The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The Radio Years — Part 4 (Conclusion)
In this final segment of The Radio Years, Gus Haenschen recalls his later experiences in radio and the changes that took place as television came upon the scene.
Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:
About the music programs you were responsible for, I’m inclined to begin by asking you what the Hummerts’ fascination with Thomas L. Thomas stemmed from.
You would have to have known Thomas to understand that. If you have ever seen film of him, you’d understand it because he was a handsome man, very engaging, a first-rate musician, and very, very easy to work with.
But his voice, to my ears, is small and his tone is more of a lyric tenor than a baritone.
It wasn’t as small as you might think. His voice carried very well, even in a large venue. That didn’t matter on radio, of course, but when we were on tour and were singing in armories, his voice carried very well. And he could sing anything—he had a very wide repertoire—so if he sang a folk ballad, it would sound like a folk ballad, and if he sang a song from a Jerome Kern musical, it would sound like a Broadway singer would sing it. It was his versatility, more than anything else, that made him so popular.
Vivian Della Chiesa (left) and Thomas L. Thomas
John Raitt told me that Thomas L. Thomas was his model, and that he wanted to do as Thomas did and have a concert career as well as to sing on television and on Broadway.
When John was starting out, he asked me a lot about [Thomas L.] Thomas. John was meant for Broadway, and his voice is much more distinctive and a good bit larger than Thomas’s was. But John did not have the level of musicianship that Thomas had. John Raitt would never have had a concert career like Thomas L. Thomas did. Nor would Thomas have had a Broadway career like John Raitt has had.
Thomas had a brother, David Thomas, who was also a singer. Did you have David Thomas on any of the Hummert programs?
No. David Thomas was basically a character actor who could do some singing. His whole career was spent in Broadway musicals and plays. He was in just about every performance of “My Fair Lady” [on Broadway], singing a character role in the ensembles. But he was an actor, not a singer like Thomas L. Thomas was.
In your archive, there is an air-check of an arrangement you wrote for Thomas L. Thomas and Margaret Daum, a symphonic arrangement of “White Christmas.” Do you recall that arrangement?
Very well—especially when I got a call afterward from Irving Berlin, who gave me a real shellacking over the phone! He told me that I had not only ruined the song but that I had also “wasted” an entire minute distorting his melody before Thomas and Daum had sung a note.
Did you defend the arrangement?
At Brunswick, I had learned not to try to reason with Berlin when he was mad. I could have said, “At least I didn’t have them sing the verse,” which if you’ve ever heard it, has nothing to do with Christmas. The verse is a lament about being in Beverly Hills and being surrounded by palm trees instead of pine trees. Anyway, all I said to him was that it wouldn’t happen again. That’s all you could say to Berlin when he was yelling at you over the phone. You could also count on getting a short but very complimentary letter from Berlin a week or so later. He wouldn’t mention the incident but would tell you that he and his wife often listened to your program.
The “White Christmas” arrangement was broadcast on “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round.” Was Thomas L. Thomas the star of the show week after week, or was he on it only occasionally?
He was the male star of “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round” at that time, and he was also on the Monday broadcast of the show [“Monday Merry-Go-Round”] and later on Frank and Anne gave him a half-hour program called “Your Song and Mine,” which was a middle-of-the-week show. By then, he was singing a lot on “The Voice of Firestone,” which he continued to do on television. He was still concertizing, and he sang all over Europe and I think in Australia too.
The Hummerts had a show called “London Merry-Go-Round.” Were you involved in that show?
No. They owned the rights to it, but the show was cast and broadcast in London. I didn’t have anything to do with it, and for all practical purposes neither did Frank and Anne.
There was another variation called “Broadway Merry-Go-Round.” Did you oversee that show too?
Yes, in the sense that I put in Frank Black as the conductor and let him pick the songs. Frank and Anne had this fascination with Paris, so everything on that show was supposed to be French-themed. We mixed comic songs and ballads on that show. Fannie Brice did the first half of the run of that show, but she had so many other offers that she didn’t want to be tied down to a weekly radio show. Bea Lillie was very popular then, so she replaced Fannie Brice—but that show only lasted one season, if my memory is right.
