THE GUS HAENSCHEN INTERVIEWS: The St. Louis Years (Conclusion), and Final Thoughts

THE GUS HAENSCHEN INTERVIEWS:
The St. Louis Years (Conclusion), and Final Thoughts

James A. Drake

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Read All Installments in the Gus Haenschen
Interview Series:


THE ST. LOUIS YEARS

Part 1    |    Part 2    |    Part 3    |   Part 4

THE BRUNSWICK YEARS
Part 1    |    Part 2    |    Part 3    |    Part 4

THE RADIO YEARS
Part 1    |    Part 2    |    Part 3    |    Part 4

 

 

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THE ST. LOUIS YEARS — Part 4 (Conclusion)

During the years in which you were living in St. Louis, did you see and hear any of the artists whom you later met and perhaps recorded or conducted?

Back then, there were singers and instrumentalists everyone who wanted to be regarded as “cultured” went to hear. I’m thinking in particular of John McCormack, Fritz Kreisler, Alma Gluck, and of course Caruso. Going to see and hear them was a sort of “rite of passage” in St. Louis. Eventually, I met all of them except Caruso, but I never worked with them.

 

Let’s begin with McCormack, whom you met several years later and with whom, as you mentioned in another of our [interview] sessions, you had in common the same Manhattan dentist. Where in St. Louis did you hear McCormack, and what do you recall about his concert?

I heard him at the Odeon Theater, which was the largest of the real theaters in St. Louis at that time. I say “real theater” because some musical performances were held at the Coliseum, which was larger but was not a theater per se. It was a multi-purpose venue for all sorts of shows and events. But the Odeon, which had been built about 1900, was the best of the several theaters we had in those days. [1]  As a matter of fact, the operetta I wrote as a student, “The Love Star,” was performed at the Odeon.

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St. Louis theaters that Haenschen recalled included the Odeon (top) and Orpheum (center). In 1918 the Rialto took over the former Princess Theater building, which is pictured here (bottom).

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Was the Odeon a vaudeville theater too?

Well, no, although the big vaudeville stars performed there, it wasn’t part of a vaudeville circuit. There were several vaudeville houses in St. Louis—the Columbia, the Rialto, and the Orpheum—which featured what were typical [vaudeville] bills in those days. [2] Most of them had four shows a day, one of them being a matinee. Most of them had pit bands with about seven or eight instruments—usually a piano, violin, bass, clarinet, cornet, trombone, and drums.

 

Did you ever play in any of those pit bands?

No, but my little banjo orchestra was a kind of back-up for an act that didn’t show up in time for one of the shows. If I couldn’t get the whole band together in time, just Tom Schiffer and I would play, or maybe Mary Wade would sing with me accompanying her. We would “sub” for the act that didn’t show up. Gene Rodemich also “subbed” for acts that didn’t show.

 

Returning to John McCormack’s concert, was it a “standing room only” event?

Oh, yes. There were bleachers on the stage to accommodate all the people who had bought tickets. They were seated behind McCormack, and from time to time he would turn around and sing to them. Except maybe for Fritz Kreisler, who had a very similar effect on audiences and whose concerts were always sold out, I don’t think there was ever a concert singer who had the “draw” of John McCormack. I lost count of how many encores he sang after doing everything on the printed program. The audience couldn’t get enough of him. [3]

 

As you know, Milton Cross found McCormack to be irascible and seemingly insecure because of his sharp criticism of any singer who sang “his” songs. When you met McCormack years later, what was your impression of him?

The time I could say I met him was at a party that Fannie Hurst, whom I had known from Washington University, gave for him in New York City. I was still at Brunswick then, so this would have been in the 1920s. Now, make no mistake about it, John McCormack knew exactly who he was and he carried himself that way. I remember he was wearing a swallow-tail coat and pin-striped trousers. He was portly, but his posture was perfect and he had that crown of thick, wavy hair. He had quite a presence!

Particularly at an event given in his honor, he wasn’t about to “work the room” introducing himself to the guests. He stood apart from the rest of us, and one at a time we were taken over to him to meet him. He had a very distinctive way of reacting to being introduced—I remember this very, very clearly. I was taller than he was and was always conscious of my posture, so as Fannie took me to him I figured I would bend down just enough to be at eye level with him.

Instead, when I started to extend my hand, he thrust his hand toward me, gripped my hand, and pulled me down to his level. Then he drew me just close enough to him that he looked me directly in the eyes and after Fannie gave him my name, he said to me, “Mister Haenschen.” Now, as I’m telling this to you, it doesn’t sound like much. But unless somebody had been introduced to him face-to-face, it’s hard to describe the effect McCormack had when he drew you close to him and gave you his complete attention with those eyes of his. It was really mesmerizing. That’s an over-used word but it fits the effect that John McCormack had when you were introduced to him the way I was.

 

Were you able to get an impression of McCormack as a person from Fannie Hurst or others who had various dealings with him?

Yes, but I didn’t get the impression of him that Milt[on Cross] did. What I heard about [McCormack] was that he wasn’t combative, he just liked to argue for the sake of arguing. In other words, he’d say something just to get a rise out of somebody. He seemed to think of arguing as almost a sport.

