BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE
If you set a dozen ukes on a table face-side down, it’s usually pretty hard to tell who made them; the basic body shape of Martins, Kamakas, Kalas, etc. are all pretty similar. But there’s one concert-sized vintage uke that’s easy to differentiate from all the rest: the Hollywood ukulele. Although its body follows the classic Spanish form (a figure-eight shape, with the lower bout slightly larger than the upper), Hollywood ukes have a more voluptuous rounded shape with a noticeably larger lower bout (in contemporary terms, this uke has a big booty!). I’m not sure how this body shape affects the instrument’s tone, but Hollywood ukes sound a bit warmer and mellower than other concert ukes I’ve played.
The Hollywood uke story starts in 1902, when brothers Jack and Nathan Schireson (pronounced “Sheer-son”) opened a small music retail store in Los Angeles. In the early days, they didn’t make ukuleles, but sold all sorts of musical goods, ranging from sheet music to guitars and band instruments to electric radios. In the following decades, Schireson Bros. expanded their business to include ukuleles, guitars, and mandolins they had manufactured under their Hollywood brand name. (Hollywood isn’t far from where their stores were in downtown L.A.) Building their own instruments was likely the idea of Nathan, who was an inventor familiar with the mechanics of lutherie. He experimented with magnetic pickups for guitars and in 1932, was granted a U.S. patent for a steel-cone guitar resonator device. Unfortunately, his design was similar enough to one patented by John Dopyera (founder of National String Instruments) that the case went to court; Nathan eventually lost.
Schireson’s Hollywood ukuleles were built by Robert E. Pearson, an English luthier who was once a well-known banjo-uke builder and also had worked for Martin Guitar prior to moving out to California to build for the Schireson Bros. The Hollywood uke line consisted of at least four models: #6, #8, #9, and #10. Their bottom-of-the-line #6 uke featured all-mahogany construction with a rosewood fingerboard and no bindings; just a simple black-white-black inlay around the sound hole and a Hollywood logo decal set diagonally in a red band across the headstock. Their premier #10 uke had features that rivaled Martin’s coveted 5K model: a curly koa body with abalone purfling and soundhole rosette and a mahogany neck with an ivoroid-bound ebony fingerboard with fancy pearl inlays. The headstock has two fancy pearl inlays as well as the “Hollywood” logo done in pearl. To top it off, this uke’s bridge and nut were carved from real ivory, as well as the bridge pins. (The fancy uke seen here lacks an ivory bridge and pins. It may be a model variation, or it had its original bridge replaced.)
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Other Hollywood concert ukuleles sport a variety of different features, including models with spruce tops on mahogany bodies and those with rope bindings. (I contacted Jack Schireson’s grandson Gary, who, unfortunately, didn’t have any specific information about Hollywood’s model numbers and how they were specified or may have changed over the years of production.) Besides body shape, one thing all Hollywood concert ukes have in common is that their body sides were all bent from a single piece of wood—most ukes have a seam at the bottom of the lower bout where the upper and lower sides are joined.
Schireson also produced Hollywood banjo-ukes, mandolins, and guitars, although it’s unclear whether or not Pearson supervised construction of these, or they had someone else manufacture these and simply gave them the Hollywood brand. They even had their own line of Hollywood uke strings.
An interesting footnote to the Schireson Bros. story: Just after WWII, a man walked into one of their stores and asked to speak with Stanley Schireson, Jack’s son. He showed him a line of transistor radios that his company produced in Japan. Stanley liked the radios and agreed to carry them in his stores. That man’s name was Morita Akio and the company that he co-founded was Sony. Over the years, Schireson expanded its home and musical electronics business and eventually changed its name to Volutone. They’re still in business today, working as an electronics distribution company in Southern California and Nevada.
Sandor Nagyszalanczy is a regular contributor to Ukulele Magazine and a woodworking expert, an avid ukulele collector, and a uke club member living in Santa Cruz, California.
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