Haenschen with Vivian Della Chiesa
The Hummerts had another French show, “The French Mignon Trio,” but there isn’t much about it in your collection. Do you remember the show?
Unfortunately, I do. I was against it, but Anne wanted a daytime music show with a small cast and nothing but French songs. She came up with the title, which I thought was atrocious, but I couldn’t do anything about it because once her mind was made up, there was no changing it. I wish I could remember who the announcer was, but his name escapes me. He couldn’t pronounce “Mignon” at first and had to be told that it was pronounced the same as “filet mignon.” I’m not sure whether that show lasted an entire season, or whether Frank quietly dropped it.
Going back to “Broadway Merry-Go-Round,” the Hummerts had another “Broadway” show on the air that same season called “Broadway Varieties.” What do you remember about that show?
That one ran about five or six years. It didn’t do very well at first, mainly because Jerry Freeman, whom I had picked to conduct the show and handle the arrangements, just didn’t work out. It was also French-themed—not every number, but at least some of them in every show—and Jerry Freeman just didn’t give the show any life. So I turned it over to Vic Arden, and he made a go of it. Fifi D’Orsay was one of the stars. Willie and Gene Howard were on that show too. That was a show that we started on NBC and then switched to CBS for a better time slot and higher advertising rates. We also did that with another show, “American Melody Hour.”
Was the theme of that show “The songs of the day so you can know them all and sing them all yourself”?
Yes, Anne [Hummert] came up with that one. That’s very typical of her [writing] style, by the way. That’s the style of the narratives on their soap operas. “American Melody Hour” was a good show because of the cast and the arrangements. Frank Munn did the whole run, and Vivian Della Chiesa did the first season. Vivian wanted to go on tour, where she could make a lot more money. She was in good standing with Frank and Anne, and she promised she would do any shows that they wanted her for. She stayed with them, and she was on several of their shows later on.
Vivian Della Chiesa and Frank Munn on “The American Melody Hour” (Autumn 1941)
Who conducted and did the arrangements for “American Melody Hour”?
Frank Black did all of them. When Vivian wanted to go on tour, we were in negotiations to move the show from NBC to CBS. When we went over to CBS, we put in Evelyn MacGregor, who was very good, and Jean Pickens was on the show for a time. Stan[ley] McClelland was the baritone, and he and Frank [Munn] did a lot of duets. And Carmela Ponselle too—she was on several of the “American Melody Hour” shows when we went to CBS.
There was a show called “Waltz Time,” which I believe you conducted.
That was a long-running show, but I only conducted its first season—maybe the first and second, I’m not sure—but most of them were conducted by Abe Lyman. We put together that show as another vehicle for Frank Munn. He sang on every program until he retired, and then we put in a young lyric tenor named Bob Hannon. We paired Frank with Lucy Monroe, who did almost the entire run.
For some reason, it’s hard to envision Abe Lyman leading an orchestra that played nothing but waltzes. Was it a “hard sell” to get him to do that show?
No, not at all. “Waltz Time” was a very popular program, and it made Abe a lot of money. It wasn’t the kind of music he preferred playing, but he still had his own band and was still touring with them. But this was a solid program in a very good time slot, and the money was very, very good.
Although these shows emanated from New York, several of the Hummert programs had “Hollywood” in their titles—“Hollywood Nights,” “The Imperial Hollywood Band,” and “MGM Radio Movie Club.” You conducted “The Imperial Hollywood Band” program, but did you also conduct the other ones?
Well, first of all, “MGM Radio Movie Club” wasn’t a musical program at all. Anne [Hummert] had this idea for a show that would simulate a movie studio. It was a dialogue show with actors playing the parts of directors, cameramen, producers and such. “The Imperial Hollywood Band” was a show we used for up and coming singers and instrumentalists. I did most of the arrangements, picked who would be featured on each program, and conducted the orchestra.
And “Hollywood Nights”?
