by Erin Doane
For more than 110 years, Knapp School of Music has operated on College Avenue in Elmira. In all that time, the business has only had five different owners: Frederick H. Knapp and his wife Anna, Harl J. Robacher, Donald Hartman, and Robert Melnyk.
Frederick H. Knapp
Frederick Knapp came to Elmira as a young man and began offering music lessons first at a studio on West Second Street near School #2 and then at a studio on North Main Street. The first instrument he had learned was the banjo, but he played and taught all types of stringed instruments – violin, mandolin, cello, and guitar. Various sources claim that Knapp founded his music school in 1901 but the earliest listing I found in the city directories for Knapp is as a musician in 1902. In the 1903 directory, he is listed as a music teacher at 117 Main Street. In 1905, he is listed as teaching at 110 College Ave. The earliest newspaper advertisements for Knapp School of Music appear in the Elmira Star-Gazette in 1911. By that time, the school had an established orchestra which all students could join in addition to taking individual lessons.
In 1915, the school moved to 112 College Avenue and was touted as a new type of music school set up for the benefit of those who could not normally afford music lessons. If boys or girls were interested in music instruction, showed talent, and it was shown that they could not afford the price of regular teachers, Knapp would enroll them in his school. He asked for just enough tuition to cover the expenses of keeping the doors of the school open. By September, there were 20 pupils enrolled. Knapp taught violin, mandolin, guitar, and banjo. Two more instructors, Edward Unwin and Blanche Crandall, also taught violin and Florence Shaw taught piano.
On May 20, 1919, Knapp hosted A.A. Farland, the world’s greatest banjoist. Farland played a recital at the Park Church with Knapp’s 35-member mandolin orchestra serving as an opening act. In the 1920s and the early 1930s, Knapp and students of the school played at events throughout the region. The school’s full orchestra played at the Knights of Columbus ball in 1920, its banjo sextet played at the Sons of Italy in 1927, and its 12-piece banjo band played an evening concerts at En-Joie Health Park in Endicott in 1930. At the park concert, the musicians dressed in Hawaiian costumes and were joined by ten tap dancers. There were also annual recitals by the students at the Hedding Church Annex.
At 10:30am on December 20, 1934, Frederick Knapp died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack at his home at 104 College Avenue. He was 56 years old. He had spent 35 years teaching music and was noted as one of the first local musicians to realize that “jazz” would become widely popular.
Anna A. Knapp
Just months before Frederick Knapp died, he had moved his studio from its longtime location at 112 College Avenue to 104 College Avenue where he had remodeled a house and equipped it with a series of modern studios. His wife, Anna, continued to run the school at that location. The annual recitals also continued with nearly 500 people attending the performance in 1935. In 1938, local newspapers started running advertisements for instruments for sale at the school. By 1943, Knapp’s was selling radios and phonographs as well as banjos, violins, saxophones, xylophones, and accordions.
Harl J. Robacher
Harl Robacher became proprietor and director of Knapp School of Music in 1944. He also operated the American Musical Institute in Syracuse and worked as a basketball promoter. He is credited as playing a key role in bringing professional basketball back to Elmira in 1946. He created the Knapp School of Music basketball team, made up of established sports stars, as a member of the semi-pro Pioneer League. During his time as director of the music school, students continued playing at banquets, balls, and recitals. Robacher ran the school until June 21, 1953 when, at 12:25pm, he died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack at his home at 104 College Avenue. He was 50 years old.
Don Hartman remembered his father driving him to Knapp’s for banjo lessons when he was a child. When Frederick Knapp died in 1934, Hartman was hired as an instructor at the school. Eighteen years later he became manager and after Robacher’s passing, became owner of Knapp School of Music. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the school expanded with as many as 40 affiliated studios within a 75-mile radius of Elmira including in Owego, Corning, Ithaca, Bath, Canandaigua, and Hornell, as well as, Tunkhannock, Montrose, Williamsport, and Dushore, Pennsylvania. The school also had a weekly radio program on Saturdays on WENY.
By 1963, the “Eight Week Trail Plan” had been established at the school. The plan harkened back to Frederick Knapp’s early idea of giving all students a chance to learn music without having to make a large financial investment to start. Students paid for eight weeks of lessons and were given an instrument to use for free as a way to determine if they were really interested in serious instruction. After the trial period, they could purchase the instrument and continue with lessons.
Bob Melnyk, a student and instructor at the Knapp School since 1955, took over the business from Don Hartman in 1965 and still runs it today.
Erin Doane is the curator at the Chemung County Historical Society. To see more of their blog, including the newest post, take a look HERE