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Monthly Archives: October 2013

Prof. P. C. Dorrego, 19th Century “Guitar Hero”

A simple, elegant marker by the side of the road in the northeast section of Riverside cemetery marks the final resting place of a man of mystery.

“Prof. P. C. Dorrego, born in Buenos Ayres, Argentine Republic, died in Denver Oct. 24, 1887.”*

Professor of what?  Why was he buried alone, so far away from his place of birth in a plot purchased by a local music company?  Historic newspapers and records provide clues, but mysteries remain about the man buried in Block 21, Lot 193.

Professor Dorrego arrived in Denver in the summer of 1887 where he received rave reviews for performances on his unique 17-string harp guitar.  The Denver music aficionados were so thrilled to have this famous touring performer that A “Grand Testimonial Benefit Concert” was scheduled on Thursday, October 27 at the Lyceum Hall at Fourteenth and Lawrence Streets.

On the night before the concert the Professor died of a heart attack in his hotel room.  Dorrego’s friends Frank and Frederick Torres, natives of Spain, had recently re-located from Brooklyn to open a cigar factory in Denver.  As representatives of the local Spanish community they took charge of Dorrego’s affairs and with the help of the Knight-McClure Music Company they engaged McHatton’s Funeral Home and purchased a plot at Riverside Cemetery.  The grave-side service was held in Spanish, reportedly the first ever such service in Denver.  When it became clear that Dorrego died penniless and had no known family, Dorrego’s effects were sold at auction to cover expenses.  The McHarport brothers Theodore and Horatio, Denver music store proprietors, became the fortunate owners of his favorite guitar, possibly the famous harp guitar.

Notice of Dorrego’s death was included in the Boston Weekly Journal along with that of singer Jenny Lind and other notables.  His obituary ran in the Art Journal of New York, the Springfield Massachusetts Republican, San Jose California Evening News and the Los Angeles Times.

The World’s Greatest Living Guitarist

Thirty-something Argentinian Pedro Dorrego performed with his harp guitar in Santiago Chile in 1861 and later at the Grand Theatre of Lima, Peru.  His US music career had a rousing start at Gilbert’s New Melodeon in San Francisco in August 1865.  Most of Dorrego’s time in the US was in California, moving between Sacramento and the Bay area, with a few years in the booming town of Los Angeles and five years on the east coast.

He was billed as Professor Pedro C. Dorrego, “The World’s Greatest Living Guitarist”.  A short, heavy set man with thick, stubby fingers, he played seated, guitar upright in his lap, not strumming, using only the thumb and first finger.  A bit of a showman, Dorrego was known not only for the harp guitar, but also for his ability to play up to 10 guitars at a time.  Play bills announced that he would be performing his own songs, and reviews indicated that he also skilled at improvisation.

Dorrego was comfortable in a variety of venues: the Baptist Church Strawberry Social, a solo during the camp scenes of “The Plains” at the Metropolitan Theater, a Father Mathew Society temperance meeting and a gig at the Long Branch Saloon.  He shared the stage with a variety of performers as well, from the magician Carabaraba to “Harpiste, Pianiste and Vocaliste Signorina Inez Carusi”.  The California Spanish speaking community enjoyed his skill also as evidenced by advertisements in the Spanish language newspapers for Profesor de Musica, available for concerts, dances and serenades.

An association with the Hyers Sisters, famous black opera singers credited with founding musical theater, and Hugo Yanke, student of Liszt, led Dorrego from California to New York in February, 1871.  He took a ship by way of Panama, arriving in New York City on July 13.  By July 30 he was working with some of greats of the minstrel and vaudeville circuits – Hooley’s Minstrels, Cool White and Tony Pastor to name a few.  Dorrego toured the east coast, teaching for a time at the Brooklyn Musical Academy and returned to California in 1875.

In 1880 17 young men from Spain took the New York musical scene by storm, playing Spanish-style guitars in colorful folk costumes.  A number of look-alike groups, most called “The Original Spanish Students”, took advantage of the resulting mandolin craze across the country.  Dorrego joined the San Francisco group that played excursion cruises, picnics and local celebrations.

When this Spanish Student troupe decided to tour the west, Dorrego went along, bringing him in July 1887 to Denver, his final resting place.

Mysteries

By all accounts Professor Pedro C. Dorrego was a skilled and popular musician, an interesting inhabitant of Riverside Cemetery.  Some mysteries may remain unsolved; others may only await further research to provide answers.

Mystery #1  Who were Pedro’s parents?  He claimed his father was Argentinian revolutionary, Manuel Dorrego; that he was born in 1829, raised in exile in Chile.  Manuel was assassinated by firing squad on December 13, 1828 and left a farewell note to his wife and two daughters with no mention of a son.  Likewise, Manuel’s biographers do not mention a son, illegitimate or otherwise.  A good story – embellished perhaps in the P. T. Barnum era of self-promotion?

Mystery #2  Where did Pedro play in Europe and for what audiences?  An early advertisement indicated that Dorrego “Took the Prize in Madrid the Capital of Spain” in 1848.  Obituaries claim he made three trips around the world, was presented medals by the King of Spain, Czar of Russia, King Wilhelm of Prussia.  Possible? – it was relatively common for musicians to do world tours even before planes and automobiles, and music competitions have always been popular.

Mystery #3  Why is his widow buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs?  Dorrego married Mrs. Lola Morales Regnal in New York 1871.  She was the only daughter of a language professor at New York College, and niece of actor Gabriel Harrison.  At the time of Pedro’s death in Denver, Lola, her son Claude from a previous marriage, and her parents were living together in New York City.  After her parents died, she and Claude went to Las Cruces, New Mexico where she taught music at the Agricultural and Engineering school from 1891 to 1895.  When Claude died, Lola moved to Pueblo, Colorado, advertising elocution and voice instruction as the widow of Pedro C.  Her son’s body was moved to Colorado Springs in 1896, and she was buried in the plot beside him in 1923.

*Death certificate for P. C. Dorrego is dated October 26, not October 24.  The lot card indicates that he was originally buried in Lot 15, Block 26 and moved on October 30 to the final resting place.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            By Nancy K. Prince