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

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

James A. Drake

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Read All Installments in the Gus Haenschen
Interview Series:


THE ST. LOUIS YEARS

Part 1    |    Part 2    |    Part 3    |   Part 4

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

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

 

 

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THE ST. LOUIS YEARS — Part 4 (Conclusion)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Was the Odeon a vaudeville theater too?

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

 

Did you ever play in any of those pit bands?

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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What was your impression of Fritz Kreisler as a person?

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

 

You also mentioned hearing Alma Gluck, and also Caruso.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

You also made some test recordings for Victor, correct?

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

How did marriage change you?

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

 

How did becoming a parent change you?

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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When harvest time came, how did you manage that?

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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Gus Haenschen conducting at CBS

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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FINAL THOUGHTS

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Gus Haenschen’s sixtieth-birthday portrait

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 On a positive note, what do you still enjoy?

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

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

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Gus Haenschen’s last formal portrait, c. 1972

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

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

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

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

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(Courtesy of Robert Fells)

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

 

Notes

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Good Listening • “The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us from Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business” (Archeophone)

Good Listening:

The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us from Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business
(Archeophone 6011)

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If you’ve been following Jim Drake’s Gus Haenschen interview series on the blog, here’s the accompanying soundtrack, on a newly released CD. Archeophone Records has compiled a superb sampling of recordings by Haenschen and some of the bands and singers he oversaw in the studio, along with some interesting related items.

The star attraction is a complete run of Haenschen’s 1916 Columbia Personal Records, including his Banjo Orchestra’s  impossibly rare “Maple Leaf Rag” — a wonderfully relaxed performance that stands in striking contrast to Vess Ossman’s break-neck rendition of a decade earlier. It’s interesting to compare this with recordings of the same piece by Brun Campbell, the only other confirmed Joplin pupil to have recorded it (Haenschen recalled paying Joplin “around $25 a month” for instruction). Unfortunately, the Personal Records were made at a time when Columbia’s recording and pressing quality were at their all-time worst, but Archeophone has done a remarkable job of  recovering what’s there while preserving the integrity of the original recordings.

The rest of the CD is devoted largely to jazz, pop vocal, and dance numbers of 1920–1924 by artists Haenschen recorded for Brunswick, ranging from some fine regional bands captured on their home turf, to the rather dreadful (but historically interesting) Charlie Chaplin–Abe Lyman collaboration. Brunswick’s acoustic recording technology was far superior to Victor’s or Columbia’s and comes through brilliantly through in these clean transfers. A nice bonus is an excerpt from Jim Drake’s 1975 interview with Haenschen and songwriter Irving Caesar.

Archeophone productions are notable for their accompanying booklets, and this one (at a generous thirty pages) is no exception, with an expertly researched and well-written biography and listening guide by Colin Hancock, a detailed discography, and many rare illustrations. For more details, visit Archeophone Records.

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On the Mainspring Press Blog:
James A. Drake: The Gus Haenschen Interviews

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen: The Brunswick Years – Part 4 (Conclusion)

The James A. Drake Interviews
Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 4
(Conclusion)

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> Part 1  |  > Part 2  |  > Part 3

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The industry recovered when the economy rebounded in the mid-1920s, even though radio was growing rapidly. What enabled the recording industry to prosper despite the rapid growth of radio?

Well, I can only give you the opinion I had at the time. I think that what kept the recording industry going in those years was that almost everyone owned a phonograph and had buying phonograph records since the turn of the [twentieth] century. So people were accustomed to the phonograph as a sort of “musical instrument,” and the biggest company in our industry, Victor, spent so much money on advertising that the public kept on buying records.

There was another angle to it, now that I think about it. Phonographs had been portable almost from the start. If you’ve ever seen Edison cylinder phonographs from the 1890s, they were in a wooden case that had a lid with a carrying handle on it. The motor was powered by springs, so it wasn’t electrical and didn’t have to be connected to a battery or an electrical outlet.

All of the [recording] companies made portable phonographs, and they became more and more compact. We [Brunswick] made one that was only about fourteen inches square and maybe three inches thick [the Parisian Portable Phonograph]. It was spring-wound, and the removable crank was inside the lid. For a horn, it had a paper cone that folded up so it too could be stored inside the case. There was even space to store a few records inside the lid. [1]

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Brunswick marketed, but did not manufacture, the Parisian Portable, which was identical with the Polly Portable Phonograph Company’s machine (see Note 1); even the setup instructions, printed on a cardboard disc, were the same (center right). For a time, Polly Portable gave away a special record with each phonograph purchased (center left).

