Davenport Democrat and Leader newspaper made note of their performance in an October 1928 article that gives them pretty high praise. "Every now and them some real artists appear on the horizon who have the ability to take a common garden variety of musical instrument and elevate it to the realm of the sublime. Twho such artists are Helen and Ralph Sternard who have done for the xylophone what Spaulding did for the violin."
Interestingly enough, that bit of a note from the Iowa newspaper may have been part of their standard PR distribution as we saw pretty much the same description appear in The Tennessean in Nashville, Tennessee for their appearance at the Princess in October of 1932. Five years later the same paper was terming them the "king and queen of the xylophone" in their appearance at the Princess.
Radio station WFBM advertised them as appearing on the Al St. John's show at 8pm on October 16, 1932, a day which they were featuring RKO headliners.
In Dubuque, the local paper stated they "...offer a xylophone act that is a dandy..." in reporting about the events / acts appearing at the local Majestic Theatre. Appearing with the Sternards were Ray and Edna Tracy with "piano eccentricities".Three years later in 1928, the Sternards were again in Dubuque at the Majestic on "boudoir lamp night". The theater was going to give away 12 "beautiful electric dressing table lamps" to the ladies. The Sternards were described as "clever players as will ever be".
From our research, it appears they appeared at local theatres that were a part of the vaudeville circuit and would show movies as well as provide entertainment. Their show was sometimes called "Syncopating the Classics". There are indications that they continued to perform as we have seen ads for their appearance as late as 1950.
In our first effort at researching this duo, we did find the World War I draft registration slip for Ralph which indicated he was born on October 30, 1893 in Chicago. His registration lists him as as performer - xylophonist and was employed at the Lippincott's Hotel. He was single at the time and indicated he may have had a hearing problem. We think the hotel was located at Fox Lake. The 1940 census records show Ralph and Helen Sternard living in New York and had a one year old son, Kenneth.
Credits & Sources