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Gus Haenschen Interview Series
(James A. Drake)
Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:
Both Conrad Thibault and Annamary Dickey have commented on what an unusual team you and Frank Black were. They said that in every observable way, the two of you seem to have nothing in common except being pianists, arrangers, and conductors. Considering those differences, would enable the two of you to work together so well in radio?
I can see the differences they’re talking about, but they didn’t see how Frank and I interacted as business partners. What made it work, really, was Frank’s sense of humor—which was never on display in the studio—and the fact that we accepted our differences. Frank was extremely ambitious and ultimately it paid off for him: he became the Music Director for NBC. He had wanted to become a nationally known conductor of classical music. He knew that I had no such goal and that I was more interested in leading a balanced life, being not only married but the father of four kids. I can conduct most of the classical vocal and symphonic repertory, but as Frank knew, my real interest was in popular music.
There are almost no photos in which Frank Black is shown smiling, so it’s hard to detect any sense of humor from photographs of him.
Yes, but he had one. After he got a doctoral degree, he began insisting that he be billed and called “Dr. Frank Black.” He wanted an honorary degree because NBC always referred to Walter Damrosch as “Dr. Walter Damrosch.” He had graduated from Haverford [College], and his fame on radio netted him an honorary degree from there. I have two honorary doctorates but to me they’re nothing more than that—they’re honors, not degrees. And by the way, they come with a price tag on them because you’re expected to give money to the college.
Frank Black in the 1930s (left), and billed as “Dr. Frank Black”
on a World War II–era V Disc
Anyway, I really used to give it to him about this “Dr. Black” business. I would be in my office and would deliberately buzz our switchboard operator and say, “Please put me through to Dr. Black, and when he asks you who’s calling, tell him it’s Dr. Haenschen.” I used to razz him about it—never in front of a performer, of course—but I might say to him, “Jeez, Frank, this elbow of mine is really giving me trouble. Would you take a look at it and write a prescription for me?” He’d laugh because the razzing was a private thing between us.
Did you socialize together?
From time to time I would invite him to join Roxie and me and the Meltons on my boat. Frank was very fond of Jim Melton, and they worked together on several of Jim’s radio shows. He always wanted Frank as his conductor, and Frank liked working with Jim. So Jim and his wife Marjo [Marjorie], and sometimes just Jim and Frank and I, would cruise around Long Island on Sundays.
Haenschen aboard the yacht that Frank Munn and
James Melton helped him restore (1929)
I’ve seen photos of what you call your “boat” but those who were on it say it was a full-fledged yacht.
Technically, it was because 56 feet qualifies as a yacht. It was a mess when I bought it. It was built before World War One, and I had to redo it completely, which I enjoyed. I had two very able “helpers” in Jim Melton and Frank Munn, along with my son Richard and several of his friends. Jim Melton was a self-taught woodworker, and of course Frank had been a machinist, so I called on both of them to help me redo this yacht. Frank [Munn] and I did most of the machining in my shop at the house, and Jim did some of the finishing with marine-grade varnish. We’d work on it for three or four hours, and then we’d go in the house and Roxie would have our cook make whatever we wanted to eat.
That boat—or yacht—project, along with Jim’s collection of antique cars, had a lot to do with how he and Frank Munn became good friends. I couldn’t count how many gears, pulleys, and body panels I made in my shop for Jim’s growing collection of cars. Frank [Munn] would come over and he would work with me to sketch the parts and do the [specifications]. I did all the welding because I was pretty good with either gas or electric welding, which Frank hadn’t done a lot of. As Jim watched us making these special parts, he came to admire Frank more and more.
Antique-car enthusiast James Melton at the wheel, with members of the Denver Horseless Carriage Club (1950).
It was the same with the yacht. Frank [Munn] and I tore out the steam powerplant that the boat originally had, and I put in a twelve-cylinder gasoline engine that I had bored out, and I added a supercharger to maximize the horsepower. I put in a smaller gas engine to drive an AC generator so we could cook electrically and use electric lights, fans, and other appliances. I designed the new drive system, and Frank [Munn] and I made the transmission and machined the main drive shaft. I bought the propeller, and after working on so many of them when I was in the Navy, I knew how to balance it to get the most out of it.
What you call your “shop” is a little like what you call a “boat.” Your “shop” is a metal-working factory, and I think you’ll agree with that.
Well, all right, I’ll go along with “factory” because I can make just about anything there, I built it when I bought the acreage we live on in Norwalk [Connecticut], and as you probably noticed, all of the machines were originally belt-driven. I left all of the drive shafts in place, including the big Westinghouse motor that powered them, but then I adapted each piece of machinery to be run by a separate motor.
Haenschen as blacksmith (St. Louis Globe-Democrat,
April 23, 1939)
Your son Richard told me a story that I’m sure you’ll remember because it involved Frank Munn and the entryway to the cabin.
That was a hell of a thing. After I finished replacing the beams on the door frame of the cabin, Richard said to me, “Dad, that the space is too narrow for Frank to be able to go into the cabin.” That’s where the galley was, so we served our meals in the cabin. I couldn’t redo the entrance at that point, but I was so glad that Richard caught it because I special-ordered dining tables and large swivel chairs for the deck, and I had an electric awning that could cover the entire back of the deck so that I could always eat there with Frank. And on that subject, this will tell you about Jim Melton: he was just tall enough, about six-feet-three, that he had to watch his head when he went into the cabin. He used that as an excuse to eat on the deck with Frank and me.
(Left to right) Frank Munn, Lucy Monroe, and Gus Haenschen in a 1936 publicity shot for “The American Album of Familiar Music.” The program made its debut on NBC on October 11, 1931.
The sad fact about James Melton was that he died young, apparently from alcohol poisoning. Would you ever have predicted that his life would come to such a tragic end?
