The James A. Drake Interviews • Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 3

The James A. Drake Interviews
Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 3

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It was in Los Angeles that you recorded Charlie Chaplin with Abe Lyman’s orchestra, am I right?

Yes, Abe Lyman’s band with Charlie listed on the records—we did two sides, as I recall—as “guest conductor.”

 

Although it’s known today that Chaplin wrote the scores for all of his films, I doubt that it was known then. How did you come to record him as a “guest conductor”? Did you know him at that time?

Not personally, no, but of course I was a fan of his movies. Charlie contacted me through Abe Lyman. That’s how those records came about. Charlie wrote songs all the time, and he wanted to have about a dozen of them recorded. When Abe [Lyman] told me that Charlie was interested in having his songs recorded, I told Percy Deutsch about it and he said to pay Charlie whatever he wanted because having the name Charlie Chaplin on Brunswick records would be one of our “exclusives” and would sell a lot of records for us.

 

Did you negotiate a contract with Chaplin?

He didn’t want a contract. Money wasn’t a factor because he was already one of the wealthiest movie stars and was also one of the “big four” [Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, David Wark Griffith, and Chaplin] who founded United Artists. What he wanted to do was to have his songs recorded, and he also wanted to conduct them and then play a violin solo in some of the recordings. So basically, he agreed to try out some recordings with us, and if there was a demand for more, he would talk to us about royalties and such.

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Publicity shots from the May 1923 session (the exact date has not survived in the Brunswick files). In the top photo, Gus Kahn is seated at the piano, with (left to right) Haenschen, Chaplin, and Abe Lyman.

 

What do you remember about making the recordings?

Charlie was so excited that he wanted me to show him everything about the recording process. I took Frank Hofbauer to Los Angeles with me because he was our “expert,” and he would design the permanent studios we intended to build there and would also do the recordings we made in the temporary studio we used. So I spent almost a full day with Charlie, showing him how the recording process worked.

Then Abe [Lyman] and Gus Kahn and I spent part of an afternoon with Charlie. Gus worked directly with Charlie to write the arrangements for the first two songs we were going to record. Everything was going well until Charlie played the violin for us. He was self-taught, and he played left-handed so he had his violin strung the opposite of a standard violin. His playing was so amateurish that there was no way we were going to allow him to play any solo passages on a Brunswick recording.

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Although Chaplin’s record was widely advertised, it was not a big seller for Brunswick. Some dealer ads, like the lower example, claimed that Chaplin played violin on the record, which Haenschen recalled was not the case.

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Because Abe [Lyman] knew him well, I left it to Abe to have to tell Charlie that he couldn’t play on an actual recording. But we agreed that Charlie should really conduct the recording session, which he did—not with a baton or with his hands, but with his violin bow. The day we made the first two recordings, he brought a camera crew with him. They set up all sorts of lights around the studio, and the crew filmed him and us during the whole session. It was a fun experience, and afterward Charlie treated all of us to a dinner at his studios.

Unfortunately, the “try out” that all of us had envisioned didn’t sell any records. Looking back, I can see why. At that time [1923], movies were silent and Charlie was seen but never heard. And as you said, very few people knew—or cared—that he wrote the scores for his films. Movie audiences weren’t listening to his music, they were watching him on the screen. In the silent-movie days, no one associated Charlie Chaplin with sound recordings, so the fact that he was listed on two Brunswick sides as the “guest conductor” of the Abe Lyman band didn’t mean anything from a promotion standpoint.

But that wasn’t the end of it—in fact, in some ways it was just the beginning. Charlie wanted to record all of the songs he had mentioned, about a dozen of them, and he was relentless about it. He sent me telegrams day and night, he nearly drove Abe Lyman crazy, and then he sent me scores that he had had someone make of all the songs. I had to find more ways of saying no than I had ever known until then. Finally, he stopped “campaigning” and went back to working day and night on his movies.

But about the time [Chaplin] had given up on us, Rudolph Valentino contacted us and wanted to make records too. [1] Everyone knew that Valentino was a splendid dancer, and of course he was the biggest name in movies in the mid-1920s. He told Bill Brophy and me that he had studied voice in Italy, and would sing on our recordings. We had no reason to dispute what he said, so we agreed to record him in New York. We did—and the two songs he sang on those recordings were the worst ever made by Brunswick or any other company.

 

What did he sing? Was it an opera aria or a song?

I can only remember one of them, the “Kashmiri Song,” which he sang in English. He spoke English fluently, by the way. [John] McCormack and so many other real singers had recorded it, and it’s a good song so we figured Valentino could sing it credibly. Of course, we also figured that having his name on a Brunswick label, and introducing him to the public as not just the great lover, the movie star, but also as a singer would be another exclusive for us.

Well, the recording was an absolute disaster! If he had ever had a voice lesson, it didn’t “take” because his timbre was awful, and his intonation was even worse. He was either under-pitch or above-pitch throughout most of the recording. The other one we made with him was a popular Spanish song [”El Relicario”] that he sang in Spanish—and it was even worse than the “Kashmiri Song.” Both of the test pressings were so bad that we would never have released them. If we did, we would have been the laughingstock of the industry.

 

Was Valentino as relentless as Chaplin was about pressuring you to release them?

Percy Deutsch and two other executives, Ed Bensinger and Bill Brophy, kept putting off Valentino by telling him that Brunswick would prefer to wait to release his record in connection with his next biggest film. They kept putting him off for almost two years, and then—and this sounds awful—he solved Brunswick’s problem by dying in 1926.

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Brunswick did not release the Valentino recordings, although a catalog number to them was assigned following his death. In 1930 it dubbed the recordings, with spoken introductions, for a special release by the obscure Celebrities Recording Company.

 

Those recordings were released after his death. Did Brunswick release them after all?

No, no. Some record company—it wasn’t Brunswick—put out a sort of “memorial record” with a pompous introduction explaining that these two songs were the only time that the voice of Valentino was ever recorded. I don’t know how those test recordings got released. Maybe somebody got the test pressings from his estate, I don’t know. I had left Brunswick by then, so I don’t know if the company got an injunction or sued whoever it was that released them. [2]

 

In your files there are letters between you and Oliver Hardy about making records for Brunswick. Do you recall your dealings with Hardy?

Yes, and they were very pleasant. I met him when I went to Los Angeles to set up the temporary studio, the one where we recorded Chaplin. You may know this, but everybody who knew Hardy called him “Babe,” not “Ollie” or “Oliver.” He had been a singer before he got into [motion] pictures, and he had a very pleasant tenor voice. The problem was that he and Stan Laurel were making silent pictures, so no one knew that Hardy could sing. But he could really sing—and he did when he and Laurel made sound pictures. He was also a hell of a golfer, by the way. Like Bing [Crosby], he was almost a par golfer.

 

Your files also contain some correspondence with two other film stars, Ramon Navarro and John Boles, who wanted to make records with Brunswick. Do you recall dealing with them?

With Navarro, yes, in Los Angeles. He was a competent “salon pianist,” but as with Hardy, no one knew that he had any musical ability. The same with John Boles. Although I did meet with him and he was a very nice guy, [Boles] was another case of a silent movie star who could sing credibly but no one knew it, so there was no point in having him make records for us. As a movie star, he was nowhere near Valentino, but [Boles] could sing—his voice was a light baritone, or maybe a tenor with a limited top [range] and a fast vibrato—but he made several successful sound films later on. [3]

 

Among the vocalists you recorded at Brunswick, there are two tenors I’d like to ask you about. The first is Frank Munn, whom you discovered. How did that come about?

Being a machinist myself, I had a lot of friends who were master machinists. I kept hearing about this rotund machinist who had this beautiful tenor voice, but had lost part of his index finger in an accident and was now driving trucks. After a while I found out his name, so I looked him up in the phone book and found that he was living in a little apartment in the Bronx.

Frank was a very shy man, and when I introduced myself to him and told him that I heard he was a singer, he seemed kind of lost for words. I could see how reticent he was, so I asked him where he liked to eat, and then told him I want to treat him to lunch on a Sunday. He was still very reticent when we got together, and I think it was because he had found out that I was with a major record company. I actually had to convince him to audition for us—that’s how shy he was.

Frank was what used to be called a “Mister Five-by-Five.” He was about 5’ 5” and he weighed close to 300 pounds, so he was almost as round as he was tall. He had two suits and two dress shirts that had to be custom-tailored for him due to his size. He was single back then, but later he married a wonderful woman, Ruth, who was the dream of his life. She took wonderful care of him, and they were such a great couple. Being so overweight, he was extremely sensitive about it, but in her eyes he was as handsome as a movie star—and she loved to hear him sing.

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Frank Munn, from Radio Revue for February 1930

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We [Brunswick] were already doing the “Brunswick Hour” when I met Frank, and we had ironed out the problems with electrical recording by then. His voice recorded so well that it amazed all of us. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had made some personal recordings and had even done a trial recording for Edison. [4] But those were acoustic recordings, and like Nick Lucas, Frank didn’t have the kind of voice that recorded well acoustically. [5] But on electrical recordings and on radio, Frank’s voice was just beautiful.

Because of his obesity, his boyish face, very light skin, and the timbre of his speaking voice—which was exactly like his singing voice—and his shyness, you wouldn’t take Frank for being a strong man. Well, one day in the studio we found out just how strong he was. It was a hot summer day, and we were re-doing the studios—we had three of them, and one studio was still equipped with one of the very heavy acoustic recorders that Frank Hofbauer had designed. We needed to get it out of there, and four workmen were hired to remove it.

Well, only two showed up—and we waited and waited for the other two, but they never showed. We were on a tight schedule and weren’t doing any recording while the studios were all being redone, so I was infuriated about these two workmen not showing up. It was very hot—this was in July, I think—and tempers were getting short. Frank was there to rehearse in another room with several men from our Brunswick Male Chorus. He was always punctual, and had arrived early for this rehearsal.

When he saw what was going on, he said to me, “I can help with this,” and he picked up one side of this very heavy machine as if it didn’t weigh ten pounds! The other two workmen were struggling to keep it off the ground, but Frank was not only lifting and moving what it would have taken two men to do, he was also telling the other two to move this way and that way until that machine was out of the room.

Word got around that Frank was super-strong, and when some of the guys would tell him they had heard about it, Frank reacted very modestly but you could tell it meant something to him. From then on, we made bets about what he could lift. One bet that I especially remember was whether he could lift the rear end of a Ford sedan high enough that the rear tires would not be touching the pavement. One of our [Brunswick] fellows had a four-door Model T with a back bumper on it, and I watched Frank Munn put on a pair of leather gloves and lift the entire rear end of that Ford until the tires were almost two inches above the pavement!

 

Frank Munn’s voice has a very sweet quality, for want of a better word, on his recordings. Had he studied voice formally?

Frank never had any lessons as far as I know. His voice was just “natural.” It wasn’t large, nor did it have much of a range. When I wrote arrangements for Frank’s recordings, I tried not to have him sing above an A-flat because he didn’t have much of a top. But the timbre of his voice gave the impression that he was singing higher. To me, the best things about his singing were his intonation, his phrasing, which was always on the beat, and his natural diction—no rolling of the Rs and that sort of thing.

Frank was ideal for recording and for radio because he was never seen by an audience, so he didn’t have to worry about his obesity. He didn’t like having photos taken, but we used the best professionals and they lighted him in ways that emphasized his dark hair and his eyes and his smile, not his body. When he had to pose for longer shots, he would stand behind a piano so that the photo would be of his upper body.

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A hand-colored photo of Virginia Rea and Frank Munn, with Haenschen at the piano (1928)

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I remember a photo session with Frank, Virginia Rea and me—I was seated at the piano, and they were in formal dress standing in front of microphones—which became the cover picture for one of the monthly radio magazines that were popular back then. The photo was hand-colored, and the background was quite dark. Frank positioned himself slightly behind Virginia [Rea], and his black tuxedo blended into the dark background. He was very fond of that magazine-cover photo.

 

Another tenor you had under contract at Brunswick was Theo Karle. What do you recall of him?

We made a lot of recordings with Theo Karle. If I had to liken him to another tenor, at least on recordings, I’d say that he was Brunswick’s Giovanni Martinelli. He had an unusual timbre that on [acoustical] recordings sounded somewhat like Martinelli’s. He recorded tenor arias from Italian and French operas but did them in English, and also sang oratorio selections for us. We recorded him singing operetta selections—he was the main tenor in our Brunswick Light Opera Company—and he also recorded several Irish ballads. His wasn’t a great voice, but it recorded well and he was very easy to work with.

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Allen McQuhae (left) and Theo Karle

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Another tenor I want to ask you about it your Irish tenor, Allen McQuhae. Was he Brunswick’s John McCormack?

If he thought he was, someone should have disabused him of it. He was an “Irish tenor” only in the sense that he was born there, and sang some of McCormack’s repertoire. Most of his earlier [career] was spent in the Midwest—Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati—singing with their symphonies. At that time, he was singing French and Italian arias, and some oratorio pieces. I think he had also done some singing in Canada, which is where he emigrated after leaving Ireland.

Personally, I never thought much of his voice or of his singing. His timbre wasn’t that distinctive or attractive, and the dynamic he preferred the most was forte. There was very little subtlety in his singing, and nothing memorable about it either. We used him more as a pop singer than an “Irish tenor” at Brunswick. He had made some recordings for Edison, and they weren’t very good, so to be honest about it, I wasn’t in favor of giving him a contract. I wanted Joe White, but he was already under contract to Victor so I couldn’t get him.

 

You’re referring to Joseph White, the “Silver-Masked Tenor”?

That’s right, Joe White of the [B. F.] Goodrich Silvertown Cord Orchestra. To me, Joe sounded the most like McCormack of any of the tenors I had heard. He and I became very good friends, and I would love to have had him under contract at Brunswick. But he was already with Victor and was doing very well as Goodrich’s star tenor. He had sung on radio before Victor put him under contract, and he had also sung in Europe if my memory is right. But it was as the Silver-Masked Tenor at Victor that he was best known on radio and recordings.

Joe has a son who sang under the name “Bobby White” on several radio shows, particularly “Coast to Coast on a Bus” with my friend Milton Cross [as announcer]. Bobby had an unusually beautiful voice as a boy, and Joe oversaw his training and taught him all of his [the father’s] songs. Joe was still singing, but then he had an accident and broke one of his legs. As I recall, the break wouldn’t heal, and that leg had to be amputated. Through all of that, Joe made certain that Bobby would make the transition into adulthood as a tenor, and he surely did a wonderful job. Today, Bobby—or Robert—White is a nationally known concert tenor and gives recitals all over the world.

 

Am I correct that you also had Ted Fiorito under contract at Brunswick?

Well, at that time Ted was the pianist of the Oriole Orchestra, which he led with a violinist, Dan Russo. They made a good number of recordings for us as the Orioles [sic; Oriole Orchestra or Oriole Terrace Orchestra]. Several of their recordings were done in Chicago because their orchestra had a long engagement at the Edgewater Beach Hotel there.

 

One of the most unusual groups you recorded at Brunswick was the Mound City Blue Blowers, a group which became nationally known in its own right. How did they come to your attention?

Through Al Jolson. The credit for the Mound City Blue Blowers goes to Jolson. We were recording him at the Statler [Hotel] in Chicago, and these three young guys had been bugging Jolson to give them a hearing. Finally he got tired of it, so he passed the buck to me and got me to give them an audition. I think we made a couple of test pressings, unwillingly, and we sort of tossed off the whole thing by telling them that we’d have to issue their records on a trial basis, and if they sold anything we might talk to them later.

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(Top) The Mound City Blue Blowers c. early 1925, comprising (left to right) Dick Slevin, Jack Bland, Eddie Lang, and Red McKenzie. The group originally was a trio, minus Lang, although Brunswick’s ad for their first record pictured a quartet.

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The one who put together the group—it [initially] was a trio—was Red McKenzie, who was from St. Louis. Red went on to have a very fine career, but when we auditioned the Blue Blowers I wouldn’t have given him or the other two a snowball’s chance in hell. All Red did was play a comb with tissue paper wrapped around it.

Yet here was something different about the sound of the group, so it gave me something to work with. One of the three played banjo—Bland, Jack Bland, was his name—but he was no Harry Reser, so I backed him with Eddie Lang on guitar and I also put Frank Trumbauer in the next set of Blue Blowers recordings we made. Well those records sold, and sold, and then sold some more. We couldn’t believe it because these young guys were nothing more than a “kitchen band,” what with jugs and all of that. [6] But here they were, selling a lot of records for us.

 

Returning to classical Brunswick artists, and in particular violinists, you spoke about Elias Breeskin and Max Rosen earlier. Let me ask you about other violinists you recorded at Brunswick: Fredric Fradkin, William Kroll, Bronislaw Huberman and Mishel Piastro.

Kroll wasn’t a soloist—not for Brunswick, I mean. He was the violinist in a trio, the Elschuco Trio, with a pianist [Aurelio Giorni] and Willem Willeke, who was a superb cellist. Max Rosen, as I said, was [Brunswick’s] Fritz Kreisler. The others were not in his class, although Huberman was a close second to Rosen. Huberman had studied with Joachim, and had been a sort of prodigy when he came to this country. He had played all over Europe by then. We recorded him in the standard repertoire that Victor had in its catalogs.

Piastro and Fradkin were competent violinists, but they didn’t sell a lot of records and didn’t have the following, the careers, that Rosen and Huberman had. Breeskin was a fine violinist, and we got a lot of mileage out of having him at Brunswick because he was the violinist Caruso chose as an assisting artist for his U.S. concert tours in World War One. By the way, another [violinist] Caruso had as an assisting artist in some of his concerts was Xavier Cugat. Back then, he was “Francis X. Cugat.”

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Haenschen recalled getting “a lot of mileage out of having [Breeskin] at Brunswick” because of his association with Caruso.

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Among the legendary pianists Brunswick had under contract were Josef Hofmann, Leopold Godowsky and Elly Ney. First, let me ask you about Josef Hofmann. It was rumored that because his reach [i.e., the span of his hands] was somewhat short compared to, say, Rachmaninoff, that he used a special piano that had slightly narrower keys than a standard concert grand.

That was much later, not when he was with us. It would have been quite a trick to have one of those special Steinways hauled from his studio onto the top floor of the Brunswick building. No, when he recorded for us, he used the same grand pianos that the others you mentioned used. We had four grands, all of them seven-feet models. Two were Steinways and the other two were Knabe grands.

Hofmann always played one of the Steinways, but it had a standard keyboard. It’s true that his reach was short compared to Godowsky’s, but even Godowsky said that Hofmann had the finest technique of all the concert pianists of that time. Hofmann had very strong hands, incidentally, and he could get more volume out of any of our pianos than even Godowsky could. That’s saying something because Leopold Godowsky was one of the greatest pianists ever. One thing about Josef Hofmann just came to my mind: he had a special chair built for him—he had a number of them, actually—and he would only record in that special chair.

 

Do you mean a “chair” rather than a piano stool or bench—that is, a seat with a back on it?

Yes, an actual chair with a back on it. The height of the back was maybe twelve inches, not much more than that, and it was angled slightly forward. There was something about the height and the angle of the back that kept him in a position that was ideal for his playing. That’s what he used in his concerts, and he always used it in our recording sessions. He was a wonderful guy, always a lot of fun to work with.

