San Francisco’s Ernie Heckscher retired in 1984 after decades of leading his dance orchestra in San Francisco.
- He became a fixture of the Fairmont Hotel as much as the big red sofa in the lobby or the clock on the ornate Venetian Room’s archway.
New Year’s Eve was an annual event for the Bay Area – with tourists joining high society locals from Marin County to across the Bay and south from Atherton to San Jose. It was a top drawer time.
OUR NEW VIDEO featuring DANCING WITH ERNIE at the FAIRMOUNT HOTEL
Latest Video featuring the Venetian Room and Ernie Heckscher Orchestra. Click on the image above to play – 2 minutes plus in length – features a dance tune.
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 the age of 6 in San Anselmo.
- While a student at San Rafael Military Academy, he toured the country as a professional on the old RKO vaudeville circuit.
- 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.
He was initially hired at the Venetian Room across the street from the Mark Hopkins for a three-week engagement in 1948 but stayed for 36 years.
- In the days of big-time radio, he was heard coast-to-coast five nights a week on all of the major networks direct from the Fairmont.
- He had 16 albums, which were best sellers and were consistently on the charts in the 1950s.
Heckscher’s band played for San Francisco social events and was always booked for blue blood society gatherings. His dance music was classic – Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers — that older generations have never forgotten.
When famed designer Dorothy Draper decorated the Fairmont, she gave the “Draper Touch” to the Venetian Room Supper Club, which opened in 1947 and could accommodate 400 guests.
- With Ernie Hecksher’s society orchestra headlining, the room attracted top-flight entertainers. Such as Ethel Waters, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Tina Turner, Sammy Davis, Jr., Lena Horne, Red Skelton, James Brown, Judy Collins, Tony Bennett (who sang “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” for the first time here in 1962).
Heckscher had great ears and eyes – he knew a good tune and a good arrangement when he heard them, and he knew how to hire musicians and arrangers who could fit into his orchestrations and play the sort of danceable music his customers expected. He played the white piano in front of the band, always with a backup pianist. His favorite arranger was Van Alexander, and his preferred ensemble sound was a combination of Joe Reichman, Artie Shaw, the old Casa Loma Orchestra.
Ernest (Ernie) Heckscher, whose mellow sounds enlivened debutante cotillions and high school proms in San Francisco for 36 years, died January 16, 1996 in Rancho Mirage, California. He was 79.