The history of the United Guitar Corporation, which unfolded in Jersey City, just over the river from the glitter of New York, is one of the great obscure stories in 20th-century guitar lore.
Jersey City, “left of the Hudson,” was home to the Oscar Schmidt Company, builders of the pre-war Stella guitars iconic in blues lore. Once one of the 800-pound gorillas of the fretted-instrument business, Oscar Schmidt sputtered once the Depression hit, then split into smaller pieces. One of its trails leads to United – and includes a tangential connection to Epiphone and Guild.
Unlike the now-venerated Schmidt name, United is lost to history. The firm was owned and operated by a group of Italian immigrants with deep roots in the New York music trade and (as with the Larson Brothers before them) United’s obscurity lies in the fact their brand rarely appeared on their product; for the most part, it was a wholesale operation, building instruments for others to distribute and sell. Occasionally, cheap flat-tops turn up with a small “United” sticker on the headstock, looking so similar to Harmonys and Kays they’re often attributed to them. United’s best instruments are found marked Premier, Orpheum, Stewart Orthofonic, and other trade brands. Even John D’Angelico’s name can be found attached to United-made bodies, though they’re a special case.
In the early 20th century, Oscar Schmidt was a vast operation, ranked as one of the largest guitar builders in the U.S. Though Schmidt himself was a German immigrant, many of his craftsman were Italian. Several factors led to its downfall. In 1929, Schmidt died unexpectedly while on a buying trip in Czechoslovakia. The following month, the stock market crashed. Without its founder in harsh economic times, the company went through several reorganizations in the ’30s. The Oscar Schmidt name survived on a rump operation that kept the zither and autoharp trademarks. From 1935, the successor to Schmidt’s guitar division did business as Fretted Instrument Manufacturers, Inc., run by John Carner. Little information on Carner has survived, but whatever his credentials, the spin-off company floundered – though to be fair, it was in dire straits when he took over. FIM finally sold the guitar business (including the trade names Stella and Sovereign) to Harmony, and by ’39 it folded. From this emerged The United Guitar Corporation.
A New Jersey incorporation certificate from spring 1939 lists four men as partners: John Carner, Frank Colonese, Frank Salvino, and Frank Masiello. Carner is the obvious link to FIM/Schmidt, though the others may have worked with him. Perhaps the money from the Harmony sale funded the new venture. Some claim United assumed operation of the Oscar Schmidt factory, but while the zither company kept Schmidt’s 87 Ferry Street address, United emerged with its own factory on the opposite side of town. Despite its name, Ferry Street is nowhere near Jersey City’s waterfront. Rather, it’s on the northwest side, in the “heights” above Hoboken. United’s factory was located at 278 Johnston Avenue, by the Morris Canal Basin on the southeast side, adjacent to acres of giant railway junctions and docks in an historic-but-unglamorous industrial area called Communipaw.
The only known detailed source of information on United is an article from the July ’52 issue of Musical Merchandise that describes the company as, “A rather unique organization, owned and operated by six men who are each experts in guitar craftsmanship. All of them served apprenticeship in their native Italy… and later with some of the well-known guitar manufacturers in the U.S. They started United in 1939, each an artist in his own trade.”
John Carner wasn’t even mentioned, but at least some of the United partners were likely veterans of Schmidt/FIM. Senior founding partner Frank Colonese became president of the company and also headed the finishing department. Born in 1908, he grew up in the instrument business; on the 1920 census, his father’s profession is listed as “Repairer – Mandolins.”
Vice president Canio Pinto was also foreman of the sanding department. At 42, he was the youngest of the bunch, and was born in New York, not Italy. Secretary Leonard Russo was also factory superintendant. Frank Massielo – the other remaining founding partner – was foreman of the assembly department. Born in Italy in 1892, by 1910 he was living and working with two brothers in Jersey City as a “Mandolin Maker” – likely for Schmidt. Giorgio Montecalvo was responsible for adjustment and tuning. He was older than his partners, born in Italy in 1880 and arriving in the U.S. in 1908. He is described in 1952 as “a well-known concert guitarist,” but in 1930 was listed as “Machinist – musical instruments” on the census form.
The name most associated with United is Frank Forcillo. Not one of the founding partners, when the company started, he wasn’t even working in the instrument trade; in 1940, he was a day laborer for the Ship Company-Dollar Line, in Jersey City. But he was an experienced guitar maker. Per several accounts, Forcillo was one of the first employees John D’Angelico let go after founding his own business in 1932.
This suggests Forcillo had been previously employed in the Raphael Ciani shop, where John was foreman. In ’52, Forcillo was credited as United’s “chief designer,” with additional corporate duty as treasurer. Forcillo also built archtop guitars under his own name, similar in style to D’Angelico. At least some used pre-made United bodies. He holds a patent awarded in June, 1950, for an elaborate truss-rod design using the decorative pediment at the headstock crown as a working element (United never employed it).
The United plant in Jersey City is described as “over 5,000 square feet of floor space, some of the most modern machinery in the business and a corps of workers who learned the business in various leading guitar manufacturers plants.”
The aspect of the “united” corps of owner/operators is the heart of the story. Rather unique at the time, some Guild histories have since co-opted this tale, ascribing that company name to a “guild” of workers founding it. The Guild company was founded by just two individuals – Al Dronge and George Mann – but the stories do have one crucial link – Mann.
