William Leonard Hobbs, 89, pianist, orchestra leader

November 16, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

William Leonard Hobbs, a society band leader known as the "Meyer Davis of Baltimore," died Sunday of pulmonary fibrosis at Stella Maris Hospice. He was 89.

Mr. Hobbs, a resident of Towson for 30 years, began his career in the Roaring '20s playing piano with the Capitolians and the Maryland Collegians. He later conducted the pit orchestra at the Hippodrome Theater and led his own orchestra at Baltimore's Chanticleer nightclub in the 1940s.

He went on to work as manager of Morgan Baer Orchestras and Lenny Hobbs Music, booking bands for society functions, weddings and private parties.

Mr. Hobbs, who was described by friends as "tall, stately and imposing," moved through the repertoires of Hollywood, Broadway, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart with an ease and richness that always pleased listeners.

He played at the Baltimore Country Club until retiring in 1991.

"For over 50 years people were delighted with him and his music," said retired Baltimore bandleader Zim Zemarel. "The city has really lost a great guy. The stars who played the Chanticleer such as Dean Martin, Sophie Tucker, Tony Bennett, loved him and so did the nightclubbers."

Mr. Hobbs and his orchestra began playing the Chanticleer, at Charles and Eager streets, in August 1945 on a bill that included Jackie Green, the master of satire; the New June Taylor Dancers; and Ricardo and His Rumbateers.

"All the music of Manhattan -- swing songs, voices, laughter, the tinkle of ice cubes in the glasses and the soft shuffle of feet on the dance floor -- overflowed from the large room to the stag bar," said The Sun's reviewer.

Perhaps one of the most harrowing incidents of his career occurred in December 1936, while conducting at the Hippodrome.

Gladys Cote, appearing in "Beauty and the Beast," was attacked onstage and mauled by a lion. She died several days later.

"He always talked about that horrible event," said a daughter, Valery Hobbs Newman of Darien, Conn. "It was something that made a deep impression on him."

At the Hippodrome, where he conducted a 16-piece orchestra that played for the four-a-day vaudeville shows, he became friendly with such stars as Ronald Reagan, Red Skelton and Dinah Shore.

"He was really adept at show work and had a keenness for directing an orchestra," said Baltimore violinist Mel Sherr.

His daughter said he played the piano with a "loose left hand," a trait of accomplished pianists.

"I'd put him in the category as a piano player with Eddie and Peter Duchin," said Bud Hatfield, proprietor of the Valley Inn on Falls Road in Brooklandville.

However, Mr. Hobbs also was known for his own rendition of "Be Kind to Your Web Footed Friends," which he played by pressing his hands together and somehow managing to squeeze out not only the tune but all of the sound effects.

He was born and raised on Edmondson Avenue, the son of George Frederick Hobbs, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music.

He was taught at home -- his parents hoped that he would become a classical pianist -- but was lured away by the jazz and bands of the 1920s. He was a 1924 graduate of Polytechnic Institute.

Mr. Hobbs was married for 56 years to the former Grace Parker, a Baltimore portrait artist.

Services will be at 11 a.m. today in the chapel of the Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St.

He also is survived by another daughter, Torie Hobbs Harlan of Roland Park; three grandsons; a great-granddaughter; and a cousin, Alice Grimm of Parkville.

More obituaries, Page 4B

Pub Date: 11/16/96

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