The James A. Drake Interviews
Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 1
Walter Gustave “Gus” Haenschen — perhaps best known to modern collectors as the fictitious band leader “Carl Fenton” — served as Brunswick’s manager of popular recordings from 1919 to June 1927, when he resigned to embark on what would become a successful career in broadcasting.
Compiled by Jim Drake from transcriptions of his interviews with Haenschen during 1972-1979 in Ithaca, New York; Norwalk, Connecticut; and New York City, this remarkable account appears here in its entirety for the first time. The four initial installments will cover Haenschen’s years with Brunswick, offering a firsthand look at operations in what was then America’s third-largest record company.
In what seemed to be no time at all, in retrospect, Brunswick became a serious rival to the Victor Talking Machine Company, the dominant corporation in the recording industry. What made Brunswick so successful so rapidly?
Well, there were several reasons. First, the Brunswick company was able to offer recording artists a “package“ that not even Victor could match. We [Brunswick] could offer not only a much higher amount for retainer, but could also give the artist a higher percentage of royalties from the sales of the recordings.
Another advantage that we had was flexible release dates. We adopted a flexible release-date policy very early in my time there. Victor, you see, was at the top of the pyramid in the industry, Columbia was one or two tiers down from Victor, and [the] Edison [company], which had been a major competitor in the early years of the industry, had only a fraction of the market by 1919 even though they had the superior technology.
Victor had a fixed day or date each month, and that would be the date that their new releases would be announced to the trade and the public. If my memory serves me right, Columbia had the same policy, although I can’t say for sure after all these years. But Victor was our main competitor, or so we liked to think, and by issuing new releases whenever the moment was right, we could very often “scoop” them.
Our flexible release-date policy was especially important where Broadway shows were concerned. Take a musical like “Good News” or “No, No, Nanette,” for example. At the premiere of shows like those, there would be representatives in the audience from Victor, Columbia other record companies, and several of us from Brunswick. All of us would have one purpose in going to the premiere: to figure out in advance which of the songs in the show would catch on and therefore sell records.
What was difficult was trying to second-guess the audience by trying to determine whether they were reacting principally to the production, the staging, the performer, or mainly the song. If we had a hunch from the audience’s reaction that we were right, we could get an arrangement together, record it, and have it in our dealers’ shops weeks before Victor’s or Columbia‘s monthly release date rolled around. That’s where our flexible-release policy gave us an edge. We could release a new Brunswick record any day of the week.
You spoke about the type of backing Brunswick had. Would you elaborate on that?
What I have been calling “Brunswick” here—the phonograph and record company, in other words—was just one subsidiary of the Brunswick-Balke-Collander Company. Even in 1919, when I was hired, it was an old and well-established company that had made its name in billiards and bowling equipment, and saloon fixtures of all kinds. Most of the saloon fixtures were made in the mammoth [Brunswick] factory in Saginaw, Michigan, where they employed some of the finest woodworkers and cabinet makers in the world.
Prohibition cut deeply into the saloon fixture business, which is how the parent company decided to get into the recording industry. A fellow by the name of B. Edward Bensinger, or Ed as we called him, headed the parent company, and he and the board of directors approved a plan to manufacture phonographs, using the equipment and skill they had in the Saginaw factory.
Brunswick-Balke-Collender’s facilities included a massive factory in Dubuque, Iowa, and a pressing plant (one of several) in Jersey City.
Brunswick was only making phonograph cabinets at first, and then they began making their own line of phonographs. This would’ve been about 1909 or 1910, and it was how I became involved with Brunswick when I was a college student at Washington University in St. Louis, my hometown.
I had an orchestra in those days and knew popular music pretty well, and I had a fairly good background in classical music. After classes and on weekends, I worked at what was then the largest department store in St. Louis. It was called Scrugg-Vandervoort [Scruggs, Vandervort & Barney], and it took up almost an entire city block. I began working there part-time in the Music Department, which took up the entire sixth floor and included pianos, player and reproducing pianos, and all of the major brands of phonographs.
The Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney building, St. Louis (1907)
Our store was the largest victor dealership in St. Louis. But during the holiday season each year, we had all kinds of trouble getting Victor to deliver the Victrolas our customers had ordered. One holiday season when we were particularly troubled by Victor’s backlogging, I succeeded in getting the management to introduce and heavily promote Brunswick phonographs. Well, the sales exceeded everybody’s expectations. That made me something of a fair-haired boy at Scruggs-Vandervoort, and also put me in a very good light with the Brunswick sales representatives for getting them a large contract.
The Victrola was the biggest selling phonograph of that era. How were you able to persuade buyers that the Brunswick phonograph was equal to or even better than a Victrola?
As you do in any sales business, I pointed out the advantages that the Brunswick had over the Victrola. At the time, and this was in the early 1910s before World War One, a Victor phonograph would only play lateral-cut recordings. Just as Edison was committed to vertical-cut recordings to the exclusion of any other type, so the Victor Talking Machine Company was committed purely to lateral cut recordings.
There was another company, Pathé, which had at one point a fairly good market share. Pathé recordings were vertical-cut, like Edison Diamond Discs, but they had much wider grooves and used a ball-shaped sapphire stylus for playback. Well, Brunswick had made a series of vertical-cut recordings before I joined the company. I’m not sure when they did them, but I don’t recall any Brunswick vertical-cut records when I was working at Scruggs-Vandervoort.
(Left) Vertical-cut Brunswicks were recorded in the U.S. but sold only in Canada. They later were pressed with updated labels (right) stating “Jewel Point Record” (right), again for sale only in Canada.
Our recording engineer at Brunswick, Frank Hofbauer, was the one who had recorded them. He told me that none of those records was ever sold in the U.S. They were only sold in Canada, which was the main market from what I understood, and some were exported to England for sale there. But that was before I was with the company, and after I left Scruggs-Vandervoort to join the Navy.
What was it about the Brunswick phonograph that you highlighted as selling points to customers at Scruggs-Vandervoort?
The biggest selling point for Brunswick machines was the tonearm, which was called the Ultona. It was really a marvelous design from an engineering standpoint because it would play both vertical-cut and lateral-cut recordings, and it had the appropriate stylus for each type of record. By rotating the playback head, you could select either to use a disposable steel needle to play Victor or Columbia recordings, or a ball stylus—we used emerald rather than sapphire for the ball stylus on the Ultona—to play Pathé recordings.
Louis Taxon of Rockport, Illinois, patented the Ultona reproducer and arm in 1917 and assigned his patent to the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company.
The Ultona had two good-sized mica diaphragms mounted back-to-back, each with its own damping rings, in a nickel-plated “head” that could be rotated to play each type of record. One of the two diaphragms had an elliptical stylus for playing Edison Diamond Discs. The [Ultona] also had a sliding weight build into its tonearm, inside the tube that connected the reproducer to the sound box. That sliding weight was necessary for playing Edison records because it lightened the pressure of the stylus on the grooves of an Edison disc.
A June 1919 ad for the Brunswick Ultona. There were already many “universal” reproducers and phonographs on the market, but the Ultona was better-engineered, and the only one to be produced by a major national corporation of Brunswick’s stature.
It was the Ultona tonearm that made the Brunswick an “all in one” phonograph, and it was priced competitively with the Victor machines. That “all in one” feature, plus the beautiful cabinetry and a wide selection of styles and finishes and prices of Brunswick phonographs, were the selling points I used at Scruggs-Vandervoort.
Did any of the founding members of Brunswick-Balke-Collander have an involvement in the phonograph part of the corporation?
The founder, John M. Brunswick, had died in the last [nineteenth] century, and his son-in-law, Moses Bensinger, who had married J. M.’s daughter, Eleanora Brunswick, had died just after the turn of the century. Ed [Benjamin Edward] Bensinger was a son of Moses Bensinger. Ed has a son who’s named after him, but who goes by “Ted.” The first Brunswick, J. M. Brunswick, had bought out another billiard maker, Hugh Collender, who also died before the company became involved in the phonograph business.