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That little portable was smaller than any briefcase, so it could be taken and used anywhere. That wasn’t true of a radio because they weren’t portable in those days. They had to be connected to a power source, usually a series of batteries, and they also required an antenna—a very long wire antenna. Radios also had to be grounded, meaning that the chassis had to be connected by a wire to a piece of metal that was literally in the ground.

As radio receivers improved, so did reception—provided that the antenna wire was long enough and mounted high enough, because the AM signal was affected by hills and other parts of the landscape. What many people did, if they had an attic in their house, was to string a long line of bare wire around the attic walls. You had to put porcelain insulators near the beginning of the wire and also near the end that was attached to the radio chassis, to prevent a bolt of lightning from going into the radio during a storm.

Between the antenna wire and the ground wire, which most people clamped to a pipe in the house’s plumbing, radios weren’t portable. As radio sales increased and the [radio] receivers improved, several table-top antennas were developed and marketed, but in rural areas and hilly terrain, they weren’t very effective. It wasn’t until many years later that truly portable radios were developed. So by comparison, portable phonographs were really “portable,” and as long as acoustical records were played on them, they sounded pretty good because the frequency range of acoustical recordings was limited.

 

To what extent did electrical recording enable the phonograph to compete with the frequency range of high-quality radios in the 1920s?

Electrical recording rejuvenated the [recording] industry for a while, but it was still no match for radio, which got better and better because of the constant improvement in [radio] transmitters and receivers. I only wish we [Brunswick] had gotten into electrical recording when Victor did.

 

But didn’t Brunswick begin issuing electrical recordings soon after Victor introduced the Orthophonic Victrola and their first electrical recordings in the spring of 1925?

 I wish! Victor [and Columbia] bought [sic; licensed] the Western Electric system and manufactured a phonograph that was built to reproduce the wide frequency range of the new electrical recordings. And it was an acoustical machine, not an electrical one. The engineers who developed the [Western Electric] system designed every component—the diaphragm in the reproducer, the tonearm, and especially the horn—to be able to reproduce all the frequencies of their electrical recordings.

The [Orthophonic] horn they designed was sort of like the shell of a pearly [i.e., chambered] nautilus, meaning that the horn had several interlocking chambers that were almost ten feet long if the horn would have been made in a straight line, like a very long, square-shaped megaphone, rather than chambered like the Orthophonic horn was.

 

Was Brunswick aware of the Western Electric process that Victor introduced in its new Orthophonic phonograph and recordings?

Oh, sure. We [Brunswick] had been approached by several experimenters who were working on electrical recording. There was a fellow named [Charles A.] Hoxie who approached us with his process. Percy Deutsch dealt with Hoxie and another fellow named [Benjamin F.] Meissner who had an electrical-recording system. [2] Anyway, we waited too long to make a decision, and when we did, we ended up with the worst of all systems.

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Charles Hoxie’s Pallophotophone (shown above in November 1922 and February 1923) was originally designed to record on film. Later adapted to produce disc masters, the Pallophotophone was licensed in 1925 by Brunswick, which dubbed it the “Light-Ray” process for marketing purposes. Haenschen’s recalled, “That damned process was totally unpredictable.”

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You’re referring to the Pallotrope [Pallophotophone], or the “Light-Ray” process as Brunswick called it in their advertisements?

Yes—and what a mess it was! The way it was advertised gave the impression that this beam of light was reflected by a minuscule mirror that drove the cutter for the wax master. Some of our Promotion Department’s bulletins even gave the impression that a beam of light actually played the records. But the phonograph we put out for these new recordings used essentially the same components that our phonographs always had: a tonearm, a reproducer, and a removable stylus. There was no beam of light that played the record.

 

But Brunswick did use the “light ray” method in the recording studios, correct?

For a while, yes, but the results were all over the place because that damned process was totally unpredictable. Most of the time, the test pressings of the recordings had so much distortion that they were worthless. The distortion might be in the bass in one test pressing, and then in the middle or upper range in another. About the time we thought we had solved the distortion problem in one part of the range, it would be in another part [of the range].

The microphone we had to use may have been the source of the problem. It looked like an oversized telephone. it had a flared cup that funneled the sound into the internal parts of the microphone, like telephones were equipped with back then. If there was any tiny mirror suspended in that contraption, I would want to see it for myself. To me, the casing that held this supposed mirror looked more like an oversized diaphragm like the ones you’d see in a telephone.

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(Top) A simplified diagram of the Pallophotophone system as adapted for “Light-Ray” disc recording. (Bottom) Charles Hoxie (center) demonstrates the Pallophotophone to RCA executives James G. Harboard (left) and David Sarnoff (right) in 1926.