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Haenschen recalled that John McCormack (left) “seemed to think of arguing as almost a sport,” while praising Fritz Kreisler (right) as “one of the most modest top-level artists I have ever known.” (Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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What was your impression of Fritz Kreisler as a person?

I got to know him pretty well, and since German was my first language, he and I spoke in German when we were together. He was the nicest, kindest, and one of the most modest top-level artists I have ever known. He knew his limitations as a violinist compared to, say, Mischa Elman, but Elman and every other violinist I can think of considered Fritz Kreisler a friend rather than a “competitor.” His concerts were standing-room-only, and when he was playing you could almost hear a pin drop. That old show-business saying about holding an audience in the palm of the hand is as good a description as I can think of to convey to you the effect Fritz Kreisler had on audiences.

 

You also mentioned hearing Alma Gluck, and also Caruso.

I heard them together at the Coliseum, in a performance of La Bohème when I was a sophomore at Washington University. [4] Alma Gluck sang Mimì, Caruso sang Rodolfo, and Pasquale Amato sang Marcello. In those days, St. Louis was part of the Metropolitan Opera tour, so we had at least one performance of an opera, sometimes two operas, every spring. When I was still in high school, I saw touring performances of Aida and Bohème with Caruso at the Odeon. [5]

I was so eager to see Aida because of Caruso’s famous [recordings of] “Celeste Aida,” and also because Emma Eames, who was a beautiful woman with a beautiful and rather large soprano voice, sang the title-role. In both operas, Riccardo Stracciari, whom I thought had the finest baritone voice I had ever heard and was also a very good-looking man, was in the cast. So was [basso] Marcel Journet, who also fit that description.

 

Speaking of recordings, I want to ask you about the recordings you made and what you remember of them.

You mean those personal recordings that I paid to have made at the Columbia studios and that Scruggs-Vandervoort let me sell in the phonograph department? I don’t have any of them, but Tom Schiffer still has a couple of them. We made just two [recordings] at first, and both were just Tom and me—he on the trap drums and me on the piano.

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Scruggs-Vandervoort announces Haenschen’s first two Columbia Personal Records, June 27, 1916.

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We recorded medleys that we named [on the record labels] “Sunset Medley” and “Country Club Medley” because we had gotten steady work at the Sunset Hills Country Club that [brewer Adolphus] Busch had founded a couple years earlier. I think Tom must have kept a diary because he said we made those two records in May 1916. As I told you before, we ordered 200 of those records and sold them at Scruggs-Vandervoort and also at the Stix-Baer department store, where I also played from time to time. [6]

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(Above) Scruggs-Vandervoort advertised Haenschen’s later Columbia Personals on November 12, 1916. (Below) A sampling of Haenschen’s rare Personal records; Haenschen recalled that only two-hundred copies were pressed of each. (All but 60781 courtesy of Steve Nordhougen)

 

You also made some test recordings for Victor, correct?

Yes, at the Victor studios in New York City. That was a few months after Tom and I made those two medleys at Columbia. I took the whole band to New York, and we made two or three test recordings hoping that we’d get a recording contract from Victor. Tom says we made those trial recordings over two days, and I think we recorded my rag “Zillo.” I don’t remember the other song we did, but nothing came of the whole thing—no contract from Victor. Let me take that back, though, because something very good did come out of that experience at Victor: I met Walter Rogers, the man who would be my counterpart in classical-music recording when I was hired by Brunswick.

 

Do you remember any of the other personal recordings you made at the Columbia studios?

I only remember one, and that’s because of my involvement with Scott Joplin. I recorded “Maple Leaf Rag,” with my full band. By “full band” I mean two banjos, an alto sax, and Schiffer and me. One of my banjo players could play the violin in a ragtime style, and the sax player also doubled on the clarinet. I was at the piano, of course, and Tom took his whole set of drums for those sessions.

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Only a single copy of Haenschen’s “Maple Leaf Rag” is confirmed to exist. It was located by Colin Hancock, who notes, “It belonged to the late Trebor Tichenor and was inherited by his daughter Virginia and her husband Marty Eggers… It was quite a saga, but against all odds we found it!” So far, rumors of other copies have proven to be just that, but readers are encouraged to e-mail us with photographic evidence of other specimens. (Photo courtesy of Colin Hancock)

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Tom remembers that we recorded two songs with the full band. One was a popular song called “Admiration,” a one-step that we played in a “hot” style for the time, and the other one—and for some reason I mis-remembered the title—was “I Left Her on the Beach at Honolulu.” I think I said “Waikiki,” but it was “Honolulu.” Those records were made so long ago that I have very few memories of them except “Maple Leaf Rag.” But we sold every one of those discs, so even though I had to pay to have them made, they turned out to be a very good investment. [7]

 

When you first went to New York after Max Dreyfus wired you and you worked with George Gershwin when he was writing “La, La Lucille,” Irving Caesar wrote the lyrics for two of the songs. Now that you and he have been reunited after not having seen each other since those days with Max Dreyfus at T. B. Harms, Caesar has spoken somewhat disparagingly about Gershwin. He says that Gershwin would never have been acclaimed as a classical composer, that some of his piano works were derivative and in some cases were little more than counter-melodies to others’ compositions. What do you make of those statements, which he made in the interview I recorded of the two of you?