The third founder, Julius Balke (Sr.), also died before the phonograph division was organized. But Julius Balke’s son, who was named after him [Julius Balke, Jr.], and Ed Bensinger were major stockholders and executives in the overall corporation. They were what I would call appropriately active in the phonograph division, meaning that they weren’t intrusive and never interfered in what we were planning or what we were releasing. But they kept a close eye on the phonograph division.
How did the new Brunswick phonograph affect the public profile of the Brunswick parent company?
Well, the phonograph division was what gave Brunswick-Balke-Collender a reputable name with the public. As I said, the company had been known for elaborate saloon fixtures, billiard tables, and bowling equipment. In the early-1900s, most bowling was done in large bars. Bowling alleys came later. So the company was associated with the tavern and bar business, which was anything but reputable in the eyes of most women. But when Brunswick began producing not only phonographs but a line of recordings, the company was now seen in the same light as Victor. So in effect, the phonograph business made Brunswick reputable in ways the company had never been, as far as the general public was concerned.
When did you join Brunswick?
I enlisted in the Navy in 1917 with hopes of being sent to the front in France, but probably because I was an engineer, I spent my entire tour of duty at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn machining metal parts, doing a lot of welding and working on ship propellers. I did go to sea, but it was just to repair ship engines in other ports. When I was mustered out and I docked in New York City in June of 1919, to my complete surprise I was literally met at the dock by Brunswick executives.
I was taken to the Plaza Hotel where Brunswick had a large suite for me and all of my family from St. Louis, whom they had brought to New York to be with me. They give me a car to use and paid for anything that I wanted my family to see or do in Manhattan. They gave me two days to do all of that, and then I was to meet with them in another suite at the Plaza.
There, they offered me a position which they had just created for the new record division. I was to be the founding director of popular music releases. When they told me what they were going to pay me, I actually thought I had misheard them. They offered me $50,000 a year plus stock options, and also told me to order any make of automobile that I wanted, with any accessories I wanted on it, and that it would be mine as long as I was with the company. One of the men said, “We don’t mean a Model T [Ford], we want you to get the car you want.” I took them up on it and ordered an emerald-green Buick convertible. I’ve driven new Buicks ever since then.
Early Brunswick managers. These photos appeared in a January 1920 Talking Machine World article announcing the launch of Brunswick records in the U.S.
At that meeting I was introduced to one of the great men in the recording industry, Walter B. Rogers, who had been a cornetist with the Sousa band and was also the musical director at Victor. Walter had been one of the early instrumental soloists, a cornetist for the [Emil] Berliner and early Victor companies in the early 1900s. I was told that Walter would be the director of classical-music releases, and that we would work together as a team to direct all recordings that Brunswick would release. We were also responsible for auditioning prospective singers and instrumentalists. Later on, Walter had his own band at Brunswick, and made a lot of successful recordings for the company.
Some sources indicate that Walter Rogers didn’t join the company until 1922, but that you were with Brunswick as early as 1916.
No, no—that’s totally wrong. Walter Rogers was one of the very first employees at Brunswick. Now, I’m not in a position to know exactly how he was paid. I suppose it’s possible that he was on some kind of retainer, or an exclusive consulting contract, and was paid that way. That’s possible, but I doubt it. Anyway, he and Frank Hofbauer were the first two members of the phonograph division as far as I know.
What was the range of your responsibilities as director of popular-music recordings?
I had to approve all arrangements that were used in the sessions, changing them where necessary—and in most of the vocal sessions I did the studio conducting, too. When we were recording a dance band, I just directed the overall session, of course. Acoustical recordings were tough to arrange for, and sometimes the musical groups we would be recording, would naturally want to use their best arrangements. But we had to revise their arrangements for the limitations of the recording process.