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That microphone was mounted on a steel pole that could be adjusted up or down in height, and the cast-iron base was on casters so it could be moved around. But no matter where we put the thing in relation to the performers, we couldn’t get consistent, distortion-free recordings.

 

Brunswick kept advertising the “light ray” system for a couple years after it was publicly introduced. Were you able to get consistent results finally?

No. That process was so unpredictable that we were having to call the performers back to record another “take” of the same performance, hoping that the thing might work this time. We were spending so much time calling back the performers for more “takes”—and in any business, time is money, so we junked that “light ray” thing and made a deal with Western Electric to be able to use their process instead. Back then, it was possible to make confidential deals like that and have them stay confidential. Anyway, from then on the sound quality of our recordings was on a par with Victor’s.

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From The Talking Machine World (February 1926)

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After Brunswick quietly adopted the Western Electric process, what happened to Frank Hofbauer, who had designed the recording machines and had made the masters of Brunswick acoustical recordings?

Frank stayed with us for several years. We didn’t stop making acoustical recordings altogether, so he was still vital to us, especially after we acquired Vocalion. A lot of those Vocalions of that time, and I’m speaking of the middle- to late-1920s, were still acoustical. [3]  So Frank was still very much an important man for Brunswick. Incidentally, he was still living in the same house in [East Orange,] New Jersey, where he had lived when he worked with Edison.

 

Were you or any Brunswick executives invited to Edison’s laboratories, and if so did you meet the great man in person?

It was customary for us to host the executives from other companies, including Edison’s, and vice-versa. We were invited—and by “we” I mean Frank [Hofbauer], Percy Deutsch, Bill Brophy and Walter [Rogers] and I—to the Edison recording studios, which were on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and also to his laboratories in [West Orange,] New Jersey. Edison wasn’t there—I think he was in Florida then—but several of the Edison men made quite a fuss over seeing Frank [Hofbauer] again. Walter Miller, who I think ran Edison’s recording studios at the time, took us through the complex. What I remember the most about it was being shown this cubbyhole under a staircase where the “Old Man,” as he was called, took naps when he felt like it.

 

You also toured the Victor and Columbia studios?

Columbia, yes—that’s when they were on the top floor of the Gotham building in New York, which was new at the time. We didn’t tour the Victor complex, which was in [Camden,] New Jersey, but we had an even bigger treat. The founder of Victor, Eldridge Johnson, had a yacht—and when I say “yacht,” I mean a real ship. It was named “Caroline,” which I think was his wife’s name. Mr. Johnson took all of us on a cruise in Delaware Bay, and we had the best of everything on that ship. Will Darby went with us, and of course he and Mr. Johnson went back to the [Emile] Berliner days.

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Eldridge R. Johnson in the early 1920s (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

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When I was introduced to him, he asked me what my background was, so I told him I was a mechanical engineer and a machinist. I mentioned that I had my own small “factory,” as I call it, and that all of my time away from Brunswick was spent at my lathes and other machines making metal parts and welding and that sort of thing. Well, that got him to reminisce about his machine shop in Camden, where he had developed the Victor phonograph, the one that became the Victor trademark with the dog listening to the horn.

 

How would you describe his personality and his demeanor based on what you observed during that cruise?

He had a very courtly manner, and he was well-spoken. I don’t know how much formal education he had, but I saw photographs of the machine shop where he had developed his spring motor and talking machine, so I know that he probably worked seven days a week in that little shop just to make ends meet. But when he started Victor, and then it grew and grew and he became very wealthy, he learned how to comport himself like other very wealthy men. He had the finest clothes, the best wines, best cigars, several homes, and that beautiful yacht. My guess is that he learned all of that by observation.

 

Returning to the performers you had under contract, there are two dance bands that I want to ask you about, the Isham Jones orchestra, which you had mentioned earlier, and also the Ray Miller band.

 There’s not much to say about Ray Miller’s band because he had next to nothing to do with it. We hired him when he got a very good engagement at the Arcadia ballroom on Broadway, which was new at the time. Ray was a mediocre player—a drummer, but not a very good one—and I didn’t even let him play in his recordings. I put that entire band together myself. I picked really good players who were in our studio band, the same guys who were in my Carl Fenton band, and I conducted them. Ray wasn’t even there for some of the recordings because he didn’t add anything. He was just the front man.

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Ray Miller’s Orchestra, c. 1924 (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

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The difference between Ray Miller and Isham Jones is like the difference between day and night. Isham was a consummate musician—an excellent sax man who could also double on clarinet, and a real leader. Every man in his orchestra loved playing for him. If you passed him on the street, you wouldn’t think he was a celebrity because he wasn’t flashy, he didn’t have a “show biz” ego or any of that. But man, could he lead a band!

