Ridgefield Notables: Bert Buhrman, radio’s music man
In the 1940s and 50s, millions of Americans heard the music of Bert Buhrman, but only a few knew whom they were hearing. The accomplished organist performed the background music for many popular radio shows on the national networks.
Born in 1915 in Missouri, Albert “Bert” Buhrman began playing the organ as a child. By age 10, he was performing at a local church. He got a degree in music from the University of Kansas, and soon became music director for a Kansas City radio station, earning $37.50 a week. That changed in 1940 when he moved to New York and joined CBS as a full-time organist, plus freelanced for ABC, NBC and Mutual.
“There were a lot of organists around New York, but not too many of them got much work,” he said. “If you could break in like I did, it was great.”
During the war, he served in the Army furnishing background music for training films.
Over two decades, Buhrman provided the music for countless shows, including soap operas — he even followed The Guiding Light to its early televised edition. His many weekly shows included Sherlock Holmes, Bulldog Drummond, Dimension X, Mr. Keen, and Joyce Jordan, M.D. (All can be heard today over Internet nostalgia radio “stations.”)
He also did live commercials. At one time, “every day I would run clear across Manhattan from CBS to NBC to do a 30-second Crisco commercial,” he recalled. “Yes, it was worth it. We were well paid. But trying to get across Fifth Avenue, especially when they were having a parade, was one of the wackiest things you could imagine. Then I would do the same thing to get back to CBS.”
When TV took over many shows, Buhrman went with them. He also provided music for the pioneering TV game show, Strike It Rich.
He and his wife, Darlene, came to Ridgefield in 1950. Darlene died in 1957; a year later, Buhrman married his neighbor, Denise Hanneman, also recently widowed.
The 18-hour days eventually took their toll. “It was so hectic that one time I played the Procter & Gamble theme song on a Colgate Palmolive-sponsored show,” he said.
Finally, in 1963 at age 48, he retired and moved to Point Lookout, Mo., home of the College of the Ozarks where he served as a consultant, taught classes, and gave concerts.
At first, he was nervous giving concerts. “I can play in a studio knowing it will be heard by 15 to 20 million people, and I have no problem,” he said. “But if you give me 100 persons in a live audience — oh, it’s awful.”
Buhrman died in 1999 at age 83. He donated his vast sheet music collection to the local library, along with a $1.3 million endowment for music-related purposes. —Jack Sanders