It was a far different matter, you see, when a dance band was recording a song than playing at in a night club or a ballroom. When a band would play in public, especially in the early-1920s, they tended to follow what was then a current fashion by adding fifth notes to major chords. It sounded great in a ballroom, but in an acoustical-recording session the fifth note would sometimes give the impression of a minor chord just because of the recording process. So it would be my job to scrutinize all these arrangements and delete or otherwise revise troublesome parts.
Were you involved at all in the development of the Brunswick recording process?
No, none of it. As I talked about earlier, Brunswick had been involved with Pathé, but that was before my time. Everything was in place by the time I was hired—the first recording studios, or “recording rooms” as we called them—and a lot of test recordings had been made by the time when I got the offer to become the director of popular-music releases.
What was Frank Hofbauer’s background, and why did he become so important to Brunswick?
Frank had worked directly for Thomas Edison and brought all of his knowledge to the design and development of the recording lathes, diaphragms, and cutting styluses for Brunswick. Before that, he had been with one of the very early companies in the industry, the Leeds Phonograph Company [sic; the Leeds & Catlin Company]. Frank was the man who was responsible for the incredible quality of the Brunswick recording process.
How old was Frank Hofbauer when he joined Brunswick?
I would say he was in his late-fifties, maybe even sixty when he went with Brunswick. He was really one of the pioneers in the recording end of the industry. We [Brunswick] also had another very important man in the industry, a fellow named Darby, who had worked with Emile Berliner in the early days of the industry.
In what seemed to be a time when men preferred to be known by their initials, Darby’s name is often shown in print as “W.S.K. Darby,” or just plain “S. K. Darby.” What was he called when you worked with him?
He was called “Will” at Brunwick.
For the recording equipment in the studios, did Frank Hofbauer use the Dennison recording machines which Victor used?
No, he had to design his own machines. We couldn’t use Dennison machines because Victor owned the patent on them. The design that Frank came up with had a cast-iron frame rather like the harp-shaped frame of a grand piano. Because of his work with Edison, Frank settled on a groove width of 1/250th of an inch, and a speed of 80 r.p.m. He used the same formula for wax recording blanks that he had used at Edison, and he also had an electric coil on the cutting stylus, which heated the cutter and made a cleaner groove in the wax master.
Were Frank Hofbauer’s recording machines powered by electricity or by clockwork-style weights?
By cast lead weights. Electricity was not reliable in 1919. There would be voltage surges and often variances in the voltage that would cause fluctuations in the speed of the motor, and therefore in the speed of the finished recording. Most electric motors of that time also had a detectable sound when they were running.
Although leather belts were used to connect motors to machinery, some of that motor noise could be captured by the recording diaphragm. There was also the problem of power outages, which were much more common then than they are now. So, the system of weights and pulleys was completely reliable, no matter what the weather.
Did Frank Hofbauer also design field-recording machines?
Oh, yes—those were a necessity. We used them when we were traveling to other cities and states to make recordings. The field recording machine—and there were a half-dozen of them because there always had to be a back-up machine and also because we started doing a lot of field recording in the first two or three years of the company—was an A-frame design with the lathe, turntable and diaphragm and the cutting stylus mounted on top of the frame.
Could you describe one of these portable machines in more detail?
Well, the frame itself was about five feet high, tapered, and had four legs. The legs were four-by-fours, solid oak, and the recording turntable and lathe and cutting head were mounted on top of an oak platform. There was oval-shaped lead weight suspended below the deck. That lead weight powered the turntable and the lathe. There were places all around the tops of the legs where steel rods could be attached to hold up to three recording horns.
The horns were attached by rubber tubes to the cutting head, meaning the recording diaphragm. The horns could be tilted downward if necessary, as in, for example, recording a grand piano with the lid open. The usual configuration for a session like that would be to have one horn angled downward to pick up the sounds of the piano strings, and the singer or instrumentalist would be playing or singing into a second horn. The field recorder could be disassembled for shipping fairly easily.
Was there a specific formula for the making of the wax master from which the recordings were made?
Yes, the formula was Frank Hofbauer’s, and it was probably the same one that Edison had used for the wax masters.
