— by Kim Davenport
Theodore Barks was just 5 years old when he arrived in Tacoma in 1888 with his parents and older brother Edward. On the long journey by train from Marysville, Kansas, where Theodore was born, the family would have passed through the Northern Pacific tunnel that had just been cut through the Cascades in 1887.
Theodore’s German-speaking grandfather gave him the nickname that would stick, teasing him about his stocky build as a young boy. Because of his grandfather’s words, “Du bist ein kleine dicke” (hard to translate exactly, but essentially: “you’re a chubby little boy”), he was soon ‘Dick’ to all his family and friends.
Dick became interested in music very early in life, as his father, Herman, played the clarinet, and his mother, the organ. Upon arriving in Tacoma, Herman set up shop as a cigar maker, building his shop and family home at 318 East Wright Avenue, just off Pacific on the hill south of downtown. Dick attended Central School and later Hawthorne School, and picked up the rudiments of clarinet playing from his father.
In 1899, when Julius Adler arrived in Tacoma and started up his band, Herman was eager to join a group which would hold itself to higher standards than the bands in which he’d previously played. Herman and Dick shared the same music stand in Adler’s band, and it wasn’t long before Adler noticed Dick’s talent. The bandleader provided the young man with both a clarinet and regular lessons, which Herman paid for with boxes of cigars.
There were six clarinetists in Adler’s band, but by 1902, Dick had moved up to the first chair position. He also took on a teaching role with the Kelly Band, made up of musicians, young and old, who were not quite good enough to join Adler’s band. Within just a few years, Dick was making a name and a career for himself as a professional musician. It was a good time to be a musician in the booming town that was Tacoma. Several theaters had orchestras, and there were at least six restaurants and hotels downtown featuring live music nightly.
By the time he was in his 20s, Dick was a member of the orchestra at the Tacoma Theater, providing musical support for a wide variety of touring soloists and opera companies. Later in life, Dick would reminisce about the great musicians from Europe or New York who praised his clarinet playing as the finest in the region. Once the Pantages was built in 1918, just across the street from the Tacoma, Dick began to split his time playing for both venues’ orchestras.
One of the major highlights of his career occurred when Dick was just 19. During one of his many trips to Tacoma with his band, John Philip Sousa heard Dick playing clarinet at the Tacoma Hotel. Since his own clarinetist had fallen ill and a replacement was needed, Sousa asked the young man to fill in.
Dick joined Sousa’s band for the next four months, visiting places such as Spokane, Minneapolis, and several stops in Montana. After this successful tour, Dick was invited back for additional tours in the following three years. Through these travels, he visited all but seven of the U.S. states.
As if his performing career weren’t enough to keep Dick busy, he also spent much of his life managing the music store he founded as a young man, Barks’ House of Music. What began as a small operation where he sold custom-made clarinet reeds and repaired fellow musicians’ instruments, grew into a full-service music shop which would serve Tacoma musicians for decades.
The first location for Barks’ House of Music was in the Provident Building, in the 900 block of Pacific Avenue, just down the hill from the theaters where so many musicians made their living. The business later spent a few years in the 700 block of St. Helens, before moving three more times as the business grew.
The first such move was in 1954, to the Bernice Building at 11th and Pacific , which had long been home to the teaching studios of some of Tacoma’s more illustrious musicians. This store, managed by Dick and his nephew Earl, sold band instruments, accessories and sheet music, as well as televisions, radios and high fidelity phonographs. A complete instrument repair department was also available to customers.
When the Bernice Building was sold in the late 1950s and plans were made to demolish the Victorian-era structure, Dick and Earl moved their store again, this time just down the block. Their new location, in the former Publix Market Building, featured an elaborate neon sign with a dog who appeared to be barking, playing on the name recognition of the longtime business.
One final move, to the corner of 11th and Commerce, would come just a few years before Dick’s death in 1968. Earl continued managing the family business for several more years before his own retirement; he passed away in 2000.
The Tacoma News Tribune ran an extensive feature article about Theodore ‘Dick’ Barks’ life in music just a few months before his death in 1968. The article described him as looking “20 years younger than his age, with a sparkle to his eyes, and despite his short stature, he stands and sits ‘tall’. When asked about his recipe for happiness in old age, Dick said “keep going, don’t sit around and twiddle your thumbs!”
Indeed, right up until his death, Barks was still doing repairs on “all kinds of instruments, except the electronic ones.”