He was very interested in the recording process, and he worked with me on the arrangements that were necessary for acoustical recordings. He picked up all of that very easily, and he did his own arrangements for most of his recordings with [Brunswick]. As I think I mentioned, he also co-wrote some very fine tunes with Gus Kahn, and we recorded them—“I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “It Had To Be You,” and “Swingin’ Down the Lane” were all very solid hits.

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Isham Jones’ Orchestra in Chicago (Library of Congress)

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I often think back to working with Isham in our studios because he was such a pleasure to work with. He was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever known—he would do as many “takes” as necessary until he felt the playing was tight and perfect. He knew just where to place his men in relation to the [recording] horns, and he would be there in his shirtsleeves on the hottest days, wiping his forehead between “takes”—he didn’t have to wear his toupee in the studio, like he did when he was playing in public—and he would urge the guys to do it one more time if he felt that a “take” wasn’t perfect. He was one of our favorites at Brunswick—and he was also Al Jolson’s favorite, too.

 

About the one and only Al Jolson, I’m sure you have a lot to say!

He was the biggest star we ever had, and Brunswick wouldn’t have been so successful so quickly if it hadn’t been for Al Jolson. I directed most of our recordings of Al, not all of them but I think most of them, which meant that we had to record him after his shows, which could last until three o’clock in the morning. It also meant that we had to rely on our portable recording equipment, and rent the best space we could find in whatever city Al was playing in order to keep our Jolson inventory well stocked.

 

He was said to be very difficult to work with unless everything was done his own way. How was he to work with from your standpoint?

He was never difficult at all—and he would listen to my suggestions, which were deliberately spare because he had his own distinctive style, a style that spawned hundreds of imitators over the years. I knew how to treat him, so he was open to the very few suggestions I ever made. He wasn’t like that with others, though. If some arranger, director or conductor did suggest that he sing a song a certain way, he would either give them a withering stare until they walked away, or he would reach into one of the front pockets of his trousers and pull out a thick wad of $100 bills with a rubber band around them and would say “This is how much money I make in one night. Show me what you make.” But he never did that to me.

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Jolson’s “Sonny Boy” was one of the most heavily promoted records of 1928.

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Being the biggest star in show business, Al could even get away with chewing out some of the big-name songwriters. He would tell Gershwin in Yiddish to go to hell for making any suggestion about how a song like “Swanee” should be sung. But there was one he never argued with: Irving Berlin. When you listen to Jolson’s [Brunswick] recording of Berlin’s song “Remember,” you’ll hear Jolson sing it that way it was written.

That was because Berlin had told him bluntly that he had written this song for the woman he loved—Ellin Mackay, whom he married—and that if he heard one hint of a “Mammy-ism” on Jolson’s [Brunswick] record, hell would freeze over before he would give Jolson another song. As you can hear on the record, Jolson sang “Remember” exactly as he was told to sing it by Irving Berlin himself. I liked that record because it showed that Jolson could sing beautifully when he wanted to.

 

Your tuba player, John Helleberg, who later played the string bass for your Brunswick recording sessions, told me a story about Jolson recording a song during a session that was not going well. I feel sure you know the story, and will ask you to tell it here.

That happened in St. Louis, when he was appearing there in “Bombo.” [4] We were having trouble with the field-recording equipment. I think the song we were recording was “California, Here I Come.” We ended up doing four, five, or maybe six takes as I recall. Jolson was not a patient man, and after having sung the same song so many times already, he was getting pretty frustrated, and so were we. Finally, I said to him that we would do one last take, and that was enough, that we would just have to make do with that take.

Well, the equipment cooperated, and during the last chorus Jolson unbuckled his belt and let his trousers fall down to his shoe tops—and what he did next I’ll leave to your imagination. The rest of us were doing our best to stifle a belly laugh until we got the signal that the stylus had been lifted from the wax master. Then we all broke up laughing, and even Jolson laughed at what he had done. Yet when you listen to that recording, you have no idea what was going on while it was being made, because Jolson’s incredible verve is what you hear.

 

There was also an incident in which he wanted to make a recording of an opera aria, correct?

Yes, unfortunately. I have never known a pop singer, including Jolson, who didn’t want to try to sing opera arias. For Al, the aria he thought he should record for us was the Prologue from Pagliacci. [5]  As anyone who knew Al would tell you, saying no to Al Jolson was just not done—especially not by any of us at Brunswick, where he was our biggest draw.