I’ll tell you in one word: jealousy. After he wrote the lyrics for “Swanee” with George, and Al Jolson made it a national hit, Irving wanted to be George’s only lyricist. He figured he would be because he spent time with the Gershwin family in their apartment, so he knew George’s family. He and George were spending a lot of time together, and I think [Caesar] took for granted that he would always be George’s lyricist. What he didn’t take into account, and to be fair to him very few others did either, was how gifted Ira Gershwin was. Ira was an introvert, just the opposite of George—but George knew how gifted Ira was, and the proof is in what they wrote together.

As I told Irving that day we had our “reunion” in his office, he should be counting his lucky stars that the Broadway musical he contributed some of the most memorable lyrics to in 1925, “No, No, Nanette,” is a smash hit on Broadway almost fifty years later. Two of the biggest hits of that show were “Tea For Two” and “I Want to Be Happy,” and he wrote the lyrics to both of them. He claims he also wrote most of the music for “Tea For Two,” but Vincent Youmans wrote the melody, as he did for “I Want to Be Happy” and every other song in that show—so at most, Irving may have made a suggestion or two to Youmans about one of those songs.
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Gus Haenschen and Irving Caesar enjoy a “reunion” in New York’s Brill Building, May 1972. (Author’s photo)

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Audio compilation courtesy of Robert Fells. The conversation was recorded by the author in May 1972, in Caesar’s Brill Building office. The introductory recording is Haenschen playing “Underneath the Japanese Moon,” from his and Schiffer’s 1916 recording of “Country Club Medley.” The concluding performance is the author’s recording of Haenschen playing the same song in his home in May 1974, at the age of eighty-five.

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Irving has been making the rounds of the talk shows lately because he’s the only surviving member of the team that wrote the songs. When he talks about “Tea For Two” he always wants to sing the verse he wrote because the words to “Tea For Two” are so mundane—which is what they were meant to be in the show because they were written for a character who was naïve. The lyrics to the verse that Irving wrote are much better than the refrain, so he likes to highlight those when he talks about and sings “Tea For Two” on these talk shows. I don’t think he appreciates how lucky he is to have a hit show on Broadway and be able to take credit for his contributions to that show.

 

When you moved permanently to New York when Brunswick made you the offer to become the founding Director of Popular Music recordings, one of your long-time orchestra members, John Helleberg, told me in an interview that you had informed everyone you worked with that you were never going to get married and instead were going to enjoy life to its fullest by staying single. What changed your mind?

Roxanne changed my mind—or rather I changed my mind after I got to know her well. She was young and pretty and one of the most valued staff members at Brunswick because she was Milton Diamond’s personal secretary. Anyone who knew Milt will tell you that he was no bargain to work for, but he could never praise Roxie enough. Because I had to meet with Milt a lot, I got to know Roxie better and better, and I finally decided to propose to her. It made perfect sense to me because she was the only woman I felt I would ever meet who could understand the demands of my work. When we announced our engagement at Brunswick, you can’t imagine how much kidding I had to take about that vow of mine to stay single.

 

How did marriage change you?

Well, at first it didn’t because we were both still working at Brunswick. But we wanted to have a family, and not only Milt Diamond but everyone else who knew us at Brunswick understood why she wanted to resign and become a wife and ultimately a mother. She also liked my idea of buying land in Connecticut so I could get away from New York and enjoy life in the country and raise children there. That’s when I bought sixty acres in Norwalk and built our home and also my workshop there.

 

How did becoming a parent change you?

That was the biggest change of all, and if you ever have children you’ll understand what a change it is in your life. I can tell you that it made me a much better man, being a father. I was used to doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, and Roxie was the same way. But when we became parents, everything changed. Not so much for her, but for me because I was now living for our children and not just for myself.

 

In one of our earlier interviews you mentioned being the father of four children, but I have only met three of them—your daughters Barbara and Betty, and your son Richard.

Did I say four? I’m surprised that I still slip and say that when I’m not thinking. This is something that’s a little hard for me to talk about. Before Richard, Roxie was pregnant and everything seemed to be coming along well throughout the pregnancy. In those days you didn’t know whether you were having a boy or girl until the baby came out and the doctor told you if it was a boy or girl. I had hoped for a boy, and as it turned out it was a boy—but it was stillborn, which just crushed me. Roxie and I had agreed that if it was a boy, we would name him Frank Munn Haenschen. Thank God I never told Frank about that because of what happened. But in a way, losing that baby boy at birth made it even harder for me because I had so wanted for Frank to be his godfather. But Richard came along, and he and I are not just father and son but friends.

