Entertaining Dubuque

“Entertaining Dubuque: The Untold Story (1900-1999),” by Paul Hemmer

It never has been a secret that Dubuque is the keeper of a rich history when it comes to the arts — especially when it comes to music, theater, radio and the silver screen.

After years of experience and compiled research, retired Dubuque radio personality Paul Hemmer has authored, “Entertaining Dubuque: The Untold Story 1900-1999.”

The 500-page book that includes vintage photographs, advertisements and first-person accounts chronicles a century of history behind Dubuque’s performing arts scene.

Among its features is everything from vaudeville and motion picture stars, such as Joe Frisco and Dorothy Donohue, to musicians the likes of Jack Jenney, Thomas Preston Brooke and Bob Gribben. Night clubs, dance halls, theater and various personalities with ties to the Key City’s entertainment niche also are highlighted.

The book provided Hemmer not only a chance to take a walk down memory lane, but it also aimed to preserve Dubuque’s entertainment legacy.

“I was visiting with friends who are also musicians,” Hemmer said of the inspiration behind the book. “We talked about all of the people we used to work with and that if someone doesn’t create memories of these people, they’ll be forgotten.”

A longtime fixture of the local arts scene, Hemmer began his career in high school as a part-time disc jockey at WDBQ. He went on to study vocal and instrumental music at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. There, he created his first of several jazz and big band inceptions — a dance ensemble that eventually spawned UW-P’s jazz program.

Upon graduating, he became a radio host — a post he maintained for four decades. Once retired, he served as the executive director of Dubuque’s Grand Opera House for four years.

A pianist, composer and arranger, Hemmer also produced several musicals that were staged locally, including “Get the Lead Out,” “Joe Sent Me,” “Key City Komedy Company,” “Steamboat Comin’,” “Sketches from a Drawing Room,” a WDBQ 50th anniversary stage show and a production for children, “Doctor Gray Matter’s Dilemma.”

And he collaborated with countless local music makers, many of whom are refenced in the book.

The process of research and writing took Hemmer four-and-a-half years. Through newspaper archives and fellow musicians, he was able to track down relatives of several that are referenced.

“The challenge was finding people that could verify information, but it was also one of my favorite parts because of the stories and pictures they would share,” Hemmer said.

When his research resulted in upward of 500 pages, he decided that would be enough to complete one book.

“The focus was on live entertainment from Dubuque and the people and places that hold significance,” Hemmer said. “The book turned out much different than I pictured, but I am happy with the end result.”

He had many friends help him with the research and editing. Most chose to remain anonymous; however, Randy Lyon, of Encyclopedia Dubuque, offered Hemmer suggestions and feedback throughout the process.

“It was a tremendous amount of fun,” Hemmer said.

Now, he asks himself, “What am I going to do?”

“I’m researching more,” Hemmer said. “I think I’ll also share more of my findings on Encyclopedia Dubuque and through a blog.”

The book, available in hardcover for $49.95, can be purchased through PayPal by contacting Hemmer at rdbqpaul@gmail.com. Those interested also can send a check to Paul Hemmer, 2375 Simpson St., Dubuque, Iowa 52001. Add $5 for shipping and handling.

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