Apart from your success selling Brunswick photographs in St. Louis, why do you think the company chose you to be the founding director of popular music releases?
After a while I found out why, and it was because Walter Rogers had been impressed with me when my little orchestra, Haenschen’s Banjo Orchestra, made trial recordings at Victor in 1916. It was just my trio, with a banjoist and with Tom [Theodore Thomas] Schiffer on traps and my banjoist.
Theodore Schiffer (drums) and Gus Haenschen (piano) performing in Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney’s Victrola department, summer of 1916.
Although none of those trial recordings was ever approved, Walter took a liking to me. So it was he more than anyone else who was responsible for my being picked to head the new popular music releases division of the company.
Where were the Brunswick studios located when you joined the company?
They were using a temporary studio on East 21 Street. That didn’t last very long because I remember that we moved the studios to the top two floors, the twelfth and thirteenth floors, of a brand-new building, the Brunswick Building, at 16 East 36th Street in Manhattan. There, we had executive offices on the twelfth floor and two recording studios on the top floor. Later, we moved to the top floor of an even bigger Brunswick building at 799 Seventh Avenue.
The Brunswick Building at 799 Seventh Avenue, New York. Studios, on the top floor, were taken over by Decca Records in 1934.
One of our two main competitors, Columbia, had their studios on the thirteenth floor of another downtown building, the Gotham. The reason we [i.e.,Brunswick and Columbia] built studios on the highest floor of a tall building was to be as far above the noise of traffic in Manhattan, while also being able to have large windows that could be opened during warm weather to keep the studios cool.
We forget that there was a time when air-conditioning didn’t exist.
That’s right—there was no air conditioning back then, and we couldn’t use electric fans during recording sessions because even the quietest of them made just enough of a breeze to cause sheet music to flutter. Our studios had wire lines stretched from one wall to the other above the recording horn, and the arrangement—not an actual score, but a sheet of paper showing the order of the choruses—was attached to the lines by metal clips. If you had fans running, even slow-speed ceiling fans, it didn’t take much air to cause those sheets of paper to flutter
At 16 East 36th Street, we had large windows that helped cool the studio, except when it rained. When that happened, we resorted to fans—not ceiling fans, but several large Westinghouse fans that were mounted on a wood frame so that the blades were an inch or two above a long tub filled with large blocks of ice.
We used rheostats to control the speed of the fans so that they could run more slowly when we were recording. As soon as a “take” was finished, we’d turn the rheostats to maximum voltage and hope that the rain would stop. Sometimes there would be thunderstorms, and we had no choice but to wait out the storm because a thunderclap could ruin the wax master.
Do you have any recollection of the first recording ever issued on the Brunswick label and after you joined a company?
The first singer I can remember making records was Elizabeth Lennox, a wonderful mezzo soprano—more of a contralto, really—who is still my friend. On the instrumental side, we had a fine violinist, Elias Breeskin, and if my memory is correct, his recordings were the first ones that Brunswick really promoted.
What would a typical workday be for you and Walter Rogers, and how much interaction was there between you?
We worked together very, very closely. Walter would ask me to check the placing of instruments in relation to the singer or the instrumentalist and the recording horn. My recordings were said to have a very good balance, although I don’t know where that got started exactly—but Walter would ask me to give him my opinion about instrument placements. I can remember sitting through different takes with Sigrid Onegin, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Edith Mason, Maria Ivogun, Giuseppe Danise, Michael Bohnen, Leopold Godowsky, and Joseph Hofmann among the other great artists we had under contract.
I have particularly fond memories of Sigrid Onegin, Elisabeth Rethberg and Michael Bohnen. We were especially lucky with Onegin and Rethberg since both of them were just at the beginning of their American careers when we got them under exclusive contracts. They were also two of the dearest, loveliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.
