From every picture I’ve seen of her, I knew there was something special, something elegant about Dorothy Bronson.
“Dorothy was a grand lady,” said former student Susan Wiedeman, currently a member of the Gering City Council. “She’d been on Broadway but was still very down to earth. She was a very gracious woman and carried herself in that manner. She expected her students and everyone associated withe her to have that sense of decorum.”
For more than 5,000 of her students across the valley, Dorothy Bronson spread her love of music and culture for more than 50 years.
Dorothy Whitehead was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1901. Her family moved to Mitchell in 1906, where her father was one of the founders of the Mitchell State Bank.
Bronson caught the theater bug while in high school and later moved to Los Angeles to study opera. In 1921, she left for New York to perform in several vaudeville acts. She even appeared on Broadway.
She married Arnold “Curly” Bronson in 1929. Bronson wanted to help contribute to the family income so she opened a music studio at 17th and Broadway. During the years of the Great Depression, she was offering voice lessons twice a week for 25 cents per session.
In later years, the Bronsons wanted to move to a larger house, so Bronson packed up her studio and they moved to Mitchell, where she began teaching both piano and voice from her home. Her students, some of them from as far away as Torrington, began polishing their musical skills under her tutelage.
One of them was Wiedeman.
“I started piano lessons with Dorothy when I was eight years old, but I’m not a very good counter,” she said. “Dorothy could play be ear and was very good at it. When I was a freshman, I switched to just voice.”
By the time Wiedeman was 10, Bronson started organizing small music groups for girls.
In the late 1960s, Bronson put together a group of her students to perform at Hiram Scott College. It was the beginning of the Dorothy Bronson Singers.
“I took voice lessons from Dorothy through my senior year of high school,” Wiedeman said. “I even had a senior recital in what is now the Dorothy Bronson Gallery at the West Nebraska Arts Center.”
Wiedeman said Bronson always had big expectations and put on big shows, using lots of people from her student and from the community to help out.
“I’m talking about 150 to 200 kids and community members that were included in those big production,” Wiedeman said. “I remember the dress rehearsals were unorganized but the shows always came off fine.”
Bronson was good friends with then-Congresswoman Virginia Smith, so she brought her group to Washington to perform on the capitol steps for the nation’s bicentennial celebration.
Wiedeman said that learning from Bronson meant not just musical skills, but social skills as well. During recitals, her students were expected to serve coffee or tea to those who attended.
“Stage presence, smiling and relating to the audience was always the biggest thing she taught us,” Wiedeman said. “Dealing with the public was important to her.”
Those social skills also came in handy when the Dorothy Bronson Singers traveled to places like Disneyland, Disney World, Hawaii, Europe, the Far East and Mexico.
“Dorothy loved traveling and enjoyed introducing her students to other cultures,” Wiedeman said. “She wanted her students to give back to the larger world with their gift of music. She was like everyone’s grandmother.”
Whether they sang in other countries or locally for different service groups, the opening song was always “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” one of Bronson’s favorites. The show always closed with “One World,” a song from 1945.
Bronson’s life was tragically cut short in 1982 when she suffered a heart attack soon after being assaulted in her home by an unknown assailant. The attacker was never caught.
Although Bronson is gone now, her memory remains alive through thousands touched with the joy of music.
A Dorothy Bronson Memorial Sculpture now stands in a memorial rose garden, across the street from the West Nebraska Arts Center. The basement of the center now houses the Dorothy Bronson Gallery. A memorial scholarship in her name is offered through the Oregon Trail Community Foundation.
Bronson always said that in her studio, everyone was a star, so why do anything if you aren’t going to make it grand?
“We probably didn’t realize it at the time, but Dorothy had a big influence on all of our lives,” Wiedeman said. “She gave so much to so many people.”