 

I have heard from people who worked for you on radio—and I’m thinking of Conrad Thibault and Elizabeth Lennox in particular—who have said that to see you and Richard walking together in midtown Manhattan was to see two handsome men who looked almost like brothers. Having met Richard, I have to admit that he not only looks so much like you, but even his speaking voice is almost the same as yours.

As I say, he’s not just my son, he’s my friend. He also handles my investments—he’s a stockbroker and a very successful one. By the way, he’s named after one of my “stars” at Brunswick: Richard Bonelli. My daughter Betty, who full name is Elizabeth, is named for Elizabeth Lennox. The only one who isn’t named after one of my Brunswick singers is Barbara. Her full name is Barbara Roxanne, by the way. Roxie picked “Barbara,” but I insisted that her second name had to be her mother’s name. But back to Richard, he and I are real pals and he’s learned some machining from me over the years.

 

He has told me that when the two of you still walk down any of the major streets in midtown Manhattan, people still look at you because you both have white hair now—identical white hair.

Yes, just as I never went from the dark brown hair I had as a young man to some gray here and there, my hair just turned pure white, as did Richard’s. And he parts his hair the same way I part mine.

 

After being in your home, I can imagine what a wonderful place it was for your children when they were growing up. Your home is both large and very well designed, and is not far from the swimming pool you had put in so you could do laps and keep in shape. Did you design the house yourself?

Yes, and I built a lot of it myself—but that’s our second house, not our first one. The house you’ve been in is about 5,000 square feet under roof, which is fine for Roxie and me and any guests we have for dinner, and for our kids who are now adults and have families of their own. Our first house, which I had an architect design, was 15,000 square feet and had several full-size guest rooms plus quarters for my “houseman,” as we used to call men who lived on the property and did the handy work, and quarters for our cook and maids. We did a lot of entertaining there.

I had the pool put in not so much for myself but for the kids and their friends. Roxie and I wanted our house and grounds to be the place where all of our kids’ friends would congregate. In the summers, our pool was where all the kids’ friends came and would stay most of the day. That gave us an insight into who our kids were associating with and what kind of influence they were having on our children. Although I did use the pool myself, I really had it put in for the kids.

 

That wasn’t all you did, from what your son Richard has told me, on that sixty acres of land. He said you became a big-time farmer. What prompted you to do that?

It was something I had never done, so I decided to use that acreage to create a real farm. Not just crops, but a dairy farm and a horse farm too. I had two large barns built, one for the cows and the other for the farm equipment I bought. I also had chicken coups built, a pen for sheep, and stalls for the horses. As you might guess, I didn’t buy any of the farm machinery new because that’s no fun. I bought older, used tractors and a combine and other machinery, and Frank Munn and I rebuilt the engines and gears for them. I had them painted the original color, so everything looked and worked like new.

 

Richard said that even a casual suggestion could prompt you to plant a new crop. He said that as Christmas approached, he and his sisters wanted to go with you to pick the best pine for a Christmas tree. He said that next thing he knew, you had laid out the acreage to plant a pine forest!

I did, and we gave away some of the best ones to our friends for Christmas trees. And as he told you, this wasn’t just a few trees, it was a real forest of pine trees. I had also planted lots of different fruit trees, especially apple trees. Every year, our corn crop alone was bountiful.

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The Haenschen family on the farm
(St. Louis Dispatch, June 20, 1943)

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When harvest time came, how did you manage that?

I had a lot of “hired hands” who worked other farms, and they would come and do most of the harvesting work. I had several old wagons that I had restored, and we would go to the farmer’s markets in those wagons. We used the horses to pull them. In the wintertime, we would hitch the horses to an old sleigh that I had rebuilt and had made special runners for. The kids and all their friends loved riding in that sleigh!

 

When did you put away your bib overalls and give up farming?

When the kids went off to college. That’s when I built the house you’ve been in, and I also added on to my workshop so I could spend more time in it. And I began selling off part of the acreage since I no longer needed it. Of the original sixty acres, I still have about thirty, which is more than enough for me. It’s all grass now, and in the winter I put a plow on one of my tractors and clear the roadway, and in the summertime I use another tractor to pull a “gang mower” like they use on golf courses.

 

It’s interesting to me that your address is simply “Old Rock Lane,” with no house number or any other designation.

That’s what I named the road when I bought the original sixty-acre parcel. Now that I’ve sold about half of it, there will be subdivisions on the acreage I sold, so in time there will be house numbers on Old Rock Lane.

 

You wrote the music to at least one of the songs in a musical called “Come Seven.” The one song I’m referring to is “Read ‘Em and Weep.” Do you remember that song?

Yes, but neither it nor the show amounted to much of anything. Al Bernard, whom we later used at Brunswick, wanted to do a blackface show like Eddie Cantor did in the Follies and then did on his own. Al pitched the idea of the show to me, and I wasn’t interested because those kinds of shows were on the wane and I didn’t want to be associated with one. He kept after me about this card-playing scene he had in mind, and he had the words but he couldn’t come up with a melody. So I wrote the music for that one song, but as I say nothing much came of it or the show.

 

One “show” you were very much involved with until you decided to retire a couple years ago was the weekly Saturday matinee broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. How did you get that assignment?