Another point about his style that always struck me when I watched him recording for us: his fingers were never more an inch above the keys, and his wrists were always on the same plane as the tops of the keys. He didn’t go in for showy stuff—no bringing his arms up to his shoulders and then down to the keys, or any of that Liberace fluff.

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Elly Ney (left), and Josef Hofmann (right, in the Columbia studio)
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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And Elly Ney?

Elly was a great pianist, and one of the few women pianists who had very successful careers at that time. She was German but spoke English well. She was a bit on the flamboyant side and had a really captivating personality. There was a very famous pianist in Vienna, [Theodor] Leschetizky, who taught a lot of famous concert pianists. Elly’s concert promoters always highlighted that she was a pupil of Leschetizky. One day I remember Walter [Rogers] asking her what he was like as a teacher. She said, “I don’t really know. I only had two lessons with him!”

 

One of the most interesting of Brunswick artists was Marion Harris, who seems to have influenced not only Rudy Vallée but many other performers. How did you get her to record for Brunswick?

Marion was our biggest-selling female artist in our popular-music division, and she was ahead of ones like Ruth Etting, Belle Baker, and Kate Smith when they were starting out. Marion had been a headliner in vaudeville so she was very much in demand, and she had made some recordings for Columbia [7] before we got her to come to Brunswick.

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Marion Harris and Isham Jones’ Orchestra (Jones second from left)
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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The first recordings I remember making with Marion was when we put her with Isham Jones’s band. Her voice came through spectacularly—I was going to say “loud and clear”—on all of the acoustic records she made with us. Hers was one of those voices like [Mario] Chamlee’s, which the old [acoustical] process captured wonderfully. She was always available whenever we wanted her, and we recorded more songs with her than probably any other female pop singer in our catalog.

 

Brunswick also had Margaret Young, who sang some of the same blues songs as Marion Harris. What do you recall of her?

There was nothing original about Margaret Young. She had been in vaudeville, and then she patterned herself after Marion Harris. But [Young] wasn’t in the same league as Marion—not by a long shot. For every Margaret Young record, we probably sold twenty times as many Marion Harris records during the acoustical days. When we went into radio with our “Brunswick Hour” broadcasts, we made sure Marion was on as many of those [broadcasts] as possible. Really, Marion was the first white woman to sing jazz and blues the way the great Negro singers sang them.

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Margaret Young (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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That brings me to the topic of what were called “race records” in the 1920s. Did Brunswick have a separate catalog of these “race records”?

Yes, although we limited it mostly to the Vocalion label. Vocalion was a low-priced label that we thought would be attractive to Negro buyers. [8]  Now, we did have a very fine black singer, Edna Hicks, and some other blues singers whose names I’m sorry that I don’t remember. We had several different catalogs, just like Victor did. One of them was a “Jewish catalog” that featured singers like Isa Kremer, who sang Yiddish folk songs, and several great cantors as well. Like Victor and Columbia, we also had catalogs in other languages, which were distributed in Europe, South America and Asia.

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Although Brunswick had a race-record program, its Vocalion label served as the company’s primary outlet for race material. Originally managed by Jack Kapp, the race department was taken over by Mayo Williams in 1928, after Kapp was promoted to general manager.

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The Vocalion label also included what today would be called “country and western,” correct?

Yes, although it was called “hillbilly music” back then. Jack Kapp was the manager of Vocalion after we acquired the label.

 

Jack Kapp, who founded the American Decca label?

Yes, that Jack Kapp—and I apologized to him so many times for the way I dealt with him at Brunswick that he finally told me to stop it! I couldn’t stand anything “hillbilly,” but Jack would scour the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia for these backwoods yodelers and fiddlers, and he would record them wherever he could come up with a makeshift recording studio.

I had to meet with Jack quarterly, sometimes more frequently, so he could play these field recordings to get my approval for them. He knew that I hated that kind of music, but he was always trying to “convert” me. He’d be playing a test pressing and he’d say to me, “Now, isn’t that a good guitar lick? And how about that harmonica!” I’d roll my eyes and tell him, “What you call a ‘good guitar lick’ is what I call bad guitar playing!”

We’d go ’round and ’round arguing about these hillbilly players, and I always ended up approving whatever he brought. The reason I did was because, first, they sold a lot of records in rural areas that never bought Brunswick records until then, and second because Jack kept finding better and better talent. Plus, Jack was so enthusiastic about discovering new talent that his enthusiasm rubbed off on me and everyone else he worked with.

 

Were you surprised at how successful he made Decca?

Honestly, when he pitched the Decca idea to me and invited me to invest in it, I said no because I didn’t think there was a market for phonograph records anymore. There had been all kinds of improvements in the technology, of course, but I was so involved in radio that I didn’t pay any attention to phonograph records. I had put all of that in the rear-view mirror when I left Brunswick, and when I heard that Jack had been named manager of Brunswick after the 1929 stock-market crash, I felt sorry for him. But what I should have considered was how determined, how driven, Jack was.

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Jack Kapp (right) during his Decca years, with former Brunswick  stars Al Jolson and Bing Crosby

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These days, we hear a lot about “visionaries.” Jack Kapp was a real visionary. His success with Decca kept the recording industry going, and his investors—especially Bing Crosby—believed in him and put a lot of money into Decca. A lot of the artists Jack had worked with at Brunswick followed him to Decca. Just when Decca was doing very well, there was a shortage of shellac that Jack had to contend with. That happened when we [the U.S.] entered World War Two. But he weathered the shellac shortage, and Decca grew during the war.

Then came the revolution in the industry when Columbia brought out the long-playing record, RCA came out with the 45 r.p.m. format, and magnetic tape revolutionized how recordings were made. It was Jack Kapp, in my opinion, who kept the industry going during the middle of the Depression. Without him, I’m not sure that there would have been much of an industry left because the vast majority of Americans barely had enough money to buy food.

 

Earlier, when you were speaking about Marion Harris, you mentioned two topics that I want to ask you about: electrical recording and the “Brunswick Hour.” Frank Black was played an important role in the “Brunswick Hour,” if I’m correct. How did you and Frank Black meet?

Walter [Rogers] and I hired Frank as a staff pianist and an arranger for our classical and popular recordings at Brunswick. I’m not sure when we hired him, but I would guess 1921 or 1922, after we were well-established in the industry. Frank was the fastest and most versatile arranger I’ve ever known, and I’ve known and worked with a lot of them. As you said, he had an important role in the “Brunswick Hour” broadcasts. He wrote many of the arrangements for them and was the pianist in them too.

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Frank Black (undated photo, and a 1937 caricature)

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How would you compare the two of you as pianists?

Frank was the better pianist—he was much more versatile than I was. I played in one style, which we called “ragtime” back then, but [which] came to be known as “stride” when James P. Johnson and other black pianists became well known. That was the style I learned in St. Louis, the style that Scott Joplin helped me to refine. Frank, on the other hand, could play in almost any style, and he could hold his own with some of the classical pianists. But his most important role for us at Brunswick was his extraordinary speed and output of very imaginative arrangements.

 

What led you to become a partner of his in radio, where the two of you became nationally known as a team?

That started with the first broadcast we did of “The Brunswick Hour.” Between us, Frank and I wrote all the arrangements for that first broadcast. We just clicked when it came to writing arrangements for radio broadcasts.

 

Those “Brunswick Hour” broadcasts were well-received by the critics, and certainly by the public. Was that your first performance on radio?

Yes. Before that, my only experience with radio was building them for me and my family and friends. [David] Sarnoff envisioned radio becoming the dominant form of entertainment, and between 1920 and about 1924 radio technology improved to the degree that the [radio] sets had cone-type loudspeakers that made it possible for a whole family to listen to a broadcast. Until then, loudspeakers that were used with one- or two-tube receivers were basically megaphones connected to a diaphragm like the one in a telephone receiver.

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The earliest “Brunswick Hour” programs featured a “Music Memory Contest” that was suspended after several broadcasts. (March 1925)

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Do you remember how you felt about hearing radio broadcasts through an electrical amplifier and loudspeaker, compared to listening to an acoustical phonograph record?

Well, hearing the full range of sound coming through a cone-type loudspeaker made what we were doing in our recording studios seem almost primitive by comparison. It was obvious that radio was going to replace phonographs as the source of entertainment.

When you look back, you can see why radio was the future. Our twelve-inch phonograph records had a playing time of about four minutes at the most. A radio program could be any length, from fifteen minutes to an hour or more, and it was free in those days. Later, when sponsors came in [to fund radio broadcasts] and network programs aired commercials at the beginning and end of a [radio] show, radio was still free of charge to the people at home.

 

Do you recall the financial recession of 1921–1922 and its effects on the recording industry?

Oh, yes. Phonograph sales went to hell, and so did record sales. Like Victor, Brunswick weathered that downturn better than the other smaller companies. In our case, it was because of the parent company’s diversity and the money they could afford to lose in the phonograph division. But I would say that by 1923, anyone in the recording industry could see what was going to happen [with radio] because acoustical recordings cost money and their sound was inferior compared to a high-quality radio broadcast in the middle-1920s.
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©2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

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Editor’s Notes (Added with interviewer’s approval)

[1] The Valentino session (May 14, 1923) preceded Chaplin’s by two years.

[2] Brunswick catalog number 3299 was finally assigned to the recordings in 1926, but the release was cancelled. Both selections were remastered by Brunswick in August 1930, with the addition of a spoken introduction, for the apparently unrelated Celebrities Recording Company (Los Angeles).

[3] Hardy, Navarro, and Boles made no known recordings for Brunswick.

[4] This recording, made for Edison on November 18, 1924 (one month before Munn’s first Brunswick session), was eventually approved for release in October 1926.

[5] However, Munn’s earliest Brunswick recordings are acoustic.

[6] Trumbauer was added beginning with a session on March 13, 1924, Lang beginning with a session on December 10, 1924. Jugs were not used.

[7] And Victor.

[8] Vocalion records initially were reduced to 50¢ from 75¢ following the label’s acquisition by Brunswick, but were soon reinstated as a standard 75¢ line following dealer protests. However, Haenschen is correct in observing that Vocalion served as Brunswick’s primary race-record outlet. Jack Kapp was in charge of the race catalog, which probably explains Haenschen’s limited recollections.

 

> Part 1  | > Part 2

The James A. Drake Interviews • Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 1

The James A. Drake Interviews
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Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 1

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> Part 2  | > Part 3

 

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.

 

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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. 

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Brunswick-Balke-Collender’s facilities included a massive factory in Dubuque, Iowa, and a pressing plant (one of several) in Jersey City.

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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.

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The Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney building, St. Louis (1907)

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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.  

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(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. 

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Louis Taxon of Rockport, Illinois, patented the Ultona reproducer and arm in 1917 and assigned his patent to the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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Theodore Schiffer (drums) and Gus Haenschen (piano) performing in Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney’s Victrola department, summer of 1916.

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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.   

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The Brunswick Building at 799 Seventh Avenue, New York. Studios, on the top floor, were taken over by Decca Records in 1934.

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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.

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Michael Bohnen (left) and Richard Bonelli (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

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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!

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A Brunswick dealer’s ad capitalizing on Marie Tiffany’s appearance in Phoenix, Arizona (November 1920)

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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. 

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An early advertisement for Mario Chamlee’s records,
December 1920

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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

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© 2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

 

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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.

 

> Part 2  | > Part 3

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Enrico Caruso’s “MeToo” Moment: The Monkey House Scandal (1906)

Enrico Caruso’s “MeToo” Moment:
The Monkey House Scandal (1906)

 

It could be a story ripped from today’s headlines — A prominent entertainer is accused of molestation by a woman who gives the police a false address (and, it was later discovered, only her maiden name), then promptly vanishes. She fails to appear at the trial.

With the mysterious accuser absent, a police officer of questionable background serves as the chief witness. Two women who accuse Caruso of similar behavior in the past also testify, one of them anonymous and fully veiled. A skeptical judge orders Caruso to pay a $10 fine, the minimum penalty the court can impose.

The trial draws an ethnically mixed crowd, with “Italians” cheering Caruso enthusiastically. But the New York Times also reports “a crowd of young Americans…shouting derisively, yelling, whistling, and hooting.”

Out in the heartland, a Richmond, Indiana, newspaper spreads what appears to have been “fake news,” claiming that Caruso is blaming a monkey for having assaulted the supposed victim. The story is ignored by the more reputable papers.

“Hanna Graham,” Caruso’s accuser and a supposed widow, is  tracked down shortly after the trial ends and is found to actually be Hannah Graham Stanhope, the wife of an amateur baseball player. She gives a lengthy account of the alleged molestation to a New York newspaper, which Caruso’s attorney dismisses on the grounds that she refused to testify under oath. The New York Police Commissioner promises to investigate the matter, but nothing more is heard in that regard.

In the end, Caruso appeals, loses, and pays his $10 fine. He then leaves for Paris, only to learn that he might by barred from re-entering the U.S. as an “undesirable immigrant” (it didn’t happen).

 

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November 17, 1906

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November 21, 1906

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November 22, 1906

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“Fake news” in the heartland? The Richmond, Indiana, Palladium might have been misled by a tongue-in-cheek piece that ran a day earlier in another Midwestern newspaper. The “monkey-pinch” story did not appear in more reputable papers. (November 19, 1906)

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November 24, 1906

 

May 16, 1906

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Female Recording-Industry Pioneers • Mary Shipman Howard (Mary Howard Recordings / MHR Records)

Female Recording-Industry Pioneers • Mary Shipman Howard

An excerpt from American Record Companies and Producers,
1888 – 1950 (Mainspring Press)

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MARY HOWARD RECORDINGS  (Discs)

Record Production: 1942 — Mid 1950s
Offices: 37 E. 49th St., New York
Original-Master Source(s): Own studio at above address
Pressing: New York Record Company (Brooklyn)

Record Products: Mary Howard Recordings, MHR; masters for New Music Recordings and possibly other independent labels; radio transcriptions, air-checks, custom and private recordings

Mary Shipman Howard was the first American woman to own and operate a successful modern recording studio. A classically trained musician, she began experimenting with a portable recording machine in the late 1930s. After failing to find employment as a recording engineer, in 1940 she accepted a secretary’s position in the National Broadcasting Company’s New York engineering department.

When the draft began taking a toll on NBC’s male staff, Howard was tapped to replace a departing engineer. Initially, she was assigned to supervise (but not actively participate in) recording sessions for RCA Victor where, she recalled, “I didn’t do anything except sit with my eyes falling out of my head, and my ears dropping off. It was fascinating.”

In the meantime, Howard had opened her own private studio nearby, as a part-time venture offering private recording services, although she apparently had not yet fully mastered her craft. In 1942, composer and recorder virtuoso Harold Newman withheld payment to her, citing unsatisfactory work. The case was settled out of court, and Newman went on to launch his own Hargail label.

The Newman incident aside, Howard was soon attracting a small but select clientele, including composer-pianist Charles Ives (who visited the studio several to make private recordings) and Arturo Toscanini (who commissioned her to make air-checks of his  broadcasts). In late 1945 or early 1946, Mary Howard Recordings became a full-time operation, with the assistance of Joyce Fraser. The studio quickly gained a reputation among musicians for its high-quality work. During the later 1940s, Howard’s staff grew to include Donald Plunkett (chief engineer), Langdon Macdonald (recording engineer), Bob Dixon (production manager), Betty Jane Keilus (commercial manager), and Joseph Roberts (publicity consultant).

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Mary Howard (upper left) and chief recording engineer Don Plunkett in the studio (Audio Record, February 1948)

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Although custom recording was her primary focus, Howard briefly produced her own Mary Howard Recordings and MHR labels commercially, on a modest scale. The initial offerings (one album each by the Herman Chittison Trio and Ethel Waters, and one single each by Dale Belmont and Walter “Foots” Thomas) were announced by Billboard in July 1947, as July and August releases. Pressings were produced by the New York Record Company in Brooklyn and were distributed locally by Wesley Smith in New York. However, little advertising was done, and sales appear to have been meager.

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In addition to its own commercial recordings, Howard’s studio occasionally produced masters for other labels, including New Music Recordings (the revival of New Music Quarterly Recordings) in 1948. A feature article in Audio Record for February of that year reported that the studio was “waiting patiently for the [American Federation of Musicians’ recording] ban to be lifted so they can ‘get going’ again.” However, commercial activity appears to have dwindled following the end of the recording ban, and no mention has been found of Howard’s own labels after 1948. Her Ethel Waters masters were later acquired by Mercury Records.

Mary Howard was one of the first small-studios operators to adopt tape mastering, employing Ampex equipment. She also implemented strict quality-control procedures throughout the company and required that her employees have a working knowledge of the entire production process. In a 1948 Audio Record interview, Howard lamented “a prevalence in large organizations for specialization — cutting technicians, studio technicians, maintenance, etc. — which often results in poor recording because of lack of interest or information in all phases of the recording operation. If interest and enthusiasm were carried all the way through the recording organization, and management, perhaps time might be found to raise the general recording standards in America.”

Mary Howard Recordings continued to offer custom recording services and produce limited-edition, privately issued pressings (including LPs) into the 1950s. The company was last listed by Radio Annual in 1956, as a transcription producer. By then, Howard had moved to Connecticut, where she later remarried and became well-known as dog-show judge and breeder of pugs. She died on November 17, 1976.

© 2108 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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Selected References

Lowry, Cynthia. “Broadway.” Munster [IN] Times (Jan 17, 1951), p. 27.

“Mary Howard Recordings Releases First Six Sides.” Billboard (Jul 26, 1947), p. 21.

“Mary Pickhardt Dies; Recorder.” Hartford [CT] Courant (Nov 27, 1976), p. 4.

Shipman, Mary Howard. Interview by Vivian Perlis (Washington, CT; Sep 24, 1969), in Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History (Perlis, editor), pp. 209–211. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (2002).

“The War Gave Mary Howard Her Big Chance to Make Good in Recording.” Audio Record (Feb 1948), pp. 1, 4.

“Transcriptions—Recordings: Mary Howard Recordings.” Radio Annual (1949), p. 765.

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Mary Howard on Charles Ives

Excerpted from Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History
(Vivian Perlis, editor), University of Illinois Press

 

“I was the first private person ever to own a Scully lathe. Nobody could afford it. I couldn’t afford it either, but I got a loan from the bank. It was wonderful fun while it lasted, and the most fun were the people who suddenly, by word of mouth only, came to have me make recordings of them.

“Among them, Mr. Ives… Ives came two or three times. The reason he came was that he got letters from conductors and performers who were going to play something, asking how they should interpret the music. He would come storming into the studio — ‘Interpret, interpret! What are they talking about? If they don’t know anything about music — well alright, I’ll tell them.’ So he’d sit down at the piano and play very loudly, and sing and make a running commentary while he was doing it. ‘This is how you do it. Now you’re stupid. Don’t you know, this is how you do it… .’

“I had a very erratic elevator in my building. I’d hear a great crash and then a great shout, and I’d know that Ives was out of it. Then he’d sit down and talk about the elevator in no uncertain terms for three minutes… Ives was absolutely full of beans and it wasn’t bad temper. It was just excitement… He’d pound and pound, and Mrs. Ives would say, ‘Now please take a rest.’ He drank quantities of iced tea, and he’d calm down and then go back at it again, saying, ‘I’ve got to make them understand.’

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Rosa Ponselle Discusses Her Recordings

ROSA PONSELLE ON HER RECORDINGS
An Interview by James A. Drake

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(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Do you recall when you made your very first recording?

