Mankato natives Muriel and Barbara Kuebler were once known as the Kaye Sisters, a sister dance act that performed with the famous traveling Pantages circuit during the days of vaudeville.
Muriel and Barbara were the daughters of John and Caroline (Stewart) Kuebler. Their father worked at the Mankato Plumbing & Heating Company on Hickory Street. Their mother, Caroline Stewart Kuebler, was the daughter of John and Harriet Stewart, who owned Stewart & Holmes Book & Stationery in Mankato at the turn of the century. The John Kuebler family lived on North Fifth Street in Mankato.
Muriel attended elementary school at the Normal School in Mankato and took violin lessons from her mother’s friend, Minnie Schoyen Hubbard, at the age of nine. Minnie’s husband Jay was the son of R.D. and Mary Hubbard of Hubbard Milling fame. Minnie had been playing the violin since the age of seven, she studied abroad and was an accomplished musician. Throughout her career as a violinist she also taught hundreds of students in the Mankato area.
It was Minnie Hubbard who recognized Muriel’s talent with the violin and suggested that she take lessons during the summer of 1921 in Chicago from Leopold Auer, a Russian Jewish immigrant. Muriel was only twelve years old at the time. She also took lessons from Auer’s Hungarian assistant, Victor Kuzdo.
The New York Years
When Victor Kuzdo moved to New York and opened his own studio the next fall, it was decided that Muriel, her mother and sister would move to New York City to live during the school year and Muriel would continue her study with Mr. Kuzdo. They rented an apartment on 123rd street near Grant’s Tomb.
Twice a week Muriel took the streetcar to Mr. Kuzdo’s studio. When she arrived at his building she climbed up a long flight of stairs, rang the bell and waited for his maid to open the door and lead her to the studio. Mr. Kuzdo played accompaniment on the piano while she practiced the violin. His lessons were quite expensive. Muriel practiced the violin for four hours every day and had a tutor for school. At the time it was Muriel’s dream to become a concert violinist.
Muriel, her mother and sister lived in New York for nine months of the year and came home to Mankato for the summers. Her sister Barbara was interested in dance, mostly ballet and tap. Muriel recalled her mother sent her to dance lessons with Barbara because “she wanted me to learn to stand up straight.” The dance lessons added two hours of practice time to her daily schedule. She earned her high school equivalency while living in New York.
Muriel kept in touch with her friends in Mankato through letters. She remembers the time she got a letter from her friend telling her about the awful fire that gutted the main building at the Normal School in 1922. She tells of another time when she and her sister were so lonesome for their dog, Teddie Roosevelt, that their father sent him out to New York by train.
While living in New York, the sisters were “discovered” in a drug store soda fountain. Sounds like a movie, but it’s true! Muriel and Barbara were sitting at the counter, both dressed alike, when a man approached them asking if they were singers or dancers. He was from Pathe Films in New Jersey, which produced movies called “shorts.” These ran in theaters between newsreels and the main feature. The Kuebler sisters worked in several shorts for Pathe Films.
After four years of violin and dance lessons in New York, it became too expensive to continue and Mrs. Kuebler and her daughters returned to Mankato. When parents and friends began asking for dance lessons for their children or themselves, Muriel decided to open a dance school. The Kuebler School of Dancing was located at 230½ South Front Street. Muriel and Barbara also performed as a sister act, dancing at county fairs, local theaters and auto shows. Their mother made most of their costumes.
On the Road
In February of 1927, a vaudeville troupe that toured Midwestern cities came to Mankato to play at the Grand Theater. The theaters generally featured vaudeville shows five days a week at the time. The troupe had just lost their “sister act” and the vaudeville agent was looking for a new one. Al Kvoal, manager of the Grand, sent the agent to the Kuebler Dance Studio. He watched the sisters perform and hired them on the spot. Muriel was 18 and Barbara was 15 years old. They became known as the “Kaye Sisters.”
Muriel and Barbara spent a year (1927-1928) traveling with the famous Pantages circuit, which was one of the two major vaudeville circuits in America. It was vaudeville’s heyday. The girls performed dance duets and joined the eight-member Jarvis Revue that sang and danced its way from Minneapolis to Butte and Spokane, through California, across the South and back up north through Canada.
The Kaye Sisters earned about $35 a week and were required to pay all their own expenses. The troupe usually stayed in town for one to two weeks before moving on to the next city. They always stayed in cheap hotels with four people sharing a room. Because Muriel was old enough to drive, she drove one of the cars for the troupe. The trunks filled with costumes and props were usually sent by train.
Barbara, who was still in high school, was enrolled in the Professional Children’s School based in New York City. The school sent lessons to the stops on the tour and she would complete them and send them back. However, their parents worried about them. This was show business and people in show business weren’t highly regarded. But the older performers and the Jarvises kept an eye on the girls. There were acts in the show that they were not allowed to see and they were always kept too busy to get into trouble.
The girls rehearsed in the mornings, performed three shows a day during the week and four on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. The show had five acts, most of which came and went. There were usually performing dogs, a comedian, high-wire artists or acrobats, musicians, dancers, and a minstrel act. Muriel remembered the Shelton brothers as great dancers and the girls took lessons from them. But, being Black, they were only allowed to perform in the North. When the troupe played in the South, the Shelton brothers had to leave. Even when they played in Mankato, there was only one hotel where they could stay.
The Kuebler School of Dancing
After a year with the troupe, the Kaye Sisters came back to Mankato. Muriel returned to the Kuebler School of Dancing. Barbara went on to finish school at Mankato High School and helped her sister at the dance school.
Brochures for the dance school advertised their experience of extensive study with the following teachers: George Cole, Eddie Russell, Charles Shelton, Jo Keith, Jack Manning, Charles Sherry, Janet, Vestoff, Serova and Arthur Murray. They appeared in the Jarvis Revue, Pathe Pictures, New York, Minneapolis, and Atlanta night clubs. The dance school offered classes for all ages; children, business girls, high school students, young men, married ladies and couples. They held many recitals and “kiddie revues” at the Grand and State Theaters and at the Armory during the late 1920s and the 1930s. Several of Muriel’s students went on to have a career in dance.
Life in Mankato
After settling down to an “ordinary” life in Mankato, Muriel returned to Chicago every summer to attend two or three week classes with other dance instructors. One of her classmates was Gene Kelly. Muriel recalled, “All the girls thought he was so cute, but I had Art back home. Gene was just another dance teacher, like the rest of us. He was pretty good.”
Muriel played violin for the symphony in Mankato, which was directed by Harold Orvis Ross. This is where she met her future husband, Arthur Berndt. Art, who played the clarinet and saxophone, offered to carry her violin for her. At the time Art worked for the Regan Law Office which was just across the street from the Kuebler Dance Studio. Muriel and Art were married in 1939. Art went on to work for 30 years as the municipal judge for North Mankato and as city attorney for 20 years. He and Muriel had two daughters; Carol and Lynette. Arthur passed away in 1995 and Muriel in 2006.
Barbara graduated from Mankato High School, married Earl Hofmaster in 1934, had two children and continued teaching dance. She passed away in 2011.
Some people may think Muriel’s life must have been very glamorous. But she never thought it was. This was her life and she knew nothing different. Over the years she taught hundreds of students in the Mankato area. Muriel closed the dance school in the mid-1940s.
Author note: This article was written from an interview with Muriel Kuebler Berndt in 2004.