I wrote the arrangement for the small orchestra we were forced to use in the acoustical-recording days, and Al arrived about 3:00 a.m., as usual, just bursting to record that Prologue. Frank Hofbauer, our recording engineer, was a good-sized fellow with a pronounced German accent, and I remember him putting a blank wax disc on the recording lathe and waved his hand through a small glass window that separated the recording studio from the room that held the recording equipment. That was the signal for Jolson to begin singing the Prologue—which he did, and to my surprise the first two lines, which he sang in phonetic Italian, were at least credible.

But the Italian text got to him and he blew the next line and the one after that—and then he started joking around in English, adding a couple choice Yiddish words, while the band continued playing. At that point, Frank Hofbauer lifted the cutting stylus from the wax disc so the recording would stop. He opened the little window that separated his room from the studio—but before he could say a word, Al could see from his facial expression that Frank was irritated.

Then Al turned on the “Jolson charm,” telling Frank that it had been childish of him [Jolson] to waste valuable studio time by clowning around for two minutes after he knew that there could be no record because he had messed up the Italian lines. As he was apologizing to Frank, he begged for two things: a pressing from that wax master, even though it was incomplete, and another chance to record the Prologue. “Believe me, Frank,” he said, “I can sing it like an Italian baritone if you’ll just put another wax disc on your machine. Please, Frank, won’t you give Jolie”—that’s how he referred to himself—“one more chance to prove to you what I can do?”

Frank looked at me, and I gave him a look back that said, “He’s our biggest star so give him another shot at it.” About five minutes later, when the second attempt was underway, I wished I hadn’t done that to Frank because Jolson clearly had no intention of singing the Prologue. Instead, he sang the first line in Italian, and then started “singing” the crudest lines you can imagine—some in English, and some in Yiddish.

While Jolson was busy clowning around in front of the [recording] horn, Frank came storming out of his room carrying the thick wax disc in his hands. He marched up to Jolson and said, “You t’ink I vant to go to prison?” Then he threw the disc at Jolson’s feet and, of course, it broke into pieces on the floor.

Jolson didn’t say a word; he just left the studio. I told the guys in the band to take a break. It was my band, incidentally, which I led as Carl Fenton.

While the guys were taking their break, I walked with Frank into the room where his recording equipment was. He swore that he would quit before ever recording Al Jolson again. It took a while but he finally calmed down, although he still had some unrepeatable German words for what he thought of Jolson. Since I grew up speaking German, and Frank and I frequently spoke German to each other in the studio, he didn’t need to translate any of his epithets for me.

Although Frank made a very good salary at Brunswick, he was a frugal man by nature and he drove an old Model T. When I say “old,” I mean one with a brass radiator, the kind Ford was selling when I was just starting college. But being mechanical, Frank loved cars and was especially fond of a brand called Hupmobile, which was very popular in those days.

About two weeks after the Jolson incident happened, a messenger came to the studio asking to see a ‘Mister Hofbauer,’ for whom there was a gift that was too large to fit in our elevators. When Frank went downstairs, the messenger handed him the keys to a brand-new 1924 Hupmobile touring car, a four-door convertible with every option you could think of. It was painted Navy blue, with a matching leather interior and convertible top. On the dashboard was a brass plaque that read, “To Frank Hofbauer from his friend Al Jolson.”

That was Jolson for you. When he wanted you or needed you, he’d find out what you like, buy the top of the line of whatever it was, and have it engraved so that you’d never forget it, and that everyone you knew would be aware that it was a gift from “Jolie.”

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Jolson mugging for the Bain News Service cameras
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Did you stay in touch with him over the years? And were you surprised when he made a comeback in the 1940s when “The Jolson Story” became such a hit?

Yes, I stayed in touch with him in passing, and was always happy to see him. About his famous comeback, I wasn’t too surprised about it because he had always been popular and had made a number of films that were very successful. He didn’t like radio because he wanted to be seen, not just heard, but he did well enough on radio and [his] films kept his image before the public.

He also took very good care of himself. Al had had tuberculosis when he was young, so he always made sure he got plenty of rest. When he was living in New York, he would lie down for three or four hours in the afternoon, to make sure he was rested for his evening show. When he moved to California, he used to lie in the sun for three or four hours and get a tan while he was resting.

But no, I wasn’t totally surprised when “The Jolson Story” made him almost as big as he had been in the 1920s, when he was our top star at Brunswick. What did surprise me is that the kid who played him, Larry Parks, looked nothing like him and wasn’t a singer at all. Yet he was able to mime to Jolson’s voice on the sound track, and he was able to copy some of Al’s gestures well enough to give a credible impersonation. But it was Jolson’s voice and the energy in his singing that made the movie such a hit.