Don’t ask me about dates because I’m terrible at them, but I remember being given a contract by the Columbia company around the time I made my Met debut.  No, it was before my debut—I’m pretty sure it was before it because I made the recording in the spring, and my debut with Caruso in Forza del destino was in the fall, in November [1918].

 

So you were still in vaudeville with [your sister] Carmela when you made the recording?

No, we were “on strike” from the Keith Circuit in 1917, or that’s what we told [Keith Circuit booker] Eddie Darling at the time.  But Romano Romani, whom I credit with “discovering” me, was an arranger and conductor for Columbia, and he and my so-called manager, [William] Thorner, convinced me to accept a contract from Columbia rather than Victor.  What I didn’t know until a few years later, when I did go with Victor, was that they had wanted me from the time I made my Met debut.  After my debut was a sensation, as the critics called it, Victor wanted to offer me a big contract and have me record arias and duets from Forza with Caruso.

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Before the name change: Rosa and Carmela Ponzillo in vaudeville
(New York Clipper, August 8, 1917).

Carmela (left) and Rosa Ponselle (center) with Rosa’s secretary, Edith Prilik.
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Were you at all aware of Victor’s interest when Columbia wanted you to sign with them?

No, but I should’ve been because [Columbia] really rushed the contract through, and then had me make this test record.  Some of my friends said I should have Thorner try to see if Victor would take me, but he gave me this song and dance about how if I went with Victor I would just be a “beginner” and wouldn’t get much to record, but that at Columbia I would be “the queen” and would be their big star.

 

Do you remember the title of your test recording for Columbia?

Sure.  “Pace, pace mio Dio,” with Romani accompanying me at the piano.  That would have been in the spring of 1918, maybe March or April.

 

Where were the Columbia studios in New York City, where you made your recordings?

It was on the top floor of a new building, the Gotham, near Central Park.  It was a beautiful new building, and the studios obviously were brand-new, too.  I think there were four studios that took up that whole top floor.  I know it was at least twenty-four stories, that building, and the studios were on the top floor.

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Watch Ponselle and Romani recording in the Columbia studio
(from the Library of Congress):
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Describe the process that making those recordings involved.

Well, there was just a small orchestra for accompaniment—mainly brasses and reeds, and these special [Stroh] violins that had a nickeled horn, like a curved megaphone, instead of a wooden body.  Those odd-looking violins were made just for recording purposes because their horns were fastened to a metal bridge, which made them very loud compared to a real violin—but they sounded awful!

 

How many were in the accompanying band, if you recall?

Maybe ten or a dozen players at most for vocal recordings.  They were on bleachers, I guess you could call them, a few feet above the floor.  The bleachers were shaped like a half-moon, so that the instruments were pointing toward the horn.  I remember that there was no player right behind me when I was singing.  The players were at my left and right, but with no one behind me because the sound of their instrument would have been right in back of my head.

 

When you were making a recording, could you see the recording machinery and the person who was running the equipment?

No.  All of that was behind a wall.  There was a little window in the wall so that the man directing the recording where the singer and the orchestra was could communicate with the people running the equipment.

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Ponselle with Romano Romani (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

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Was there a signal that someone gave to start the recording?

At Columbia, that was Romani’s job.  He would get a hand signal through the little window that I was just describing, and he would raise his baton and the recording would begin.  Now at Victor, I remember a buzzer that was used as a signal to start the recording.  That was before the microphone came in, of course.  After that, there was a system of lights, kind of like traffic lights.  The red light meant “stand by,” and the green one meant that the recording machine was already going.

 

Do you remember any directions you were given about how to sing into the recording horn?

Oh, that damned horn!  It was a real ordeal having to make a record with that horn, especially if you had a good-sized voice like mine.  You had to sing every note at almost the same volume—so if the score called for a pianissimo, you couldn’t sing it because the recording machine would barely pick it up.  You couldn’t sing too loud, either.  If you did, they [i.e., the recording engineers] said that it would “blast” the groove and ruin the record.  So anything forte, especially fortissimo, had to be sung by looking upward so that some of the sound wouldn’t do directly into the middle of the horn.  Or they would tell you to take a step back from the horn right before you would sing a note fortissimo.

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“[Thorner] gave me this song and dance about how…at Columbia I would be ‘the queen’ and would be their big star.”

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Both you and your sister Carmela were offered Columbia contracts, correct?

Yes, they wanted to capitalize on our reputation in vaudeville.  We were one of the top acts on the Keith Circuit before I went to the Met, and our act consisted of fifteen minutes of mainly duets that I had done the arrangements for.  Three that always got us huge ovations were our duets of the Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann, “’O sole mio,” and “Comin’ thro’ the Rye.”  We recorded those for Columbia, and they sold well.

 

What is your opinion of your Columbia recordings?  Are there any that you remember especially well?

Well, those duets with Carmela, and another one from our vaudeville act, “Kiss Me Again,” which was my solo.  That record turned out pretty well.  One that didn’t like was the “Casta diva,” which I had to sing at a horrible tempo and with none of the dynamics that I used in the opera house.  I just thought of another duet recording that I liked:  the Trovatore “Mira d’acerbe lagrime” and “Vivrà! contende il giubilo!” which I made with Riccardo Stracciari.  My God, what a voice he had—just like a shower of diamonds!  Now, of all of the solo opera arias I made for Columbia, I consider the “Selva opaca” from William Tell to be the best one.

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The Ponselle sisters’ early Columbia output included selections they had featured in their vaudeville and concert performances.

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Was it hard for you to leave Columbia after being so successful with them, and go to Victor?

It was bittersweet, I would say.  The men at Columbia were so nice to me—they really did treat me like “the queen,” just as Romani and Thorner said they would.  And it was bittersweet because although I made a lot more money at Victor, Caruso had died two or three years earlier, so I never got to record with him.

 

Did Carmela audition for Victor with you?

No, she stayed with Columbia.  And by the way, I didn’t “audition” for Victor.  I was at the Met by then, and Victor did everything they could to get me to sign with them.

 

What do you remember about your first Victor recording sessions?

Well, the ones that were done with the horn and the small orchestra for accompaniment were made in their Manhattan studios.  When the microphone came along and everything was electrical, I made a lot of my records at this church that Victor had converted into a recording studio in Camden, New Jersey.  The acoustics of that church were ideal.

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From the “1930” Victor catalog (published November 1, 1929). Of Ponselle’s acoustically recorded issues, all but #6437 had been deleted by the time this catalog appeared.

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When the electrical-recording process was introduced in 1925, do you recall how different it felt to make a recording with the new technology?

Oh, yes!  It was like night and day.  The orchestra was much, much larger, and they used regular instruments—real violins, in other words—and you could have a good-sized chorus and a pipe organ if the music you were recording called for them.

 

You made a number of recordings with a chorus, and one of your fan’s favorites is “La vergine degli angeli” with [Ezio] Pinza.  Do you consider that one of your best electrical Victor records?

No—it’s one of my least favorites.  My part, that is, not Pinza’s.  He sings beautifully on that record.  What I don’t like about it is that somebody in the control room turned up the volume on my microphone.  It’s a prayer, so it’s supposed to be sung piano—but because of the way they turned up the volume on the microphone when I was singing my part, it’s way too loud, nothing like a prayer would be sung.

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Ponselle made her radio debut on the first Victor Hour broadcast of the 1927 season. (Radio Digest Illustrated, January 1927)

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How about your Forza trio recordings with Martinelli and Pinza?  Do you like those Victors?

Yes, they’re all right.  The blend of the voices turned out well.

 

Of all the duet recordings you made for Victor, the “Tomb Scene” discs from Aida with Giovanni Martinelli are prized by everyone who has heard them.  Is it true that you didn’t like them and that Martinelli had to convince you to allow them to be released?

That’s true, yes.  There again, the balance between our voices was wrong.  We recorded those duets twice, you know.  The first time was with the horn, and I wouldn’t let those be released because we were both too loud and the pace was too fast.  It’s like one of the Columbias that I made with that damned horn, the “Vergine degli angeli” with Charles Hackett.  He was an excellent singer—not the most beautiful voice, but a real artist—yet the recording was just awful.  It was all too loud, no subtlety at all.  The same with those first “Tomb Scene” recordings that I made with Martinelli and that damned horn.

When Victor persuaded us to re-record those duets after the microphone came in, the sound was much better, of course, but I thought the balance between our voices was still off, so I said I wouldn’t go along with putting them out.  Finally, Martinelli persuaded me to okay them.  He said, “Look, Rosa, the public will understand.  You sing so beautifully and your voice sounds just like it does on the stage.”  I could never say no to Martinelli, so I went along with him and let them be released.  When I hear them now, I’m glad I did.

 

What is your opinion of your Norma recordings, both the “Casta diva” and the “Mira, o Norma” with Marion Telva?

I’m fine with them, especially the “Mira, o Norma.”  Telva and I were in synch on every note.  We did that in the studio the way we did it onstage.  We held hands, and I would squeeze her hand gently a fraction of a second before I would begin a note.  Every time we did that duet, we were completely in synch because of the way we held hands.

 

Were any of your Victor Red Seals of older ballads like “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret, who conducted most of Victor’s popular-music recordings?

No, never.  I don’t remember him—I mean, I must have been introduced to him, but I wouldn’t know him if he walked into this room right now.  Rosario Bourdon conducted my Victor recordings.

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An early 1950s promotional photo for RCA’s
Treasury of Immortal Performances reissues.

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As you hardly need me to tell you, you are one of the very few opera stars who made acoustical recordings, electrical recordings, and modern long-playing recordings.  You’ve talked about the day-and-night difference between making acoustical and electrical recordings, but what was it like by comparison to make high-fidelity long-playing recordings for your old company, RCA Victor?

What I wouldn’t have given to have had that recording system when I was in the prime of my career!  It was so easy making recordings that way!

 

Those LPs were made right here at Villa Pace, correct?

Yes, in the foyer, where the high ceiling and the walls and tile floor give the voice such resonance.  They set up the microphones there.  They brought in a seven-foot piano for [accompanist] Igor Chichagov, because it would have been too much trouble to move my concert Baldwin piano into the foyer.  And do you know that the man who oversaw those recordings was one of the men I worked with at Victor in Camden?  His name was Mr. Maitsch.  It was such a happy moment when he came here and we got to work together again.

 

The master recordings for those LPs were made on magnetic tape.  You had had some experience with having your singing tape-recorded by Lloyd Garrison, who recorded private albums that you sent to friends.  How different was it working the RCA’s technicians and their state-of-the-art equipment?

Well, the sound quality of the RCA equipment was leagues ahead of what Lloyd had used.  He had an ordinary [Webcor] tape recorder, but he did have a very good microphone that he bought for our private recordings.  But the RCA microphones were the ones they used in their studios, so of course they were the top microphones.

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Ponselle records at home (July 4, 1954)

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How many “takes” did you do of each of the songs you recorded for your LPs?

Well, if I liked the way it sounded, I just sang a song once.  Sometimes, they would ask me to do a second “take” just as a back-up—and sometimes I didn’t like the way I did a number, so I recorded it a second or maybe even a third time.  Now, that I didn’t realize until later, when I heard them on the discs for the first time, was that they [i.e., the sound engineers] had spliced different portions from different “takes.”  Now, that was something else I wish we’d have had in the old days.  I have a good ear, though, and when I listen closely I can sometimes tell where they did the splicing.  I can tell because the resonance changes just enough for my ear to detect it.

 

Did you rehearse a lot before you began recording the selections for those LPs each afternoon and evening?

Oh, hardly at all.  I just picked what I wanted to sing, and I handed the score to Igor [Chichagov] to play it while I sang it.  Now, he will tell you that he’s not happy with some of his playing because I didn’t want to rehearse.  I just wanted to keep going, and record as many songs as I could in one long day.  On a couple of the songs, I played my own accompaniment because it was easier for me to pace my phrasing.

 

Is there any one of the songs on which you played your own accompaniment that you remember especially well?

Yes, yes—“Amuri, amuri,” which is a Sicilian folk song.  It’s such an emotional song!  It was all I could do to keep my emotions in check while we were recording it.  Afterward, I was a wreck and we had to stop for quite a while until I could get my heart out of my throat and back where it belonged.

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© James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

The Bain Collection (Library of Congress) photographs are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Milton Cross (Conclusion)

MILTON CROSS INTERVIEW
Part 3 (Conclusion)
James A. Drake

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(Smithsonian Institution)

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One of the more famous Met broadcasts was the performance of Aida on February 26, 1938, in which Martinelli became ill and had to be replaced.  What are your recollections of that broadcast?

They’re not very pleasant, for several reasons.  I had no idea that backstage before the performance, Martinelli had told [general manager] Edward Johnson that he was not feeling well, and was worried that he would become ill in the midst of the performance.  Which is exactly what happened.  All of a sudden, almost at the end of “Celeste Aida,” Martinelli seemed to cough, or so I thought—but actually, he vomited, and turned away from the audience as best he could.

As I remember it, the orchestra completed the rest of “Celeste Aida,” when suddenly the curtain was rung down.  This was all happening “live” on the air, of course, and I had no idea what was happening backstage.  What I did was what announcers do when something goes awry:  they keep talking while trying to give the impression of composure, of business as usual, hoping all the while that whatever has gone wrong will be fixed and that the show will go on.

So I kept on talking—and talking, and talking, and more talking.  I always kept a copy of the Victor Book of the Opera with me in the box that we used as our broadcasting booth.  Over the years, there were several editions of that book.  Although it was written for sales purposes, the Victor Book of the Opera contained summaries of all of the great Italian, French and German operas.  That afternoon, while all the hubbub was going on backstage and I was stuck with an open microphone and time to fill, I read aloud several pages of the Victor Book of the Opera.

Then someone slipped me a handwritten note that said, “G. M. sick, canned crabmeat and too much beer last p.m.”  Stupidly, at least in retrospect, I said on the air, “I have just been handed a note saying that Mr. Martinelli owes his indisposition to a night of eating canned crabmeat and drinking beer.”  In the meantime, as I recall, Mr. [Edward] Johnson managed to track down Frederick Jagel, who arrived in a cab and was quickly put into costume, and the broadcast was underway again.

By the end of that performance, as I was told afterward, lawyers from several breweries and distilleries, and also from an organization that represented the seafood business, had telephoned or had sent telegrams to the Met, threatening to file suit on the basis of what I had said on the air.  Somehow or other, the threats never turned into actual lawsuits.  I learned the hard way to weigh my words very carefully if a broadcast is interrupted for any reason.

 

There was another interruption in a broadcast—in this case, it was a 1953 broadcast of Tristan und Isolde in 1953.  What led to that interruption?

Yes, that one was planned, as opposed to the interruption in the Aida broadcast.  At the beginning of the second act of a Tristan und Isolde broadcast, while the orchestra was playing, I read a script that had been handed to me before we went on the air.  The script was an appeal for donations to the Metropolitan Opera Guild.  It was a rather standard appeal, asking listeners to send in contributions.

Although I read the script as fast as I could without overly rushing it, the audience in the theater grew very impatient, and they began booing loudly.  Although some listeners did send in donations, they were outweighed by nasty telephone calls, letters, and telegrams from other listeners.  The on-the-air appeal was well intentioned, but turned out to be a fiasco.

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(Radio Annual, 1949)

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A few weeks after that fiasco, there was another fundraising appeal that became very successful.  This was the “Jamboree” broadcast from the Ritz Theater in Manhattan.  It was the first telecast of a Metropolitan Opera event, if I recall correctly.

It was mainly broadcast on radio, although the network [ABC] did televise part of the performance through several stations along the East Coast.  This wasn’t a Met broadcast per se, but rather a special fundraising event.  It was a ninety-minute program, and was meant to be “lighter fare” in order to attract more donations.

 

Among the many “firsts” you are credited with is the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air, which you were chosen to oversee as well as to announce.  Do you have lingering memories about those “Auditions of the Air”?

Yes—I think all of us who were associated were the “Auditions of the Air” will remember Leonard Warren’s audition.  Under Edward Johnson’s management, [conductor] Wilfrid Pelletier was more or less in charge of the “Auditions of the Air.”  Almost always, Pelletier had already heard the singers who were going to perform in the “Auditions”—but he had never heard Warren until we did what we call a “level check,” which is when the audio engineers test the volume of the sound coming from the stage.

I was in the booth with Pelletier and a couple of the audio men when Warren’s voice came through the speaker that was mounted next to the control board.  Warren was singing the “Pari siamo” from Rigoletto.  The sound of that voice was just unbelievable!  In my mind’s eye I can still see Pelletier looking through the glass window in the booth while Warren was singing on the stage.  Pelletier would look at Warren, then look at the audio fellows and me, and then look down at the stage again.

After a few moments, he said to us, “Who put that record on?”  He thought that the audio boys had played a prank on him by having the fellow on the stage—Leonard Warren—pretend to be singing while mouthing the words to a recording by Riccardo Stracciari.  That’s how refined Warren’s singing was when he auditioned on the air.

 

Were you in the opera house when he died?

No, thankfully, I wasn’t there.  I believe that happened on a Friday evening [March 4, 1960], in the second act of Forza del destino.  From what I heard about it, Warren and Tucker had sung “Solenne in quest’ora,” then Warren sang the recitative and aria, “Urna fatale,” and suddenly he collapsed onto the floor of the stage.  I was at home that evening, preparing for the broadcast the next afternoon, which was Der Fliegende Holländer with Leonie Rysanek and George London.  [Thomas] Schippers, who had conducted that fatal Forza performance, also conducted the Holländer performance.  When we went on the air, I relayed to the radio audience what had happened the previous evening, and the tragic news about Leonard Warren, and that in his memory the orchestra would perform the prelude to the third act of La Traviata.  I believe that [Rudolf] Bing and Schippers had chosen that prelude because Germont was one of Warren’s many great roles.

 

Warren had sung the role of Paolo Albiani to the Simon Boccanegra of Lawrence Tibbett in a number of performances.  Do you recall those performances?

Yes, there were several with Tibbett in the title role, Elisabeth Rethberg as Amelia, Martinelli as Gabriele Adorno, and Warren as Albiani—but I don’t remember much about Warren in them.  Yet I remember very clearly the first time I heard Tibbett.

 

That was at his debut?  

No, it was in a special program in 1924.  I don’t think it was called a “gala,” but it was a special program in which scenes from three or maybe four different operas were presented.  I went because Maria Jeritza was scheduled to sing a scene from Thaїs.   I had been fortunate enough to be in the audience at the Met premiere of Thaїs, with Farrar and Amato [as Athanaёl] in 1917, and I was eager to hear Jeritza in a scene from Thaїs.  One of the other operas from which a scene was performed was Carmen, and Lawrence Tibbett was the Escamillo.

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Are there other “Auditions of the Air” that stand out in your memory?

Yes, Richard Tucker’s audition was another memorable one.  Pelletier had “discovered” Tucker through Paul Althouse, whom Tucker was studying with.  Pelletier told all of us that Tucker, who was a cantor at the time, would win the “Auditions of the Air” just as easily Leonard Warren had won two or three years earlier.  During the audition, Tucker sang well—but he didn’t win.  He lost to another tenor, Elwood Gary, who sang the Italian tenor aria from Rosenkavalier in the audition, and sang it in several performances that season.  But Tucker made up for lost time, didn’t he!

