Viola Smith (née Schmitz; born November 29, 1912) is an American drummer best known for her work in orchestras, swing bands, and popular music from the 1920s until 1975. She was one of the first professional female drummers.
Schmitz grew up in Mount Calvary, Wisconsin with seven sisters and two brothers. All learned piano first, but only the girls were to be in an "all-girl" orchestra conceived by their father. Her parents operated a concert hall in Mount Calvary.
In the 1920s and 1930s Smith played in the Schmitz Sisters Family Orchestra (later, Smith Sisters Orchestra) that her father founded in Wisconsin. Irene (Schmitz) Abler played trombone, Erma Schmitz on vibraphone, Edwina Schmitz on trumpet, Viola Schmitz on drums, Lila Schmitz on saxophone, Mildred (Schmitz) Bartash on bass violin, Loretta (Schmitz) Loehr on piano, and Sally (Schmitz) Ellenback on bass saxophone. They toured the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) circuit of vaudeville and movie theaters on weekends and summer vacation while some of the sisters were still in school. According to her nephew, Dennis Bartash, playing with her sisters on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour radio show in the 1930s was her big break. In 1938 Viola and Mildred started the Coquettes, an all-female orchestra, until 1942. Mildred Bartash played the clarinet and the saxophone.
Smith penned an article in 1942 for Down Beat magazine titled "Give Girl Musicians a Break!" in which she argued that woman musicians could play just as well as men. She argued, "In these times of national emergency, many of the star instrumentalists of the big name bands are being drafted. Instead of replacing them with what may be mediocre talent, why not let some of the great girl musicians of the country take their place?''
In 1942, after Mildred got married, Smith moved to New York, was given handmade snare drums from one of her teachers, Billy Gladstone, received a summer scholarship to Juilliard and joined Phil Spitalny's Hour of Charm Orchestra, a commercially-successful all-girl orchestra. Later she would play with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Her signature style of 13 drums, particularly, two 16 inch tom-toms at shoulder height, was never copied, however, Smith noted Louis Bellson using 2 bass drums after meeting and observing Smith with the tom-toms. During this time, Smith recorded music for the films When Johnny Comes Marching Home and Here Come the Co-Eds as a member of the National Symphony Orchestra, and even performed with Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb. She gained notoriety as the "female Gene Krupa" and the "fastest girl drummer." Smith performed at president Harry Truman's inauguration in 1949. She remained with the Hour of Charm orchestra until 1954.
After Hour of Charm disbanded, she led her own band, Viola and her Seventeen Drums. From 1966 to 1970 she played with the Kit Kat Band, which was part of the original 1960s Broadway production of Cabaret. Allegro Magazine Volume 113 Number 10, from November 10, 2013, featured Smith in the article "A Century of Swing 'Never lose your groove!'"
In November 2019 at the time of her 107th birthday, it was reported that she occasionally still drums with bands in Costa Mesa, California, as one of the oldest mainstream musicians still alive.
- When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1942)
- Here Come the Co-Eds (1945)
- I've Got a Secret (CBS)
- The Ed Sullivan Show (CBS) -- on five different occasions