 

Did you see him during that comeback, that second career?

Yes, in Hollywood, and although he had aged, he was the same Al Jolson that I had known in the 1920s. No one on earth could make you feel greater than Al Jolson when he singled you out for attention. In my case, I think he had very good memories of our working together at Brunswick, so when he had that fantastic comeback and I saw him in Hollywood, he treated me like a long-lost friend.

He had known my wife, Roxanna, at Brunswick because she was the secretary to Milton Diamond, who managed our [Brunswick] radio division. That’s how I met her—she was Rose Anna Hussey at the time, but she changed her first name to Roxanna. We were married in April 1925, and for our wedding some of the biggest gifts we got were from Al Jolson. Not only that, but after our honeymoon he invited us to the Winter Garden, and during the performance he had a spotlight put on us and introduced us to the audience. When I saw him in Hollywood after his comeback, he asked me about “Roxie,” as she’s called, and also wanted to know all about our kids and what they were doing now that they were adults.

We were having lunch one day, and I said to him, “Al, I would have written all of those arrangements for your songs in ‘The Jolson Story.’ How come you didn’t call me?” I knew, of course, that Saul Chaplin, who was a friend of mine, was one of the arrangers that the studio had used. He said to me, “Why, Gussie”—that was always his nickname for me—“Gussie, I did use your arrangements! I told those studio guys that I wasn’t going to use anybody’s arrangements but Gus Haenschen’s! Oh, maybe they added a couple more clarinets or whatever, but those are your arrangements. I demanded it!”

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Jolson lied to Haenschen about having used the latter’s arrangements in
“The Jolson Story” (1946).

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He had me so convinced that I actually believed him. It wasn’t until later, when I listened to the recordings from the soundtrack, that I realized the only similarity between my Brunswick arrangements and the ones he sang on the film were that the arrangements had the same chords. Other than that, they were entirely different. But when Al told me how he had insisted that the studio had to use my arrangements, he was so convincing that I believed him! That same power which he used to convince me is what had made him a star in the early 1900s, and what made him a star again forty years later.

 

In what year did you leave Brunswick—and if I may ask, why did you leave?

I resigned at the end of June in 1927, but it wasn’t by choice. When we began doing the “Brunswick Hour” broadcasts, we were learning all about the radio industry, which was new at the time. The big stations on the East Coast had studio orchestras, and so did the ones in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major cities. But there were hundreds of small stations between the coasts which had to make do with a pianist and maybe an organist if the studio could accommodate a theater organ.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out that if someone could produce and distribute high-quality recordings of orchestras playing really innovative arrangements, and then lease them to these small stations all over the country, there was a fortune to be made. When the telegrams and letters kept pouring in after every “Brunswick Hour” broadcast, we—and I’m speaking of Frank Black, Bill Brophy, Ben Selvin and I—went to Percy Deutsch and sold him on the idea of Brunswick starting its own transcription service. He thought it was a terrific idea, so he wanted to be one of the founding partners in what would be a new, separate division of Brunswick’s phonograph and radio business.

By then, transcriptions were relatively common, but they weren’t what we had in mind. They were recordings taken from a radio receiver and recorded on aluminum discs. In the [radio] industry, they were called “air-checks” because they weren’t intended to be heard by anybody but the network people and the sponsors or their agencies. So these were literally “checks” of the radio signals that were transmitted over the air, and the quality of the aluminum discs was way below what any station would ever put on the air.

Instead of air-checks, we began recording orchestral arrangements on the same wax masters that we used for our [Brunswick] studio recordings. We made the recordings in two sizes, twelve-inch and sixteen-inch, and recorded them at 33-1/3 r.p.m., which extended the playing time considerably. Most were lateral-cut, but we also made vertical-cut transcriptions. We were using the Western Electric system by then, so the sound quality of our transcriptions was very high, more than sufficient for a small radio station to play them and give their listeners the impression of a “live” orchestra.

By about 1926, we had already gotten Western Electric to license us to use their recording system, and we had negotiated with several pressing plants to make large quantities of these oversized discs. The pressings had to be made from the best material, without any abrasives in the sides or the bottom of the groove. We couldn’t use the Brunswick studios to make these recordings, so we set up our own studios, Sound Studios, at 50 West 57th Street in Manhattan.

We hired [recording] engineers who had been trained by Western Electric, and we employed them with the stipulation that they had to be available as needed. We also put together a roster of the best musicians who worked for us at Brunswick and Columbia—Ben Selvin was my counterpart at Columbia by then—and all of us did the arrangements for the studio orchestras we put together. Eventually, we had one of the largest and most diverse libraries of recordings here or abroad.