 

Perhaps because they’re related by marriage, Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce are often linked in discussions about American tenors at the Met.  What are your assessment of them?

Well, I’ll always remember Jan Peerce’s debut not only because it was a broadcast [performance], but also because of the circumstances under which it took place that day.  As was always my habit, I arrived at the opera house at 11:00 a.m., so that I could relax a little while getting ready to go on the air.  The broadcast that day was Traviata, and Peerce was to make his debut as Alfredo with Tibbett as the elder Germont and Jarmila Novotna as Violetta.  Gennaro Papi was to conduct the performance.

About fifteen minutes or so before the curtain was to go up, Papi had a seizure of some type—a heart attack, or maybe a stroke—and he was rushed to the hospital.  Either he died in the ambulance, or was already gone when the ambulance came—I don’t remember which it was, but Mr. [Edward] Johnson was there, of course, and he had to make a decision on the spot about what to do.

He managed to locate [conductor Ettore] Panizza at his home, and Panizza said he would rush to the Met immediately.  But the curtain was ready to go up, and we were ready to go on the air, so Mr. Johnson had Frank St. Leger conduct the orchestra until Panizza arrived.  In the meantime, [Johnson] told the cast members what had happened—I think he told them that Papi had been taken ill, not that he had died—and he reassured them that the performance would be fine.

 

What instructions did Edward Johnson give you about what to say to the radio audience as regards Papi’s condition and Panizza stepping in to conduct the performance?

He told me to proceed as if nothing had happened, but to say “Ettore Panizza” instead of “Gennaro Papi” when I mentioned the conductor during the broadcast.  A few minutes before the curtain went up and we went on the air, Mr. Johnson walked onto the stage in front of the curtain and told the audience that Panizza would be conducting the performance.  He didn’t give any explanation, just that brief announcement.

 

Did you detect any nervousness or uncertainty on Jan Peerce’s part, given those extraordinary circumstances?

None at all.  He was extraordinarily composed, and he sang the entire performance beautifully.  I’m sure that the suddenness of what had happened was in the back of his mind, but Peerce was a trouper and, as the saying goes, “the show must go on.”  Looking back, I was probably more rattled in the broadcast booth than Jan Peerce was on the stage.

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Was the offstage animosity between Peerce and Tucker generally known among their colleagues and also within the Met administration?

There was a general awareness of it, yes—but neither of them ever showed it publicly, at least not that I can recall.  When the Met went on tour every year, they and their wives were always on the train with us, and there was no evident strain between the two men professionally.  And both men were very well liked by the other singers in the company.

They were also very generous.  I remember a broadcast during which Tucker had a handwritten note delivered to me from his dressing room.  He had received a number of letters from the mother or father of a young girl who was blind, who never missed a Metropolitan Opera broadcast.  Evidently, the young girl was quite a Richard Tucker fan.  Shortly before the curtain went up, as he was waiting in his dressing room, he wrote me a note asking me to please mention that he was dedicating the performance to this young girl.

 

You have heard approximately three generations of great singers during your tenure at the microphone for the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.  In your opinion, how have American singers fared during those many years?

Well, there have always been great opera singers who were American-born.  One of the first great Wagnerian bass-baritones was an American, Putnam Griswold.  Another was David Bispham—those were the days of Jean and Edouard de Reszke, which was before my time.  Then there were the American tenors we spoke about—and I want to mention others such as Eugene Conley, Barry Morell, and John Alexander, who were excellent tenors in the roles that they sang.

Although Peerce is retired now, Tucker seems to get better with age.  He has also become a credible actor, especially in Pagliacci.  Last year [1973], they [i.e., the Metropolitan Opera and the Public Broadcasting System] filmed a double-bill “Cav and Pag” for television, with Franco Corelli as Turiddu and Tucker as Canio.  Teresa Stratas was Nedda, and MacNeil sang Tonio.  Tucker was on fire in Pagliacci!  I know that he hopes to sing Eléazar in La Juive, which is like singing Otello.  And speaking of American singers, James McCracken is superb in Otello.  His timbre is not to everyone’s liking, but he has put a firm stamp on the role of Otello.

The same with baritones—Tibbett, Warren, Richard Bonelli, Robert Merrill, Cornell MacNeil, Sherill Milnes—and bass-baritones like James Morris and Spiro Malas, and bassos like Jerome Hines or, in an earlier time, Herbert Witherspoon and Clarence Whitehill, whom I was very fortunate to hear.

Among mezzo-sopranos, in my opinion, Louise Homer was the equal of the best European mezzos, just as Margaret Harshaw and Nan Merriman were, and Rosalind Elias and Marilyn Horne are today.  With sopranos, the list is very long, from Clara Louise Kellogg during the era of Jenny Lind, and a bit later Lillian Blauvelt and Farrar, and Helen Jepson and Grace Moore, just to name a few from the past.  After the [Second World] War, we had Eleanor Steber and Dorothy Kirsten, and Patrice Munsel and Roberta Peters among the coloraturas.  And we are so fortunate to have Leontyne Price!  She is a real “national treasure.”

 

Do you recall Marian Anderson’s Met debut?

I don’t recall her debut, which was in Ballo in maschera, but I remember the broadcast of Ballo in 1955, which was just a short time after her actual debut.  Incidentally, both Peerce and Tucker were cast in that production of Ballo.  The cast included Zinka Milanov as Amelia, Merrill as Renato, Marian Anderson as Ulrica, Roberta Peters as Oscar, and with Peerce and Tucker alternating in the role of Riccardo.  I think it’s fair to point out that Marian Anderson was past her prime when she came to the Met.  Although I met her, I can’t say that I knew her personally.

 

On the topic of fairness, It would be quite unfair, but also quite irresistible, to ask you to name your favorites among those American singers.

Well, I’m not supposed to have “favorites” as an announcer.  But as an opera lover and an American citizen, I have the right to have my favorites among those of my countrymen—and countrywomen—who are professional opera singers.  Among the women, my all-time favorites are, were, and always will be Rosa Ponselle and Geraldine Farrar.

 

What about Maria Callas, since she is American-born?

She was born here, yes—but I don’t think she is regarded as an “American” in the sense that, say, Rosa Ponselle is.  My recollection is that [Callas’s] parents had emigrated from Greece, and that she was only in her teens when her mother took her back there to live.  I remember her first broadcast performance, which was a Lucia with Giuseppe Campora as Edgardo in 1956.

And I remember when she came back to the Met [in March 1965] two sing two performances of Tosca.  They were just a few days apart—one was with Corelli, and the other with Tucker as Cavaradossi—but neither performance was a broadcast.  I don’t know why she was engaged only for two performances of one role.  She was a “superstar” by then.  Incidentally, I find “superstar” an amusing word.  Today, it isn’t enough to be a star.  You have to be a “superstar”!

 

Who is on your personal list of favorite American male singers?

The finest all-around American tenor, in my judgment, was [Richard] Crooks.  He was unsurpassed in the lyric repertoire, especially the French roles.  I had the privilege of broadcasting his debut, as Des Grieux in Manon, in 1933.  He was the epitome of elegance, onstage and offstage.  In the heavier tenor roles, I would pick Tucker, especially in Fanciulla, Manon Lescaut, and Pagliacci.

Among baritones, although I admired Warren very much, and I admire Sherill Milnes today, it was Lawrence Tibbett whom I thought was the finest baritone we [Americans] have ever produced.  Tibbett could—and did—sing everything.  His Iago, with Martinelli as Otello and Rethberg as Desdemona, was amazing.  To me, he was on a par with Ponselle—and there is no peak higher than that.

 

There are four American singers who are primarily thought of as “light-opera singers”:  Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald, John Charles Thomas, and Mario Lanza.  Did you hear any of them in person?

Yes, three of them—John Charles Thomas, Nelson Eddy, and Jeanette MacDonald—were guest artists on the RCA Magic Key radio program, which I hosted on NBC.  I had heard John Charles Thomas in operetta in the early days of his career.  I remember him in Maytime and Naughty Marietta—and I remember his first Metropolitan Opera broadcast, which was as Amonasro in Aida with Rethberg and Martinelli. [2]

It is now fashionable to label John Charles Thomas and the other singers you mentioned as “movie singers,” as opposed to “real” singers.  But all of them had sung in opera, and had done so very credibly even though they went on to radio, recordings, and the movies.  Nelson Eddy, for example, had been a fine Silvio in Pagliacci.  John Charles Thomas was an excellent Germont—and vocally [he was] every bit as good as Tibbett.  He was not the artist that Tibbett was, but he had a big, bold, absolutely natural sound that was thoroughly American.

Jeanette MacDonald, in the later years of her career, sang several roles with opera companies.  The same is true of Mario Lanza.  He sang a couple of [operatic] roles, as I recall, and he coached with Sergei Koussevitsy during the time that Leonard Bernstein, George London, and Frances Yeend were with Koussevitsy.  I met Lanza when I was in Los Angeles, as I mentioned earlier, and he was at the RCA Victor studios recording the selections that were used in the film “The Great Caruso.”  Very generously, he asked me if I’d like to sit in on one of the recording sessions.

Take my word for it, Mario Lanza had a first-rate tenor voice!  As with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, the fact that Mario Lanza became a movie star shouldn’t be used against him.  It works the other way around, too.  Tibbett sang popular music quite frequently, just as Robert Merrill and Jan Peerce have.  So it’s all a matter of circumstances.

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[2] The Metropolitan Opera Annals indicate that Frederick Jagel, rather than Giovanni Martinelli, sang the role of Radamès in the performance to which Cross is referring, which took place on Saturday, January 25, 1936.

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Memorabilia from Milton Cross’ time as a kiddie-show host on radio (see Part 1).

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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

The Bain Collection (Library of Congress) and Smithsonian Institution photographs are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

 

The James A. Drake Interviews • Milton Cross (Part 2)

MILTON CROSS INTERVIEW
Part 2 of 3
James A. Drake

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Let me ask you about many of the great singers whose names you mentioned earlier.  As I mention them, please tell me what comes to mind when you hear their names.  Let me begin with Geraldine Farrar.

Of all of the great singers I have been privileged to come to know, Geraldine Farrar was the most special to me.  The first performance in which I heard her was a Tosca with Antonio Scotti as Scarpia, and Alessandro Bonci as Cavaradossi, in 1909.  I still have the program from that performance, and her autograph is written across it.  I treasure that program more than any other—and believe me, I have many!

Almost twenty-five years later, in the 1930s, I had the privilege of working closely with her when she did intermission features during the Met broadcasts.  She based each of her features on the opera that we were broadcasting that afternoon—and to demonstrate various musical points that she was making, she would sing two or three bars from the score, accompanying herself on a little upright piano that was put in the box for her.

What was Farrar like as a person?

This sounds trite to say, but she was a star—a real star—but she was very approachable, very considerate, and very supportive of everyone she worked with.  When I first saw her in 1909, I thought she was even more beautiful in-person than in the photograph I had of her.  In those days, I had her photo in a frame next to my bed.  I was thoroughly smitten!  I see the same phenomenon happening today [1974] with Kiri Te Kanawa, just as I saw it happening with Anna Moffo a few years ago.

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Geraldine Farrar (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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In the opera house, did Farrar sound like she does on her Victor Red Seal recordings?

Yes and no.  The mechanical-recording process was none too kind to women singers, except perhaps for coloratura sopranos.  In the [opera] house, Farrar’s voice was much larger than what you hear on her old recordings, and her middle range was much larger than her recordings would lead you to believe.  That’s why I’m so glad that several of her intermission features were saved as radio transcriptions.  Those transcriptions capture the gorgeous sound of her middle range.  None of her old recordings were able to do that.

You spoke about Evan Williams, and the warmth of his personality when you met him after a concert.  Did John McCormack, whom you not only heard but worked with on radio, have that same type of personality offstage?

No!  John McCormack was always cordial but very formal, rather aloof, and “all business,” as they say—not the genial Irishman that the public imaged him to be.  Although he was the most famous tenor of his time except Caruso, McCormack was always suspicious of any upcoming singers who were singing what he regarded as his songs.  I can remember a number of times at rehearsals, when he would take me aside and quiz me about other singers who were on the radio.  “Now tell me, Mr. Cross,” he once said to me, “who is this Bing Crosby, and what do you know of him?”  I answered that I knew Bing personally, and that he was a fine fellow.

“And what is his voice?” McCormack wanted to know.  “Well, he’s a light baritone,” I said, “and he’s a crooner like your friend Mr. [Rudy] Valée.”  I knew that McCormack liked Rudy Vallee because Rudy had him on his radio show and treated him like a king—and Rudy, of course, never sang any songs that were associated with John McCormack.

“This boy Crosby is doing my songs on his program,” McCormack said to me very sternly.  “Last week he sang my ‘Adeste Fidelis,’ and I don’t think I like that very much!”  I tried to remind him that this was the holiday season, but that didn’t seem to make any difference to McCormack.  After that conversation, I got in touch with Bing and told him about it—and then Bing invited McCormack to be on his radio program, and made a big fuss over him.  From then on, Bing and McCormack became good friends.

Around that same time, McCormack took me aside again and said, almost in the same words, “Now tell me, Mr. Cross, who is this James Melton, and what do you know of him?”  I said that I didn’t know Melton very well, not like I knew Bing, but that [Melton] was a light tenor who had been with The Revelers, and was now a soloist on the radio.  “Are you aware,” McCormack said brusquely, “that this boy Melton had the nerve to sing my ‘Macushla’ on the radio this week?  Does that boy think he can just steal my music and take money from my own pockets?  I’ll not allow it!”

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John McCormack (G.G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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That’s how McCormack was—very suspicious and very possessive, as in referring to “my ‘Macushla.’”  Now, as a singer, he was in a league of his own.  No one but John McCormack sounded like John McCormack.  And I have to say that even in popular songs like “Macushla,” which he did essentially “own,” his flawless vocal technique is always evident.  I would go so far as to say that there are at least two of his Victor recordings which I don’t believe any other tenor will ever surpass:  “Swans,” which has the most beautiful diminuendii you’ll ever hear, and “Il mio tesoro,” which is one of the greatest recordings of this century.

If my research is correct, you were in the audience for the Met debut of Leo Slezak, in an historic performance of Otello with Frances Alda and Antonio Scotti.

And with Toscanini conducting.  What a night that was!  That was only a few weeks before I heard Farrar in Tosca.  When Leo Slezak made his entrance, everyone in the audience literally gasped:  he looked like a real-life Paul Bunyan!  When he sang “Esultate!” the applause went on so long that Toscanini had difficulty restarting the orchestra.  I have heard a number of tenors in Otello since then, but I have never heard one who could equal Leo Slezak in that role.

Not even, say, Giovanni Martinelli, or more recently Mario Del Monaco?

Not at all.  Mario Del Monaco either could not or would not sing at any dynamic level other than forte.  Leo Slezak could do a diminuendo, which very few other tenors could do.  The only ones who come to mind in that regard are Giacomo Lauri-Volpi in his prime, and Franco Corelli today.  Corelli has done diminuendi on the air, notably in “Ah, levez-toi soleil” in Romeo et Juliette.

Do you recall Lauritz Melchior singing Otello to Elisabeth Rethberg’s Desdemona at the gala performance for Gatti-Casazza in 1935?

Yes, I was fortunate to be there, and of course I heard Melchior many times after that in the great Wagnerian roles.

Having heard Leo Slezak and Lauritz Melchior, how would you compare the two?  Would you consider them equals?

Not in Otello, no—if that’s what you mean.  In the Wagnerian roles, I would say that they were equals, at least in terms of the clarion quality of their voices.  But Melchior was incapable of subtlety, whereas Slezak was capable of infinite subtlety.  His lieder recordings, which he made relatively late in his career, are remarkable!  Melchior could never have done that.

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Elisabeth Rethberg and Ezio Pinza at the Met (from The NBC Transmitter, December 1940)

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The versatile Elisabeth Rethberg sang in the German wing of the Metropolitan wing, along with the Italian wing.  You also heard, as you mentioned, Maria Jeritza, who was also associated with some German roles in addition to her French and Italian ones.  And you also knew and heard Lotte Lehmann several times.  Can you compare them?

Oh, Lehmann was a thorough artist!  Jeritza was a fine interpreter and actor, as was Lehmann, but Jeritza was a better actor than a singer.  Lehmann could do it all—and she was witty, too.  I remember and intermission feature in which Jeritza and Lehmann were interviewed together, and Jeritza opened the interview by saying to Lehmann, “I have such good things to say about you, but I don’t think you’ll believe them.”  “No, I won’t,” said Lehmann with a laugh.

I also remember another intermission feature, a singer’s roundtable in which Lily Pons and Lotte Lehmann were interviewed.  Pons was always discreet about her age, and though she was rumored to be at least five years older than the claimed, her skin tone and her tiny physique made her look quite a bit younger.  In the interview, Lily laid out this beauty plan that was based on squeezing fresh lemons all over her face.  That’s how she kept her face so youthful-looking she said.  At that moment, Lehmann, whose face was quite wrinkled, got a great laugh by saying to Pons, “Tell me more about zeez lemons!”

Looking back on the great sopranos you worked with, including Lotte Lehmann, which ones were the most fun to be around and to work with?

In the 1920s and 1930s, the life of the party was always Rosa Ponselle.  Today, they would say that she “is where the action is.”  No soprano of her era had the kind of massive and reverential following that Ponselle did.  And, my God, she was funny!  She had pet names for all of us, and she treated everyone as a friend.  Then there was that voice—and there has never been another dramatic soprano that was equal to it.  Ponselle and Caruso were the two artists that everyone wanted to hear.  As Farrar said on the air, “When you hear Rosa Ponselle, you hear a fountain of melody blessed by the Lord.”  In the 1940s and 1950s, I had similar fun with Helen Traubel on tour. 

She too is reputed to have had a wicked sense of humor.  The same with Eleanor Steber.

They were great people, that’s why.  She made a few onstage mistakes, as they all do, but she laughed them off afterward.

And Eileen Farrell?

I certainly admire her singing—and, you know, she can sing popular music, especially blues numbers, as well as she can sing, say, Aida.  But she’s a very crude woman, very boorish, and she seems to be rather proud of it.

We spoke of James Melton, but in connection with John McCormack.  Melton’s career paralleled that of Richard Crooks.  What are your assessments of them as singers, interpreters, and actors?

In my opinion, one was an artist—Richard Crooks—and the other, Melton, was just a very fine singer.  Melton was at his best in songs like “Oh, Dry Those Tears” and “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” where the throb in his voice could accentuate the maudlin lyrics of those songs.  Crooks, on the other hand, was like a perfectly crafted cameo, especially in the French repertoire.  But he could sing almost anything and do it wonderfully.  When he was making recordings with the Victor Light Opera Company, his “Overheard the moon is beaming” from The Student Prince, or “If One Flower Grows in Your Garden” from The Desert Song, were musically excellent and dramatically intense.  And his Red Seal recording of the lullaby from Jocelyn will bring tears to your eyes, especially in the last few measures.

Staying with the topic of American tenors, you must have heard almost all of them.  Let me mention their names, and ask you to give me the impressions that come to your mind as you hear their names.  Let me begin with Charles Hackett.  Did you hear him in-person?

Oh, yes—several times.  I remember his Alfredo in Traviata, with Frieda Hempel as Violetta, and I also remember him in a Verdi Requiem with Rosa Ponselle, Margarete Matzenauer, and José Mardones.   Hackett’s was not a particularly beautiful voice—it was fairly large, though, a spinto tenor—but he was a superb musician and an excellent actor.  Hackett was a very nice-looking man, too.

