Santy Runyon was a world renowned saxophonist, who played in Al
Capone's speakeasy club, The Coliseum, and gave lessons to world
class musicians like Charlie Parker.
Over the years Runyon Products has earned a reputation for producing
mouthpieces and accessories that are beyond compare. The Santy Runyon
story goes back to the turn of the century. He began as a "trap"
drummer in the pit of his father's movie house. Runyon would play
percussion and supply sound effects for the silent films. He also
learned to play the marimba and the vibes and eventually found the
instruments that would be the passion of his life: the woodwinds.
Runyon's inventive nature surfaced at an early age. By age 11,
he read an article about airplanes and learned that air moves faster
over a wing's curved upper surface than it moves beneath the wing.
He stuck some chewing gum inside the mouthpiece of his saxophone,
creating an instant airfoil. It made the air go faster and produced
more volume and was easier to play. This important discovery would
later lead Santy to design mouthpieces built around this engineering
Runyon studied music at Oklahoma A&M and the University of Missouri
before hitting the road as a traveling musician. He played saxophone
with the Benny Maroff, Johnny Green and Henry Busse bands. As a
member of the Busse group, at age 25, Runyon created the jazz shuffle
beat showcased in Busse's hit recording "Hot Lips."
In 1933, Runyon began an 11-year stint as lead flute player with
the Chicago Theater Orchestra. FDR was president, prohibition was
the law, and the south side of Chicago was the worst part of town.
On Saturday nights, Runyon played The Coliseum, a speakeasy owned
by the infamous gangland legend, "Scarface" Al Capone. At the Chicago
Theater, he worked with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Edger Bergen, Betty
Gable and other show business notables. He even did a running comedy
bit with Jack Benny. Between radio, clubs, and the theater, Runyon
weathered the Great Depression pretty well, earning $150 a week
while many men were taking home $8 or $9 a week.
One night a fellow musician approached him. "I've always liked
the way you played," the musician told Runyon. "Could you help me
play better?" After only a few hours of coaching, the musician had
improved to the point where he moved up to lead saxophone player
in the band. He recommended Runyon to a colleague, and soon the
doorman at the Chicago Theater was complaining about having to take
so many messages from potential students.
Santy Runyon and Frank Anglund, the lead trumpet player with the
Chicago Theater Orchestra, opened the Runyon Studio. Through those
doors passed such jazz legends as Charlie "Bird" Parker, Paul Desmond,
Harry Carney, Lee Konitz, and Frank "Sonny" Stitt. Runyon had students
in most of the big bands of the era: Benny Goodman, Count Bassie,
Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington. When Lawrence Welk began his long-running
television show, five of his saxophone players were Runyon alumni.
In 1941, Runyon sold his first mouthpiece, a variation of the 1918
curved device he had fabricated with chewing gum. The customer was
Bruce Bronson, who played baritone sax with the Tommy Dorsey band.
The mouthpiece was a hit. A metal model built for an Army band member
resulted in an order for thousands of mouthpieces. A manufacturer
refused the order and yet another career had begun for Santy Runyon.
He began manufacturing mouthpieces in Chicago, but Runyon and his
wife, Shirley Rose, decided they needed a more suitable location
in which to raise their family. He moved his operation to Beaumont,
Texas, in 1960 and continued to play professionally at the Petroleum
Club there. Runyon was lured to Lafayette in 1970. He began playing
at Toby's and also opened a manufacturing facility on Lewisburg
Road in Opelousas.
Runyon Products produces hundreds of thousands of mouthpieces a
year. His metal mouthpieces are the favorite of baritone and tenor
sax players because of their brighter tone. Symphony woodwind musicians
like Runyon's Custom and Classic mouthpieces. Brightly colored Bionix
mouthpieces are favored by rock performers. Runyon Products also
makes saxophone straps, key risers, ligatures, and other woodwind
Music plays an increasingly important role in today's society.
"It teaches you coordination and I think it's very good for your
health," Santy said, noting that a former student of his was a victim
of rheumatic fever, whose weakened heart benefited greatly from
playing a woodwind instrument.
Santy Runyon passed away just days before his 96th Birthday.