That was a show we put together at NBC for Frank Luther, but it didn’t “take” and was only one for a year. Frank was a good ensemble singer but he wasn’t strong enough to carry a show by himself.
In those early days of network radio, who decided whether a show would continue on the air or be cancelled?
That depended on whether the show was sponsored. The ones that weren’t sponsored were underwritten by the network and were called “sustaining,” meaning that the network was paying the tab. If a show was sponsored, the sponsors would deal directly with the network’s advertising people. But for all the Hummerts’ programs, Frank dealt with the sponsors and with the network. He was the one who put the sponsors together with the shows, and he called the shots with the sponsors and the network. That’s how much power he had.
Would [Frank Hummert] take on a music program before he had a sponsor for it—in effect, “sustaining” a program until he could find a sponsor?
No, never. There was no money to be made in a situation like that. Keep in mind that Frank’s career was in advertising. Sponsors were what mattered the most to him.
One of the Hummert music program was called “California Theatre of the Air.” Did it originate in California?
No, it originated in New York. It was a knock-off of “Chicago Theatre of the Air,” the show that Col. [Robert R.] McCormick used as a showcase for Marion Claire. Frank knew McCormick from his [Frank Hummert’s] years in Chicago. That “California Theatre of the Air” only lasted one season because there was nothing distinctive about it.
The Hummerts also had a show called “Nightclub of the Air” in the mid-1930s. What was the premise of that program?
That show was pretty open-ended. Any of the popular bands could appear on the show, and Isham Jones, Gus Arnheim, Abe Lyman, Fred Waring, and Ted Fiorito were on it. Milton Cross was the announcer of that show.
The Hummerts also had a program called “Roxy Symphony Theater of the Stars.” How much interaction did they have with “Roxy” Rothafel?
Not very much because it was Roxy’s theater and the program was essentially a broadcast of one of the stage shows at Radio City Music Hall during the first year or two that it was open.
S. L. “Roxy” Rothafel (left) and conductor Erno Rapee
Were you involved with the show yourself?
No, hardly at all. Roxy had hired Erno Rapee as his conductor, and he had a staff of arrangers. The Radio City orchestra had over 100 players, and of course they had a large chorus and that famous dance troupe. All I did was to look over what would be sung or played. Rapee had done several sessions for us at World Broadcasting, so he and I knew each other very well, and he knew what songs the Hummerts wanted to hear. But Roxy and Radio City were so big that they didn’t need the Hummerts, so that program didn’t last more than a year or two.
There was another short-lived program around that same time, called “Waves of Melody.” What do you remember about that show?
I think that was the one that began as a fifteen-minute program at NBC, then Frank expanded it to a half-hour, and it went nowhere. Vic[tor] Arden oversaw the arrangements and conducted the orchestra, and Frank [Hummert] found a tenor that he wanted Vic to feature. I can’t remember the name of the tenor [Tom Brown], but he didn’t go anywhere and the show didn’t either.
In your collection, there are arrangements for a show called “The Musical Revue” which you conducted. What was the format of that program?
That was basically “The Palmolive Hour” under a different title, with Frank Munn, Virginia Rea, and Elizabeth Lennox and our studio orchestra. Frank Black and I alternated conducting the shows, and we did the arrangements as well.
“The Pet Milk Hour” in a later incarnation, as “Saturday Night Serenade.” This ad is from a 1940s Pet Milk cookbook.
One of your most popular shows late in your radio career was “The Pet Milk Hour,” which we had talked about before. In the late-1940s you gave two singers a start on that show: Vic Damone and Florence Henderson. I don’t believe either one of them had any national exposure until you put them on “The Pet Milk Hour.” Had you auditioned them?
Perry Como had recommended Vic to me. I had met Perry when he was with Ted Weems’ band, and I had given him some advice when he went out on his own. Vic was ideal to work with. Florence Henderson wasn’t with us very long. She was a conservatory graduate and had wanted to be an opera singer, but she really didn’t have the voice for it.
Perry Como recommended Vic Damone to Haenschen for the Pet Milk broadcasts.
Are you still in touch with both Vic Damone and Florence Henderson?