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Charles Hackett (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Another American tenor of that era was Riccardo Martin.  Did you hear him at the Met?

Yes, only once, as Pinkerton in Butterfly, with Farrar in the title role and Scotti as Sharpless.  I think Rita Fornia sang Suzuki.  Riccardo Martin was rather tall and trim, and was an excellent actor.  It was said that Caruso was very fond of him, and gave him a lot of encouragement.  Although Martin’s prime years were a little before Hackett’s, I would put them in the same league—not the most beautiful voices, in other words, but excellent interpreters and actors.

Among the other American tenors who had successful careers at the Met after World War One were Orville Harrold, Mario Chamlee, and Morgan Kingston.  What do you recall hearing them in?

I heard Orville Harrold in Cavalleria rusticana, in a double-bill with Le Coq d’Or rather than the more usual Pagliacci.  Orville Harrold was another Paul Bunyan-type—a big, tall, broad-shouldered fellow.  His voice had a lyrical tone quality, but it was surprisingly large in the opera house. Kingston I saw in La Navarraise, which Farrar and Léon Rothier.  He sang well, and it was a sizeable voice, but he sang everything at forte or fortissimo, so his part in the performance was not on a par with Farrar’s and Rothier’s.

I heard Chamlee in his debut, which was in Tosca with Farrar and Scotti in February 1920.  I had heard his recording of “E lucevan le stelle,” which sounded rather like Caruso’s Red Seal record.  Later, I found out from my friend Gus Haenschen, who was at Brunswick in the old days, that Walter B. Rogers, who directed Brunswick’s equivalent of the Victor Red Seal, had coached Chamlee to imitate Caruso’s recording phrase by phrase.  But in the [opera] house, Chamlee didn’t sound anything like that.  It was a good voice, but not a great voice—and he certainly didn’t sound anything like Caruso.

Two other American tenors who come to mind were Paul Althouse and Frederick Jagel.  Did you hear both tenors?

Yes, I did.  Paul Althouse had almost two separate careers—first in the Italian and French tenor roles, and later in some of the Wagnerian heldentenor roles.  He was better, in my opinion, in the Wagnerian repertoire.  Frederick Jagel was a very capable tenor in the lyric Italian roles.  I remember his Turiddu being especially good, both vocally and histrionically.  Like Althouse, Jagel was a good, solid, reliable performer.  But neither of them had what I would regard as great voices.

You heard Caruso in his prime.  Please tell me everything you can remember about the experience of hearing and seeing him at the Met.

I first heard Caruso on March 15, 1910, with Johanna Gadski as Aida, Louise Homer as Amneris, Pasquale Amato as Amonasro, and Toscanini conducting.   At home, we owned Caruso’s Victor Red Seal of “Celeste Aida” (Victor 88025), which he had recorded in 1906, and the Johanna Gadski-Louise Homer duets from the second act [“Fu la sorte” and “Alla pompa, che s’appressa”].  We also had the two Red Seals of the Tomb Scene with Caruso and Gadski.  I played those Tomb Scene discs so many times that I could hear them in my sleep—but it wasn’t until I heard Caruso and Gadski sing it on the stage that I realized that several cuts had been made in those recordings.

In the opera house, did Caruso sound like he did on his many Red Seal recordings?

I didn’t think so.  His voice sounded smaller than it did on recordings.  I was expecting to hear a huge voice, and instead it seemed a good deal smaller but also much more nuanced.  In “Celeste Aida,” for example, his tempo was considerably slower than it was on the recording, and he did a lot of shading that you don’t hear on his recordings.  Of course, from the little seat I had way up in the balcony, I was hearing him from far away.  In the recordings, his voice was coming directly into my ears from the Victrola.

That’s a very good point, and one that’s overlooked in acoustical recording technology.  The singer was about five or six inches from the recording horn, which was fed directly into the max master, and the resulting recording was played through an acoustical speaker that was only a few feet from the listener—an entirely different experience, in other words, from hearing a great singer in a cavernous opera house, even one with excellent acoustics.

That’s one of the main reasons why, when I heard the first few measures of Caruso singing “Celeste Aida,” I thought to myself, “He doesn’t sound like his Red Seals.  He doesn’t sound like Caruso.”  Now, in retrospect I shouldn’t have listened to those Red Seals at our home over and over before going to the Met so I could compare them to the singer’s “live” voices.  But at the time, I didn’t realize that all of these singers used a different technique—well, not a different technique in the vocal-production sense, but rather a different approach—when they made studio recordings.

Was Caruso’s a beautiful voice in your judgment? 

Well, yes, in its own way.  His voice had the baritonal quality that you hear on his recordings—and there was no effort at all in his singing.  I remember that his movements onstage were more natural, I thought, than Gadski’s.  She looked rather stiff by comparison.  The makeup they used for her was awfully dark, almost the color of mud, which didn’t exactly help her.  Pasquale Amato, on the other hand, seemed very natural, and his Amonasro was very well acted.

Was there any part of that Aida performance in which you “heard” the Caruso voice that we’re familiar with on recordings?

Well, looking back, it was probably a mistake to listen to those recordings over and over again before going to the opera house.  What I was expecting to hear were those ringing high notes that I had heard in those Aida recordings.  In my head, I was listening to the recordings, especially of “Celeste Aida,” and as soon as I heard him singing the aria at a slower tempo, and with so much nuance, I was disappointed because I wasn’t hearing those trumpet-like high notes.

But I did hear them later in the opera.  It was at the end of the Nile Scene, when he sang “[Sacerdote!] Io resto a te!”  Maybe [Francesco] Tamagno sang high notes with such tremendous power—I don’t know—but when Caruso sang “Io rest’ a te,” I said to myself, “Yes!  That’s it!  That is Caruso!”  He had never recorded that music, so I was hearing him sing it—I should say, I was hearing him, meaning his real voice—for the first time.   There’s a lesson in that for people today.  Enjoy your records when you play them, but don’t expect the record to sound like the singer, or vice-versa.

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Pasquale Amato (right), with Antonio Scotti and Lucrezia Bori
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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About Pasquale Amato:   in the opera house, sound at all like his Victor recordings?

On the stage, Amato’s voice was like a French horn.  It was quite large, though not as large as Ruffo’s was.  Like Caruso, Amato used a lot of shading in his singing, which doesn’t come across in his recordings.  There was such precision in that performance of Aida.  Toscanini saw to that!  But no, to answer your question, his recordings don’t do him justice.

After Caruso’s passing, many of the dramatic roles for which he was famous were assigned to Giovanni Martinelli, and the more lyrical roles to Beniamino Gigli.  You heard them many times in the ensuing years.  Are there particular performances of theirs which you recall vividly?

Yes, especially in Martinelli’s case.  You must remember that Gigli left the Metropolitan in 1932, but that Martinelli sang there until 1946.  Martinelli’s first in-house role was Rodolfo in Bohème, with Lucrezia Bori in 1913, and his last in-house performance was as Rodolfo, with Licia Albanese as Mimi.  Interestingly, Bori and Albanese were exactly the same height, and had almost the identical measurements.  Even their shoe sizes were the same.  Licia [Albanese] told me that when she tried on a pair of shoes that Bori had worn—they were Size 2—they fit Licia perfectly.

Were you in the audience when Gigli made his debut as Faust in Mefistofele?

Yes, and I think I heard almost every in-house performance that Gigli gave during his first season.  His debut was one of the most talked-about and the most anticipated in the circles that I was in.  Gigli had the most beautiful tenor voice I have ever heard.

Were there any similarities in Gigli’s voice, compared to Caruso’s? 

Not to my ears, no.  Gigli’s was the perfect lyric tenor voice.  It was a sizable voice, too.  The beauty of [his] timbre was indescribable.  If I were asked to write a dictionary, after the word “tenor” I would put a photograph of Beniamino Gigli.

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Beniamino Gigli. Silly poses like this were Victor’s attempt to impart a more “down-to-earth image” to their Red Seal artists.
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

..

Among other tenors who come to mind in the lyric roles were Tito Schipa, and later Ferruccio Tagliavini.  How would you compare them to Gigli?

In one role that I can think of, the title role in Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz, Schipa and Tagliavini were superb.  But I heard Miguel Fleta as Fritz, with Bori as Suzel, in 1923, and he was extraordinary!  In those days, L’Amico Fritz was occasionally paired with Cavalleria rusticana, since both were written by Mascagni.

On recordings, in my personal opinion, the two best versions of the second-act “Cherry Duet” are Schipa’s with Mafalda Favero, and Tagliavini’s with Pia Tassinari, his wife, as Suzel.  If you know L’Amico Fritz, you’ll know that the singing in the third act, such as the “Ah! Ditela per me,” requires some vocal heft.  That’s why Fleta and Gigli were excellent in L’Amico Fritz.  They could sing at any dynamic level, from pianissimo to fortissimo, and their techniques were excellent.

If I were asked to choose between Schipa or Tagliavini with Gigli in L’Amico Fritz, especially in the third act, Gigli would be my choice.  It’s remarkable, though, how much Tagliavini sounded like Gigli in the softer passages—but only in the softer passages.  Although he had a very fine career, I think that Tagliavini’s Gigli-like timbre worked against him.  He was always compared to Gigli, but his [Tagliavini’s] voice had none of the heft that Gigli had.

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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

The Bain News Service photographs at the Library of Congress are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

 

The James A. Drake Interviews • Milton Cross (Part 1)

MILTON CROSS INTERVIEW
(Part 1 of 3)
James A. Drake

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Radio Annual, 1949

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Born in Manhattan on April 16, 1897, Milton Cross became one of radio’s first full-time announcers, and remained so until his death on January 3, 1975.  His association with the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera’s matinee performances began literally with the first such broadcast:  a performance of Hansel and Gretel that aired on Christmas afternoon, December 25, 1931.  Although Christmas Day fell on a Friday that year, the National Broadcasting Company decided to continue broadcasting Metropolitan Opera performances over its Blue Network (which later became the American Broadcasting Company, the corporate name of the ABC network) every Saturday afternoon, a holiday from work for most American men and women.

In addition to his 43 consecutive seasons as radio’s Voice of the Metropolitan Opera,” Milton Cross served as an announcer for a variety of other radio programs including “RCA Magic Key” (a music program sponsored by RCA Victor), “Information Please” (an early quiz show), “Coast to Coast on a Bus” (a children’s show featuring child performers), and “The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street” (a highly popular jazz-and-blues program).  He also narrated a number of film “shorts” (i.e., five- to fifteen-minute sound films that were shown between feature films in movie theaters), as well as educational and entertainment recordings for children, including “Peter and the Wolf” (Musicraft Records, 1949) and “The Magic of Music” (Cabot Records, 1964).

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Were either of your parents, or any of your siblings, involved in music?

Not professionally, no.   My father, Robert Cross, and my mother, Margret, who was called “Maggie” within the family, had six children, and I was the fifth of their brood of six.  My father was a machinist, a tool-and-die maker.  He worked in several factories over the years, usually because he was offered a higher wage from another factory.  He earned a good, steady income, and was never out of work.

As was the fashion in those days, our family had an upright piano.  My oldest sister turned out to be a pretty good pianist.  She and two of my other sisters sang a lot around that upright [piano].  Our family also owned a phonograph, a Victrola, which my parents bought through an installment plan when I was about ten years old.  In those days, a Victrola was almost considered a musical instrument.

 

Do you recall the style of your family’s Victrola?  Did it have an external “morning-glory” horn, or an internal horn?

It had an internal horn.  It was a fairly standard mahogany upright, with its distinctive lid, and the doors behind which the horn—or “speaker,” as we would say today—was located, and the long double doors behind which were shelves for the special record albums.  These were large albums—they were designed to hold twelve-inch records.  The albums were essentially binders with individual “sleeves” for each record.  [These albums] had alphabetical letters imprinted on their spines, and on the inside cover was an index that was blank, so that the record buyer could fill in whatever the title of the recording in each sleeve was.

In those days, the Victor Company had, if I remember correctly, four colors of labels for their recordings.  The black label was for popular music, the music of “Tin Pan Alley,” as it was then called.  The black label [Victor] records had two sides, and were available in two diameters, ten-inch and twelve-inch.  They were priced, I think, at seventy-five cents, and they were intended for the hoi polloi, to use a slang expression for the general public, the “masses.”

Victor also had a blue label, which was a bit more expensive and which featured recordings that were made by well-known theatrical figures.  There was also a purple label, which was used for top-drawing Broadway stars like George M. Cohan.  I was fortunate to see several of George M. Cohan’s hit musical comedies—I remember seeing Forty-Five Minutes to Broadway, George Washington, Jr., and Little Nellie Kelly—and in the late-1920s, when I was doing radio-announcing, I got to know the great man.

I was fortunate to have had that same experience with (Sir) Harry Lauder, the comic Scotsman whose Victor recordings were very, very popular.  My father had come to the United States from Edinboro, so I had a special liking for Harry Lauder.  Looking back, George M. Cohan and Harry Lauder, and Nora Bayes among the women [of vaudeville], were the most significant entertainers that the Victor Company had in its catalogs in the years before World War One.   And, of course, Al Jolson too.  After George M. Cohan, Jolson became the biggest star on Broadway.

Of all the Victor labels, the elite one was the “Red Seal,” which was strictly for classical artists.  The Red Seal is still used by RCA for its classical discs and tapes.  When I was in my teens, Victor Red Seals were the most expensive of all phonograph records, and they were issued only in single-sided form.  The reverse side [of a Red Seal record] was either blank—just a smooth black surface with a hole in the center, in other words.  If there was anything at all on the blank side, it would be the word “Victor” pressed into the black surface in large letters.  In some instances, there was a printed synopsis on the blank side, a kind of decal with white lettering which described the music that was heard on the playable side of the record.

I would estimate that my family owned maybe 100 Victor recordings when I was growing up, and that about thirty of them were Red Seals, which were quite expensive.  I remember that the Lucia Sextet cost $7.00, and it was just a one-sided record.

 

There were at least three Red Seal recordings of the Lucia Sextet.  Which one do you recall owning?

We had two, actually—one with [Marcella] Sembrich, and another with [Luisa] Tetrazzini in the title role.  Caruso was the Edgardo in both recordings.  We also had two of the Red Seals of the Rigoletto quartet, “Bella figlia dell’amore,” one with Sembrich as Gilda and the other with Tetrazzini.

 

Do you recall some of the other recordings that you listened to on the family Victrola?

We had several black-label discs such as Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” “Over the Waves” by an accordionist called Pietro [Deiro], and several lovely ballads by Harry Macdonough and also Henry Burr.  Every family that owned a Victrola had records by Henry Burr, either solos or duets with another tenor named Albert Campbell.  And there was a very popular soprano, Elsie Baker, who made black-label records for Victor.  Later, I became acquainted with her through the Victor Company.  There was a famous pair of Red Seals that Rosa Ponselle and Giovanni Martinelli recorded of the Tomb Scene from Aida.  Elsie Baker sang the contralto part at the close of the “O terra addio!”

Those singers were very popular on the Victor black label.  I listened to them, but not with the enthusiasm that I listened to the Red Seals we had of Evan Williams, John McCormack, Emma Calvé, Emma Eames, Geraldine Farrar, Luisa Tetrazzini, Louise Homer, Nellie Melba, Pasquale Amato, Antonio Scotti, Titta Ruffo, Frieda Hempel, Johanna Gadski, and, of course, Enrico Caruso.  With the exception of Melba, whom I never met, it was my happy destiny to be able to hear, to meet, and in some cases to work with all of those great Red Seal artists.

 

You mentioned Evan Williams.  Where did you hear him?

I heard him in concert twice at Aeolian Hall, first in 1913 and again in 1916.  I can recall some of the selections he sang:  Handel’s “Total Eclipse” from Samson, Mendelssohn’s “Be Thou Faithful Until Death,” “Lend Me Your Aid,” and “Ah, Moon of My Delight,” among them.  His encores were “For You Alone,” “Open the Gates of the Temple,” and “Face To Face.”  In the 1916 concert, he added a group songs by Harry T. Burleigh, which was quite unusual because Burleigh was a Negro composer.

After that [1916] concert, I went backstage and asked Evan Williams to sign my autograph book.  He was very genial, and very outgoing.  He was also very energetic despite having just sung a very demanding number of classical songs, oratorio selections, and one or two opera arias in English translation.

 

Did Evan Williams sound like his Victor recordings?

Except for the piano accompaniment [which he used] in the two concerts I attended, he sounded very much like his recordings.  In the theater, his voice was a good deal more “round” than it sounded on recordings.  His upper voice had the clarion quality of a heldentenor.  But what I remember best about Evan Williams was how welcoming, how warm and kind and sincere he was with those of us who wanted his autograph.

 

You made several Victor recordings yourself, correct?

Well, I made two or three recordings—just as an announcer, however, not as a singer.  That was in the late-1920s, when I was reasonably well known in the New York area.  But I would love to have been a singer!  I studied voice, but I just didn’t have the “goods.”  I spent about six months studying under Percy Rector Stevens, who was the teacher of Reinald Werrenrath and some other notable singers.  But I never could “free the top.”  I could never get through the passaggio and into the upper register.

 

But you sang at least three times, based on air-checks I’ve listened to, on “Coast to Coast on a Bus.”  Do you remember your vocal performances on that show?

Yes, I did them somewhat reluctantly but I assumed that relatively few adults were listening in, so they wouldn’t mind my less than perfect voice.

 

On the Easter Sunday program in 1938, you sang “The Message of the Violet.”  Do you remember singing that?

Yes, I remember saying that I had learned it from hearing my older sister sing it so many times around our piano.  I have an air-check of it.  My singing of it confirms that I couldn’t get through the passaggio, [that I] couldn’t free up the top.

 

Did you have any role in auditioning the children who were chosen to perform on the broadcasts?

No.  The show had two writers, Tom DeHuff and Madge Tucker, and Madge was in charge of all the auditions.

 

Did they write all the dialogue with the children, including your own words—or did you write those?

They wrote every word, although occasionally I changed some of the phrases in my script to fit my voice and style.  But that was a really fast-pace show, and I had to accelerate my normal speaking rate in order to keep up with the kids in the cast.  By airtime, they were so well rehearsed that they rarely missed a cue.

 

There were several children who emerged from “Coast to Coast” as major performers, either on radio, Broadway, or the Met.  Of those child stars, which ones do you remember in particular?

Well, Ann Blyth was one, and I saw her as an adult when I was in Hollywood and was invited by Mario Lanza to one of his recording sessions for “The Great Caruso.”  The one who had the most successful career in opera was Risё Stevens, who of course had a role in the movie “Going My Way” with Bing.  And the boy I remember so well was Bobby White, who has a very successful career as a lyric tenor.  He has become a very, very fine artist.

He is also, as far as I can remember, the first child of another great singer I worked with in my younger days.  His father, Joe White, who was billed as the “Silver-Masked Tenor” for part of his radio career, was a friend of mine, and I had worked with him as early as 1923 at WJZ.  Bobby White was a boy alto, and has become well known for his bel canto work as well as his Irish songs, which he sings in the vein of McCormack.

 

Returning to the commercial recordings you made for Victor, what do you recall of the studios, the microphones, and the recording process?