No, I didn’t see it coming but later on, when I had to deal with that in my own family, I learned more about alcoholism. Being hyperactive is often a factor in alcohol abuse, and it was in Jim Melton’s case. Anyone who knew Jim will tell you that he was hyperactive. He had to be doing something all the time, and it was very hard for him to relax. He couldn’t sit and have a leisurely conversation with you—he just wasn’t made that way.
Melton in the movies (1935)
When he would come over to our house, if the weather was nice, I would ask him to help our son Richard get better at football. Jim had played football in high school, and maybe at the University of Florida when he went there. So he would go outside and throw pass after pass to Richard and any friends of Richard who might be visiting that day. That would help him burn off some of his energy, and then he’d be calm for a while.
What was it about him that enabled him to get so many radio programs in prime time, with some of the biggest-name sponsors?
He had a way with people, especially people in power, but his eagerness almost always got in his way. For instance, he got to know Henry Ford II and his wife, and on a boat trip with them he talked Henry Ford into sponsoring a radio program for him. If he dealt with Ford the way he did with other sponsors, he’d get what he wanted and then would either want more—usually more money—or else he would stop socializing with them, or do something that sent a message that he had gotten what he wanted and that was that. I always thought that Henry Ford gave it just to put a stop to Jim badgering him about sponsoring a show for him. He could be very pushy that way—and after a while Ford pulled the plug on that show.
Frank Black (left), Dorothy Warenskjold (center), and James Melton during a “Ford Festival” broadcast in the early 1950s.
He even managed to get Irving Berlin to let him do an entire program about “Annie Get Your Gun” a week or so before the Broadway premiere—and Berlin was even part of the broadcast.
Yes, but there were reasons for that. At first, Berlin wasn’t as confident about “Annie Get Your Gun” as he was with the shows he had done when he was younger. As I remember it, it wasn’t until Dick Rogers told him how perfect the score was that Berlin felt that the show was going to be a hit. From then on, Berlin took every opportunity to promote the premiere. Melton’s show had good ratings at the time, so it was a good program for Berlin to promote “Annie.” And trust me, there wasn’t one word in Melton’s script, or one bar of music, that Berlin didn’t approve during the rehearsals.
If you look at the number of radio shows that [Melton] had, many of them didn’t last. He had to be the singer and the emcee, which was a big mistake because he minimized the announcer’s role. All he wanted the announcer to say was, “And now, here’s our star, James Melton,” then introduce the commercials, and say “Tune in next week” at the end of the show. He thought he was a great emcee but he was adequate at best. Frank Black often had to tell him that he was talking too fast when he was introducing whatever song he was going to sing next.
Were you surprised when he made the transition from popular music into the tenor ranks of the Metropolitan Opera?
The Met had always been his goal. I remember his debut in The Magic Flute very well, which was done in English in that production. Jim had very good guidance. [Wilfrid] Pelletier helped refine his phrasing in the French and Italian roles. [Melton] looked great onstage because he was tall, broad-shouldered, and very trim. He was especially good in Traviata, which I saw him in several times.
James Melton as Pinkerton in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Madame Butterfly.
He had always wanted to sing Pinkerton in Butterfly, which he did at the Met, but it wasn’t his best role. The tessitura was a little too high for his voice. He was at his best when he could sing a B-flat. Now, he could sing the B-natural and even the high-C, [but] they didn’t have the “ping” that a tenor needs to have if he sings Pinkerton.
Did you stay in touch with him after it became apparent that he was becoming more and more dysfunctional?
No. I had to cut him off. I had already seen enough in my life, going back to my own father, of how destructive alcohol can be to a family. Jim called me at home at all hours of the night, drunk and wanting money from me, so finally I just cut him off completely. He died in some fleabag hotel, drunk and alone. Roxie and I stayed close to Marjo and their daughter Margo, and we felt helpless because of the way he left them. He abandoned them. One thing that struck me was that his alcoholism never affected his voice. He made some low-budget recordings a year or so before he died, and he sounded just like he did twenty years earlier.
(Top) In 1948, Melton moved to Florida with his collection of antique cars and opened Autorama, a tourist attraction that closed following his death in 1961. (Bottom) Melton on a cut-rate Tops LP in the 1950s, an ignominious ending for a one-time Victor Red Seal star.
His style seems to have changed, though. After he left The Revelers, he sounded like an Irish tenor, but after the war he sounded more “mainstream” for want of a better word.
He was trying to sound like [John] McCormack at first, almost to the point that he sounded like an impersonator. He stopped that after he had a bad experience with McCormack.
Did you know John McCormack?
In a funny way, yes. We had the same dentist, a very well-known oral surgeon in Manhattan. I was surprised that McCormack let him do this—although it’s probably because McCormack didn’t have to pay him—but the dentist was very proud of a special set of dentures he had designed for McCormack to use in his concerts.
These dentures were very lightweight, and the upper plate had no artificial “roof”—it was just a U-shaped denture that left the roof of the mouth exposed. They were cosmetic, not for eating, and the dentist was so proud of them that he had a set in a display case in his waiting room, with a thank-you note that McCormack had signed.
Anyway, I was introduced to McCormack several times but I can’t say that I knew him. I had heard him in concert when I was in college, and maybe four or five times later on. There was nobody like him on a concert platform.
Returning to you and “Dr. Black,” how did the two of you and your other partners go about developing the World Broadcasting Company?
For the first three years, World Broadcasting was all-consuming. We had to hire lots of musicians, arrangers, and engineers for Sound Studios, which we built and where we did the recording sessions. The small independent stations were clamoring for more and more recordings, so we had to run Sound Studios almost like a factory. We started recording at 10:00 a.m., Monday through Friday, and took a half-hour break at 2:00 p.m., which usually lasted about forty-five minutes by the time we were recording again. We would record till 6:00 p.m., and that would be a typical daytime session.
(Top) World Broadcasting / Sound Studios’ 1931 announcement of Western Electric Noiseless Transcriptions, embodying vinylite pressings and other improvements. (Bottom left) A standard World Broadcasting transcription label, mid-1930s; (bottom right) Sound Studios’ special “Superman” transcription label, 1940s.