Michael Bohnen (left) and Richard Bonelli (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)
Michael Bohnen was big, fun-loving fellow. Because my family were immigrant Germans, German was my first language and so I spoke German with Bohnen in the studio. I remember one time him coming into the studio looking like hell! He had welts all over his face, and a few fresh cuts, and his shirt was a mess. Naturally we asked what it happened to him and he sort of kiddingly said that he had cut himself shaving. Chances are that somebody insulted his heritage, and in good Germanic fashion he probably let them know with his fists that he was not too happy about it! But what a fine musician he was—and he was as great an actor as he was a singer.
I’m assuming that not all of your memories of Brunswick’s classical artists are as endearing as the ones you just mentioned.
Two that I could have done without were Claire Dux and Marie Tiffany, even though I had good working relationships with both of them through Walter [Rogers]. Claire Dux had one stock answer every time she encountered any sort of opposition about anything she wanted. She’d look at you with a well-rehearsed kind of innocence and say, “But—but—I am the golden Claire!” You can imagine how many responses our studio musicians dreamed up for that line!
A Brunswick dealer’s ad capitalizing on Marie Tiffany’s appearance in Phoenix, Arizona (November 1920)
Marie Tiffany, as you might know, later married Bill Brophy, who was my boss, essentially. She was extremely ambitious career-wise, although her opera career never reached the heights she probably hoped for. Her ambition, and then her relationship with Bill Brophy, sometimes made things a little tense. Although he married her, she had been his mistress for some time.
What was the hierarchy of the phonograph division of Brunswick? Who was the head of it, and who reported to whom?
The head of the company was Ed Bensinger, and the next in line under him was Bill [William A.] Brophy, who was the general manager of the phonograph and recording division. Technically, Percy Deutsch reported to Bill Brophy, but since he was a Brunswick family member, he had more influence than Bill had. There was also a “Music Department” in the company’s executive structure, which was put in about the time I joined Brunswick. It was headed by a fellow named Henry P. Eames, and I think his supervisor was Bill Brophy.
Bill Brophy was also Frank Hofbauer’s supervisor, as I recall. Then there were Walter Rogers and I, Walter being responsible for classical-music releases and I being responsible for the popular-music ones. We reported to Bill Brophy. There were other departments which had general managers and other executives—the Sales department, the Promotion department—and also regional managers for various parts of the country.
Were you involved in any with the annual catalogs that Brunswick issued?
No—those were done by the Promotion department. Today, we would call it the “Advertising Department.” It was also responsible for the monthly supplements, the printed advertisements in newspapers and magazines, and all of the company’s announcements and news releases.
If I had had any say about those catalogs, I would have urged that we not issue them at all because of our flexible-release date policy. We could have issued monthly supplements to our dealers instead of an annual catalog. But we were expected to print an annual catalog because Victor and Columbia issued them.
“We [Brunswick] compiled and published in our annual catalogs all of the records that were available to dealers as of October of the previous year. In other words, the Brunswick catalog for 1925 listed all of the recordings that had been released as of mid-October 1924.”
Like the Victor and Columbia catalogs, ours were divided into two sections, each printed on different-colored paper. All of the recordings, popular and classical, were printed in alphabetical order, with the price listed for each recording. Unlike Victor, which issued all of their Red Seals in single-sided form until 1922 or 1923, we issued only double-sided recordings, either ten-inch or twelve-inch.
All of our popular-music records were priced at $.75 for a double-sided disc. Our classical recordings, which were printed on gold-colored paper in the second part of the catalog, were priced at $1.00 or a maximum of $2.00 for a double-sided recording.
Did Brunswick issue many of the same titles that Victor and Columbia had issued?
Yes, we were a case of what you might call “follow the leader.” For example, duets like “Whispering Hope” by Louise Homer and Alma Gluck were very popular Victor Red Seals, so we had Marie Tiffany and Elizabeth Lennox record the very same arrangement for us at Brunswick. We also copied the arrangements and phrasing of Victors instrumentalists like Fritz Kreisler. We had Max Rosen record many of Kreisler’s most popular Victor recordings, so he became Brunswick’s Kreisler. We even had our own “Caruso.” That was Mario Chamlee.