The July ’52 MM piece – timed to the NAMM show at the Hotel New Yorker – is basically a promotion for United launching an attempt to compete in the retail market. “United Guitar Corporation… recently announced a new policy (to) concentrate its production and sales efforts on a line of professional-type guitars. Formerly, United had manufactured principally for wholesalers with private brands.”
George Mann, listed as “sales manager,” was key to this new policy, having been sales kingpin at Epiphone – the “face” of the company in eyes of dealers. He was pictured alongside the founding brothers as early as 1932. After Epi Stathopoulo’s death in ’43, Mann was crucial to brother Orphie keeping the company going. But, that partnership came to a sudden end in 1951/’52 when Epiphone suffered a debilitating strike. Enraged, Orphie brought Continental Music in as partner/distributor, moving production to Philadelphia in the process.
For whatever reason, Mann was cut out of the reorganized company, as were many employees orphaned by the sudden relocation. He likely approached United’s management with a proposition to grab Epiphone’s market while that company was sidelined. Mann is noted in the article as “…very enthusiastic over his present connection, looking forward to even greater heights for the six ‘working’ members of the firm.”
The July ’52 Musical Merchandise also included a full-page ad promoting United’s new Professional models. In that pay-to-play publishing world, it guaranteed the feature story.
Despite this ballyhoo, the new marketing plan was short-lived. Perhaps the line failed to impress in that crowded NAMM year, or possibly Mann and his new employers proved quickly incompatible. Whatever went down at United, Mann immediately partnered with Manhattan music merchant Al Dronge to found Guild Guitar, officially registered in October ’52. Mann’s involvement with United was almost certainly over by then; perhaps he was working both sides the entire time. Ironically, he was also ousted from Guild’s management after less than a year; for whatever reason, he couldn’t keep a job!
At any rate, the 17″ twin-pickup cutaway hollowbody archtop electric pictured in United’s July ’52 ad was quite modern. Few (if any) were sold with United’s brand on the headstock, but the same basic instrument was supplied to a number of wholesale accounts in the following years. United soon introduced a more-distinctive product – a 13.5″ hollowbody electric archtop often (but not always) built with a sealed top, sans f-shaped sound holes. The design is similar to Guild’s period M65 and M75 but with a deeper body and arched back. These were also sold to different jobbers and appear under various brands.
For years, United’s biggest customer was the Sorkin Music Company, in Manhattan. From the ’40s through the late ’60s, Sorkin’s top house products were sold under the Premier name, relying mostly on United to supply unfinished hollowbody instruments they decked out in fancy finishes and glitter plastic. Sorkin also offered less-expensive lines including Marvel, Beltone, and Leo Master – all appear to be United product. In July of ’52, Sorkin announced a short-lived high-end Royce brand; the guitar pictured is practically identical to what United was simultaneously promoting.
Another name often found on United products is Orpheum. By the ’40s, the venerable brand belonged to Manhattan jobber Maurice Lipsky, which used suppliers including Kay and Gretsch (only some Orpheum guitars are United products). United also supplied some of Lipsky’s cheaper Stadium-branded instruments. Practically identical pieces labeled “Serenader,” “Stewart,” and “Stewart Orthofonic” were sold by Bugeleisen & Jacobsen, another Union Square Jobber. Some of the cross-branded beginner flat-tops often now casually described as Harmony are actually the product of United, as are bottom-line mandolins, ukuleles, and baritone ukes that appeared under many brands (or were unmarked).
On a different level, United is also remembered for supplying pre-made bodies to John D’Angelico, which, considering the Forcillo connection, makes perfect sense. After crafting a very few purpose-built electrics in the early ’50s, the master of Kenmare Street decided a guitar with built-in pickups had no need of his finely carved top and back. When a customer ordered one, he simply purchased a laminated body from United, added his own neck, and finished it out as requested. These occasionally turn up today – the most affordable of John’s works.
By ’56 (at the latest), United Guitar Corporation had reverted to a firm wholesale only policy: “Manufacturers of quality guitars, mandolins and ukes. Products are distributed by Jobbers.” They placed a small ad saying so every year in the industry Purchaser’s Guide. By the early ’60s, the address remained 278 Johnston Avenue, but general manager was Bernard A. Forcillo, Frank’s son. In ’56, there is no trademark listed for “United”; it reappeared in ’62 but was gone again by ’69.
United survived into the late ’60s, but the increasing flood of cheaper European and Japanese instruments severely undercut their market. One by one, the jobbers they had supplied turned to cheaper overseas product to re-brand, and United’s business collapsed. The firm does not appear to have made it into the ’70s.
At the same time, the Communipaw neighborhood fell into massive post-industrial decay as Jersey City’s commercial status eroded and rolling bankruptcies created a moribund railroad industry. The area just east of the Johnson Avenue factory became one of the nation’s largest eyesores, with acres of abandoned docks and rail yards heaped with mountains of industrial trash. For decades, this zone was a gripping symbol of American rust-belt decay. Today, the area has been largely reclaimed as Liberty State Park.
Remains of the United Guitar Corp. are few today beyond the usually uncredited instruments they left behind. The Johnston Avenue factory is gone, replaced by a row of small townhouse apartments. Next door, a one-story factory stands as mute testimony to the once-prosperous industry.
Forcillo lived on long past the company, dying at age 89 in August of ’88. His obituary noted he “…made guitars for United Guitar Corp, Jersey City.”
United’s anonymous approach guaranteed its name has been relegated to a footnote; hopefully, the unique six-man firm rooted deep in the Italian immigrant lutherie tradition can be appreciated as much more.
This article originally appeared in VG’s May 2021 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.