Since most of the guys we hired to play for us were in bands and had nighttime gigs, we started holding a midnight session that would last till 3:00 a.m. We did those on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. We always had the best catered food—a really impressive buffet—at every daytime session and at those midnight ones as well. But the food, good as it was, wasn’t what enabled us to get anybody we wanted in our sessions. The key was that we paid everyone 25% over scale for each session. This was during the worst of the Depression, so a really driven guy like Artie Shaw would do a morning and afternoon session before playing an evening gig with whatever band he was playing in.
Aside from you, Ben Selvin, and Frank Black, who were the conductors you retained for the World Broadcasting sessions?
We used everybody we could get—Vic Arden, Ed Smalle, Ben Bernie, Jack Denny, Jerry Freedman, Harold Stanford, Don Donnie, Gene Ormandy, Don Voorhees, and of course Ben [Selvin]. For the first year, Ben, Vic [Arden] and Frank [Black] and I conducted the daytime sessions.
Were Abe Lyman and Gus Arnheim with you at World Broadcasting?
No, they were in California by then. But we did give some aspiring conductors their starts as well. We may have been the first to have André Kostelanetz conduct, and also Edwin McArthur. Both were pianists and arrangers for us.
I’d like to make it a matter of record that when you and Eugene Ormandy happened to see each other here at Philharmonic Hall when he was with a group, he made a point of introducing you to each of his friends and said you had given him his start, but as a dance-band leader.
It’s true, and we also used Gene as an arranger.
We’ll also make it a matter of record that you said to him, “Good to see you, Gene, and if this symphonic gig doesn’t work out, I think I can get you some dance-band work.” From your files, it appears that every future leader of one of the big bands—Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, the Dorsey brothers, Harry James, Glenn Miller—all played in World Broadcasting sessions. So did Jan Peerce, among the vocalists you used a lot at World Broadcasting.
He wasn’t “Jan Peerce” back then. He was “Pinky Pearl” when we first hired him. He was exactly the kind of performer we were always looking for. He was a violinist and a singer, and he could play “straight” violin as well as jazz violin. As he told you, his inspiration was Joe Venuti, the greatest of them all. Jan wasn’t the improviser that Joe Venuti was, but he was very, very good. As a singer, he could do songs from operettas like The Student Prince, Rose Marie, and the others, but he could also sing like a crooner. We used him under lots of different names.
Jan Peerce (left) and Ben Selvin
I know that you wanted to get his brother-in-law, Richard Tucker, for some World Broadcasting sessions, but I take it that Peerce blocked it. Is that right?
I had no idea that there was such animosity between them, but I found out when I mentioned to Jan that I’d like to use Tucker for some studio sessions. Tucker was doing the “Chicago Theatre of the Air” every week, and he was building a name for himself through those broadcasts.
Was Peerce already at the Met at that time?
Yes, and he was doing very, very well. He was managed by [Sol] Hurok, and he was one of Hurok’s personal favorites. I don’t know what [Peerce’s] problem with Tucker was, but Jan blew his top when I brought up his name, and it really put me off. I knew several of the guys who helped Jan when he was coming up, and I couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t let anybody help his brother-in-law. But fate has a way of taking care of things, and Tucker is the “king of the Met” and Jan isn’t there anymore. He did well on Broadway, though, in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
I was able to help Tucker after all, and I know that Jan found out about it. I had heard from John Charles Thomas that he was having trouble getting a summer replacement on “The Westinghouse Hour,” so I suggested Tucker to John, and Tucker ended up being his summer replacement.
(Left to right) Conductor Emil Cooper, Richard Tucker, Paul Althouse (Tucker’s teacher), Jan Peerce, and Edward Johnson after Tucker’s Metropolitan Opera debut (January 25, 1945)
Who were some of the other singers who made World Broadcasting transcriptions?
Most of the singers we had at Brunswick—Elizabeth Lennox, Virginia Rea, Frank Luther, Billy Hillpot, Billy Mann, Morton Downey, Scrappy Lambert, and of course Frank Munn—worked for us at World Broadcasting. We also used Irving Kaufman, and sometimes his brother Jack, when they were available.
A 1939 ad for World Broadcasting’s Library Service. Along with Associated, NBC, and others, World offered a subscription service that provided radio stations with long-playing, multi-selection transcriptions by nationally known artists—some of whom appeared under aliases because they held exclusive contracts with the commercial labels.
Vaughn Monroe shows up in some of the World Broadcasting sessions. Was he one of your singers?
No, Vaughn played trumpet with us, although he did sing in trios, quartets and such. He was like Jim Melton, who doubled as a sax player for us while he was in The Revelers.
Let’s stay with the saxophone, because just about every sax player seems except Carmen Lombardo played in those Sound Studios sessions. I’m assuming that you know all of the Lombardos, am I right?
Oh, sure. I had tried to get them during my last year at Brunswick. Ben [Selvin] signed them to Columbia, and he really helped them. You know why Guy is the leader, don’t you? It’s because he’s the only one of the brothers who wasn’t a good musician. Supposedly, he played the violin but he wasn’t any good, yet he was nice-looking and he had a good speaking voice so he became the leader. Carmen [Lombardo] is the one who came up with the Lombardo sound, and he was always the behind-the-scenes leader of the band. Guy’s real passion is boating. I think he’s still competing in big-league powerboat racing.
Your friend Tony Randall is on a television campaign to bring back Carmen as the band’s vocalist. Do you think that will happen?
As long as Carmen doesn’t have to be interviewed, he might do it for Tony because they’re good friends. Anybody who knows Carmen will tell you that he’s nothing like the caricature of him. Of the brothers, Carmen is the one who’s known for liking the ladies, and they like him. He also has a great sense of humor. So do Victor and Lebert and Guy. Their philosophy has always been that the more they get made fun of, the more attention the band gets, and they laugh all the way to the bank. But make no mistake about it, Carmen is the leader and the main arranger, and always has been. The precision of that sax section is Carmen’s doing. They play so tightly that even their vibratos are in synch.
