Reflections of my Father, John Dopyera

by John E. Dopyera

(based on Bob Brozman's History and Artistry of NATIONAL Resonator Instruments)

(Brad's note: This information is provided courtesy Peter Gaspar. Also see a related article by his daughter)

Dad was born in Strazia, on July 6, 1893. He was the fourth child in a family of ten and was the eldest son. He had three older sisters. When Dad was about three years of age, the family moved to Dolna Krupa where Grandfather Dopyera became the village miller.

As the eldest son Dad very early on worked with his father in the mill. Dad often commented that most of his skills as a craftsperson were developed working with his father. He also learned five languages as he had to speak with customers who came to the mill who spoke Czech, German, Hungarian, Polish and Russian.

Grandfather, Josef Dopyera appeared to have many talents including that of violin maker. Dad learned his violin making from his father and in fact had made his first violin under his father's tutelage before the age of 14.

All of ten children were born in the "old country". Stephanie, Erma and Laura, then Dad. Rudy and Louis came next then two sets of boy-girl twins, Robert and Valeria and Gabriela and Emil.

I know very little about Grandfather and Grandmother Dopyera except that Grandfather was born in Care', Austro - Hungary and that Grandmother was Catherine Sonnenfeld. A church document indicates they were married in 1887. Family lore has it that Grandfather Dopyera was reluctant to emigrate but was aware that war (World War I) was looming on the horizon and didn't want his sons to serve in the Army.

The family thus left for America in 1908. I don't know if they stayed in New York for a period of time or whether they left directly for the west coast. When they did depart, they boarded a boat for Galveston, Texas and from there took a train across New Mexico and Arizona Indian territories. Grandfather Dopyera, Dad, and Rudy almost immediately took jobs as skilled craftspersons at Pacific Sash and Door in Los Angeles. They worked ten hours for a daily wage of $ 2,50 and, with this income, supported the family.

It is evident from the family pictures that the Dopyeras soon became involved in the broadly defined Slavic community. Russians, Ukrainians, and Serbs seemed abundantly present at the gatherings and in later years Dad's older sister Laura became an official in the National Slovak League of America.

Sometime during the teens, Dad, with his father, started a general cabinet making and repair shop in which they also repaired musical instruments. A second family base had by that time been established in Taft.

During the early twenties Dad and Rudy started manufacturing banjos. How many they made and sold I do not know. It was during this time, however that an incident occurred that was to change the shape of acoustic instrument development and making. Dad told me that one day a vaudeville guitar player named George Beauchamp stopped by his shop to talk about a problem he was having. Mr. Beauchamp indicated that his acoustic guitar was unable to produce enough volume to complete with other instruments in the vaudeville orchestra. (ten years later this problem was "resolved" with the production of electric guitars.) What came from their discussion was the idea of placing aluminum resonators into the guitar body to amplify the sound played on the guitar. Several months of experimenting resulted in a tricone, all-metal German-silver Hawaiian guitar. Dad and Mr. Beauchamp decided to begin, in what was already the National company, manufacturing the instruments in quantity. Major buyers initially were the Hawaiian steel-guitar players - Sol Hoopii for one. The partnership of Dad and George Beauchamp apparently was not destined to endure. Their split was speeded up by what Dad considered as Mr. Beauchamp's not always responsible handling of company finances and by the latter's efforts to project himself as the inventor. Dad suddenly in 1929 resigned as shop foreman and left the company. The development of the DOBRO guitar came about as a direct consequence of Dad's resignation from National. As part of his contribution to the National partnership Dad turned over his patents on the National resonator. Subsequent to his departure from National Dad and Rudy began working on a different version of resonator. Unlike National, DOBRO resonator was concave and the bridge was placed in the center of the aluminum "spider web" arrangement. Because Dad was concerned that National would sue him for patent rights, he placed the patent in Rudy's name.

Dad's brother, Louis, had invested in the National and he also invested, along with brother Bob, in to the DOBRO. Apparently with the onset of the Depression, the National Company began to have financial difficulties and Louis bought them out. He also managed to own more than 50% of the stock in the DOBRO CORPORATION and after several years of manufacturing, he decided to move the company to Chicago. Gradually the whole business shifted to Chicago, manufacturing a wide variety of guitars until they could no longer get materials due to the advent of World War II.

At this point I will leave the history of the DOBRO and focus on some personal reflections about Dad, his personality and the events I personally knew about from the 1930s onward.

Dad married my mother, Elizabeth Vera Candee, in 1927. He got to know my mother, according to family lore, through knowing Grandmother Candee first. Subsequent to Dad's illness during his late twenties, he began to explore non-medical aspects of health and along with his explorations he discovered Christian Science. Grandmother Candee was a Christian Science practitioner. Dad claimed that he was cured of his difficulties through his association with her. Somewhere along the line through his contact with Grandmother Candee, he met my mother. My mother, aside from being a good cook and good traditional Christian, also played piano. An early picture of Dad and Mom shows Mom playing piano and Dad, the violin.

My brother, Joseph, was born in August of 1928 and I, a year later. We were obviously too young to be very aware of the tumult going on during this period with Dad's departure from National and the start up of the DOBRO COMPANY. I do remember going to the DOBRO factory with my mother on many occasions to pick up my father after work. I can still picture the racks of freshly produced guitars and I can still smell the paint that came out the lacquer room.

