Year shipped: 1931
Headstock: Pearloid headstock facing with engraved horizontal Gibson logo and floral motif (no flowerpot). Pearloid truss rod cover
Neck/fingerboard: 20 fret pearloid fingerboard with pointed end and offset dot position markers at frets 17 and 19
Body: Maple back and sides. There are a number of top cracks and two small screw holes at the end of the fingerboard
Hardware: Gold-plated metal parts including wrap-over tailpiece and Waverly three-on-a-strip tuners with engraved base plate and pearl buttons, mounted so that the cog is positioned below the worm gear. The pickguard, associated mounting hardware and one tuner button are missing
Notes: Has original hardshell case. According to Joe Spann, this guitar was shipped in July of 1931
Images courtesy of Mike Horan and Jim Baggett of the the Mass Street Music Store, Lawrence, Kansas
In the 1930s, the use of plastics in musical instrument manufacture was viewed as innovative and modern. Banjo manufacturers were quick to adopt the new material, which frequently adorned the face of the headstock, fingerboard and resonator.
Attempting to capitalise on the Century Of Progress Exposition that opened in Chicago in 1933, Gibson introduced the L-Century guitar and A-Century mandolin, both of which made extensive use of ‘pearloid’, a celluloid plastic that had a pearl-like appearance.
Shipped in 1931, the L-5 pictured here pre-dates the L-Century guitar and was likely to have been a custom order item. It’s interesting to compare the headstock engraving to the floral motif that appears on the head of Gibson’s ‘Poinsettia’ ukulele (left), which was available on special order from the mid 1920s. The ukulele has a similar ‘Gibson’ script logo and also features a plastic fingerboard and headstock overlay.
This Pearloid L-5 appears briefly in ‘In Old Santa Fe’, one of the first ‘Singing Cowboy’ movies. Released in 1934, this feature length film stars Ken Maynard and also marks the debut of Gene Autry, Smiley Burnette, Carson Robison and brothers John and Bill Mitchell, none of whom are credited.
The L-5 is featured in a scene where Smiley Burnette performs the song ‘Mama Don’t Allow No Music Round Here’. It is easy to recognise with even the headstock detail plainly visible.
John Vonk, who drew ‘In Old Santa Fe’ to our attention, tells us how he stumbled across the above information.
“About 10 years ago I purchased a Gibson Florentine plectrum banjo that was one of at least three examples made for the Mitchell Brothers in 1928 when they became Gibson endorsees. In an effort to find out more about the Mitchell Brothers, I purchased 1920s sheetmusic and songbooks and posted a few times on Banjo Hangout (banjohangout.org), where other members sent me various Mitchell Brothers memorabilia.
“As a result I discovered that the Mitchells eventually became ‘Carson Robison’s Pioneers’ and later, ‘Carson Robison’s Buckaroos’. I believe that they toured England in 1932, 1934 and 1938 and performed for the Queen. British Pathé made a few short films of these tours in which my banjo can be seen.
“I subsequently collected Carson Robison songbooks and sheet music and found my banjo pictured on a songbook cover.
“While watching the movie ‘In Old Santa Fe’, I then spotted the Pearloid L-5! Smiley Burnette performs the song ‘Mama Don’t Allow No Music Round Here,’ grabbing the guitar from a band musician while singing.
“I got out all of my Carson Robison memorabilia and began comparing photographs of Robison, John Mitchell and Bill Mitchell to the film frame by frame. I believe that the band musician who plays the L-5 in the film is either John Mitchell or a young Carson Robison.”
If you have any further information regarding this guitar please contact us as we would love to know whether it belonged to Carson Robison, John or Bill Mitchell, Smiley Burnette or maybe even Gene Autrey?
Special thanks to John Vonk for sharing the above story.