One of the sax players you used in many World Broadcasting sessions was Fred MacMurray, whom I never knew was a musician.
Fred was a very good tenor-sax man. He was with George Olsen’s band, but he did as much freelance work as he could get. He did some singing with George, as did Fran Frey, another of George’s sax men. We used Fran in some of our sessions, but not as much as Fred. Later on, Sid Caesar did some work for us [at World broadcasting] and he played in one of my radio bands.
Future comedians Fred MacMurray (top left) and Sid Caesar (top right) did session work for Haenschen at World Broadcasting, as saxophone players. Below, Caesar with the Coast Guards’ Brooklyn Barracks Band (center, standing with clarinet).
The comedian Sid Caesar?
Yes, that Sid Caesar—a hell of a good tenor sax man. He had been playing sax in the Catskills while he was doing comedies and impersonations there. He was in the Coast Guard during the war, but he was stationed in New York and he played for us as often as he could.
How would the great sax players of what’s now called the “Big Band Era” compare with such greats as Rudy Wiedoeft and Benny Krueger, whom you recorded at Brunswick?
If Rudy or Benny were still here, they would tell you that the Brown brothers, or the Six Brown Brothers as they were billed, were every bit as good as they were. Tom Brown led the band, which was a saxophone quintet at first—two alto saxes plus a bass, baritone and tenor sax. The other brothers—Bill, Percy, Alec, Fred, and Vernie—played the bass, baritone, and tenor saxes. For me, though, Rudy Wiedoeft was the best sax player I ever worked with, but I also knew him better than the others.
Rudy, Benny [ Krueger] and all of the top-notch sax players back then had what reed players call a “diaphragmatic vibrato.” Some of the later sax players used jaw muscles for the vibrato. Tex Beneke could do both, but a lot of the time he used the “jaw vibrato.” If you watch film of Tex playing, and then watch Rudy Wiedoeft, you won’t see any movement of the jaw in Rudy’s playing. That’s the difference between a vibrato that comes from the diaphragm, like an opera singer has, and a “jaw vibrato.” Sax players can get away with a jaw vibrato, but a clarinetist can’t because the embouchure, or the way the lips are placed on the mouthpiece, is much tighter than on a saxophone.
Haenschen plays Detroit (May 2, 1940)
You had another reed player who has done very well for himself: Mitch Miller.
Mitch was one of the best oboists in the business—I can’t think of any other oboist who could match him.
He and Percy Faith, with John Hammond, remade Columbia Records. Was Percy Faith in any of the Sound Studios sessions?
No, he wasn’t in New York in those days. He’s Canadian, and the Lombardos helped him get work in Chicago as an arranger and conductor. He worked for Jack Kapp at Decca, and later on he conducted “The Contented Hour.”
That was one of your radio shows, wasn’t it?
Yes, and most of the band had also done World Broadcasting sessions with me. Both of the Dorseys, Glenn Miller, and I think Artie [Shaw] were in “The Contented Hour” band during my time with the show.
Do you remember if Benny Goodman was in that band? Was he a “doubler” like Shaw was?
Benny Goodman is one of the finest clarinetists I’ve heard, but he was also one of the worst sax players I ever heard. What amazed me was that he couldn’t tell the difference. He couldn’t hear how bad his tone on the sax was. Now, Artie, on the other hand, was every bit as fine a sax player as he was a clarinetist. The same with Jimmy Dorsey, who was equally good on both instruments. I would put Jimmy Dorsey and Artie Shaw up against any sax players, even Rudy Wiedoeft, and they would hold their own.
Do you recall the incident that Artie Shaw talked about, the incident between Benny Goodman and him during a rehearsal that you were conducting?
That was for one of our radio shows, not World Broadcasting—but yes, I remembered it when Artie brought it up. The two of them were side-by-side in the sax section, and Artie always played the lead and Benny the second part. All I remember is that when we ran through a passage a second time, the lead sax was under pitch and had this buzzy sort of tone. I stopped and said, “Who played that?” Benny jumped up and said, “I did!”
I remember questioning Artie, and him saying that Benny had asked him to play the lead for change. All I said was, “Don’t do that again” and went on with the rehearsal. If I didn’t know Benny, I’d think he still holds that against me. But I know him, and he’s just plain dense. There are so many stories about what an oddball he is, and most of them are true.
Did you have black players in the World Broadcasting sessions, along with white players?
Definitely. The sax players, for instance, included Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter, who were terrific players, and they were good clarinetists too.
Benny Carter (top) and Johnny Hodges.
Was there any resistance from white players?
Not unless they wanted to get fired. Seriously, though, every player we had—and I can’t think of a single exception—were in awe of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Duke Ellington because they set the standards for jazz. I had recorded Duke at Brunswick, but that was before he developed his own style. That’s just a short list if you think of the pianists of that era—James P. Johnson in particular, and Fats Waller, who was a classical organist in addition to a terrific pianist.
A lot of the small stations in the South and the Midwest wanted gospel songs, so we brought in groups from the Tuskegee and the Fisk University singers. Often we used members of the choirs of the big congregations in Harlem.
Especially in the Midwest, there must have been a demand for “hillbilly” music. Did you import any performers like the ones Jack Kapp brought to you at Brunswick?
No. When Jack [Kapp] was recording those backwoods players, he was using field-recording equipment most of the time. We never did field recordings. All of our sessions were done at Sound Studios.
You had some of the finest brass players ever—and yet there was one whom neither you nor Ben Selvin have any memory of: Bix Beiderbecke. When I interviewed both of you and brought up that name, Mr. Selvin said, “Oh, he was great,” or words to that effect, and then he said, “Didn’t you think so, Gus?” Your reply, which I transcribed, was, “Benny, I don’t know how many people have asked me about him, and to tell you the truth I never heard of him.” That prompted Mr. Selvin to say, “I thought I was the only one! I’ve been shown pictures of this guy, and I swear he was never in any band that I recorded!”