The first recording I did for Victor was a reconstruction of Lindbergh’s reception in Paris, in which my voice was mixed with a recording of the shouts and cries of the crowd.  I was also asked to narrate a “tone demonstration” on the Orthophonic label, which was new at the time.  This was just a demonstration disc that Victor gave away with the new Orthophonic Victrolas. [1]  It was really a sales pitch hidden slightly under the tone of some “expert.”  Nat [Nathaniel] Shilkret conducted the orchestra for the musical portions.

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The U.S. and Canadian pressings of Cross’ radio demonstration disc, recorded November 2, 1929.

 

Although you became an announcer, as you have pointed out, you had managed to land a job as a singer on radio at the start of your long and distinguished career.

Yes and no.  Yes, I got a job as a singer and an announcer on [station] WJZ, which was then located in Newark, New Jersey.   The Westinghouse Company owned the station.  I was enrolled in the Damrosch Institute at the time, intending to become what was called a “music supervisor” in the New York City school system.  In fact, one of my classmates was Peter Wilhousky, who just retired a year or so ago as the supervisor of music instruction for the New York school system.  Peter was one of the friends who talked me into auditioning there.  “You sing a little, Milt, and you have a good speaking voice,” they said, “so why not give it a try?”  Those were the days of the crystal set, which all of us built from kits, and my friends said that they wanted to hear a familiar voice coming through their earphones.

Another friend who encouraged me was Keith McLeod, a pianist, who had gotten a job playing several hours a week after school and on weekends at WJZ.  Keith McLeod urged me to write to the station manager, a fellow named Popano, and ask him if I could sing on the air.  The station was still new—it had just come on the air a few months earlier—and Mr. Popano answered my letter and invited me to sing at the studio.  There was no audition or anything—and it didn’t pay anything, either—but with Keith accompanying me, I sang several ballads and an oratorio aria.

About two weeks later, I got a letter from Mr. Popano invited me to sing on the air again.  It was after that second broadcast that he asked me if I’d like to work there after school, from 4:00 till 10:00 five nights a week.  I told him I would like it very much but that I didn’t know anything about radio.  He laughed and said that a few months ago, he didn’t know anything either.  He was educated as a mechanical engineer, and was working for Westinghouse when they decided to start WJZ.  He was put in charge of setting up the studio.

When I say “studio,” I need to clarify that the first WJZ studio was cobbled together in the ladies’ room of a first-floor store.  The workmen partitioned off part of the powder room with large sheets of canvas that were suspended from the floor to ceiling.  About a year later, when the station got very popular, Westinghouse built what used to be called a “living-room studio,” which was spacious and was acoustically designed for radio broadcasting.  By that time, I was doing more announcing than singing.

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WJZ’s studio — Newark, New Jersey, 1922. Not shown is the entrance and reception area, behind the curtain at the right. (Scientific American)

 

Do you recall what year that would have been?

My first time on the air at WJZ was in 1921, in June or July, during the summer vacation from school.  I remember singing “In the Gloaming,” “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” and Barlett’s “A Dream,” and I also recall reciting William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” in those first two broadcasts.

 

You mentioned that radio sets in those days were hand-built.  Describe what building a crystal set involved.

A typical “set” was just a crystal, plus a piece of wire called a “cat’s whisker” which had to be positioned very precisely on the surface of the crystal, plus a coil of wire that was wrapped around a tube of cardboard—generally, an empty Quaker Oats container.  That coil of wire served as the tuner.  To listen to one of those early sets, you had to use headphones.  This was before vacuum tubes and loudspeakers.  Radio was considered an eccentric hobby in 1921.

 

Your speaking voice, which doesn’t seem to have changed during your long career, is that of a tenor.  Perhaps stereotypically, most of us tend to think that announcers should have deep baritone voices.  Were most of the announcers baritones when network radio became well established in the 1930s?

No, that trend came somewhat later.  In the early days [of radio], the few of us who were full-time announcers had tenor voices.  If you listen to fragments of my earliest Met broadcasts, and also the broadcasts which my friend and competitor, Graham McNamee, announced, you’ll hear that our speaking voices are in the tenor range.

Most of the great orators of the early 1900s, ones like William Jennings Bryan, had tenor-like speaking voices.  Even Franklin D. Roosevelt had a tenor’s speaking voice.  The reason is that before there was any such thing as electrical amplification, a speaking voice had to carry on its own to several hundred people in a crowd.  A tenor voice will carry much farther than a baritone or a bass voice, all other things being equal.

The baritone speaking voice didn’t become the norm in the public arena until Thomas E. Dewey became a national political figure, and Lowell Thomas became popular on radio and in newsreels.  By then, microphones and amplifiers and loudspeakers were the “stock in trade.”

 

All of those electrical components, especially the microphone, evolved during your long career.  Do you recall the first microphone that you used at WJZ? 

Yes, it was a carbon-type microphone that looked more like a telephone than what we would think of as a microphone today.  In the early years of the Met broadcasts, we used two condenser microphones that were mounted next to each other.  That way, if one of the two developed problems during a broadcast, the microphone next to it would pick up and carry the signal to the amplifiers.  Sometime later, we had what were called “ribbon microphones.”  They had much broader frequency-range capabilities than the earlier microphones had.

 

In a famous photograph of you in Box 44 at the “Old Met,” you appear to be only a few inches, perhaps a foot at most, from the two condenser microphones.  Were you actually that close to the microphone?  Or was that merely for the sake of the photo?

With the old carbon microphones, I had to speak directly into them, and had to be as close as possible to the center part, which housed the diaphragm.  As announcers, we spoke into carbon and also condenser microphones in the same way we speak directly into a telephone—in other words, just a few inches away from the mouthpiece.  But we couldn’t speak directly into them without causing a popping sound on certain syllables.  For instance, when I would use the phrase, “This afternoon’s performance …,” the “p” in “performance” would cause a popping sound if I were speaking squarely into the microphone.  So we spoke at about a 45-degree angle to the microphone.

We called that “speaking across the microphone”—meaning, speaking at an angle to the [condenser] microphone.  With the later ribbon-type microphones, we could speak right into them because they were designed for it.  Beneath their metallic cover, ribbon microphones had a layer of fabric that served as a wind screen.

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Milton Cross broadcasting from the Metropolitan Opera House

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In approximately what year did nationwide radio programming seem to become indispensable in the daily life of the American people?

I would say in 1927.  I’m not sure why, but that seemed to be the year.  I think a major factor in it, frankly, was William S. Paley’s entrance into radio, which happened around that time.  Paley put together a coast-to-coast radio network.  He bought a company in California that owned a dozen or so stations, and he also bought a New England chain of stations around that same time.  So in very short order, he made CBS into a formidable rival to NBC.

 

Was the daily schedule of radio programming a twelve-hour schedule?

No, not until the later 1920s, or maybe even the early 1930s.  That’s when the “soap operas” began to take off.  Before then, it wasn’t unusual just to broadcast piano or organ music in the afternoons.  That started to change when CBS went on the air at 8:00 a.m. every day, starting with a fifteen-minute newscast.  Until then, there was very little on the air in the early morning hours.  In the afternoons, before the “soaps” became staples, I would read poetry on the air, with the organ in the background, just to fill the time.

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[1] The Victor recording ledgers, or “logs,” which are now available online from the University of California at Santa Barbara under the title “Discography of American Historical Recordings,” identify the recording as follows:  “Matrix Number BVE 56985, Victor Radio Tone Demonstration, ‘No Compromise with Purity of Tone,’ Milton J. Cross, Narrator, and the Victor Symphony Orchestra, Nathaniel Shilkret, Director.”  The ledgers indicate that the recording was made on Saturday, November 2, 1929, at the Victor studios in Camden, New Jersey.

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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Nina Morgana (Conclusion) and her 1920 Victor Test Recording

NINA MORGANA
Part 3 (Conclusion)
By James A. Drake.

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Nina Morgana, c. 1920 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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On the subject of broadcasts, you sang with Gigli in one of the earliest Saturday matinee broadcasts, am I correct?

Yes.  Radio became more and more important in the early and middle-1930s.  I remember singing Inès in of one of the first radio broadcasts from the Met [on March 19, 1933], with Gigli as Vasco and Rethberg as Selika.  But the most memorable broadcast I can recall was the silver-anniversary gala for Gatti-Casazza [on February 26, 1933].  Lily Pons sang the Lucia Sextet with Lauri-Volpi, Tancredi Pasero—what a voice!—and Armando Borgioli, and dear old Angelo Badà.  The broadcast was quite special because Alma Gluck spoke on the air, and [Marcella] Sembrich and [Ernestine] Schumann-Heink were present for the gala.

Gigli also had a very memorable appearance in a broadcast that was billed as a “surprise party” in 1932.  Certain parts of the playbill were titled after dishes that one would find on a restaurant menu—one scene was called “Russian Caviar,” another was “Wiener Schnitzel,” and “French Champaign.”  I sang in the one called “Italian Minestrone” on the playbill.   In the “French Champaign” segment, Gigli came onstage in the costume of Carmen and sang the “Habanera.”  Not in falsetto, but in his real voice.

 

You mentioned Lily Pons singing in the Lucia Sextet at Gatti-Casazza’s silver-anniversary gala.  I believe you sang in the Sextet at his farewell gala in March 1935.

The Lucia Sextet was the opening selection of the farewell for Gatti, but the most talked-about performance of that Gala was Melchior singing the last act of Otello with Elisabeth Rethberg. [5]  Five days after that farewell gala, I sang my last performance at the Met.  It was in Bohème—I sang Musetta, and Rethberg sang Mimì.  It was a Saturday matinee broadcast, and a fragment of it was recorded.  I have heard it, but the sound quality is so poor that I can barely make out my own voice.  So the only sound recordings I have of my voice are the tests I made for Victor, which Caruso had made possible.

 

Were you present for any of Caruso’s recording sessions?

Just once, when he recorded “Rachel! Quand du Seigneur,” in September 1920.  He invited me to come to the Victor studios with Bruno.  [Caruso] recorded something else that day—a song, but I can’t recall its title now.  Of course, Bruno was at all of Caruso’s recording sessions from 1917 until 1920.  The first one he was present for was the recording of the Rigoletto Quartet and the Lucia Sextet in January 1917.

 

Do you recall seeing a test recording of the opening tenor measures of “Bella figlia dell’amore,” which Caruso sang?  The test recording was cut off when the others in the ensemble began to sing.

Yes, we had a copy of it.  Caruso inscribed the label to himself—either “To Enrico from Enrico,” or “To Caruso from Caruso,” something of that sort.

 

Do you still have that test pressing?

No.  My husband managed not only to lose that one, but he also misplaced the private recording Caruso made of the “Coat Song” from Bohème.

 

When did you make your test recordings for Victor?

 In 1920.  On Thursday afternoon, April 29, 1920.

 

Were you intimidated at all by the conical recording “horn”?

Well, it wasn’t “conical,” it was octagonal.  It was suspended by an adjustable chain, and there were two large mahogany doors below it.  I wasn’t intimidated by it not only because I had watched Caruso make the Juive recording, but also because the director at Victor, Mr. [Josef] Pasternack, who accompanied me at the piano, explained the recording process to me in detail.

 

How many test recordings did you make that day?

Just two.  I sang Chadwick’s “He Loves Me,” and then “Come per me sereno” from Sonnambula.

 

Were you able to hear the test recordings played back to you soon after you finished making the recordings?

No.  I was invited to the Victor studios in Manhattan to hear the recordings played, and was given both of the discs after they were played for me.

 

Were you pleased with what you heard?

With “Come per me sereno,” yes.  But my voice sounded too distant in “He Loves Me.”

 

Do you recall what type of piano, a grand or an upright, was used in your recordings, and where the piano was located?

It was a grand piano with the lid raised to its maximum, pointed toward the horn.  I stood on a stool in front of the horn, with the bend of the piano immediately behind me.
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NINA MORGANA (Josef Pasternack, piano): Come per me sereno

Victor test: April 29, 1920
(A busy day at Victor; others who cut tests on this date, ahead of Nina Morgana, included Lew Brown, William Robyn, Fred Whitehouse, and the Finnish Mixed Quartette. Data from the Discography of American Historical Recordings.)
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Do you know why your recordings were never released commercially?

There were two reasons, really.  The first was that Caruso died unexpectedly.  As soon as he recovered from his illness, he was to have recorded “É il sol dell’anima” with me.  After he died, of course, that became a moot point.  The other reason had to do with my husband.  Bruno wanted only one “star” in our home, and being a traditional Italian man, he had to be the center of attention.

 

You were a classically-trained soprano who was taught through the solfeggio method by a legendary soprano.  Mr. Zirato had no musical education at all, and yet he spent his career in the operatic and symphonic worlds.  To what extent did he really “know” music?

 He knew [opera] libretti as well as any conductor or coach.  He knew them so thoroughly that he had an annoying habit of speaking the lines while a singer was singing them.  He did that throughout every performance I attended with him, and no matter how many times I stuck my elbow into his arm to shut him up, he couldn’t stop reciting the lines.  It annoyed everyone around us because his voice was so deep.  I felt that he did it [i.e., reciting lines in his box seat while they were being sung onstage] to show off, to impress everyone around us with his vast knowledge of the repertoire.

 

But he could not read music, correct?

No, not at all.  Nor did he have a very good sense of pitch.  Unless a singer or an instrumental soloist was flat or sharp by at least a half-tone, his ear couldn’t detect it.

 

Did you sing at home, and did he give you any opinions about your singing?

Occasionally, I would go to the piano and accompany myself in arias that I loved but which were not a part of my repertoire.  As I said earlier, I loved singing tenor arias such as “M’appari,” “Che gelida manina,” and “Come un bel dí di Maggio.”  Once, I remember accompanying myself and seeing Bruno come to the piano, put his hands on the raised lid, and listen to me singing—or so I thought.  As soon as I finished, he said to me, “My podiatrist says I have beautiful feet.”

 

Would you have continued to sing under the Johnson administration if you had been given more performances and more opportunities to sing the major coloratura roles?

It wouldn’t have been possible under the circumstances, for several reasons.  Caruso had been my entré to the Met, and when he died I knew that my chances for the major coloratura roles would be limited.  Galli-Curci came [to the Met], and then Lily Pons.  They were Gatti-Cassazza’s and then Johnson’s coloraturas, and I was limited mainly to Amina in Sonnambula, an occasional Gilda, and more often than not, Musetta in Bohème.   And as I said, my husband wanted to be the only celebrity in our home.  So that was that.

 

Some twenty-five years after Caruso’s passing, you and your husband became very close to Arturo Toscanini.  From some interviews that Toscanini gave, we know that although he admired and respected both Caruso and Gigli, he was not at all shy about criticizing them for taking on roles that were inappropriate for their young voices.

He repeated to Bruno and me many times his exclamation upon hearing Caruso in Italy for the first time:  “Per Dio!  If this young Neapolitan tenor keeps singing like this, he will have the whole word talking about him!”  When Caruso began to take on gradually heavier roles, Toscanini was prone to lecture him—and later Gigli, and all of the rest of us—about the danger of impairing the voice by imposing the requirements of dramatic parts upon an essentially lyrical voice and technique.

Toscanini thought that Gigli was superb in Bohème, Elisir d’amore, and Rigoletto, but that Africana, Trovatore, and Aida were too weighty for his voice.  Just as Toscanini had been critical of Caruso for taking on heavier roles too early in his career, he was critical of all of the other tenors who came after Caruso.  But Toscanini, musical genius that he was, could be susceptible to irresistible personalities.

Two that come to mind were Giovanni Martinelli, who could do no wrong in Maestro’s eyes, and Geraldine Farrar, with whom he [Toscanini] had a prolonged love affair. Perhaps you know the story of the clashes between Toscanini and Farrar—especially his remark that she was not a “star” because the only stars are in the night sky, and her retort that audiences came to see her on the stage, not to stare at the back of Toscanini’s head in the orchestra pit.

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Geraldine Farrar selling Liberty Bonds, 1918 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Because of my husband’s close association with Toscanini through the New York Philharmonic, Bruno and I were often invited to the relatively few social events that Toscanini would attend.  One of the most memorable of these events was a dinner that Farrar gave for Toscanini at her home in Connecticut in the early 1950s.

We rode there with Toscanini in his chauffeured car, and unlike other invitations that he initially accepted and almost immediately regretted, the invitation from Farrar put him in a very good mood.  That mood changed abruptly when the main course was served.  From then until we left, which was as soon as we politely could, Toscanini sat at her dinner table, glaring at his plate.

When we got into the car, he exploded!  “I slept with that woman for seven years,” he shouted, “and she knows I hate fish!”

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You sang under Toscanini.  Do you recall how many times?

 The only performance I remember distinctly was a Beethoven Ninth Symphony with Richard Crooks, Sophie Braslau, and Ezio Pinza, and the Schola Cantorum in 1928.

 

How was the Maestro’s temperament during the rehearsals? 

“Vesuvian” is the word that comes to my mind.  He broke at least one, maybe two batons, and he threw his pocket watch on the floor and crushed it with his heel!  He pointed out poor Crooks and told him that he sang like a sick pig.  Then he used a very crude Italian expression for Pinza.  It would embarrass me to repeat it [but] he told Pinza that his singing had the same worth that the pig’s food has after the pig has digested and eliminated it.

 

Were you spared his wrath, since you knew him personally?

Definitely not!  He told me that Madame Arkel, whom he had known very well in Italy, should have forbade me ever to mention her name in public because my singing was a disgrace to her name!

 

Did he finish the rehearsal?

 Yes, but he rushed through it.  He was still enraged at the end [of the rehearsal], and shouted at us to get out of his sight and not come back until we were prepared to give our very best.  At the next rehearsal, I can assure you that Morgana, Braslau, Crooks, and Pinza and everyone else associated with the performance sang better than we ever knew we could!

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Arturo Toscanini, c. 1921 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Returning to Enrico Caruso, you sang a number of concerts with him.  Do you recall how many you sang with him?

 In all, there were eleven.  The first one was in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in February 1919, and the last was in New Orleans on June 26, 1920.  He had asked me to sing some upcoming concerts that fall [1920], two in Canada and three in the Midwest, but I was already scheduled to make my debut at the Metropolitan, so I had rehearsals and other obligations to attend to.

 

Did you sing most of the joint concerts that Caruso gave during World War One?

No, but I attended most of the ones he gave with other singers.  He did concerts with Louise Homer, Claudia Muzio, Frances Alda, and Galli-Curci.  I think he did one with Mary Garden, too.  One concert I remember particularly well was with De Luca, Alda, and Martinelli.  Can you imagine one of these tenors today inviting another famous tenor to appear with him?  But Caruso invited Martinelli to sing with him.  He was very fond of Martinelli, as I’ve told you.

Before Caruso invited me to appear with him, Carolina White and Mabel Garrison had sung [concerts] with him.  And Ganna Walska sang at least one [concert] with him.  But those were not really “joint concerts,” because Carolina White, Garrison, Ganna Walska and I were billed as “assisting artists” to Caruso.  The [concerts] he did with Mary Garden, Galli-Curci, Alda, Muzio, and Homer were truly joint concerts because they were first-rank artists.

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This program from October 1918 appears to contradict Morgana’s recollection that she toured with Caruso only during 1919–1920; however, another copy, in the Ann Arbor District Library, has the notation, “Postponed to Spring.” (William R. Bryant papers, Mainspring Press)

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What did Caruso typically sing, and what did you sing—not only on the printed program, but as encores?