We did all of this with our own money, not Brunswick’s, but we were acting on the assumption that Percy Deutsch had told the Brunswick parent company what we were doing. Well, he didn’t—but we didn’t know that until we were called to a meeting that we weren’t told about until the day it took place. The meeting was held in a hotel and we were told it was important, and to be there on time. I called Percy about it, and I got concerned when he said that he didn’t know anything about it, but that he would be there too. Ben didn’t go because he was a silent partner in Sound Studios, so Brunswick didn’t know that he was one of the investors.

We went to this hotel conference room expecting to be briefed on something new that Brunswick was developing. But as soon as we walked in, we were told to sit on one side of this conference table. On the other side were Brunswick lawyers, and they got right to the point. We were told to make a choice between being employed by Brunswick and closing down our Sound Studios operation, or else submit our resignations. The other alternative was to be fired and forfeit any earnings that we were due to collect, other than from our Brunswick stock.

Percy Deutsch was given a harsh reprimand by the main one of these lawyers—and [Deutsch] was a Brunswick family member. That will give you an idea how confrontational this meeting was. The lawyers gave us fifteen minutes to make a decision, and we were told not to leave that room while we were deliberating.

Frankly, it wasn’t hard for any of us to make the decision to resign because we knew that the future was radio, and that we could fill a niche that somebody else would fill if we didn’t. So Bill Brophy and Frank [Black] and I submitted our resignations, and signed a confidential agreement that Brunswick would announce our departures by saying that we were pursuing other aspects of radio and recording, or something to that effect.

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The Talking Machine World reports Haenschen’s resignation from Brunswick (July 1927) and his involvement with Percy Deutsch’s new venture (October 1927).

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I left with a very good settlement, money-wise, and felt relieved because I could concentrate all my time and energy in our new business. When we started putting together our plan for a new transcription business for radio, Sonora, which had put out some good phonographs, had gotten into the [recording] distribution business by merging with several smaller companies.  

We thought about acquiring Sonora because it was in financial trouble—it was never run very well—but there was some litigation going on about Sonora, so we scratched that and decided to develop our own distribution business. [6]

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Although Haenschen recalled that Percy Deutsch “scratched the idea” of acquiring Sonora, Deutsch and associates did acquire the company in late 1927 (see Note 6). Haenschen (top left) and Frank Black (bottom left) served as studio director and arranger, respectively, for the new venture.

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We formed a corporation called “World Broadcasting Service,” which we changed to “World Broadcasting System” a bit later. Now we were in a new venture, and all of us were like kids on Christmas morning. The World Broadcasting System grew rapidly—and it happened just in time because Brunswick got into pre-recorded programming the very next year.”

 

Looking back, do you have any regrets?

No, none at all because I was in radio, and it became a much bigger career for me than Brunswick was. I’m not the sort who suffers from nostalgia or re-thinks what might have been. I’ve never had time for that. I’ve always lived in the present while also looking to the future. But now that you’ve taken me back to my nine years at Brunswick, they were happy years for me—I met my wife there, and I worked with many of the greatest artists and entertainers of that time. I think I was very, very lucky to have been part of the founding of a record company that grew very rapidly and became one of the three largest companies in the [recording] industry. I was at the right place at the right time.
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© 2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

 

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

[1] Brunswick did not develop or manufacture these unique portables. They were produced by the Thorn Machine Products Company (Syracuse, New York) beginning in late 1926 and were marketed concurrently by the Polly Portable Phonograph Company (New York) as the Polly Portable, and by Brunswick as the Parisian Portable. Other than the brand name and some very minor cosmetic differences, the Polly Portable and the Brunswick Parisian Portable were identical. The Polly Portables were being remaindered for as little as $2.98 each by early 1929. Both models were last advertised in mid-1931.

[2] In November 1921, Meissner transmitted portions of an operatic performance at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater to a Magnavox receiver in Brunswick’s Chicago headquarters, which was connected to what news reports termed an “electrical recording device.” Although Meissner’s work with Brunswick came to naught, he went on to design a number of other electronic devices, including the Meissner Electronic Piano in 1930.

[3] Haenschen is mistaken here. Brunswick began recording electrically in April 1925, and electrical and acoustical sessions for the Brunswick label were intermixed during April and May. The final acoustical session for the Brunswick label was held on June 1, and the final acoustical session for the Vocalion label followed on October 23, 1925, after which all Brunswick and Vocalion sessions were electrical.