But that’s the truth. The stories I’ve heard are that even Louis Armstrong considered him an equal. I find that very hard to believe, but Artie [Shaw] said he roomed with [Beiderbecke] and that he was in several World Broadcasting sessions. Jim Lytell remembered him very well, too. All I can say is that if the guy was in any band that I directed, he must have sneaked in, played, and sneaked out.
It’s more remarkable that Ben Selvin had no memory of Beiderbecke because it was Ben Selvin who got Paul Whiteman to sign with Columbia, and Bix Beiderbecke was in the Whiteman band at that time. Is it possible that both of you didn’t know all the players you used at World Broadcasting and on some of your radio shows?
Well, if you want to be literal about it, it’s possible but very, very unlikely, especially at World Broadcasting. We always had five or six players on call for every instrument in those sessions. We had to have that many because of the number of recording sessions day after day.
Now, it is possible that a player we didn’t use very often—and keep in mind that we hired players based on recommendations from the other players on our payroll—it’s possible that some player might not stand out because of the type of music we were recording. We weren’t recording jazz, we were recording pop instrumental music.
To be honest about it, most of the players who were “regulars,” and I’ll use the Dorseys as an example, played in our sessions for the money because that’s all that was in it for them. I’m sure Tommy Dorsey couldn’t stand many of our arrangements, but it was steady work and very well-paying work. Payday was every Friday, and if a player needed an advance, we’d give it to them and deduct it at the end of the week.
You have to remember that these guys were known to each other, but not to the public. In 1932, Artie Shaw could walk down any street in broad daylight and nobody would know he was. Ten years later, he would be hounded everywhere he went. But during the worst of the Depression, all of these players needed the money, and we were paying more than they were getting anywhere else. Our sessions went like clockwork, so they were in and out, and maybe back again for a second or even a third session. World Broadcasting was a business, and we ran it like one. We were the Ford Motor Company of the radio business.
— J. A. D.
Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:
Text © 2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.
RCA Radiotron Celebrity Cartoon Ads (1933) • Ruth Etting, Bing Crosby, Fanny Brice, Paul Whiteman, Kate Smith, Eddie Cantor, Burns & Allen et al.
In the spring of 1933, the Radio Corporation launched a national advertising blitz for Radiotron and Cunningham tubes, featuring popular radio and recording stars in biographical snippets done in the style of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” At least ten of these ads appeared from March through early April, when the series came to a sudden halt. A second, shorter series ran during the autumn of 1933.
From the Spring 1933 Series:.
From the Fall 1933 Series:
Gus Haenschen (a.k.a. Carl Fenton) served as director of popular music for Brunswick records from 1919 until he resigned in 1927 to pursue a career in commercial broadcasting. His interviews with Jim Drake covering the Brunswick years have been posted previously. Beginning with this installment, Haenschen recalls his equally remarkable career in radio.
Some radio historians credit you with pairing Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, and also for putting together The Revelers and making them popular nationally.  What do you recall of them, and your role in their popularity on radio?
Where do these stories get started? I had almost nothing to do with the radio success of Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, nor with The Revelers’ success. At Brunswick I had directed a lot of recordings of Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, but as separate performers. In fact, one of our early Brunswick recordings of a male duet was with Ernie Hare and Al Bernard, not Billy Jones.  If you look at the Brunswick files, you’ll see that I had put a lot of male duos together—Frank Bessinger and Frank Wright, Ed Smalle and Billy Hillpot, for example.
Al Bernard (left) and Ernest Hare, c. 1920.
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
Ernie Hare was with [Brunswick] almost from the start. We used him mainly for popular ballads. I don’t think we signed Billy Jones until a year or so after we had Ernie [Hare] under contract. Billy was a light baritone [sic; tenor], and we had him record ballads and novelty songs for us. I can only remember two recordings we did of Jones and Hare together.  One was some novelty song, nothing memorable, but it didn’t sound anything like the Jones and Hare of network radio. A little later, we wrote an arrangement of a novelty song, one of many that sprang up after the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, a ditty called “Old King Tut.” These were acoustical recordings, as I recall, and of the two only “Old King Tut” sold very well for [Brunswick].
Billy Jones (left) and Ernest Hare, in the early days of radio
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
While we’re talking about record sales, you may remember when Gene Austin made a comeback in the 1950s. He was a guest on Red Skelton’s television show, and Skelton told viewers that he had done research on Austin’s career and that he had sold over 80,000,000 recordings in the 1920s and 1930s. Is that figure even remotely possible?
That’s nonsense—absolute nonsense! When you interviewed Ben Selvin and me, you’ll remember that we had a big laugh about how many of Ben’s recordings of “Dardanella” were sold. Some so-called researcher claimed that that recording sold 6,000,000 copies. As he and I said when we laughed about it, during the 1920s if a record sold 100,000 copies it was considered a big money-maker. In the early-1930s, as I said before, the record market almost dried up because of the Depression. And let me tell you, Gene Austin probably got a big laugh out of Red Skelton’s “research.” 
Gene Austin, c. 1927 (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)
Thanks for clarifying that. Going back to the subject of Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, did they work for you at all on radio?
Not that I recall. They got into radio early, and they attracted very good sponsors. You probably know their radio theme songs: “We two boys, Jones and Hare / Entertain you folks out there / That’s our hap-hap-happiness,” when they were sponsored by the Happiness Candy Company, and “We’re Billy Jones and Ernie Hare / We’re the Interwoven Pair,” when Interwoven Hosiery sponsored their show. They became one of the most popular duos on radio, but I didn’t have anything to do with it and I certainly didn’t “put them together.”