The violinist Elias Breeskin toured with us, so he would open the program.  He had his own accompanist—ours was Salvatore Fucito—and [Breeskin] would usually play [the Dvorak] “Humoresque” or something similar.  Then I would sing either “Come per me sereno” from Sonnambula or “Ombra leggiera” from Dinorah, Those were the two arias I sang in all of our concerts.

Caruso would then sing “Celeste Aida,” which was always his first aria on the program.  Breeskin would then return to the platform and play two, sometimes three selections.  After that, I would sing an aria—again, either the Sonnambula or Dinorah aria, whichever one I hadn’t opened with—and Caruso would sing “Vesti la giubba,” which would always earn him a standing ovation.

After the ovation, he would motion for me to join him at the center of the stage, and we would sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” together.  Always—always—at the end of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” he would take me by the hands, and swing me around him.  That delighted him to no end, and the audience loved it!  Then he would motion for Breeskin and his accompanist, and also Fucito, to stand with us and take our bows.

After all of us left the stage, the applause would go on and on, and in the midst of it Caruso would walk back onto the stage from the wings—just two or three feet from the wings—and he would arch his eyebrows and turn the palms of his hands upward with a big smile, as if to say, “Would you like to hear more?”  That’s when the fun would begin!

He would point to me, and then point to himself, as if to say, “Go ahead and sing something of mine!”  This was all rehearsed, of course, and I would proceed to sing “M’appari” from Marta,  Next, he would motion for Breeskin to join him for the Massenet “Elégie.”  Then Caruso would sing three Tosti songs—and always the final one would be “’A vucchella.”

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You also sang a joint concert with Gigli, am I correct?

Yes, it was in Boston during a two-concert appearance in which his assisting artist was scheduled to be Anna Fitziu, but she was indisposed and he asked me to take her place.  I had sung a number of times in Philadelphia—in fact, I was in one of Gigli’s last performances there, a performance of L’Africana with Rethberg as Sélika  [on April 12, 1932].   When I replaced Anna Fitziu as his assisting artist, Gigli told me to sing whatever I wanted to sing, so I chose my two tried-and-true arias, the Dinorah and Sonnambula, and both were well received.

Gigli opened that concert, as he did many others that he gave, with the two Elisir arias:  he sang “Quanto è bella” and followed it with “Una furtiva lagrima.”    After I sang “Come per me sereno,” he sang three Italian songs.  He sang “Amarilli,” then “Primavera,” and before he sang the third one—“Tre giorni son che Nina”—he extended his hand to me, and he sang it to me.  Then I sang “Ombra leggiera,” after which he sang “O paradiso,” which earned him another standing ovation.

After “O paradiso,” he left the stage for a few minutes, and when he returned he sang three French selections—two songs whose titles I don’t recall at the moment, and then the Aubade from Le Roi d’Ys.  That was the last selection on the printed program.  As the applause continued, I came onstage and sang “Caro nome” as an encore.  Then Gigli sang five encores, mind you!  He began with “Santa Lucia,” then he sang three Tosti songs—“L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra,” “Serenata,” and “Marechiare”—and he ended with “’O sole mio.”

If that isn’t a tour de force, what is?  I can assure you that his voice was just as fresh, just as dolcissima, in “’O sole mio” as it was in “Quanto è bella” and “Una furtiva lagrima” at the start of the concert.   Gigli’s entire career was that way:  fresh and sweet and beautiful from beginning to end.

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Nina Morgana with the author (Ithaca, New York, 1980)

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[5] Lawrence Gilman in the Herald Tribune:  “After a spirited curtain-raiser extracted from the immortal opus of Donizetti with Mme. Nina Morgana lending her gifts and skill and feeling and intensity as the unhappy heroine, the novelty of the evening was disclosed to us. This was a performance of the last Act of Verdi’s Otello with Mr. Melchior embodying the Moor of Venice for the first time in New York and Mme. Rethberg playing Desdemona. It is twenty-two years since the music of Otello was heard at the Metropolitan.”

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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

Photographs from the Library of Congress’ Bain Collection are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

The Jame A. Drake Interviews • Nina Morgana (Part 2)

NINA MORGANA
(Part 2 of 3)
By James A. Drake

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Nina Morgana, c. 1920 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Returning to Elisir d’amore when you sang it with Gigli, what do you recall of those performances?

My first Elisir with Gigli was in March 1930.  I sang Adina with Gigli, De Luca, and Pinza, with Serafin conducting.  I wasn’t cast for that performance—Editha Fleischer was supposed to sing it—but I got the last-minute call from Gatti-Casazza, and I went on in her place.  I did it well enough that he kept me with the same cast for several more performances.  I also sang Elisir with Tito Schipa as Nemorino.

 

How did Gigli and Schipa compare in Elisir?

Both of them were excellent as Nemorino, and both received ample applause for “Quanto è bella,” which is a better indicator than “Una furtiva lagrima” of the fit between the voice and the characterization of Nemorino.  In that role, Beniamino Gigli was the perfect Nemorino.

 

Even more so than Caruso, whom you saw and heard in Elisir?

I saw five performances of Elisir with Caruso as Nemorino, and I heard him sing “Una furtiva lagrima,” either as a published selection or as an encore, during the concerts I did with him.  As my late husband, Bruno Zirato, wrote in his book and said in radio interviews, Caruso never received more than cursory applause after “Quanto è bella.”  As soon as he made his exit, he would exclaim to Bruno, “Pigs!  They are pigs, these people in the audience!  I give everything I have to ‘Quanto è bella,’ and they do not applaud!”  Yet every time Gigli sang “Quanto è bella,” the audience would erupt in applause.

 

To what do you attribute the difference in the audiences’ reactions to Caruso and Gigli in that aria?

There were two factors, in my opinion, and I will try to explain them as precisely as I can.  The main factor of the two was Caruso’s splendid recordings of “Una furtiva lagrima,” of which he made two versions for the Victor Talking Machine Company—the first one with piano accompaniment [in 1904], and a subsequent one with an orchestra [in 1908].  Both versions were staples of the Victor Company catalogs in their day, and those recordings sold by the thousands.

Consequently, Metropolitan Opera audiences came to Elisir d’amore to hear Caruso sing “Una furtiva lagrima.”  Had he recorded “Quanto è bella,” the audiences probably would have applauded him as ardently as they did after he sang “Una furtiva lagrima.”  But other than that aria and “Venti scudi,” which he made with De Luca, Caruso never recorded anything else from Elisir d’amore.

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.Benimino Gigli (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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You were present at the ill-fated performance of Elisir d’amore at the Brooklyn Academy, when the performance had to be halted at the end of the first act because a blood vessel burst in Caruso’s throat.  Weren’t you to have sung Adina in that performance?

That happened on Saturday, December 11, 1920, and yes, I was to have sung Adina.  The day before the performance, however, Gatti-Casazza told me that for a variety of reasons—none of which he explained—he would have to give that performance to Evelyn Scotney.  I didn’t object, nor could I have objected to “the boss,” and I assumed that there would be many future performances in which I could sing with Caruso.

 

What do you remember about the trauma of that event? 

Early in the first act, before “Quanto è bella,” a small vein hemorrhaged in Caruso’s throat.  He was still able to sing, but a trickle of blood formed on his lower lip, and in order to wipe it away, he used the neckerchief of his costume.  Between phrases, he would dab his lips on the kerchief to blot the blood.  In the wings, when Gatti realized what was happening, he motioned to Bruno to rush to get more kerchiefs.  One by one, those were passed from the wings to Caruso, and as each became saturated with his blood, he put it in the circular well that was part of the scenery.

At the close of the act, Caruso was examined by a doctor.  Before the performance began, Gatti-Casazza had called for a doctor after Caruso noticed a small amount of blood when he was gargling in his dressing room.  I don’t know what the doctor did—I was not near him when he was treating Caruso—but there was an air of gloom backstage.

As I was standing near an elevator, Gatti-Casazza saw me, and he pointed to his nose and said to me, “Che naso!”—in other words, in English, “What a nose I have,” meaning that he had had a sort of premonition, and for that reason had not wanted me to sing Adina that day.  I didn’t believe him, although I nodded politely when he said it.  I think that when he saw me, he just felt that he should say something because he knew that I was disappointed by his decision to replace me with Evelyn Scotney.

 

On the topic of Caruso and Gigli, you mentioned that there were two factors in the difference in audiences’ receptions of Gigli and Caruso as Nemorino.  The first, as you explained, was attributable to Caruso’s recordings of “Una furtiva lagrima.”  What was the second factor?

Although Caruso could portray a bumpkin onstage, and even in a movie [3], his persona was inherently unlike the character of Nemorino.  Gigli, who was sweet, kind, and generous, was basically a simple man who had an extraordinarily beautiful voice.  Caruso, by contrast, was a complex man who, over the years, had acquired a level of sophistication which was reflected in every aspect of his daily life.

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Would you give us some examples of how that sophistication was manifested in Caruso’s lifestyle?

With his extraordinary success came, of course, an ever-expanding personal wealth, which enabled him to acquire the finest of everything—the finest clothing, the finest automobiles, the finest homes, the finest objets d’art, and even the finest cigarettes, which were made exclusively for him from a special Egyptian tobacco.  Every fabric, whether it was the material of his shirts, ties, and handkerchiefs, or the sheets and pillowcases on his bed, was the most luxurious that money could buy, or else he would not have acquired them.

I cannot think of another artist who appreciated luxury more than Caruso.  Well, let me amend that because I can think of one:  Feodor Chaliapin.  But I can’t think of another tenor who appreciated luxury more than Caruso did.  He had risen from near-poverty in Naples, and when he became famous and wealthy, he indulged in luxury—almost boyishly so, in certain ways.

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.Caruso with Bruno Zirato (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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For instance, when he retired to bed at night, Caruso wanted to be surrounded by goose-down pillows from head to foot.  So at his bedtime, my husband Bruno, who was his secretary, would delicately place one large pillow under Caruso’s head, and would systematically place six identical pillows around his body—two on each side for his arms and legs, and two at his feet.  Bruno said that the expression on Caruso’s face, as he closed his eyes and then spread his fingers on the pillows, was as tender and serene as a little boy’s.

 

Did Caruso ever speak of Gigli in your presence?

Indeed!  Not only did he speak of Gigli, he discreetly attended a performance of Cavalleria rusticana in which Gigli sang Turiddu.  Caruso didn’t attend the performance expressly to hear Gigli, but rather to be present for a triple bill that included the American premiere of a ballet called Il carillon magico.  The star of the ballet was Rosina Galli, who was Gatti-Casazza’s paramour at the time.

Caruso also came to see L’Oracolo with his old friend Antonio Scotti.  L’Oracolo was part of the triple bill, as was Cavalleria with Gigli and Emmy Destinn.   Backstage afterward, Caruso not only congratulated Gigli but embraced him as well.  A day or so later, he drew a wonderful caricature of Gigli, which he had Bruno hand-deliver to the Ansonia Hotel, where Gigli was living.

 

Caruso is quoted as having said, “He could have waited until I died,” or words to that effect.  Did he say that in your presence?

To the best of my knowledge, he never made any such comment.  First of all, it was entirely out of character for Caruso to make any negative remark about another singer.  Being a public figure, a “celebrity” as we would say today, Caruso was acutely aware that anything he said would be repeated, if not quoted, in one of the newspapers.  So he weighed his words very carefully when he was in the presence of others—which was most of the time.

What Caruso said in my presence after the triple-bill with Gigli in Cavalleria was, “I used to sound like that when I was young.”  He said that matter-of-factly, not ruefully, and certainly not enviously.  The way he said it was not that Gigli literally had the same voice that Caruso did when he was young.  Rather, he meant that one would expect a young, very gifted tenor to have the lyric sound that Gigli had.

 

Caruso would have had no reason to envy Gigli’s success in Chénier, in other words?

Of course not!  And that alleged comment about “waiting until I died” implies that Caruso was somehow preoccupied with death.  But the fact was that he had a new wife and a new daughter, and he seemed to us, and certainly to his doctors, to be recovering from the illness he had suffered.  He had empyema, which as my doctor-brother Dante explained to me, was an abscess that had formed in Caruso’s pleural cavity.  When he and Dorothy and their daughter Gloria sailed for Italy, where he could relax and regain his stamina, he looked well, although he had lost twenty pounds or more.

 

To be clear, then, you place no stock in the often-repeated statement, “At least they could have waited until I died,” which Caruso is alleged to have said when Gigli was given the Met premiere of Andrea Chénier

I don’t put any stock in it because it is contradicted by Caruso’s regard for Gigli when he heard him as Turiddu—and the caricature he drew of Gigli is the evidence I would point to.  Caruso never caricatured anyone he didn’t like or didn’t admire. [4]   But suppose, for the sake of the allegation, that Caruso did say it.  If so, he would have been referring to Gatti-Casazza, not Gigli, because it was Gatti who assigned and approved every cast.  Beniamino Gigli didn’t cast Beniamino Gigli, Giulio Gatti-Casazza was the one who cast Beniamino Gigli—and every other artist at the Metropolitan Opera.

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.Giulio Gatti-Casazza and his wife, Frances Alda, October 19, 1915 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Would you describe your relationship with Gigli as friendly, or merely collegial?

We weren’t social friends by any means—he was a shy man offstage—but I had a lot of affection for him, and I think he felt the same way toward me.  There are two special memories I have of him, and both occurred in connection with Elisir d’amore.  There was one passage that I had a slight problem with—and Gigli sensed it during our first performance together.  In every Elisir after that, when that passage was coming, he would turn toward me and say, “Andiam’, Cara, andiam’”—in English, “Go ahead, my dear, come on, you can do it!”  His encouragement made such a difference to me!

The second memory I have of Gigli was at the end of Act One of Elisir d’amore.  I was so taken by his singing of “Quanto è bella” that I said to him in the wings, “I have never heard that aria sung more beautifully than you have just sung it!”  I couldn’t come right out and say, “You sang just ‘Quanto è bella’ more beautifully than even Caruso sang it.”  That would have been improper.  But he knew what I meant, what I was actually saying, without making any mention of Caruso.

When I said it, his eyes told me that he wanted to be sure that he had heard me correctly.  An instant or two later, the look in his eyes showed that he realized what I had said.  He answered by saying, “Thank you—oh, thank you!”  Many years later, when he gave a farewell concert at Carnegie Hall, I went to see him after the performance.  Bruno and I told him that the beauty of his tones were the same as they had been when we first heard him.  He said to me, “You were not only my Adina, but you lifted the weight”—meaning the weight of Caruso’s legacy—“from my little shoulders.”

 

Do you remember the Met premiere of Andrea Chénier?

Yes, very clearly.  I was in the Caruso box with Dorothy [Caruso] for the first in-house performance of Andrea Chénier on March 7, 1921.  The premiere was supposed to be on February 26, but Gigli was ill and it had to be postponed.  He sang a performance in Philadelphia a few days before the in-house premiere [March 1], but I wasn’t there [in Philadelphia] so I can’t speak about it.  But the first in-house performance of Chénier was superb!

When Gigli sang “Un dì all’azzurro spazio,” it almost had to be repeated because of the prolonged applause.  I have heard many performances of Andrea Chénier since then, but no tenor I have ever heard could match Gigli for vocal beauty in that role.  But he was not the only “star of the show”:  Claudia Muzio was Maddalena, and she too was unmatched in that role.  That’s not just my opinion, but the opinion of Rosa Raisa and Rosa Ponselle.  Both of them said in my presence, at different times, that Muzio had no equal as Maddalena.

 

What was Caruso’s reaction, if you know, to the premiere of Andrea Chénier with Gigli?

A few days after the premiere, Bruno and I were having supper with Caruso in his apartment, and he asked me how Gigli had done.  I said that I thought he had done very well, and that the audience had reacted very favorably.  I was never less than honest with Caruso—even at his expense.  One time, I asked him why he sang two and three phrases in one breath when it would be more artistic to take breaths in the appropriate spots.  Although Bruno probably wanted to strangle me for being so brazen, Caruso answered me by saying, “That’s emotion”—meaning, that’s how he felt when he was singing, and that’s how he conveyed in his voice what he felt emotionally.

As far as Andrea Chénier is concerned, keep in mind that Caruso had sung it in London at an earlier point in his career.  He was more than familiar with [the opera], and he was pleased that Gigli had done well at the premiere.  As I said before, Caruso liked Gigli, and had no reason whatsoever to envy him.

 

Do you have any idea how Gigli regarded Caruso?

Yes, he regarded Caruso as we all did—as the King.  In deference to him, we addressed him as “The Master” [Maestro] when conversing with him.

 

What do you recall of Gigli’s Met debut?

What I remember the most was how exciting it was to hear such an exquisite tenor voice!  The beauty of Gigli’s voice was almost beyond description.  I have heard most of the great tenors, the tenor “stars,” for nearly seventy years, and not one of them had a voice more beautiful than Beniamino Gigli’s.  Now, at that time he had a tendency to turn toward the audience in “Dai campi, dai prati” and other solo moments, which was acceptable in many Italian [opera] houses.  But Gigli’s voice was so inherently beautiful that his tendency to sing to the audience was not that objectionable, at least not to me.

 

Was Faust in Mefistofele his best role during his debut season?

No, not compared to his Nemorino, nor to his Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana.  His Turiddu was better than his Faust, in my opinion.  It wasn’t the “Siciliana” [in Cavalleria] so much as the “Brindisi” and “Mamma! quel vino,” which he sang with complete abandon, yet without ever forcing his voice.

 

In what other roles do you recall hearing Gigli during the early years of his Met career?

I heard him in Tosca with Emmy Destinn [on December 10, 1920] but I would have to say that he was not up to her standards as an actor-singer.  He sang the music beautifully, of course—but unlike, say, Turiddu, he couldn’t convey the proper emotion for Cavaradossi during that early part of his Met career.  It wasn’t just that he was not an actor, and was not conventionally handsome.  I don’t know how to say it except that the role was “above” Gigli at that point in his career.  He didn’t have the demeanor of a painter, an artist, in that role.  By comparison, Lauri-Volpi had it in abundance.

I remember Gigli’s first Edgardo in Lucia during his debut season, and it was excellent in every way.  Edgardo is a vocal role, not really a dramatic role, although the last act requires at least a modicum of acting.  But one listens to Lucia, not watches it, because the roles are static and most of the music, especially the Sextet and the Mad Scene, is so familiar to audiences through recordings and radio broadcasts.

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[3] The film to which Morgana is referring is My Cousin, a 1918 comedy produced by Jesse Lasky, of Famous Players—Lasky, in which Caruso portrayed a world-renowned opera singer as well as a simple, peasant-like cousin. Although the film was not as commercially successful as Lasky and his partners had hoped, its special effects (in particular, a scene in which Caruso shakes hands with himself as the “cousin”) were commended in the press at the time, and in subsequent histories of silent film.  See Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By (Secker & Warburg, 1968), an oral history of the silent era, and Martin M. Marks, Music and the Silent Film:  Contexts and Case Studies, 1895-1924 (Oxford University Press, 1997).

[4]  Letter from Enrico Caruso to Leo Slezak, 1910:  “You should know that I make caricatures of great men or friends….”