With Vic, yes, but not Florence Henderson. She’s so big on television now, and she doesn’t like to be reminded of her radio days because it dates her. Vic is just as popular today as he was twenty-five years ago. He’s followed Perry’s example of keeping in shape physically and vocally.
The longest-running of the Hummert shows, and the one you were associated with from beginning to end, was “The American Album of Familiar Music.” You did that show for twenty years, so it must hold a special place in your memory.
That was my show, it was my format, and I had the pick of anybody I wanted for that program. From the start [in 1931], I always mixed light classical music with popular music, so I was able to vary the repertoire and give the show a different “feel” than the other [Hummert] programs. I had my “regulars” on the show—especially Frank Munn, Virginia Rea, Lucy Monroe, Elizabeth Lennox, and Vivian Della Chiesa—but I also had Bert[ram] Hirsch heading the string section, and an excellent chorus too. Over the years, all of the guys who played in our World Broadcasting sessions—both Dorseys, [Benny] Goodman, Artie [Shaw] and the others—were in “The American Album” orchestra.
Haenschen as the face of “The American Album of Familiar Music”
When “The American Album” went off the air in 1951, you continued touring with the entire orchestra and cast until 1954.
I liked those annual tours, and I had discovered a new tenor who was perfect for everything we did on that show. His name was Earl William Sauvain, and he sang under the name “Earl William.” Earl was built like a lumberjack, and was a very handsome young guy. And what a tenor voice! I owe Jim Melton for Earl William Sauvain because Jim had discovered Lilian Murphy Sauvain, Earl’s wife, who was also a singer and a very attractive, petite woman. Well, I put together the best vocal trio I had ever had on “The American Album”: Earl as the tenor, and a good-looking baritone named Michael Roberts, and Vivian Della Chiesa as our soprano. My one regret is that I hadn’t come across Earl much, much earlier, when I could have given him more exposure and a longer career as a star. He certainly deserved it.
“American Album” artists: Gus Haenschen (top left); Vivian Della Chiesa (top right); Earl William (Sauvain) (bottom left); and Michael Roberts (bottom right).
In 1953 and 1954, even though “The American Album of Familiar Music” was no longer on the air, you toured the country from October 27 to December 16, 1953, and then again from late-October to mid-December 1954, you performed in fifty cities in fifty days. That’s a grueling schedule in a caravan of buses!
I won’t disagree about the schedule—but you also don’t hear me saying that I didn’t want to do it. I loved being on the road with “The American Album.” We were received like royalty wherever we performed, and all of us had a great time doing those tours.
After radio: Examples of an “American Album of Familiar Music” program and their grueling itinerary in the early 1950s, from Haenschen’s archive.
Being responsible to the Hummerts for overseeing all of their music programs must have been extremely time-consuming. How did you manage all of those programs?
The same way I managed all of the popular-music recording sessions for Brunswick, and after that the output of the World Broadcasting Company. None of the Hummert radio shows were complicated from a musical standpoint—the arrangements weren’t hard to do, we had the pick of the best studio musicians and singers, and Frank handled the sponsors and the networks. Frank and Anne ran their entire operation—the music shows, the soap operas, the kids’ shows, the detective shows—like a machine. I had gotten used to that long ago, so it wasn’t a problem for me.
Were you surprised that they didn’t carry their “radio empire” into television?
Not really, because television and radio were totally different in the late-1940s. Most people thought television was a fad that would go away. Even after the coaxial cable that linked the East and West coasts was completed, television sets were expensive and unreliable, and the networks—especially NBC—saw themselves as radio networks. If you remember television in the late-1940s, you’ll remember that except in New York and Chicago, television went on the air in the morning, and then went off the air until the late afternoon. The market for television programs was kids’ shows until Milton Berle started his Texaco show.
1954 advance booking notice for the “American Album” group
You could have turned “The American Album of Familiar Music” into a television program, much the same as Fred Waring did with the Pennsylvanians. Were you at all tempted to do that?