Jones and Hare, as caricatured by Gaspano Ricca in 1929. The caption refers to their split with the Happiness Candy Company, and subsequent loss of their “Happiness Boys” billing.
Did you play any role in The Revelers and their radio popularity?
Frank Black gets the credit for The Revelers. It was Frank’s up-tempo arrangements and the hours and hours he spent rehearsing them that made The Revelers one of the most popular groups on radio.  Until he began working with them, they were just another male quartet—the Shannon Quartet, or the “Shannon Four” as we billed them at Brunswick. I’m not sure about this but as I remember it, the original group, the Shannon Quartet, had Charles Harrison, Wilfred Glenn, Elliot Shaw, and Lewis James. Ed Smalle was their pianist, and sometimes he sang with them while he was at the piano.
The Revelers in the late 1920s: Frank Black, Elliott Shaw, Lewis James (back row, left to right); James Melton, Wilfred Glenn (front row, left to right)
When Frank [Black] took over as accompanist and arranger, he changed the Shannon Four to a quintet by adding Franklyn Baur as the lead tenor. Between Frank Black’s innovative, tight-harmony arrangements and Franklyn Baur’s voice as the new lead tenor, plus the name change from “Shannon Four” to “The Revelers,” the quintet really took off on radio. Frank [Black] and I did feature them on our first radio program after I left Brunswick, “The Champion Spark Plug Hour.” I wrote the introductory theme song for the show, which I titled “March of the Champions,” and we called our studio orchestra “The Champion Sparkers.”
Haenschen (inset, and back row, third from right) and Frank Black (far left) with The Champion Sparkers (1930)
Did you know Franklyn Baur very well? I ask because the arc of his career was rather short, and he seems to have disappeared from radio and recording for reasons that are unclear.
I knew Baur only as a performer for us, but I didn’t socialize with him or have any involvement with him other than in rehearsals and on the air. There’s no question, at least in my mind, that he made the difference in the success of The Revelers. He had a distinctive voice—a good tone quality, very good intonation, and a range that was more than adequate for the music he sang. He was a good musician with a precise sense of rhythm, which was necessary for the type of arrangements Frank [Black] wrote for The Revelers.
From Radio Revue (March 1930)
Do you recall anything specific about working with Franklyn Baur?
He was easy to work with for the most part, although as The Revelers got more press, he tended to want more of the limelight for himself. That created some tension with the others in the group because they were more experienced—most of them were veterans in the [recording] industry, while he was a newcomer by comparison—and, so to say, they were not as impressed with Baur as Baur was with himself.
One funny thing about Baur that used to drive Frank Black nuts was that Baur “conducted” while he was singing. He’d “conduct” with his hand and index finger, and Frank [Black] felt that he did it just to call more attention to himself. Frank had to lay down the law with him about that, but [Baur] would still do it every once in a while.
The conventional wisdom about Franklyn Baur’s brief career was that he wanted to become an operatic tenor and performed a recital of French and Italian arias and songs at Town Hall, but received negative reviews and abruptly retired because of those reviews.
That’s not true. His Town Hall recital [on December 4, 1933] went very well and the reviews in The New York Times and the other major newspapers were very good. He toured as a recitalist for another two years, maybe more, but as happened with other pop-music tenors before him, he sang too often—he was still on radio too—and some of the arias he chose for his recitals were wrong for his voice.  He developed a nodule on one of his vocal cords, and unfortunately the operation to remove the node wasn’t successful and left him with an impaired voice. That’s what shortened his career.
Baur’s December 1933 Town Hall recital received generally positive reviews. These excerpts are from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (top left), Brooklyn Times Union (bottom left), and Hartford (CT) Courant (right).
After Franklyn Baur left The Revelers to pursue his recital career, did James Melton replace him as the lead tenor?
Frank Luther took Baur’s place at first, if my memory is correct, and then Jim Melton succeeded Frank Luther.  Melton was a better tenor than Baur, and his performances with The Revelers were exceptional. At that point in Melton’s singing career—he was a tenor-sax man with us before he began singing and before he replaced Frank Luther in The Revelers—he was young and eager and very easy to work with. But he too had bigger ambitions and as time went on, his ambition got in his way. As good as Baur had been for The Revelers, Frank [Black] and I thought that Melton was even better.
Frank Black in the NBC studio (March 1930)
Back to your and Frank Black’s first radio programs, I had the impression that “The Palmolive Hour,” which you directed, was your and his first radio show, and that Frank Munn and Virginia Rea sang under the pseudonyms “Paul Oliver” and “Olive Palmer.”
“The Palmolive Hour” was our second show. It was better known because it was in a better time slot and was promoted a lot more than “The Champion Spark Plug Hour.” And yes, Frank Munn was our tenor on the “Champion” program, just as he was on the “Palmolive” show, but he sang under his own name on the “Champion” program. Incidentally, I never asked Frank to sign any exclusive contract with us. I wanted him to be able to perform on as many programs as he was offered and could also continue recording for Brunswick and any other labels. Frank and I had become very close friends by then, and I wanted to see him have the best career he could possibly have.
From Radio Revue (December 1929)
I’m not sure this is the right time and place to ask to you recount the conflict between James Melton and Frank Munn, but I will ask you to repeat what happened, and what your role was during and after the incident.
Well, it happened in midtown Manhattan after a late-afternoon rehearsal for “The Palmolive Hour.” As I’ve said, Frank was very sensitive about his weight, so he only felt comfortable in certain public places. One of them was his favorite restaurant, just a small place in midtown Manhattan that served good food and treated him like the star he was. He and I had dinner there a lot, and we always enjoyed the time we spent together because Frank was such a sweet guy.
As we were leaving the restaurant and waiting for our driver, I saw Jim Melton approaching us. He was wearing a tuxedo, so he was probably going to a performance after eating a light dinner. In those days, by the way, not only the soloists and the conductor but everyone in the orchestra wore tuxedos. At NBC, the feeling was that through radio we were coming into the listener’s home, and that we should be formally attired even though no one but the studio personnel could see us.
