This spring marks the anniversary of Oscar Hammerstein's invention in 1913 of a machine that utilized the stem as well as the tobacco leaf in the making of cigars.
That may not seem like big news, but on closer examination Hammerstein's feat was part of an enviable attempt to blend business success with a revolution in the arts. Given the concern in some Washington circles today about the underfunding of the arts and the proposed expansion of the Kennedy Center through contributions from corporations, Hammerstein's story merits attention. (As you may have wondered, Hammerstein was the grandfather of the lyricist who scintillated the musical world with such hits as "Show Boat," "Oklahoma!" and "South Pacific.")
Just barely a teenager, Hammerstein ran away from his Berlin home and came to America during the Civil War. Jobs in the cigar industry in New York City were plentiful at the time, thanks to rush orders from soldiers and the lack of technology. And so young Hammerstein entered the field, within months devising the first of nearly a hundred machines that would transform cigar-making.
To be sure, Hammerstein's inventions brought forth no little money, but they were merely conduits to his great love, music. By the time of his death in 1919, he had distinguished himself as one of the great theatrical and operatic managers in the nation. His artistic dreams were daring: to provide grand opera in English at popular prices. He opened at one time or another seven opera or music halls in New York, from Harlem to lower Manhattan. He also started one in Philadelphia, but did not venture to the Baltimore-Washington area. He wrote operas--one in 48 hours as a result of a wager. And between his composing and impresario activities, he retired to a small workshop across the hall from his office on West 42nd Street to tinker with the machinery that would incite his inventive mind and permit him to continue his musical ambitions.
In spite of funds to fuel his opera houses for a time, sufficient patronage was not forthcoming. Over-supply-side economics characterized the state of the arts, and opera houses in particular had a brief life span.
Making and losing fortunes never seemed to dampen his spirits. A striking figure seldom seen without a high hat and black cigar, he once summarized the ecstasy and agony of an inventor/artist who could not revolutionize all of his worlds:
"I've had the ideas but I've worked harder . . . just getting them than most men do in the course of a whole lifetime, to say nothing of put-ting them into execution. I have guarded my health zealously. I live a life of incredible simplicity--I never drink, and I smoke only 25 cigars a day.
"Don't think in telling you this that I'm boasting of my qualifications for a proscenium-box seat above, for I have no immediate desire to leave my life of usefulness here to go to heaven, where there is sure to be a chorus which I have not selected, like as not with wings, too."
As to the location of Hammerstein's public unveiling of his new tobacco machine in the spring of 1913, well, it was both unconventional and symbolic: the roof of his Victoria theater.