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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

Photographs from the Library of Congress’ Bain Collection are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

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Coming in Part 3 (Conclusion): Caruso and Morgana on tour, more recollections of the Met, and Morgana’s 1920 Victor test recording (MP3)

The James A. Drake Interviews • Nina Morgana (Part 1)

NINA MORGANA
(Part 1 of 3)
By James A. Drake

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Born of Italian parents who had emigrated from Palermo, Sicily, to Buffalo, New York in 1890, Nina Morgana (1891-1984) first sang in public performances in her native city’s Italian district in 1900. [1]  After studying in Italy with Teresa Arkel from 1909-1913, she made well-received debuts in Alessandria and in Milan.  When she returned to America, she was chosen by Enrico Caruso as one of his assisting artists in a highly-publicized series of concerts in the United States.  Morgana made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the 1920-21 season, having previously sung with the Chicago Opera Association under the management of Mary Garden.

In June 1921, scarcely two months before Caruso’s sudden death, Morgana married the tenor’s full-time secretary, Bruno Zirato (1886-1972), who later became the general manager of the New York Philharmonic and also served as Arturo Toscanini’s representative in North and South America.  Essentially self-educated and invariably self-assured, Morgana was well-acquainted with Beniamino Gigli, as she discussed in a number of interviews conducted by the author from 1973-1979. 

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Bruno Zirato with Dorothy and Enrico Caruso on their wedding day, August 20, 1918. The location is the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, New York.
(G.G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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You and Beniamino Gigli made your Metropolitan Opera debuts during the same season, is that correct?

In the same season, yes, and less than twenty-four hours apart:  Gigli made his as Faust in Boito’s Mefistofele on November 26, 1920, and I made mine as Gilda in Rigoletto on Saturday, November 27.  But strictly speaking, my debut was not my first performance at the Met.  Several months earlier, on March 28, I sang three arias at a Sunday Night Concert, with Pasquale Amato and [violinist] Albert Spalding also on the program. 

 

Was Caruso [was] to have sung the Duke in your debut in Rigoletto?

Yes, but he was ill, so Mario Chamlee sang the Duke at my debut. [2]  Giuseppe De Luca sang Rigoletto.  Chamlee and De Luca were also my partners in Barber of Seville during that same season.  I also sang Nedda in Pagliacci with Edward Johnson as Canio and Antonio Scotti as Tonio in my debut season.  I was to have sung Pagliacci with Caruso originally.

 

In operatic circles, it is widely known that you were “discovered” by Caruso.  When and where did this “discovery” take place?

I can tell you precisely:  it was on Saturday, May 9, 1908, at 3:00 p.m., in Buffalo, New York, in one of the four suites on the top floor of the Iroquois Hotel.   I can be more specific by telling you that Caruso’s suite was the one atop the front of the hotel, which faced Eagle Street.  The hotel, which had one-thousand rooms, was still new at that time; it had opened for business in conjunction with the Pan-American Exposition, which was held in Buffalo in 1901.

 

You performed at the Pan-American Exposition, correct?

Yes, I sang there in an exhibition called Venice in America, on the midway.  I was nine years old, and was billed as “Baby Patti” or “Child Patti” in the [Buffalo] newspapers.

 

It was at the Pan-American Exposition, on June 13, 1901, that President William McKinley was assassinated.  Do you recall anything about that tragic day?

The only memory I have is hearing adults around me saying very agitatedly, “The President has been shot!  The President has been shot!”  I was too young to know what “being shot” meant—and I also didn’t know what “president” meant, much less who the president was.  When I asked my parents about it, they tried to explain to me that in the United States, the president was “the king.”  Well, I didn’t know what a “king” was, so I just accepted the fact that someone important had been hurt in some way.

 

When you auditioned for Caruso, do you recall what you sang?

Yes, I sang “Caro nome.”  Just the “Caro nome,” without the recitative.  When I finished, Caruso patted me on the cheek and told my father, who came with me, that I had a very promising voice.  He told us that I would have to study in Italy, and he said he would write a letter on my behalf to the great Teresa Arkel, asking her to accept me as a pupil.  He did so, and about a year later, my father and I sailed to Italy.  During the day, while I was at Mme. Arkel’s having my lessons, my father worked as a laborer.

 

Obviously, Caruso detected the youthful promise in your voice, just as he did several years later with the young Rosa Ponselle.  Looking back, what do you think he heard in your voice that prompted him to refer you to Teresa Arkel?

Well, whatever he heard was not what Mme. Arkel heard!  In his letter to her, Caruso had written that he believed my voice would become a mezzo-sopranone, or in English, “a great big mezzo-soprano.”  When I sang for Mme. Arkel, however, she said that my voice would be fine for roles like Lucia, Amina in Sonnambula, and Adina in Elisir d’amore, which require an exceptional top.  And I had one, too.  By the time I left Mme. Arkel, I could sing the G above high-C effortlessly.  But vocally, I was certainly not going to be singing Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria rusticana.

 

When you were studying in Italy, was Caruso as famous there as he was in the U.S.?

Actually, no.  His recordings were well-known, of course, and hence his name was well-known, but since 1903 he had been at the Metropolitan Opera, not La Scala or one of the other houses in Italy.  The tenor who was admired when I was studying in Italy—not just admired, but adored—was Giuseppe Anselmi.  He was as famous there as Caruso was in the United States.  

Anselmi, whom I heard several times, had a gorgeous voice and a perfect technique, and was also extraordinarily handsome.  Anselmi was “all the rage,” so to say, as was Maria Galvany among sopranos.  It was Galvany, not Melba, who was adored in Italy, yet in America she was almost unknown other than on recordings.

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Giuseppe Anselmi

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A great tenor who sang during Anselmi’s time, and whom some historians claim was the equal of Caruso in certain roles, was Alessandro Bonci.  Did you see Bonci, and if so, what was your assessment of him?

The distance between Caruso and Bonci as tenors was about the size of the Grand Canyon.  They had nothing at all in common, either vocally or as men.  In Italy, it was rumored that Bonci was an unethical person.  He had played some part in obtaining a forged letter from Verdi, giving Bonci supposed permission to sing the “È scherzo od è follia” in a unique way.  I heard a recording of it, and Bonci’s performance was different yet acceptable.  But he was still in disrepute because he had paid someone to forge the letter from Verdi.

Personally, I saw Bonci as Faust in Boito’s Mefistofele, in which he was wearing an over-stated costume topped by a large hat with an even larger feather protruding from it.  Frankly, he looked silly on the stage.  Vocally, his singing was pleasant enough, and it reminded me somewhat of Lauri-Volpi because both of them had exceptional high ranges.  But Lauri-Volpi was handsome onstage, whereas Bonci was a feather-bearing little man in an overdone costume with high-heeled boots.

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Alessandro Bonci, 1910

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Earlier, you mentioned having sung with Edward Johnson in Pagliacci at the MetWhen Johnson’s name is mentioned in connection with the Metropolitan Opera, it is usually in reference to his tenure as General Manager, not as one of its significant tenors.  Do you recall the first time you heard him sing?

Yes, in Italy in 1910.  I sang with him there in Elisir d’amore.  At the time, he was singing under the Italianized name “Edoardo di Giovanni.”

 

Where in Italy did you make your debut? 

My very first performance on an opera stage was as the hidden “forest bird” in Siegfried, at the Teatro Dal Verme.   Tullio Serafin, who was young and handsome—his hair was brown and thick in those days—had come to Mme. Arkel to ask if she had a pupil who could sing the part.  She told him that I could do it, and I did—I sang it hidden in a papier-maché “tree.”  Giuseppe Borgatti was the star of the performance.

I was also in the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier at La Scala on March 1, 1911, which was led by Serafin.  The cast included Lucrezia Bori in the breeches role of Octavian, Ines Maria Ferraris as Sophie, and Pavel Ludikar as Baron Ochs.  During one of the curtain calls with the full cast, I held Strauss’s hand.

 

At the Met, Lucrezia Bori and Edward Johnson were famously paired as Romeo and Juliet.  But you knew both singers in Italy a decade before you made your Met debut?

Bori and Johnson were perfect for each other in Roméo et Juliette.  And, yes, I sang a number of performances with Johnson at the Met.  But his best partner among sopranos was Lucrezia Bori, not Nina Morgana.  I’m sure you have heard recordings of Bori, but have you seen photographs of her?

 

Yes, mostly studio portraits but a few candid ones, in various books about the history of the Met.

Most of her publicity photos were taken [of her] in profile, or else at an angle, rather than facing the camera lens.  She had an ocular condition called strabismus, which lay people refer to as having a “lazy eye” or, less kindly, as “cross-eyed.”  When she was relaxed, Bori’s right eye would tend to drift toward her nose.  My brother, Dante Morgana, a premiere ophthalmologist and surgeon, gave her exercises to train the muscles of her right eye to keep the eyeball centered.

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Lucrezia Bori (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

 

Although fate deprived you of the opportunity to sing Pagliacci with Caruso, you sang not only Nedda but other major roles with almost all of the legendary tenors who inherited Caruso’s repertoire.

My best roles were Nedda in Pagliacci, Micaela in Carmen, and Musetta in Bohème.  Although I also sang Mimì in Bohème, [General Manager Giulio] Gatti-Casazza said that I was not only better as Musetta, but that I was the best Musetta of the several sopranos who sang the role under his management.  

 

Do you recall some of the casts in your performances of those operas?

I sang my first Micaela in Carmen with Giovanni Martinelli and Miguel Fleta alternating as Don José, and with José Mardones as Escamillo.  I know of no other basso profondo who could sing Escamillo—later, Pinza sang it, but his voice was a less powerful lyric sound compared to José Mardones.  But Mardones’ range was so marvelous that he could sing Escamillo easily and convincingly.  In some of my performance in Pagliacci, Antonio Scotti sang Tonio and the “new boy,” Lawrence Tibbett, was Silvio. 

In the 1924-1925 season, in a new production of Tales of Hoffmann, I sang the part of the mechanical doll Olympia, with Miguel Fleta as Hoffmann.  In that production, Bori sang the roles of Giulietta and Antonia, and she did them with great distinction.  Later, Queena Mario sang Antonia, but with no distinction at all.

Perhaps you know that Queena Mario’s birth name was Helen Tillotson, a perfectly fine name.  She claimed that [conductor and coach Wilfrid] Pelletier, to whom she was married, had suggested the ridiculous name “Queena,” but I think she made it up herself.  I used to make her mad by asking, “If you have a brother, is his name Kinga?”

 

You sang several times with Giovanni Martinelli, who, perhaps with the sole exception of Caruso, seems to have been beloved by everyone, even by the other great tenors of that era.

I sang Eudoxie in the revival of La Juive with Martinelli as Eléazar, Leon Rothier as the Cardinal, and Rosa Ponselle as Rachel, the role she had created [at the Met] with Caruso in 1919.  In fact, other than Martinelli singing Eléazar in place of Caruso, the revival had almost the same cast as the [Met] premiere.  Ponselle sang most of the performances, but not all of them.  Florence Easton sang several Rachels, as did Elisabeth Rethberg later.

Among the other great tenors of that period, I sang with Giacomo Lauri-Volpi for the first time in Rigoletto in 1926, with De Luca and Mardones.  For that performance, with Gatti-Casazza’s consent, I made a change in Gilda’s costume:  I wore a pink gown in the first scene.  I also sang with Lauri-Volpi in Africana, with Ponselle as Selika, and I sang with him again in Pagliacci in the 1929-1930 season.  In Africana, Gigli was cast instead of Lauri-Volpi in several of the performances I was in, and Florence Easton replaced Ponselle in some of them.  Most were conducted by Serafin.

 

Do you recall the tenors with whom you sang in Bohème?

As I said earlier, Musetta was one of my best and most frequent roles, and I was especially fortunate to sing several performances with Lauri-Volpi as Rodolfo [in 1932].  A few times, Rodolfo was sung by Martinelli.  It’s not a role that one would immediately associate with him, but the color of Martinelli’s voice was light enough for it, and he restrained the volume of his clarion voice.  I also sang some performances with Armand Tokatyan, who was a very fine tenor and deserves to be remembered better today.

I was also fortunate to be in the opera house on the opening night of the 1921-22 season, when Gigli sang Alfredo to Galli-Curci’s Violetta at her debut.  I knew Galli-Curci before then.  Both of us had sung in Chicago when Mary Garden was the general manager.

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Mary Garden (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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If one-half of the stories that have been told and written about Mary Garden are true, she must have been a formidable person.

Indeed, she was, but probably no more so than Melba or Patti before her.  They ruled their kingdoms—and they made those kingdoms.  No woman who achieved what Patti, or Melba, or Geraldine Farrar, or Mary Garden achieved, could have done so without enormous self-confidence.  Mary Garden, at least as I knew her, was not imperious at all, but she knew very well what her value was. 

She could talk about herself in a way that may sound conceited in the retelling, but from her standpoint it was simply a matter of fact.  I remember walking to the Chicago Opera house with my sister Angie, who traveled with me, and seeing Mary Garden coming toward us.  She stopped us and said, “Did you see my Carmen last night?” Not “How are you,” or “Wonderful to see you today,” but “Did you see my Carmen last night?” 

We hadn’t seen it, so we said so.  “You must see my next one,” she replied.  “There is nothing like it, and there never will be.”  She said that without a trace of haughtiness.  It was as if she had said, “You should carry an umbrella tomorrow because it’s likely to rain.”    

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[1]  The family of Nina Morgana, which comprised seven children, is remarkable not only for her success, but also her siblings’ successes. In addition to her brother Dante Morgana (who, as she mentions in the interview, became a nationally-known eye surgeon), her brother Emilio Morgana entered the priesthood and became a close friend of the friar-author Thomas Merton.  Another brother, Charles Morgana (Giuseppe Carlo Morgana), was an automotive inventor and a close associate of Henry Ford.  His older sister, Angelina Morgana, followed their brother Dante into medical school, where she became the only female in her class in the Medical Department (as it was then known) of the University of Buffalo.   She withdrew because of the harassment she experienced from the all-male faculty.

[2]  Here Morgana’s normally precise memory has failed her: on the day of her Metropolitan Opera debut (Saturday, November 27, 1920) Caruso sang a matinee performance of La forza del destino, and hence was not “ill.”
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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

Photographs from the Library of Congress’ Bain Collection are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

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Coming in Part 2: Nina Morgana’s personal recollections of Caruso; Gigli’s premier at the Met; comparing the great tenors

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NEW • The “World’s Greatest Operas” Discography (RCA Victor Series) by John Bolig

Our thanks to John Bolig for the first fully detailed discography of the RCA-produced “World’s Greatest Operas” records. Data are from original RCA documentation at the Sony archives in New York. All issues were anonymous, but as you’ll see, some first-rate talent was employed.

John’s complete listing of RCA’s “World’s Greatest Music” records (a substantially revised and expanded version of our very basic  listing that was posted a few weeks ago) has also been posted.

Note that this listing is only for the original RCA-produced series. Other producers took over the “World’s Greatest…” series after the RCA Victor connection was severed in 1940.

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NEW • The “World’s Greatest Music” Discography (RCA Victor Series) – Revised & Expanded by John Bolig

Our thanks to Victor expert John Bolig for revising and greatly expanding the very basic “World’s Greatest Music” listing that we posted a few weeks ago. The data are from RCA’s original documentation at the Sony archives in New York. A complete listing of RCA’s “World’s Greatest Operas” series is also being posted later today.

(By the way, several of John’s landmark Victor Discography titles have sold out recently. The remaining volumes are still available on the Mainspring Press website, but supplies are very limited. The listing below will give you a good idea of the high-quality data and attention to detail you’ll find in all of John’s books.)

Note that this listing is only for the original RCA-produced series of 1938-1940. Other producers took over the series after the RCA Victor connection was severed, and later pressings are not RCA products.
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From the “Gennett Record Gazette” – Joie Lichter, Bob Tamm, and the Questionable “Gene Bailey” (1924)

The Gennett Record Gazette was a nifty promo publication filled with photos, release lists, facts, and “alternative facts.” Here are a couple of excepts from Vol. I, No. 4 (April 1924) — one correcting a likely error in Johnson & Shirley’s American Dance Bands on Records and Film, and the other opening a discographical can of worms.

Joie Lichter’s and Bob Tamm’s Milwaukee orchestras visited Gennett’s Richmond, Indiana, studio on March 4, 1924 — Lichter recording five sides, with Tamm squeezing in a single title midway through the session, according to the Gennett ledgers. (“Tamm” or “Tamms”? It appears both ways in press reports and ads of the period, but “Tamm” is favored by a good margin.)

For god-only-knows what reason (since its compilers give none), ADBRF lists the Tamm side as a pseudonymous Lichter recording, even though the ledger, and the detailed information reported below, make that seem unlikely. For what it’s worth, Brian Rust credited the Tamm side to Tamm in his earlier  American Dance Band Discography, from which ADBRF was largely taken. If anyone can offer any credible reason for the change in ADBRF (credible excluding things like “so-and-so is sure he hears such-and-such” or “Joe Blow remembers that somebody said…”), please let us know, and of course be sure to cite the source. If it checks out, we’ll be happy to post it.

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Our next excerpt involves the ubiquitous Bailey’s Lucky Seven. For years it’s been taken for granted that this was a Sam Lanin group, and aural evidence does strongly suggest that was the case on many sides. Many others, however, are more generic-sounding. Unfortunately, the Gennett ledgers offer no clues in either case. (Note that the Bailey’s personnel listings in the various Rust and Johnson & Shirley discographies are all conjectural, even if the authors don’t make that clear. None of it is from file data or other primary-source documentation.)

But here we have one “Gene Bailey, of Bailey’s Lucky Seven” running a question-and-answer column in the Gennett Record Gazette. Not surprisingly, “Bailey” gave no answer whatsoever to the fan’s question concerning the Lucky Seven’s personnel, or where the band was performing, other than a vague reference later in the column to one “Saxophone Joe.”

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So, was there a real Gene Bailey involved with these recordings, and if so, in what capacity? Or was this just yet another case of the Gennett folks having fun with pseudonyms? We favor the latter, since we’ve found no trace of a Gene Bailey having been  active on the New York-area musical scene, either as a musician or a manager, at the time. (These were all New York recordings.  The cartoon above, by the way, is based on a well-known 1923 photo taken in the New York studio, which was configured differently than the Indiana facility).

There’s an old anecdote about Gennett borrowing the names of employees or other locals for its artist pseudonyms. And a Gene Bailey does turns up in the social notices of several eastern Indiana newspapers at the time, although with no mention of any musical connection. But just to muck things up a bit, Gennett once issued a record credited to “Jene Bailey’s Orchestra,” claiming (in the ledger as well as in their ads) that Mr. Bailey personally conducted the side:

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Of course, much of Gennett’s promotional material should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. This was, after all, a  company whose “Colored Records” catalog included a photo of an unknown black band that was captioned “Ladd’s Black Aces” — a confirmed pseudonym on Gennett for the all-white Original Memphis Five.

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While we’re on subject, here’s a terrific book that all Gennett fans should own, by Charlie Dahan and Linda Gennett Irmscher (Arcadia Publishing). It’s available on Amazon.com, and a real  bargain at just $21.99 — crammed with rare photos and little-known facts, and covering a much broader scope than the earlier Kennedy tome. Highly recommended!
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(That’s Art Landry’s Call of the North Orchestra on the cover. At the top, you can see the heavy drapes that contributed to the Indiana studio’s notoriously muddy acoustics.)

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