Frank and John: The Musical Banta Brothers

In the world of 19th century theater, there were many siblings who made their success by performing together. As the phonograph became a legitimate medium of entertainment and employment, some siblings jumped in together. It was rare, especially in the acoustic era (before 1925) for more than one sibling to join in the recording business, as very few people saw it as a reasonable occupation to have. It is always interesting to see what phonograph people stated their line of work was in the censuses between 1900 and 1920. There was still not an occupational name for most of these people. The idea of a “recording artist” and “recording engineer” did not exist yet. What might come as a surprise to some (certainly to the author), was that the pianist Frank P. Banta had an older brother. Often we can come across very interesting tangents while researching one person or event, and end up finding something else that equally sparks our interest.

Frank was actually one of five children. He had three older siblings and one younger. The two oldest unfortunately died very young, as was a common occurrence parents faced in the 19th century and before. The sibling Frank was closest to however was his brother John. He was almost two years older, born in 1868. John was named after his father, John Wiert Banta, who, unusually for the time, was in his mid-40s when Junior was born. Considering that John and Frank were so close in age, it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise that they remained close for the entirety of their lives.

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What must have been surprising to John, Sr., and Fanny (Frances Darrow Banta) was that both of their surviving sons ended up being very musical. While Frank possessed the perfect pitch, John had nearly the same level of talent on the piano.

The two boys spent their earliest years in the village, in several apartments around the intersection of Perry and Bleecker streets. Unlike many families who were struggling in the harsh world of 19th century Manhattan, the Bantas lived a financially stable life. John, despite his age, continued to work as a wood carver. What the wood he was carving was used for is unspecified, but considering that both of his sons got into playing the piano, it is quite possible that this wood might have been for pianos. Greenwich village at the time was generally where higher end businesses were established, and where more well off families lived. Both of John and Frank’s parents came from distinguished Dutch ancestry. Both the families histories include many famous names of Dutch New York. One name that comes up in their history is the Lorimer family, whose surname was given to a major street in Brooklyn.

Speaking of Brooklyn, John, Jr., moved out of the family homestead around 1888 and spent some time working as a pianist there. It is unclear how closely involved he was to the phonograph as Frank was, but there is a possibility that he and Frank would have traded the accompanist chair at any of the companies Frank worked for. Having two great Bantas for the price of one must have been a dream for Edison, Berliner, and later Victor.

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Very little is known about John, but he certainly became close with the family that Frank married into. It would seem quite possible that the brothers spent a fair amount of time going to theaters and phonograph arcades along the Bowery. It was in this environment that Frank met his future wife Elizabeth Riley, better known as Lizzie. Lizzie came from a very modest, poor Irish family. They resided on Spring Street not even half a block from the Bowery. Frank not only became quite involved and devoted to this family, but they also took to John. It was in some ways truly a love story of the Bowery; a nearly blue-blooded New Amsterdamer falls in love with a poor Irish shopgirl. Ellen, Lizzie’s mother, became rather fond of the Banta brothers.

One might think that with this successful love story, that John would also marry one of the Irish Riley girls. John, however, never married. He was similar to Frank in many ways, but in matrimony he was not. He preferred to work as diligently as his brother in theater orchestras. While he did not marry or “settle down” so to speak, he did spend a lot of his time with the Riley family. When he needed a place to stay they would often provide a place for him to sleep and work. This situation was also likely the case when Frank was too worn out from his intense and long work days.

Domestic harmony: Frank Banta, Lizzie Banta (née Riley), and John Banta. (illustration by R.S. Baker)

John never got any music published like Frank, and didn’t get nearly as much press and praise from the general public, but the phonograph community almost certainly would have been aware of him and his comparable talents.

Another thing these brothers shared, albeit unfortunately, was their sickly lungs. Frank was well known in the phonograph community to have had asthma, as it was partially responsible for his untimely death. John suffered from bouts of tuberculosis, which probably kept him bedridden regularly. Despite this he did continue to work, much like Frank who was known for doing the same. Ellen Riley took care of John sometimes, and that’s what she was doing when he died in 1910. Frank tragically died in 1903, forcing major shifts in the phonograph business. Lizzie and the extended Riley family were heartbroken by the loss of Frank. Lizzie was so broken by the loss that she never remarried, and she lived another 50 years. In the 1910 census, John was living with Ellen, just a few blocks from where Frank had lived for the last five years of his life. John didn’t want to get too far away from his brother, as he never lived farther than Brooklyn after the mid-1890s.

In the end they all were brought back together, as Frank and John are buried next to each other in the Banta family plot way up by the tip of Manhattan. While there is so much to learn about John Banta, Jr., what little there is to be read about him is fascinating. Nothing is quite as intriguing as two brothers nearly the same age both becoming established pianists, and even when it could mean that both of them played accompaniments for the phonograph in the 1890s. The parallels of their stories are equally tragic, as they both died very young from similar circumstances. Hopefully there is more to be discovered about this interesting pair of brothers.


R. S. Baker has appeared at several Ragtime festivals as a pianist and lecturer. Her particular interest lies in the brown wax cylinder era of the recording industry, and in the study of the earliest studio pianists, such as Fred Hylands, Frank P. Banta, and Frederick W. Hager.

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