As Frank [Munn] and I were leaving the restaurant and I saw Jim Melton walking toward us with a small group around him, I could tell from his gait and from the look on his face that he was drunk. I don’t like to say this, but Jim Melton was an obnoxious drunk—I don’t know how else to describe him when had been drinking. He walked up to me and said to me, in front of Frank Munn, “Why do you let this fat pig sing on your show instead of me?” Then he turned to Frank and began calling a “pig,” “hog,” and a string of vile curse words.
Melton kept it up and kept it up, and then said sarcastically to Frank, “Oh, Mr. Munn, you’re such a big star, I want your autograph!” Frank just looked down at the sidewalk while Melton was acting out this mocking rant. It went on until suddenly Frank grabbed Melton’s arm in a vice grip—a group so hard that Melton’s knees buckled and he was writhing in pain. Calmly, Frank used his other hand to retrieve from his vest pocket his prized Duofold “Big Red” fountain pen. After uncapping it with his teeth, he wrote his signature across the starched white “bib” of Melton’s tuxedo.
James Melton (left) and Frank Munn, c. 1930
When he [Frank Munn] finally capped his pen with his teeth and let go of Melton’s already swelling forearm, he stared at Melton and said, “If I ever hear of you saying terrible things about me again, I will hunt you down and I will break you in half!” By then I had stepped between them, but there was no need because Melton was moaning, his forearm was swelling rapidly and he was coming out of his drunken state.
The next morning at my home, I got a frantic call from Jim [Melton], telling me that his wife told him what he had done the night before and how sorry he was for the insults he had hurled at Frank Munn. He pleaded with me to ask Frank, if he would agree to it, to come to my home so that Melton could meet him there and apologize to him face-to-face.
Jim [Melton] arrived first, his forearm wrapped in medical tape and in a sling, and soon Frank Munn arrived at my house. We sat at my dining-room table, and Melton was so distraught that he actually began to cry. He asked Frank how he could ever forgive him for what he had said the night before. Frank never took his eyes off Melton, and never said a word until he saw how genuinely sorry Melton was.
At that point, Frank extended his hand across the table and waited until Melton grasped his in a tearful handshake. “Jim,” Frank said reassuringly, “it never happened. I have always been an admirer of your singing.” Melton broke down again, but when he regained his composure he assured Frank had he also admired Frank’s voice and artistry. That whole incident was scary, believe me, because I knew Frank Munn’s raw strength. He could have easily fractured or even broken Jim Melton’s forearm. Yet from then on, the two men became each other’s biggest promoter.
James A. Drake
Merritt Island, Florida
 Victor held exclusive rights to The Revelers name on records; therefore, the group appeared on Brunswick as The Merrymakers.
 Bernard and Hare both began recording for Brunswick in late 1919, immediately after the company switched to the lateral-cut process. As a duet, they first appeared on Brunswick 2004, the fourth lateral-cut release in the standard Brunswick series.
 Jones began recording for Brunswick c. November 1920. His initial session produced one solo and one duet with Ernest Hare. The team of Jones and Hare actually made numerous recordings for Brunswick from 1920 through 1925, some with top billing, and others as vocalists with dance orchestras that included Haenschen’s own.
 Haenschen is correct in asserting that these figures are grossly inflated. In early 1928, for example, the Managers’ Committee of the Victor Talking Machine Company reported the following average sales per release for several of the company’s popular artists: The Revelers (71,900 copies per release); Jesse Crawford (70,000); Johnny Johnson’s Statler Pennsylvanians (47,134 copies); Roger Wolfe Kahn’s Orchestra (46,000); Irene Bordoni (32,134). The figures were significantly lower for Red Seal artists. Rosa Ponselle, one of the line’s better sellers, averaged only 10,740 copies per release for the same period.
 Ed Smalle was The Revelers’ original pianist and arranger. Frank Black began working with the group in late 1926, based upon evidence in the Victor files, which reveal that other pianists (including Frank Banta and Milton Rettenberg) were occasionally substituted for Black at the group’s recording sessions.
 Baur was also one of the most prolific recording artists of the 1920s, making countless sides (often under pseudonyms) for cheap labels like Banner and Grey Gull, in addition to his work for the more respectable brands.
 Luther, soon to be better known for his country-music duets with Carson Robison, replaced Baur c. September 1927 and stayed only briefly, being replaced in late November by Melton, based upon the Victor files.
Advertisement for Clarence Williams’ first record, on the C&S label (1922). The C&S Phonograph Record Company was a short-lived venture of Thomas Chappelle and Juanita Stinnette Chappelle, who encouraged Williams to marry singer Eva Taylor.
With Sara Martin, one of Okeh’s early race-series stars
With wife Eva Taylor (July 1923)
“Papa De-Da-Da” was among the Blue Five sides featuring
Louis Armstrong. (July 1925)
A vocal release by Williams and Clarence Todd, here misspelled “Dood.” Todd, along with Eva Taylor, was a member of the Clarence Williams Trio, which broadcast regularly for several years. (July 1925)
Williams was Okeh’s New York studio workhorse in the mid-1920s. Here, his Blue Five accompany a young Sippie Wallace. (August 1925)
New York (June 1926)
Williams’ ill-fated Bottomland opened on June 27, 1927, and closed after only nineteen performances.
New York Age (January 3, 1953). Member of the Clarence Williams Trio pictured above are (left to right) are Williams, Eva Taylor, and Clarence Todd.
Working the New York clubs (1951 and 1955)
. New York (November 9, 1965)
An even earlier example of a Henderson satellite band (see previous post) — a November 15, 1924 appearance in Watsonville, California. The actual Henderson band recorded in Columbia’s New York studio on November 14. Given the state of American transportation at the time, the band could not possibly have reached California by the following day, and then returned to New York in time for its November 17 Plaza date. (There is no connection to the “Tennessee Ten” on Victor records, which was a white band.)