I have several strong memories of Dad during my childhood days in Los Angeles as always trying things out, both in the shops and elsewhere. He was frequently involved in developing experimental instruments, doing custom work for clients. Dad was also always exploring ideas. He was very curious. He joined the Masons and the Rosecrucians. He "read" widely . He was a health food faddist before anyone knew there was such a thing as a health food. Throughout his life he was preoccupied with diet and with observing the effect of what he ate on his health. He was a good cook, creating wonderful potato pancakes, strudles, poppy seed pastries, honey cakes. *He also liked gardening.

During 1937 - 1938 three events occurred which were significant for our family. Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, Grandfather died, and a great aunt on my mother's side of the family also died. This latter loss led to a journey cross country which drew us away from Los Angeles. My mother inherited much of my great aunt's estate and she, therefore, needed to go to Springville, New York to take care of those matters. We were gone for three months - June, July and August of 1940. On the way back to California, we drove to Grants Pass, Oregon. Dad's brothers, Rudy and Ed, had moved there shortly before. The fact that Ed and Rudy were in southern Oregon plus the possibility of war led my parents to decide to move there as well. We returned to Los Angeles so that Dad could straighten out business affairs and in August of 1941 we moved north. When the war started in December, Dad and Mom felt they had made a good decision. We had a large garden and my mother canned extensively. We had a cow and raised chickens, ducks, geese. With our own eggs, milk and produce we were able to be much more self-sufficient than in the city. Dad almost immediately acquired a rental shop in Grants Pass in which he did various repairs and did other kinds of building and repair work as well as some retail sales. Dad's curiosity about non-conventional health care continued throughout his life. He frequently visited chiropractors and started the first health food store in Grants Pass, Oregon, in 1947.

As a child, I remember that my mother and father's relationship was relatively placid. During the time we lived in Los Angeles and Dad had a fairly regular income, his role as family provider was never an issue. If there were major disagreements between them, we as children were not aware of them, with the possible exception of family gatherings when my mother felt excluded because of the family members speaking Slavic to each other. However, after we moved to Oregon, income was always an issue, despite the relative self-sufficiency of rural living. As a teenager, I probably became less aware of Dad's activities and preoccupations. There was a poor match for me with some of the demands in high school and I dropped out of school, as my brother had before me, before finishing. I don't recall that this created any particular concern in the family. When I, in July of 1948, announced to the family that I had joined the Air Force, however, there was a short but bitter verbal attack on my father by my mother. She blamed him for my decision and recounted his many failings as a husband and father.

Later that year, my father returned to California, divorcing my mother and leaving her and my sister, Anne in Grants Pass. I was in the Air Force and had little communication with Dad. I believe he was embarrassed about his spelling, for he lacked in ability to write, other than phonetically. I visited my father during couple of my leaves when he was living in El Monte, California. He had remarried and seemed very satisfied with his new life. His wife, Eva, was pleasant and I enjoyed my visits.

In subsequent years, I was discharged from the Air Force, received a high school equivalency, married, received a Ph.D. from Syracuse (NY) University and pursued a career as a psychologist. My visits to my Dad and other west coast family members were infrequent. During these years, Dad and Eva moved to Escondido, CA and he constructed yet another shop within which he did a retail and repair business with musical instruments and continued the innovate development which was a part of his endeavors. His wife, Eva, died suddenly of a heart attack in 1964. Fortunately, he had many good friends in Escondido and an active life which he greatly enjoyed as long as his age and health permitted. While living in Escondido, Dad enjoyed some the attention which came his way as a result of his earlier endeavors. Many people who had never met him before called or stopped by his shop to visit him and ask him questions about their instruments. It was during this time that Beverly King, editor of the DOBRO NUT invited Dad to respond to questions for a questions and answers column in her publication.

As Dad began to age and it became clear to my sister and I that a time would come when he would need some assistance. It became more and more difficult for Dad to manage for himself in Escondido. When his brother, Rudy, however, became ill, he went to live with Dad and somehow Dad cared for him until Rudy's death in 1978. They had always been very close. Despite his apparent gregariousness, Dad was a very shy and gentle person. My guess is that his strong relationship with his brother Rudy was that they complemented each other. Rudy was Dad's extreme opposite. They must have spent thousands and thousands of hours during their lifetimes, experimenting and solving problems. Rudy's death must have created a tremendous void for Dad. My brother, Joe, died after a very brief illness the same year. Dad was greatly shaken by the losses. My sister Anne, who continued to live in southern Oregon, visited, put things in order from time to time and attempted to arrange for outside help. These were difficult times. By 1980, it became impossible, and Dad at age 86, went back to Oregon to stay. Anne and I sorted with trepidation through the clutter and richness of the life accumulations of our Uncle Rudy and our father. Finally, effects related to the development and museum display. Dad thus went back to Grants Pass where the remainder of his life, to age 94, was spent. He died January 3, 1988.

It is my personal opinion that Dad never completely acclimated to "modern life". He seemed always to be somewhat dismayed at what he saw in the world around him and suspect that this contributed to his intensity about life. Considering that his lifetime spanned the period from small village feudal life in Austro-Hungary to the fast-moving high-tech milieu of Southern California, this is perhaps not surprising.

Although he known as the inventor of the resophonic system, his own primary identity was with violins. He though of himself as a violinist and violin maker. Even though, in objective terms, his major contribution was with guitars, he also had at least three patents relating to violins and several violin-related innovations that he never patented. His success were well-mixed with disappointments. The rewards he gained from his work on the National and Dobro resophonic guitars were not financial. He realized few financial benefits. His rewards were ample, however, in what mattered to him most - the appreciation of those who enjoyed using and listening to these instruments. In that regard he was very successful.

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This page last updated 3 April 1996.