People danced to a Freeporter's tunes

Published September 6, 1968, by Freeport Journal-Standard*

There was a time when the whole country was dancing to the tunes of a Freeport born and bred bandleader and composer. One of the early dance orchestras that made it big when a dance craze was sweeping the nation, was led by a man whose first go at it was with a group of Freeport musicians. Gray Gordon and his Tic Toc Rhythm was a by-word for dance orchestra fans of the late 1930's and early 1940's. Here in town he was known as Jerome Rohkar.

His parents operated the popular Rohkar Bakery for many years. He was born May 4, 1904, in Freeport, the son of Eugene and Clara (Bauscher) Rohkar. The bakery was located at about 105 E. Stephenson St., in the spot where the former State Theater was. The family home was at 114 E. Winslow St., near where State Street jogs and becomes a one-way street. A big brick barn remains to tell the story. Some say the barn was used for the bakery business in some manner, perhaps a carriage house or garage for delivery trucks. Jerome and his local band, "Pretzel Five" practiced there at his home. Jerome played saxophone.

His career was followed closely by the community. Old Journal-Standard files contain clippings of his successes. A cousin of Gray Gordon's, Bud Collman of Rockford, shared what he knows of his formerly famous relative. Bud lived in Freeport until he was 9 or 10 years old. He said Jerome's mother was a sister of his mother. Jerome's and Bud's mutual grandfather had a floral shop on downtown Stephenson Street.

Bud remembered the names of three of the members of the Pretzel Five. He wasn't sure of the spellings, but he said they were Jack Crosson, Royce Thruman and Jimmie Funnell. He said they played at the Germania and other places in the area.

Somewhere along the line Jerome Rohkar adopted the professional name Gray Gordon and he latched on to the tic toc rhythm that took the nation by storm. Bud said that the orchestra came to the attention of dancing America through broadcasts following an engagement at the Chicago Century of Progress (World's Fair) in 1938. Then he was booked at the prestigious Hotel Edison in New York City. From there he engaged in a country-wide tour of hotels, ballrooms, nightclubs and college proms. Clippings state that attendance at dance halls broke all records when his band played. In January, 1940, 32,000 people turned out for the Tic Toc Rhythm orchestra at an armory in Buffalo, N.Y. It made headlines across the nation.

Ken Wiegand of Freeport, who as a youth was a neighbor of Collman's, remembers that Gray Gordon and his orchestra played at the State and Lake Theater in Chicago, one of the four famous Chicago theaters that featured vaudeville acts in the 1930's. He said it was located just across the street from where the Chicago Theater is now located.

Gray Gordon's orchestra got another big break in 1938, Wiegand and Collman said. He had a hit performance at the Canadian Club, and Victor Records picked up on it. Gray Gordon and his Tic Toc Rhythm had at least a couple dozen hit records to their credit. Among the more lasting were "I Am an American", "San Antonio Rose","Granada", and "Yankee Doodle Polka". "I Am an American" became the theme song for bond rallies before and during World War II.

In a radio interview with Gordon, taped a few years before his death in 1976, the bandleader stated that he had made a few short subject movies at the height of his career. His recording "Dancing on A Dime", was used in the movie, "Day of the Locust".

The New York Herald Tribune of June 10, 1941, carried a notice of his marriage to Noel Carter, a dancer and nightclub performer. The band became a regular feature of the Edison Hotel in New York and played there for six months out of the year. The rest of the year was spent on tour. The New York Daily Mirror, the publication with the largest circulation in the world at the time, paid tribute to Gray Gordon on January 23, 1940. It said "the Tic Toc maestro," and his orchestra, "is known for their broadcasts on all prominent networks" and "as filled engagements in the highest class theaters, hotels, summer and winter resorts, throughout the country".

On February 28, 1942, Gray Gordon and his 17-piece orchestra came to Freeport to play for a dance at the Masonic Temple. The Journal-Standard called it "one of the largest crowds of the season" and said those attending "enjoyed the excellent program of dance music in the ballroom". The celebrity and his wife were guests of his mother at her Winslow Street home.

World War II apparently interrupted his career and he never quite reached the heights he had attained earlier. In later years Gray Gordon became an agent for other musicians and had among his clientele Les Paul and Mary Ford, popular performing duo of the postwar era. Jerome Rohkar died July 24, 1976, of cancer. He's buried in Freeport's Oakland Cemetery along with his parents. His marriage had ended in divorce. There were no children. Variety magazine, journal of the entertainment world, carried a brief notice of his death.

Wiegand said there's an FM radio station in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, that still plays some of the Tic Toc Rhythm recordings once in a while. Bud Collman said that shortly before his cousin died he was in the process of closing up his affairs in New York to come back to Freeport. "As long as he had been away from Freeport," Collman said, "It was still his home. His feelings toward Freeport never changed."