Did you audition Chamlee?
Not in the usual sense, no. Archie Chalmondeley—that was his real name—was still in his khakis when he made a “personal recording” at the Brunswick studios. Every record company did “personal recordings,” typically after-hours or on a Sunday, because the singer or instrumentalist had to pay for them out-of-pocket and also had to pay for the piano accompanist.
Archie had made a personal recording in our studio, but we didn’t know anything about it because that was not “commercial,” not part of our responsibilities. Frankly, we thought that those were just “vanity recordings.” I know because I made several of them at Columbia when I had my band in St. Louis. Anyway, Frank Hofbauer suggested to Walter Rogers and me that this young tenor’s “personal recording” sounded very impressive.
An early advertisement for Mario Chamlee’s records,
The acoustical-recording process was hit-and-miss, and some voices recorded well and others didn’t. Archie’s voice on that recording sounded almost like Caruso’s. In person, he didn’t sound like that—actually, he sounded more like Tito Schipa—but our recording equipment made him sound like Caruso. Well, we really capitalized on that. We signed Archie to an exclusive contract and changed his last name to “Chamlee.” His first series of Brunswick discs show his name as “Archer Chamlee,” but at Walter’s suggestion his first name was changed to “Mario.”
Walter [Rogers], who had conducted many of Caruso’s Victor Red Seal recordings, coached Chamlee to mimic Caruso’s phrasing and dynamics. If you listen to Chamlee’s Brunswicks of arias and songs that Caruso made famous at Victor, some of Mario’s recordings could pass for Caruso’s if you didn’t look at the label on the record.
Richard Bonelli was another “find” for Brunswick. Do you recall his audition?
Yes. He was “Dick Bunn” when we auditioned him, but at Walter’s suggestion he Italianized his last name to “Bonelli.” His voice wasn’t that large, yet it recorded “big”—even more so than John Charles Thomas, who was nationally known and far more experienced than Dick Bonelli. And just as Walter had coached Chamlee to mimic Caruso’s phrasing, he did the same with Dick, using Titta Ruffo’s Victor recordings. Just as Mario became Brunswick’s Caruso, Dick Bonelli became our Ruffo.
Your files show that John Charles Thomas was one of the first vocalists who was given an exclusive contract by Brunswick. Did you play any role in that?
Yes, I’m happy to say that I did. Walter [Rogers] knew of John from his success in light opera, but he didn’t know John personally, which I did. I had met him in 1914, when I was at T. B. Harms during the time that Gene Buck was writing the lyrics to my tune that became “Underneath the Japanese Moon” in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1914. John Charles Thomas was then singing in a Shubert production of a musical called “The Peasant Girl.” I got to know him then, and we became friends. I watched him grow into a real Broadway star, especially in “Maytime.”
When I joined Brunswick, he was one of the first singers I had in mind for our recordings, and he was one of the first to know that I had accepted an offer with Brunswick and that I wanted him in our catalog. But he had just signed a contract with Aeolian Vocalion, and he couldn’t get out of it. So we [Brunswick] had to wait until we acquired the Vocalion company and its artists. From then on, John and any of the other performers who had made records for Vocalion were recorded in our new studios, when the Brunswick building at 16 East 36th Street was finished. — To be continued
© 2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.
James A. Drake is the author of seven books and more than fifty academic and commercial articles. Two of his biographies, Ponselle: A Singer’s Life (Doubleday & Company), and Richard Tucker: A Biography (E. P. Dutton Company), with forewords by tenor Luciano Pavarotti, were selected as Books of the Month by the National Book Clubs of America. His other books include Rosa Ponselle: A Centenary Biography; Teaching Critical Thinking; Popular Culture and American Life; and Lily Pons: A Centennial Portrait (with K. B. Ludecke). He was also a contributing author to the 24-volume American National Biography (Oxford University Press, 1999) and The International Dictionary of Opera (St. James Press, 2000) and served on the editorial board of The Opera Quarterly.