When the contract for producing the broadcasts was up, Gerry (Gerald H.) Johnston won the new contract. Gerry has his own radio “empire,” but he has no interest whatsoever in opera. His only interest is in broadcasting football games. So he hired Henry Souvaine, who had written some songs with Yip Harburg for the Ziegfeld Follies and worked for a while for Frank Hummert as an arranger and a conductor. Seeing what they had done, he decided to go into the production end of radio and he did very, very well with it. For the Met, he produced the intermission features. He worked with Edward Johnson, who was the Met’s general manager then, and he overlapped with the [Rudolf] Bing administration for a couple years but then he died.

 

Had you known Henry Souvaine before you worked with him at the G. H. Johnston Company?

Actually, he played for us in some of our World Broadcasting transcription sessions. He was a competent violinist. But that was before he got into the production end of radio.

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Gus Haenschen conducting at CBS

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Lauritz Melchior for Chevrolet, with Bud Collier announcing and Gus Haenschen conducting, 1949.  (Author’s collection; dubbing and audio restoration courtesy of Robert Fells)

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Although Milton Cross used to broadcast from a specially constructed box in the “Old Met,” the Met broadcasts are now done from the Johnston studio in Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center. I know that Mr. Cross was never comfortable with doing the announcing without being able to witness the action on the stage.

It wasn’t just that, it was what Geraldine Souvaine put him through that made him so uncomfortable. She is a foul-mouthed witch who wants to be thought of as “one of the boys.” After Henry died and she took over, she was all right for a while but when Gerry Johnston got the production contract, she turned into a nightmare—especially for Milt.

She started putting pressure on him by refusing to let him write his own commentary. She had somebody on her staff write it, and he wasn’t allowed to change a word. She had already decided she wanted him out, and after he lost his wife she showed him not the slightest sympathy and instead told him that he was an old man and might have a heart attack or a stroke in the middle of a broadcast. So she put the guy she was grooming to be his replacement at a microphone near Milt, which completely unnerved him.

When the stress he was under began to show in his voice, she gave him a choice of either resigning or being fired. He was such a lost soul, and he simply wanted to die. I last talked to him a few days before Christmas, when I called to wish him happy holidays, but he was so depressed that I ended up being down myself after I hung up the phone. He told me he hoped this would be his last Christmas.

 

He died soon after that, on January 3, 1975. I know that you and Mrs. Haenschen attended his funeral service.

The chapel was standing room only, which would have pleased him. Almost all the great singers of the past and present were there to honor his memory. What I remember the most is that [Richard] Tucker and [Robert] Merrill were among the pallbearers—and not even a week after that, Tucker died of a heart attack while he and Merrill were on tour. That hit all of us hard because Tucker was like a rock, and he would have completed thirty consecutive seasons that weekend if he had lived to celebrate his anniversary. I thought it was very fitting that the Metropolitan Opera board granted his family’s wish to have his funeral held on the stage of the opera house. I remember that the house was filled.

 

This interview session brings us to the present time. I gave you some questions in advance so you could think about them before answering them. Let me begin with the fact that a week ago you conducted the Ithaca College orchestra and Roberta Peters in the annual spring concert at the College. What was your assessment of the orchestra and of her performance?

Well, it’s difficult for me to conduct with the confidence I used to have because—and I discovered this in the middle of a concert I was conducting at the College four or five years ago—I’ve lost my hearing in the higher-frequency range. I’ll never forget when I found it out because I was conducting the orchestra and all of a sudden I thought that all the violinists had completely missed their cues because I couldn’t hear them. I remember turning to them and seeing their bows moving, but not being able to hear them. Luckily, Ithaca College is nationally known for its speech pathology and audiology program, and the professor who heads it, [T.] Walter Carlin, had special hearing aids designed for me. They work fine for speech but not very well for hearing music.

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Gus Haenschen at Ithaca College with guest artist
Roberta Peters at his final concert, 1979.

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What was your opinion of Roberta Peters’ performance? I know you have nominated her to be on the College’s board of trustees.

I nominated her because I’m 89 years old and I won’t be here forever, and the School of Music needs a nationally known performing artist to be on the board of trustees. The other professional schools have their own trustees—in fact, the School of Television and Film Studies has two trustees, Rod Serling and Jessica Savitch, the newswoman who’s a graduate of that program. Roberta should be a good trustee because she’s still a “name,” and she’s married to Bert Fields, who owns a string of hotels in New York City. They aren’t luxury hotels—in fact, some of them are just short of being fleabags—but he has money and she can get him to donate to the College.

 

But what about her performance during the concert you just conducted?

I’ve been trying to duck that question but I can see that you’re not going to let me. I guess a polite way to answer that question is to say that she’s very creative from the standpoint of explaining her repertoire at this stage of her career. As some other singers have done in the past, she decided that she no longer needed any teachers and that she could be her own teacher. What she succeeded in doing was to lose her top tones, the ones that got her into the Met in the first place. Where I give her high marks for creativity is that she tells interviews that her voice has “evolved” from a coloratura to a lyric soprano. Now, that’s creative! She can still sing a high-C, but she used to be able to sing the high-F in the [opera] house before her voice “evolved.”

