Harry Spindler’s Journey from Wild Drummer to Wild Kingdom

Cincinnati’s first jazz bandleader eventually became the city’s go-to expert on collecting and selling exotic animals.

If you ran into Harry Spindler in 1940 and hadn’t seen him since 1920, you might imagine you were meeting a completely different person. He had the good fortune to find success in two entirely divergent fields of work.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

In the beginning, Spindler led one of Cincinnati’s pioneer dance bands. It is generally agreed that the first jazz record was pressed early in 1917, and by December of that year “Cincinnati’s Original Jazz Band,” directed by Harry Spindler, was sizzling the local hot spots. His musical career was interrupted by World War I, which he spent as a musician first class in South Carolina.

Spindler received an honorable discharge, headed back to Cincinnati, and put together another “Original Jazz Band.” When his group headlined the “assembly dansant” at the Odd Fellows Temple on January 11, 1920, he was billed as “the Wild Drummer.” The only known recording of Spindler, a jaunty 1925 version of George W. Meyer and Alfred Bryan’s “Brown Eyes, Why Are You Blue?” (Cameo) sounds all but sedate to modern ears, with no percussive pyrotechnics to speak of. A Cincinnati Enquirer article [September 9, 1937] describes a photo of Harry’s old drum kit:

“The picture shows a drummer with more aids fastened to a trap drum than there are instruments in a modern cockpit.”

Harry and the boys had a good run. They toured Canada and the Far East, endorsed Wurlitzer instruments in newspaper ads, took first place in an Atlantic City popularity contest, played the best speakeasies in New York City, and earned top billing at Cincinnati’s swankiest hotels.

The tour through Asia reignited Spindler’s childhood passion for animals. As the band performed in India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, and Egypt, Harry bought a boatload—almost literally—of animals and shipped them back to the U.S. for sale to collectors. By 1930, wild animal collecting was his main source of income. Spindler developed a partial paralysis of his right arm and could no longer maintain tempo on the drums, but by then his international tours had yielded connections with animal dealers all over the world and he piggy-backed on the reputation of Cincinnati’s zoo. As he told The Cincinnati Post [March 27, 1930]:

“Cincinnati may not be known in the jungles of India or South Africa, but if you are there and need a friend, all you have to do is to mention the name of Sol or Joe Stephan of the Cincinnati Zoo. Every native who trafficks in animals or birds has heard of these two men.”

A 1929 expedition to India and Africa netted 500 animals. Spindler learned that collecting the animals was easy. Transporting them was another thing:

“It was fun going over, but coming back you can imagine our job. With gales to buffet and with screaming, scratching, clawing, shrieking, howling, roaring wild beasts on board sick from the storm and heat, you can imagine how much sleep I had in 47 days.”

As a naturalist, Spindler associated with several pet shops in the Cincinnati area, through which he sold some of his exotic animals. Throughout the years, he held any number of official titles, including Federal Zoological Instructor for the Civilian Conservation Corps, Zoologist for the Ohio State Department of Education, Sanitary Inspector for the city’s Department of Health, Director of the Cincinnati Recreation Commission Traveling Zoo, and Special Lecturer for the Hamilton County SPCA.

Spindler was in demand as a lecturer throughout Cincinnati and became the darling of local media. For years, he had his own column in The Enquirer and was regularly featured in Ollie James’s column in the same newspaper. Radio loved him, too, but it loved his pet mynah bird, Jerry, even more. From 1930 until Jerry died in 1950, Spindler brought his talkative fowl to all the Cincinnati radio stations—including Ruth Lyons’s radio studio—and even to Dave Elman’s nationally broadcast Hobby Lobby radio show out of New York. Jerry could imitate a window shade rolling up and the squealing sound of automobile brakes, speak 20 words in English, and whistle several tunes, including “Sweet Adeline” and “That Old Oaken Bucket.” For old time’s sake, Jerry sometimes launched into a melody from his native India.

The talking mynah was far from Spindler’s only trained animal. He even domesticated a black widow spider, teaching her to climb a glass rod out of her jar to amble around his palm before clambering back into the jar. Harry brought his poisonous arachnid to New York for a segment on Hobby Lobby, but a stagehand knocked the jar from a table and killed the little beast. Host Elman suggested Spindler come back when he had trained another black widow. Spindler replied, “Alright, but listen, when I bring my next trained black widow, she’s going to have a dozen understudies with her.”

Throughout his career as a lecturer, Spindler kept running into myths and ignorance about animals. So many Cincinnatians swore they knew someone who had seen a hoop snake grab its tail and roll away that he offered a $150 reward for anyone who could produce one. Listening to Spindler, you get the impression that his audiences were as entertaining as he was. Here’s one he told The Enquirer [January 8, 1939]:

“A man in one audience told me he knew of a grocer who had a monkey trained to steal customers’ change and conceal it in his mouth. The man claimed the monkey tried it on him, and he hit the monkey so hard that the animal spit out $906.”

Spindler died in 1961 at the Veteran’s Hospital in Chillicothe, Ohio. He is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery.

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