Remembering Helen Hiller: Nashua’s own ‘girl drummer’

Courtesy photo Helen Hiller

If you knew the late Helen Hiller, a “petite brunette” often mistaken for a “school marm” rather than the raucous, high-energy drummer who barnstormed the country with her all-girl band through the swing era, it’s easy to envision her still hard at work with a very special group of students.

“I bet the angels are now playing the drums and the piano,” Wayne Gurin, one of Hiller’s two surviving cousins, said with a laugh as we chatted the other day about Hiller, whose life story tells a remarkable tale about a remarkable woman who was well ahead of her time.

When Hiller died in September, three months shy of what would have been her 103rd birthday, Gurin and Jim McGowan, another cousin, decided they’d put together a memorial service and schedule it for a few months down the road.

Here’s betting that what’s officially billed a “memorial service” takes on more of a “celebration of life” atmosphere, and if you knew Hiller, you’d agree.

And I’m sure you’d also agree that while it’s appropriate to memorialize Hiller, celebrating all she did – but more importantly, how she did it – is “where it’s at,” as Hiller may have said once or twice back in the 1950s and 60s. It fits, also, that Hiller was as active as one could expect a centenarian to be “right up to the very end,” Gurin told me.

“She was a sweetie pie, she really was,” he said. “And was she a character, oh my goodness.”

I count myself among the lucky ones who got the chance to meet and chat with the gregarious musician, whose move to Nashua back in the 1970s can be credited to the late Ken Darrell, at the time the head of Darrell’s Music Hall, the family owned music store where countless local wanna-be and would-be musicians took lessons over the years.

At the time, Gurin said, Hiller was living in Florida with a sister, working as a saleswoman for Wurlitzer, the popular piano and organ supply house.

She also waas “trying to make a go of teaching piano,” he said. But for whatever reason, aspiring pianists were few and far between in the Sunshine State.

By then among Wurlitzer’s top sales representatives – “she was in the million-dollar club for sales,” Gurin said – Hiller and Ken Darrell, who died about 10 years ago, crossed paths and the topic turned to her coming to Nashua – and Darrell’s – to teach piano.

It was in her capacity as music teacher at Darrell’s that I met Hiller, who, about 20 years ago, was to be the subject of an upcoming column by the late Marilyn Solomon.

As chief staff photographer at the time, my assignment was to grab some photos of her for the column, but capturing her “in action” soon became secondary to listening to her spin one fascinating story after another about a most fascinating life.

I listened as she told Solomon about the “Quadettes,” one of the first all-female bands that she and three other women founded at the height of the big band era. If she wanted to play and get paid for it, Hiller had to join a musicians’ union, she said. That was fine, until the Quadettes were signed to do burlesque shows.

“My father would have died if he knew,” Hiller told Solomon with a laugh. But thanks to the visibility the union provided them, the Quadettes got to travel from New York to Los Angeles for performances, filling in the spaces with quick jaunts to Boston and Philadelphia.

So talented was Hiller on the drums that she caught the attention of the renowned Ina Ray Hutton – a sister of actress Betty Hutton – whose namesake band drew full houses wherever it played.

Hiller also had a stint with a band sponsored and promoted by the meat company Hormel, which was a regular on a radio show called Barn Dance, sort of a little brother to the Grand Ole Opry.

But it’s Hiller’s talents as a person, a friend, a neighbor and a patient but firm music instructor that local folks appreciate the most.

A huge supporter of drum and bugle corps, Hiller naturally followed closely the Nashua-based Spartans for years.

Having lost her husband, Charles, in 1976, and her son, Larry, in a car crash, Hiller “adopted” as family the dozens of friends she made at Darrell’s and at the Nashua Senior Activities Center, which she frequented for years.

Meanwhile, among the treasure trove of favorite memories Gurin has of his cousin is her affection for “all types of animals … not just dogs and cats but all kinds,” and how she drove many a restaurant server nuts with detailed instructions on how she wanted her vodka tonic.

“She had to have it in a short glass, with one ice cube – just one – and absolutely no fruit,” Gurin said with a laugh. If it didn’t come back exactly as ordered, back it would go.

For awhile Hiller also delighted in a glass or two of sangria, Gurin said, and like her special vodka tonic, found a way to have some fun with her dining companions.

“She always called it ‘my Shangri La,'” he said. More often than not, someone at the table, perhaps with an eye-roll, would step up to “translate” for the puzzled server.

Gurin also recalls a music teacher who never charged her students’ families to attend their twice-a-year recitals. “Nope, never charged anything,” he said.

“For such a small person, she had a really big heart. If you met her, you had to love her,” he said.

“I love that gal.”

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Sundays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-1256, dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com or@Telegraph_DeanS.

IF YOU GO

Relatives and friends of the late Helen Hiller, for decades a nationally-known performer, musician and teacher who lived in Nashua for many years, are hosting a celebration of life in her honor.

WHEN: 11 a.m., Thursday

WHERE: Davis Funeral Home, 1 Lock St., Nashua

The public is invited to attend.