Not too long ago she decided to try television acting, and she did a guest appearance in one of these medical shows that are so popular. She didn’t need to read the reviews to know that she couldn’t act at all, so that was the end of her television acting career. As long as she becomes a trustee and takes care of the School of Music, then she’ll be serving the purpose I had in mind when I nominated her.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

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Gus Haenschen’s sixtieth-birthday portrait

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Now for the questions I gave you in advance so you’d have time to think about them before we taped this last session. The first one is, whom do you consider to have been the most influential people in the radio and recording industries during your long career?

That’s easy to answer, and no one in the industry who’s been in it as long as I have will disagree with my choice: Ben Selvin. He has done it all and has done it better than anyone else—especially considering how broad his influence has been. He began, as I did, leading a ragtime band just as jazz was coming in. He recorded for just about every label in those early days, and then he became a silent partner with Percy Deutsch and Frank Black and me when we formed World Broadcasting. Just as we had planned, he got the A&R post at Columbia, which gave him access to all the stars they had under contract. Then he went on to form Muzak, which he said was prompted by what we did at World Broadcasting.

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Ben Selvin, c. 1925, with a misleading caption. Until he joined the Columbia staff in 1928, Selvin was never truly exclusive to any one company, since his orchestra recorded prolifically for numerous labels under a bewildering array of pseudonyms.

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He also wrote the definitive report that [James Caesar] Petrillo retained him to write on behalf of the A. F. of M. [American Federation of Musicians] against the recording companies when Petrillo ordered a strike [in 1942] that lasted almost two years. Petrillo thought he could tell Ben what to write, but Ben did one of the finest analyses of the royalties issue that could ever have been done—and he did it his way, not Petrillo’s. After that, while still heading Muzak, Ben became an advisor to Majestic Records after they adopted his suggestion to record light classical albums. [8]

 

A sidebar question about Petrillo: Did you know him and did he ever work for or with you?

No, he was in Chicago when I was at Brunswick, but we did use him when we did field recordings in Chicago. Even then, he was moving up in the Chicago local union [Local 810] and I think he became president. He was a far better union organizer than he was as a musician. He was an adequate trumpet player, but no more than adequate and would never have played the lead in any band. I think his limited ability as a player is what prompted him to become a conductor. He became the conductor of the studio orchestra at one of the big Chicago radio stations [WBBM].

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Widely reviled, union boss James Caesar Petrillo brought the record industry to a near-standstill twice in the 1940s when he banned recording by A.F. of M. members.

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The trouble with Petrillo was that the more power he got when he was made head of the A. F. of M., the more egotistical he got, and he also became really eccentric. He refused to shake hands with anyone, and instead would stick out his pinkie finger for you to shake. By the way, he had a brother named Caesar James Petrillo, who didn’t have any interest in the limelight and was a much better musician.

 

What effect did the A.F. of M. ban have on your radio shows, and how did you deal with the ban?

I always had good-sized choral groups with my orchestras on radio. During the ban I just hired more singers for the chorus. I still paid the orchestra players anyway, because most of us thought that the ban would be over a lot sooner than it turned out to be.

 

Did you have a runner-up for Ben Selvin when you thought about the most influential people in the radio and recording industries?

Yes, if I had to name a runner-up it would be Jack Kapp for saving the recording industry with his American Decca label and getting big-name stars like Jolson and Bing Crosby to invest in Decca. Jack had a wonderful way with top stars, and he had both the drive and the patience you need to work with them and get them to record songs that you know will be just right for them and will really sell discs. Jack was excellent at that. But his influence was not as broad as Ben Selvin’s.

There’s a third one I admire greatly too, and that’s Fred Waring. Fred has had one of the longest and most successful careers of anyone I can think of. What he’s done for choral music, and for training future choral directors at his annual training camps at his country club, is really marvelous. He’ll be the first to say that he owes much of the Pennsylvanians’ success to Robert Shaw, who got his start with Fred and who’s now the top in his field. If you want to measure success by taking into account that Fred can’t really read music and could only play basic chords on a banjo ukulele, then Fred Waring is a huge success.

 

Before I ask you the questions I gave you in advance, is there anything we’ve discussed that you may want to amend?

Yes, and I’m glad you asked because I said that Ted Lewis, whom I’ve known since we started in the business, was the first to play true jazz when he and his band were at Rector’s. I was at the Friars Club for lunch with someone not long ago, and I saw Ted there. He loves playing cards with a group there. I told him what I’d said, and also told him I still wished I’d have gotten him away from Columbia and signed him with us at Brunswick. He told me that no, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was the first to play and record jazz during their time at Reisenweber’s. He said that Rector’s hired him and his band because they wanted to give Reisenweber’s some competition. So I want to correct that because what I said was wrong.

