Elsie Gilfond was born Elsa Lee Dobes in Richmond, Texas. Her parents were Ludvik Dobes, whose family was from Stritez, Moravia, and Bozena Ruzena Spacek, whose family was from the Moravian village of Novy Hrozenkov. Both of her parents were born in Texas, and they met at a Czech dance in Fairchilds.
The Dobes family had a farm in El Campo, but they went to Richmond, Texas, for Elsie’s birth because her grandmother had been the “village doctor” and a midwife. After Elsie’s birth the family could not stay in El Campo because she had asthma and was highly allergic to the farm animals. At first they moved to Texas City to be close to the refreshing air of the Gulf. Then when Elsie was three they moved to Houston. It was in Houston that she learned to speak English, because Czech was the language of the Dobes home.
Elsie received her musical training in Chicago, New York and in Milano, Italy. After finishing high school she obtained a scholarship to study music under the renowned pianist and conductor Rudolf Ganz at the Chicago Musical College. Her becoming a singer was quite accidental. She had to take voice lessons, which she did not really want to do at the time, and her teacher, Nelli Gardini, remarked what a cute little voice she had. Within two months, however, Gardini was able to bring a beautiful voice out of the young Texan.
Elsie eventually made it to New York City, where, like so many other talented young ladies, she aspired to a musical career. She worked as a secretary and whenever she could, sang for parties and bar mitzvahs. She also sang in clubs and performed on both radio and television. In fact, she even had her own bi-weekly television program. Another big break came when she was chosen for the role of one of the brides in the Broadway musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Love touched her in real life, however, and she married Albert Gilfond and followed him to Peru instead.
Her husband was a New Yorker, but she had met him back in Texas when she was a student at the University of Texas, and he was in the Air Force and stationed in San Antonio. Gil was an industrial engineer and business consultant. He worked for the United States Agency for International Development setting up small businesses in Latin America.
The Gilfonds spent three years in Peru, nine in Venezuela and another in Panama. While living in Caracas Elsie started the Venezuelan National Opera Company and sang in its first season. She also made three concert tours of South America. One took her through Venezuela, Colombia and Bolivia, another took her through Colombia, Venezuela and Panama, and a third took her down to Argentina.
Since the tours were organized through the United States Embassy, she felt obligated to sing in English. Whenever she could, however, like for an encore, she sang melodies in her beloved Czech. She always sang under her Czech name, Elsie Dobesh, and publicity for her performances highlighted her “double heritage, that of the America in which she was born and an old world heritage from the land of her parents, which was Czechoslovakia.” Everywhere she was hailed as a lyric soprano with an uncommonly rich voice.
Elsie returned to Texas in the 1970’s. In 1976, 1977 and 1978 she studied Czech along with other Texans at Charles University’s summer school in Prague. Those three summers were full of many memorable experiences. Once she was overheard speaking Czech to another student on a Prague streetcar. A native Czech asked her where she was from. She responded, Texas. The Czech then told her that she spoke Czech just like her grandmother used to.
Meanwhile Elsie was pursuing her doctorate degree in languages at the University of Texas. Her dissertation was on the Czech language as it was spoken in Texas. She taped interviews with members of the older generation of the Texas Czech community, giving them a topic to talk about and asking them to speak in Czech. The topic might be, what kind of toys they had when they were children, or what kind of games they played. She also drew on the taped interviews of her major professor, the late Dr. Svatava Jakobson, or they went out and conducted interviews together.
Some of the Czech with which they were confronted was quite unusual. The following sentence they came across exemplified the mixture of Czech and English: Kluku, ne jumpu pres ten fenc. Roztrhas si pents. (Boy, don’t jump over that fence. You’ll tear your pants.) Elsie refers to this mixture of the two languages as Tex-Czech.
Elsie Gilfond is a wonderful example of the talent and experience produced by the Texas Czech community. She is an equally fine example of someone dedicated to her Czech heritage. In South America she represented both the United States and her beloved Czech background. In Czechoslovakia she was one of thousands of students, musicians, artists, athletes and tourists who kept the doors to the West open during the forty years of communist rule. Thus she helped nurture the sometimes fragile flame of independence and democracy, and helped bring about the overthrow of the Soviet Empire and the restoration of Czech independence and democratic institutions. She was one of many, and like them all, she has earned at least a small spot in history.
- Robert Janak
“Czech Star of Texas — The Life of a Texas Czech Singer of International Renown,” printed in the series Czech Connections, Cesky Hlas (Newsletter of the Czech Heritage Society of Texas), August 1998, pages 8-9.