Prominent big band leader Ernest (Ernie) Heckscher and his dance orchestra performed for years in the Venitian Room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. His mellow sounds enlivened debutante cotillions and high school proms in San Francisco for 36 years, from the early 1950s until his retirement in 1986.
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Mr. Heckscher was born in England, the son of the American poet Robert Valentine Heckscher, and was brought to San Francisco as a child. He began playing the banjo and guitar at 6 in San Anselmo. While a San Rafael Military Academy student, he toured the country as a professional on the old RKO vaudeville circuit.
After he graduated from Stanford University, he played at debutante balls and Junior League soirees until his first performance at the Palace Hotel in the fall of 1939. Later he also played at the Clift and Mark Hopkins hotels and said his “big break” came when he substituted for a bandleader who had been killed in an auto accident.
His style as a bandleader was innovative, with the chime-like celeste and an electric steel guitar in his ensemble — unfamiliar instruments that gave an exotic charm to his orchestra.
He first played at the annual Cotillion in 1940, then served as a musician in the Army in World War II. At the end of the war, he returned to the Bay Area and the Mark Hopkins. In 1948, he was hired by Fairmont Hotel owner Ben Swig to open in the hotel’s Venetian Room, where he remained for the rest of his career.
His band accompanied many famous singers, including Edith Piaf, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, Carol Channing, Peggy Lee, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., and Lena Horne.
In 1957, his first record album appeared, “Dance Atop Nob Hill,” on the Verve label. Several later records sold remarkably well, according to then-Chronicle jazz and pop critic Ralph J. Gleason. Mr. Heckscher recorded some 16 albums in all.
Mr. Heckscher’s 1963 release, “That San Francisco Beat,” was “a revolution in the society dance band business,” according to Gleason.
Responding to the popularity of rock music in the 1960s, Mr. Heckscher told The Chronicle, “We don’t resist change; we try to stay on top of it. I don’t want it said about us, ‘Oh, he’s square, don’t get him.’ ” However, he lived to see the return of the big band sound to popularity with youth in the 1970s.