Len Spencer performs on an Edison cylinder "The Transformation Scene From Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
Leonard Garfield Spencer was born in Washington, DC., on January 12, 1867.
The middle name was given in honor of Senator James A. Garfield, a friend of the Spencer family before he became a U.S. president. Len's mother, Sara, was a leader in the women's suffrage movement. His father Henry Caleb Spencer--son of Platt Rogers Spencer, co-inventor of the Spencerian style of penmanship--operated the Spencerian Business College located in the nation's capitol at Ninth and D Streets. He died in 1890.
Len's younger brother--Henry Caleb Spencer, Jr., born on February 14, 1875--also became a recording artist. Harry worked mostly for Columbia but occasionally made records for other companies, even making Zon-o-phone discs in 1901. He mostly cut recitations, such as the popular "President McKinley's Address at the Pan-American Exposition." On minstrel records, he is addressed as "Mr. Henry."
By the early 1900s Harry was Columbia's chief announcer and his voice can be heard at the beginning of many cylinders and early discs. Jim Walsh states in the October 1958 issue of Hobbies that Harry later was a train caller in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as reported to Walsh by Joe Belmont. Harry suffered mental illness late in life and died on August 29, 1946, in St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, DC.
Len Spencer himself did announcing for other Columbia artists of the 1890s. Listing titles of the Columbia Orchestra, the company's June 1897 catalog states, "The announcements are as loud and distinct as only Mr. Spencer can make them, and his quaint negro humorisms, laugh, shouts, etc., so familiar to talking machine patrons, add much to the popularity of these records."
Only Len Spencer is identified elsewhere in the catalog, so the "Mr. Spencer" here undoubtedly refers to Len, not Harry. Columbia Orchestra numbers that include "shouts" and "laughs" include "Alabama Walk Around" (15086), "Old Nigger Wing" (15088), "Tapioca Polka" (15091), and "Frolic of the Coon" (15092).
Working as a junior instructor at the Spencerian Business College, the young Len Spencer frequently visited the sales office of the newly formed Columbia Phonograph Company, at that time with headquarters at 919 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, to get information, have parts serviced, and purchase cylinders. The college used an office graphophone, or dictaphone. He expressed a desire to record his own voice, and company executives discovered he had not only a rich baritone voice but an ability to put his character into a song.
Frank Dorian, a Columbia official who began working for the company in 1889, recalled in later years for Walsh that Spencer's career as a recording artist began either in late 1889 or early 1890. Dorian wrote in the January 1930 issue of Phonograph Monthly Review, "Spencer's earlier records were made by grouping four or five phonographs on top of an upright piano with their horns converging towards the key board, on which Spencer played his own accompaniment while he sang. He received the munificent sum of ten cents for each accepted record. If he was fortunate enough to get three out of every four records accepted, it was possible for him to make as much as $3.00 or $4.00 for each full hour of singing."
He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on December 15, 1914, while talking with a performer who had come into Len Spencer's Lyceum, which was the name of his booking agency's office at 245 West 42nd Street (in 1912 it was at 46 East 14th Street and was previously at 46 East 14th Street, 16 West 27th Street, 44 West 28th Street, and other Manhattan locations). He died in the office in the arms of friend Arthur Dowling, according to a death notice in the December 16, 1914, edition of The New York Times, which also notes, "He was well known in Masonic circles, being a member of Dirigo Lodge, the Royal Arch Masons, and the Knights Templars." His daughter Ethel was also with him when he slumped over his desk on that day. He was 47. He was cremated at North Bergen, New Jersey, and buried in a family burial plot in Glenwood Cemetery in Washington, DC. Brother Harry took over the Lyceum for several months until the business folded.
In 1885 he married Margaret Agnes Kaiser, who died in 1891. His second wife was Elizabeth Norris, whom he married in 1892 and then remarried in 1895 after a long separation. She died in 1941. His three surviving children from this marriage were Myrtle, who sang with her father on a few recordings; Ethel; and Clara. A daughter named Constance died in childhood. Ethel, later Mrs. James A. Yarbray of San Antonio, Texas, supplied Walsh with details about her father, which Walsh reported in the July and August 1958 issues of Hobbies.