Memories of famous bandleader are stirred

Published September 13, 1968, by Freeport Journal-Standard*

The Pretzel Five really had six men in it at the time this photo was shot. Hamming it up are (from left) Burnett "Big" Bignall, Jerome Rohkar, Bill Atchison, Jazz Truman, Rod Wallace, and Carl Hoffman.

Digging around in local history often stirs up memories when least expected. The story of Jerome Rohkar, widely known as Gray Gordon, popular orchestra leader, did that for a few individuals. It turns out that the daughter of one of the members of "Pretzel Five," Jerome Rohkar's hometown band, lives in Freeport. (Gordon's trademark when his recordings were played by major radio networks was Tic Toc Rhythm.)

Burnett "Big" Bignall of Freeport was drummer for Pretzel Five and was once asked by the orchestra leader to join him in his quest for success. Judy Bignall Bittner of Freeport and Harold Bignall of Rock Falls, daughter and son of the drummer, shared family lore of their father's playing with Pretzel Five.

"Back in 1929," Judy said, "before Jerome Rohkar had gone to New York and become famous he said to my dad, "You bring your drums and let's go to New York. I know we can make the big time." Her dad, however, declined. This was before Judy's time but was common knowledge in her family. Her older brother told her that Gray Gordon picked his professional name by going to a numerologist, one who uses numbers such as birth dates or the sum of letters in one's name to predict the future.

Harold said when the Pretzel Five played at the Germania in the 1920's, such dances as the "Cupie Doll," the "Moonlight," "Balloon" and "Confetti" were all the rage. He said Pretzel Five played at the Manhattan Club at Lake Delavan, Wisconsin, all one summer, and was a smash hit. Harold remembered that one of Gray Gordon's vocalists went on to sing for 30 years with Guy Lombardo.

Gray Gordon grew up here and was apparently the only child of Eugene and Clara Rohkar of the prominent Rohkar Bakery family. He often came back to his hometown. Phyllis Muller remembers the celebrity coming into the Young Family restaurant regularly when he came to town. "He had an aunt that lived at the Freeport Hotel," Phyllis said. "She was a small dark-haired lady, and he'd bring her to our restaurant. He always bought his beautiful red-haired wife."

Phyllis' husband, dance instructor Billy Muller, found an excerpt about Gray Gordon in "The Big Bands" by George Simon. The author calls Gray Gordon a "Sensible, sensitive man" who "Played hot clarinet and sax."

Bob Helsley, retired former owner of Helsley Supply Co., also remembers Gray Gordon. "He definitely had plans to come back here and live after retirement," Bob said. "He'd come to Freeport every year and he'd come down to the Elks Club on weekends."

Edith Rosenstiel, 115 E. Washington St., said the deed to her property showed that the Rohkars had owned it. "It's likely," she said, "that they owned a lot of property in this block." Her garage was once used for the Rohkar Bakery trucks, and another brick barn in that block was used for the horses used in its earlier days.

Rohkar's Bakery has a history that reveals some of the spunk that existed in Jerome's background. Tilden's History of Stephenson County, 1880, calls the bakery, "one of the oldest in the state." It was started in 1857 by German immigrant Gerhardt Herman Heinrich Rohkar (shortened later to Henry Rohkar). The bakery was first called the Hanover Baker, named after the section of Germany where Henry was born. It remained in the Rohkar family until the summer of 1930.

The Rohkar name is seldom heard anymore in this community. There were more daughters than sons and the name died out. The death in 1958 of Jenny Rohkar, an aunt of the famous bandleader, apparently ended the family name in this locality. Her home was at 1532 W. American St. She apportioned her estate out to several Catholic institutions, to a married sister and to nieces and nephews. Jerome Rohkar (Gray Gordon) received $300.

When Jerome died in 1976, childless, he was apparently the last one to have borne the family name. Burial records at Oakland Cemetery list him as Gray Gordon. So the name is gone. But let's hope the plucky nature of the Rohkar clan lives on through their exemplification of what America is all about.