Reader Report: Celebrating Costa Mesa drummer Viola Smith


Viola Smith, who will turn 103 later this month, received a mayor’s proclamation Oct. 31 from Costa Mesa Chief Executive Officer Tom Hatch for being a living legend at a special tribute at the Orange County Market Place.

Smith, one of America’s most famous female drummers, has been on the cover of Billboard, on Broadway in “Cabaret,” on the Ed Sullivan TV Show (five times), in the movies with Abbott and Costello (“Here Come the Co-Eds”) and toured the country with bands for years.

The energetic Costa Mesa resident performed on “The Night of Stars” in New York’s Paramount Theatre with Ella Fitzgerald and Bob Hope.

“It was really fantastic,” she said glowingly. “When I was appearing in the Jigg’s Club on 52nd Street, Benny Goodman came up to me and said, “I really love the way you play drums. You do it so well!’ ”

Clarinetist Woody Herman was so impressed with her skills he asked Smith to play with his “Thundering Herd,” but she turned him down to continue playing with an all-female orchestra. (If you go to YouTube and type in her name, you can see her fabulous percussion talent as she plays energetically in 1940.)

“Oh, those were the days,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “After our shows, all the musicians on 52nd Street got together for dinner. It was so much fun. Sometimes I’d sit with Frank Sinatra in a booth. We’d meet all the musicians and singers.”

Smith’s been playing drums since her father formed an orchestra with his eight daughters in Wisconsin.

“He told each of us what instrument to play and thank goodness he gave me drums,” said the star of the Schmitz Sisters, Smith Sisters and Phil Spitalny’s Hour of Charm Orchestra.

At 12, she started touring throughout Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Iowa.

Other musicians were so impressed they called Smith, “The Female Gene Krupa” (one of the top drummers). She never lost her groove.

At age 63, she was still a big headliner in Atlantic City. In Costa Mesa, she’s even teaching another woman, Shivaun Chism, the tricks of the trade about drumming.

And she recently appeared with “America’s Oldest Act of Professional Entertainers” — Forever Young at the Orange County Market Place. Smith was interviewed on stage by former MGM dancer Sid Hallburn, who turns 92 this month.

Other Forever Young performers applauding the vivacious Smith were Banjoist Fr. Christian Mondor, 90; USO Singer and Dancer Polly Sloan, 90; Saxaphonist Jim Flagherty, 90 and Guitarist/Humorist Dr. Tom Penderghast, a retired Pepperdine University professor.

CHRIS MACDONALD is a Huntington Beach resident who has been inspired by Forever Young.