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BECKNER, DENVER WILLIAM [DENNY]

Denny Beckner Band Photo
Denny Beckner band ca. 1953 at the Marine Room, Pleasure Pier in Galveston. Photograph by Al Olson. Courtesy Dale Olson.

BECKNER, DENVER WILLIAM [DENNY] (1912–1976). Denny Beckner, bandleader, songwriter, and entertainer, active in the 1940s and 1950s, first son of Pearl E. and Ada (Powers) Beckner, was born Denver William Beckner in Huntington, West Virginia, on April 1, 1912. Beckner’s activity in the entertainment field began when he was nine years old with the Al G. Fields Minstrels, of which his parents were members. He went to high school in Huntington, West Virginia, and attended Marshall College there. Work as a tap and acrobatic dancer in vaudeville followed, and he joined future wife Doris Gordy to form a dance team. About 1937, in Minneapolis, they formed their first band.

Denny Beckner’s Madcap Merrymakers was one of the big bands that performed in ballrooms and dance halls. It was a society band in Chicago when June Christy joined it in about 1942. Among places where the band played were Fort Worth’s Skyliner Ballroom and Rocket Club, Galveston’s Marine Room at the Pleasure Pier, Houston’s Empire Room at the Rice Hotel from which there were Sunday evening radio broadcasts, Las Vegas’s Flamingo Night Club, Memphis’s Polynesian Room at the Hotel Claridge, New Orleans’s Lake Pontchartrain Ballroom, New York City’s Hotel Park Central, Washington’s Roosevelt Hotel, and Wichita’s (Kansas) Triganon Ballroom.

During World War II, the USO sponsored Denny Beckner and his band of seven or eight musicians and a female singer from Comfort, Texas, on a tour of bases in Alaska. Some of his shows were rebroadcast as Spotlight Bands programs on the Armed Forces Radio System from places such as the National Press Club in Washington D.C. (March 18, 1944), the United States Naval Receiving Station in Norfolk (March 30, 1944), and the Army Air Base in Richmond (April 6, 1944).

In addition to June Christy, later female singers were Shirley Chauvin, Betty Daye, Dawn Elgin, Leslie Roberts, and Jane Swayze. In 1953 the male singer was Tommy Lauersdorff, billed as Tommy Lauer. Among other male singers were Dick Baldwin and Bill Pecchi. Another significant member was Uncle Benny, an African American, who served as a straight man for Denny’s jokes, who danced, and who harmonized with Denny on “Sonny Boy.”

Denny Beckner
Bandleader Denny Beckner. Photograph by Larry Lawrence Agency, Biloxi, Mississippi. Courtesy Carol B. Wells.

 For transition between songs, the band used a quick tick-tock rhythm. Each song began with pianist Bill Henry executing a tick-tock at appropriate tempo, played in the dominant of the key in which the next song was placed. As a songwriter, Beckner co-wrote the band’s signature song, “You Can Take My Heart.” He also had “Don’t Say Goodbye” and “I See You” in his repertoire. Known as the “Clown Prince of Music,” Denny was a comedian and antic performer, involving audiences in his show by persuading patrons into limbo dancing and conga lines. Among his routines were “The Deacon,” when the top-hatted performer would give a funny reading of the Los Angeles telephone book’s page forty (“twice since page eighty was missing”), and “St. Louis Blues,” when he would climb up on the band’s bass fiddle to sing the song.

 Between tours, he lived at Harmony Hill Ranch in the small Hill Country town of Comfort, Texas, where he bred horses. He supported the local community by giving benefit concerts for the Comfort Broncos baseball team in 1952 at Fairyland and in 1953 at Schwethelm Hall. The dance and floor show in 1952 by Denny Beckner and his Happytime Music featured singer-dancer Jane Swayze, the “Dynamic Lady of Song and Dance,” and Uncle Benny—a comedian, dancer, and mimic noted for his rendition of “Mule Train.” The 1953 show was equally successful. He and his wife Doris participated in community activities, including family reunions where Denny would tell humorous stories and clever jokes and sing popular songs. Doris, an accordion performer, had played with Denny and the Mad-Cap Music Makers several years before. Denny and Doris sold their twelve-acre ranch on Old Number Nine Road on October 27, 1953. Afterwards in Jackson, Mississippi, he operated a bar and pool hall. Subsequently the band reassembled and toured widely in the western United States. He later worked in music and acting in Hollywood.

  Denny Beckner was married three times. In 1934 he married Sara Louise Scott. He married Doris June Gordy in 1938, and they had two children. In 1964 he married Sylvia Perez. He died on July 24, 1976, in Mobile, Alabama, and was buried in Pine Crest Cemetery, although a tombstone is not present. Mobile city directories indicate that he arrived in Mobile by 1964. According to one of his pallbearers, Beckner had a four or five-piece band when he lived in Mobile. On his death certificate his occupation was musician and his business was bandleader. He left behind several recordings, including “Hallelujah 8–9–10,” “You Can Take My Heart,” “Mirror Mirror on the Wall,” and “You Got to Talk Me Into It Baby,” recorded in New York City in 1944 on the Savoy label. He also recorded a wartime novelty for Savoy about 1944–45 called “Hey, Tojo, Count Yo’ Men.” An undated 45 rpm record from Buck Ram Records has “Sugarfoot Stomp” on one side and “Jazz Me Blues” on the other.  

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Comfort News, June 5, 19, 1952; May 7, 14, 1953. J. David Goldin, “Beckner and His Orchestra, Denny,” RadioGOLDINdex (http://radiogoldindex.com/frame1.html), accessed May 15, 2008. William G. Henry, Jr., Letter to Frank Kiel, March 29, 2007. Dale Olson, Email to Frank Kiel, August 26, 2006.

Frank Kiel

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Frank Kiel, "Beckner, Denver William [Denny]," accessed November 19, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fbebv.

Uploaded on July 11, 2014. Modified on September 9, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.