I want to say something else about Nat Shilkret, my “competitor” at Victor, because I don’t think I did justice to him. Now, I could never understand his aloofness and frankly his rudeness to me, considering that Brunswick was no competitor to the gigantic Victor Company. Yet it was his job to make Victor’s light classical and popular-music recordings the top sellers in our industry, and he did that exceptionally well. In a way, at least looking back to that time, I should have been flattered that he regarded me as “competition” because we were just following the leader, Victor, and he was the “head man” for most Victor popular releases.

But that’s just part of what he was—and though you never hear about him these days, he’s still alive but has had cancer and I’m told that he lives with his son here in New York. Nat Shilkret was the most versatile musician I can think of, and I’ve worked with the best. He was a prodigy who began with the clarinet, and he was a virtuoso clarinetist, but was also an equally good pianist, violinist, cellist, mandolin player, guitar player, banjoist, and trombonist.

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Nathaniel Shilkret (front row, center) with the Victor Salon Orchestra, c. 1925–1926. (Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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He played under all the great symphony conductors, and he was also a composer. He wrote a concerto for the trombone which was premiered by the New York Symphony under [Leopold] Stokowski, with Tommy Dorsey as the soloist. That concerto was very difficult, and I heard that not even Jack Teagarden wanted to audition for Stokowski. Two of the popular songs Nat wrote, “The Lonesome Road” and “Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time,” he gave to Gene Austin to record but they’ve been done by just about everyone since then. He even put Gene’s name on the sheet music as a lyricist, which of course gave Gene more incentive to make it a hit.

Nat conducted many of “The Victor Hour” broadcasts, and did a lot of radio conducting, just as I did. He also went to Hollywood and wrote the scores for several films. Before then, he had come up with the idea and figured out the logistics to make “electrical recordings” of Caruso by superimposing the electrically recorded Victor studio orchestra over the original acoustically recorded orchestra.

The way he did it, from what some of the orchestra players told me, was to have them wear one earphone so they could hear the original recording being played. They would follow Nat’s baton so they would begin playing over the old orchestra when Caruso was between phrases. Those recordings were heavily promoted in the newspapers and on radio, and he even persuaded [Luisa] Tetrazzini to be interviewed in a newsreel while listening to the re-recording of Caruso singing the aria from Martha. That and the re-recording of “Vesti la giubba” were, I think, the best of those re-recordings.

 

Now for the questions I find the hardest to ask you. What do you hope for in the future, and what do you fear if anything?

You know that I’m staring at turning 90, and I can’t believe that I have lived this long. The top priority for me is to keep my health because without it I’m no good to anybody. I have never had any real health problems, but as you know I had what could have been a fatal accident driving back to Norwalk from Ithaca. I don’t remember anything except waking up in an emergency room and not knowing why I was there. Apparently, I had blacked out and my car had gone off the road and into a tree.

Luckily, I had my seat belt on, and the car didn’t hit the tree head-on. I didn’t break any bones and was all right in just a few days, but from now on I have to have an envelope in my glove compartment with my photo, my name and address and telephone number, and the name of the person who should be contacted if that ever happens again. The only good thing that came out of it was another new Buick.

 

 What don’t you want, and what if anything do you fear?

What I don’t want is to outlive Roxie. The odds are that I won’t because she’s a fair amount younger than I. And God forbid that any of my children or their children should die! As for death, I don’t have any fear of it because I don’t believe there’s any such thing as an afterlife. Roxie was raised as a Roman Catholic but for some reason she switched to the Anglican religion and raised our kids as Anglicans. She saw to it that they were baptized and took communion and whatever other rituals there are in the Anglican religion. I don’t know because I’m not a “God man” and never have been.

 

 What is the hardest part of being almost 90 years old?

Well, the hardest part is having to go to the funerals of people you worked with, sometimes the ones you discovered or helped jump-start their careers. It was hard watching Jim Melton destroy himself with alcohol, and it was really hard on me when Frank Munn died. I loved that man because he was so naturally gifted, and yet so modest because of his shyness. The last time I saw him, which was several years after he had retired, he told me before I came to his home that I might not recognize him.

His wife had devised a very simple diet for him. He would fill his plate as he would normally, and then he would put half of it back in the skillet or pan. He lost over 100 pounds using that method, but he looked like a deflated balloon. His skin was just hanging from his frame. But he could still sing. I know because I sat down at the Steinway upright in his living room and got him to sing for me. He still had that lovely lyric voice that I had first heard soon after I was hired by Brunswick.

 

 On a positive note, what do you still enjoy?

I have to tell you that one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most are these interviews—not the ones you’ve done with me so much as the ones I was able to arrange with the men and women who played in my bands over the years. I’m glad you talked me into this oral-history project, and that you and [co-director] Marty [Martin W.] Laforse did the interviews with so much preparation and research. And I especially enjoyed sitting at the piano here in my home with both of you and playing “Underneath the Japanese Moon.” That was the song that made my career, and I play that for my grandkids now.

I’m lucky that I don’t have any arthritis and can still play pretty well for a man my age. And I still have my old friend Tom Schiffer in St. Louis. By the way, he’s now called “Ted,” and I kid him that he changed from “Tom” to “Ted” only because Ted Kennedy is so popular. I talk to Tom every couple weeks, and I tell him that I’m going to fly to St. Louis so we can start up our band again. Wouldn’t that be something!

