The closing years of the 19th century saw the rise of amusement parks in the Philadelphia area. These were owned by private trolley companies, which built them in order to increase ridership on their routes. Outdoor concerts were one of the main attractions at these parks. The most famous amusement park in the area was Willow Grove, where John Philip Sousa and his band gave an annual series of summer concerts from 1901 to 1926.
August 1, 1899, Philadelphia Inquirer ad promoting Fritz Scheel and the New York Orchestra at Woodside Park. Diving horses were also on the bill.
Woodside Park in West Philadelphia was another popular amusement park. In the summer of 1899 Woodside Park hired Fritz Scheel (1852–1907) and the New York Orchestra for a series of daily concerts in July and August. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, this engagement would prove to be very significant in the history of The Philadelphia Orchestra.
Scheel was a German-born conductor who had come to America in 1893 and led orchestras in several major U.S. cities prior to his engagement at Woodside Park. He was an expert musician and engaging conductor whose programs at Woodside were very well-received, by both critics and the public.
July 2, 1899, Philadelphia Inquirer article reporting on Fritz Scheel’s success at Woodside Park
His success at Woodside Park led to other conducting engagements in Philadelphia, all of which brought him to the attention to a group of individuals who were hoping to establish a full-time professional orchestra in Philadelphia. When The Philadelphia Orchestra was established in November 1900, Scheel was engaged as its first conductor.
Detail from a July 9, 1899, Philadelphia Times article on Fritz Scheel’s background and musical abilities
Scheel led The Philadelphia Orchestra until 1907, when he suffered a nervous breakdown and died. He is widely credited with building a firm foundation for the ensemble and laying the groundwork for its future worldwide acclaim.