Actually, Fred persuaded me to get into television. He was sure it was here to stay. [Paul] Whiteman had gotten a television show, and NBC had already televised Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, so Fred really encouraged me to go into television. But Frank [Hummert] didn’t want to make the switch, and I had already been in show business for thirty years, mostly on radio except for my years at Brunswick, so I didn’t want to get involved in a new medium.
Reviews for the “American Album” concerts, early 1950s
You did at least one television show with Jimmy Durante in 1949 or 1950. How did that come about?
He asked me to conduct the orchestra for one of his television shows. I used to kid Jimmy that I knew him before he was Jimmy Durante. I met him when he was a ragtime pianist.
That was before he teamed with Lew Clayton and Eddie Jackson?
Long before that. I’m talking about 1919, when Jimmy was the pianist with the Original New Orleans Jazz Band. In those days, Lew Clayton was in big-time vaudeville with Cliff Edwards. They were a big draw on the Keith Circuit, and with the Shuberts—they were an opening act for Jolson at the Winter Garden. But back when I met Jimmy Durante, he was just a ragtime pianist in cafes. Then he opened his own club, the Club Durant, and got Lew Clayton to invest in it. That was the start of Clayton, Jackson and Durante.
Jimmy Durante (center) with the Original New Orleans Jazz Band, c. 1919.
Where was the television show you conducted for Jimmy Durante telecast?
At NBC. I have a kinescope of it. Jimmy had come into his own long before then, and he was a big star. If you think about his career, he has done everything and has done it well. He was in one of the earliest jazz bands in New York, and then he made it big on Broadway with Clayton and Jackson—but it was Jimmy who was the star. He went into radio, and was also in several films that did very well, and then he became a television star. I feel so bad for him now because of the stroke he had about three years ago [in 1972]. Jimmy is one of the nicest guys in show business, and he’s the same off the stage as he is on the stage.
Haenschen (right) signing autographs for “American Album” fans in Boston. Earl William (Sauvain) is at the left.
After “The American Album of Familiar Music” went off the air, and you did the annual tours, were you still with the Hummerts?
I still had my position with Air Features, but television had taken hold by then, and Frank was having health problems. His health began to fail around 1960. It’s been almost ten years since Frank died [in 1966].
Do you still see Anne Hummert?
My wife spends time with her. Anne is a lost soul without Frank. They were so wrapped up in each other because of the sheer amount of shows they had on the air. But they had no children and very few friends, so Anne didn’t have many people to help her through Frank’s illness and death.
Anne Hummert in 1939, when she was honored by editors of The Biographical Dictionary of American Women as “One of the most important women in America.”
I should have asked you this first, but what brought you to the Hummerts, or the Hummerts to you?
Frank offered me the position. He came to me.
Just Frank Hummert, and not Anne?
She had nothing to do with it. Frank and I had known each other long before he got into radio.
Had you met him when he was in the advertising business in Chicago?
No, no—in St. Louis. Frank’s father, whom Frank is named for [Edwin Frank Hummert, Jr.] was an exporter in St. Louis. Frank, who was five years older than I, started out working for his father in the export business. He wrote ads for the family business, and was such a good writer that he was hired by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Then he got into the real-estate business, first as an agent and then as a broker, and he made a ton of money in real estate.
Frank was also a “regular” at the St. Louis Cardinals games. My band played between innings, and Frank looked me up when he was still with the Post-Dispatch. He gave me a lot of good press. Then he decided to start his own advertising agency—and my band, and then Gene Rodemich’s, were among his first clients. When Frank married his first wife, Ellie [Adeline Eleanor Woodlock], I was the pianist at their wedding reception. Ellie died in her early forties, when she and Frank were living in Chicago.
Anne knew that I had been part of Frank’s life with his first wife, and I think that’s why Frank never involved her in any of his dealings with me. But like so many other things in my life, my years with Frank Hummert go back to St. Louis. That’s where it all started for me.
— J. A. D
In the next installment, Haenschen recalls his formative years in St. Louis, including previously unpublished details concerning his privately made Banjo Orchestra records.
Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:
Text © 2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.