Henderson was a prolific broadcaster (this relatively early example is from August 1923). He accompanied Emma Gover and Edna Hicks on some of their recordings during this period. The 1923 Gover–Henderson Pathé sides were brokered by band manager Ed Kirkekby (whose California Ramblers did not yet occupy him full-time), as confirmed in Kirkeby’s logbook.
As one of several headliners with the Club Alabam’ show
A plug for Henderson in a 1924 popularity contest. In the early 1930s he was bested by Blanche Calloway in a similar contest, but only by a few votes. (New York, November 1924)
Sam Lanin sharing the bill with Henderson at the Roseland, during Louis Armstrong’s tenure with the Henderson band (New York, December 1924)
Romano’s was one of several white bands, besides Lanin’s, to share the bill with Henderson at the Roseland. (New York, September 1924)
The Henderson orchestra, or a small unit from it (depending upon the session), masqueraded as The Dixie Stompers for Columbia’s low-priced Harmony line. (June 1926 ad for an April recording)
“The white man of colored musicians” — a supposed compliment? (Pottsville, Pennsylvania, July 1926)
Henderson and cutting-edge phonographic technology — the Brunswick Panatrope, the first all-electric phonograph for the consumer market (although the Henderson orchestra had not made any electrical recordings for Brunswick at that time). Scranton, Pennsylvania, June 1926.
Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, June 1926
Pottsville, Pennsylvania (July 1926)
A Henderson band and Ed Kirkekby’s California Ramblers made several joint appearances during their summer 1926 tours. Earlier, while still a freelance band manager and talent broker, Kirkeby had secured some recording sessions for Henderson, as confirmed in his logbooks. (Scranton, Pennsylvania, August 1926)
Pittsburgh, July 1926
Battle of the bands at the Roseland, with Henderson facing off against Jean Goldkette’s newly arrived orchestra (New York, October 11, 1926)
Chillicothe, Ohio, July 1927
Henderson’s auto accident in August 1928 took a heavy toll on him,
as well as on his band (September 1 report)
New York, June 1929. The mention of “classical airs” bears out reports that the band’s full repertoire was not represented on its records.
The “Great Day” debacle of 1929. For a detailed account of this unfortunate turning point in Henderson’s career, see Jeffrey Magee’s The Uncrowned King of Swing: Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz (Oxford University Press), available from amazon.com and many libraries.
Henderson’s orchestra had been a mainstay of Columbia’s standard pop catalog since 1923, but for reasons unknown, the company assigned his December 1928 recordings of “Come On, Baby!” (a commercial hit tune) and “Easy Money” to the segregated 14000-D Race series. He was quickly returned to the pop series.
If the Victor contract referenced in this June 1931 blurb was truly exclusive, it’s not reflected in Henderson’s actual Victor output for 1931–1932, which was intermixed with releases on several competing labels and fell far short of the twenty records per year mentioned here.
Hard times — New York (July 1931)
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
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 .
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.
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)
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.
Watch Ponselle and Romani recording in the Columbia studio
(from the Library of Congress):
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.
Ponselle with Romano Romani (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)
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.
“[Thorner] gave me this song and dance about how…at Columbia I would be ‘the queen’ and would be their big star.”
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.
The Ponselle sisters’ early Columbia output included selections they had featured in their vaudeville and concert performances.
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.
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.
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.
Ponselle made her radio debut on the first Victor Hour broadcast of the 1927 season. (Radio Digest Illustrated, January 1927)
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.
An early 1950s promotional photo for RCA’s
Treasury of Immortal Performances reissues.
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.
Ponselle records at home (July 4, 1954)
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.
© 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.
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.
(Radio Annual, 1949)
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.
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.
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 , 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. 
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.
 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.
Memorabilia from Milton Cross’ time as a kiddie-show host on radio (see Part 1).
© 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.
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  with Kiri Te Kanawa, just as I saw it happening with Anna Moffo a few years ago.
Geraldine Farrar (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
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!”
John McCormack (G.G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
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.
Elisabeth Rethberg and Ezio Pinza at the Met (from The NBC Transmitter, December 1940)
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.
Charles Hackett (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
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.
Pasquale Amato (right), with Antonio Scotti and Lucrezia Bori
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
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.
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.
© 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.
Radio Digest in the early 1930s had plenty of photos of white men in burnt-cork, doing the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” bit, but photos of actual black performers are a rarity. RD made an exception in November 1932, when it ran a two-page spread headlined “Darktown Harmonizers.” We’ll spare you the embarrassing text, but here are the photos, all of stars who also had a substantial following among white audiences. The Mills Brothers didn’t actually play the instruments noted in the caption; they imitated them vocally (and amazingly well).
.The first “Edison Hour” broadcast aired over WJZ on February 11, 1929. It was captured at Edison’s Columbia Street studio in Orange, New Jersey, which housed the low-speed recording equipment used to make these experimental airchecks (above). The recordings were made on 12” discs at 30 rpm, using a very thin ( .00379”) cutting stylus, and they survive at the Edison National Historic Site. The technical problems — most notably some severe speed fluctuations, and noise from a power tube that “went Democratic” in the words of the Edison engineer — are distracting at times but of relatively small concern considering the rarity of airchecks from this early period of American broadcasting.
The broadcast celebrated the birthday of Thomas Edison, who spoke briefly via relay from his home in Fort Myers, Florida, and also served to promote the new Edison radio, which had recently been introduced over the old man’s objections. Here are some of the most interesting excerpts. The first three selections are from Edison experimental mx. 185-A, the remainder from 185-B.
WJZ ANNOUNCER AND CHARLES EDISON: Opening Comments
THOMAS ALVA EDISON: Birthday Message
FRIEDA HEMPEL: The Last Rose of Summer
B. A. ROLFE’S ORCHESTRA: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love
BILLY MURRAY with B. A. ROLFE’S ORCHESTRA: Doin’ the Racoon