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Gus Haenschen’s last formal portrait, c. 1972

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Author’s Note: Walter Gustave Haenschen died at age 90 in a hospital near his home in Norwalk, Connecticut, on March 26, 1980. His wife said that during the space of one week he had steadily lost the use of his legs. She was at his side when he passed away.
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March 29, 1980

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A decade later, in 1991, Roxanne Haenschen was driving and apparently lost consciousness. Her car went off the road, and she died of injuries sustained in the accident. Their eldest daughter, Barbara Roxanne Haenschen Mulliken, died in 1997, and their son Richard Stephen Haenschen died in 2016. At this writing their youngest daughter, Elizabeth (Betty) Haenschen Martin, is in good health and is living in Oregon.

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Lakeview Cemetery, New Canaan, Connecticut
(Courtesy of Peter Passaro)

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Theodore Thomas Schiffer died in St. Louis on December 26, 1980, nine months to the day after the passing of his lifelong friend Gus Haenschen.

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(Courtesy of Robert Fells)

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The author is grateful to Peter Passaro, of the New Canaan Cemetery, for providing a photo of the gravestone of Gustave and Roxanne Haenschen. A special thanks goes to to Robert M. Fells for digitizing an excerpt of the author’s interview of Gus Haenschen and Irving Caesar, and for attaching to that interview digital restorations of Haenschen performing “Underneath the Japanese Moon” in 1916 and in 1984, and his restoration of the audio advertisement featuring Lauritz Melchior singing under the direction of Gus Haenschen.

 

Notes

 

[1]   “Mr. [W. Albert] Swasey is doing much to advance the interests of St. Louis. He is … one of the foremost architects of the country. The Odeon and Masonic Temple, which he is now erecting on Grant Avenue, is designed to be the artistic and musical center of the Empire City of the Southwest.” St. Louis Post, August 24, 1899.

[2]   The Columbia Theater, located in the Calumet Building in St. Louis, and the Rialto, which was completed in 1918 and located on Grand Avenue, were under the management of the States Booking Exchange, which had regional offices in Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Chicago in addition to its headquarters in St. Louis. The much larger Orpheum Theater was part of the national Keith-Orpheum circuit. The dimensions and other details of the three theaters appeared in the 1919 edition of Vaudeville Trails Thru the West, a handbook for vaudeville performers, agents, and managers compiled and published by Herbert Lloyd.

[3]  The critics’ reactions to the McCormack concert bear out Haenschen’s recollections. “Mr. McCormack appeared at his best and fairly reveled in the rich cadences and tonal beauties of the selections which constituted his share of the entertainment. These included the favorite Irish melodies … [but] the more ambitious selections invaded the operatic realm and tested the timbre and technique of the tenor. In the aria, ‘Ah, the Cold of the Morning [Che gelida manina]’ from Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’ Mr. McCormack attained a true artistic triumph. It evoked a wild demonstration.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 12, 1912. (Courtesy of Rev. Dr. Doreen McFarlane)

[4]  The cast of the Aida performance at the Odeon Theater on April 17, 1907 included Emma Eames, Josephine Jacoby, Riccardo Stracciari, Marcel Journet, and conductor Arthur Vigna. Two days later, Gina Ciaparelli (later Gina C. Viafora), Bella Alten, Riccardo Stracciari, and Marcel Journet were heard in La Bohème, again with Vigna conducting.

[5]   The performance Haenschen attended of La Bohème at the Coliseum in St. Louis featured Alma Gluck, Vera Courtenay, Pasquale Amato, and Andres de Segurola, conducted by Vittorio Podesti.

[6]   In 2020, Archeophone Records released a comprehensive CD titled “The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us from Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business,” a compilation of all known Columbia personal recordings made by Gus Haenschen and his banjo orchestra plus recordings of songs by Haenschen which were recorded by various artists on Victor, Columbia, and Brunswick discs. The credits in the booklet for the CD, produced by Richard Martin and Meaghan Hennessy and edited by Martin, credit the “concept, biographical essay and track notes” of the album to Colin Hancock, who assembled most of the recordings from various collectors and traveled to St. Louis to transcribe the only existing copy of Haenschen’s personal recording of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.”

[7]   The Victor ledgers show that Haenschen’s Banjo Orchestra made trial recordings of “The Murray Walk” on September 5, 1916, and “Zillo” and a second “take” of “The Murray Walk” on September 6, 1916. The sessions are marked “Not documented” in the ledgers, and other than one pressing each of the three trial recordings, no other pressings seem to have been made and none of the pressings is known to exist.

[8]   “Ben Selvin, director of artists and repertoire for Muzak recordings in N. Y., has been hired by Majestic Records to act in an advisory capacity in the recording of light classical music. He acts in the same capacity for all recordings done by WOR, N.Y., for its ‘Feature’ label. Selvin retains his Muzak post.” (Variety, April 18, 1945).

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© 2021 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

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