[4] UPDATE: The titles were actually “Lazy” and “My Papa Doesn’t Two-Time No Time,” with Gene Rodemich’s Orchestra (“California, Here I Come” was from a slightly earlier Chicago session, accompanied by Isham Jones’ Orchestra). Although the Brunswick files list the Jolson-Rodemich session as having been held in Chicago, and the masters were assigned “Ch” (Chicago) numbers, the session was actually held in Saint Louis, as confirmed in a St. Louis Globe-Democrat article reported to us by Colin Hancock, via Jim Drake.

[5] In addition to the Pagliacci prologue, Jolson also recorded an unspecified aria from Il Barbiere di Siviglia at this session (July 3, 1924), accompanied by Haenschen’s orchestra. Both titles were assigned master numbers (three takes each), indicating that those recordings were not destroyed at the time, although they were never issued by Brunswick.

[6] Deutsch and associates did soon acquire Sonora, albeit in a roundabout manner. In October 1927, they formed the Acoustics Products Company (the successor to Sound Studios) to take over the Bidhamson Company and Premier Laboratories, which owned a controlling interest in Sonora. Deutsch served as president of Acoustic Products and employed both Haenschen and Frank Black in its Sonora Recording Laboratories division. In January 1928 the company announced that a new Sonora label was to be launched, under Haenschen’s management, but it never appeared (the familiar Sonora label of the 1940s was an unrelated venture).

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> Part 1  |  > Part 2  |  > Part 3

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 2

The James A. Drake Interviews
Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 2

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> Part 1  | > Part 3

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Were actual bleachers used for recordings that were made in the studio?

Yes, depending on the size of the orchestra we were using for a particular session. A typical studio orchestra for us would be twelve or thirteen men. The brass players would usually be placed either on the sides of the bleachers or, in the case of the tuba, standing next to the bleachers. The strings were always placed as close to the horn as possible because the volume of the violin and viola was lower than the reed and brass sections.

In the reed section, the clarinets were placed in front of the saxophones because the saxes were much louder than the clarinets. Now, if the arrangement I approved called for a small group of instruments—say, a clarinet and two saxophones—to play several measures of this song being recorded, those players would rush toward the horn. As soon as they were finished playing their part, they would move away so that they wouldn’t be blocking the horn.

 

About the violins, did you use the so-called Stroh violins, or was the recording diaphragm sensitive enough to pick up a true violin? And did all of Brunswick’s studio orchestras use the banjo for rhythm?

We used Stroh violins in our earliest recordings. And, yes, banjos were used for rhythm—usually just one banjo place near the horn. We had excellent banjoists who played multiple string instruments. Probably the best banjoist we had was Harry Reser, who went on to lead the Clicquot Club Eskimos on radio. Harry played banjo, mandolin, lute, ukulele and guitar.

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Horned Stroh instruments, like this violin, provided the volume needed to register well on acoustical recording equipment. (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

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So did Nick Lucas, who was a regular in our studio orchestra.  Nick played the mandolin principally, but he was also an excellent acoustic guitarist. Nick became a real student of the recording process, and convinced me to let him play the guitar rather than the mandolin, and to position himself and his guitar very near the horn—literally, almost touching the bottom edge of the horn.

 

Did he sing then, or was he playing in the studio orchestra?

Well, there came a time in 1923 or 1924 when Nick asked me to consider letting him sing, although his voice was a rather high tenor, and a very small voice at that. But around 1924 or maybe in early 1925, before we switched to electrical recording, Gene Austin made some records that sold very well for Victor. Gene was really the first “crooner.”  [1]

Well, I decided to have Nick become Brunswick’s crooner.  I thought it was a great idea, but Nick didn’t. When I told him that we would bill him as a crooner, he balked and said, “But I’m Italian and I’m from the trovatore tradition.  I can’t be a crooner!”  So we compromised, and Nick became Brunswick’s “crooning troubadour.”

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Nick Lucas

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Nick had a terrific sense of humor, and he used to kid me all the time about how he nearly had to stick his entire head into the acoustical recording horn for his voice to register. I can still hear him saying to me, “My head was so far into that horn that I could feel my lips kissing that damned diaphragm!”  Of all the singers I can think of, Nick Lucas was the happiest when electrical recording came in. He could stand in front of a microphone and sing naturally.

 

During the acoustical period, singers seem to have used various “tricks,” for want of a better word, that they had to use to record consonants and sibilants that the recording diaphragm did not always pick up.  I’m thinking, for example, of the “S” sound.  How was that insensitivity of the recording diaphragm overcome?

That was gotten around by having the singer put a consonant with the “S.” The early recording artists, and we had all of them under contract under pseudonyms, knew exactly how to create the effect I am trying to describe. As an example, when Henry Burr, as Harry McClaskey or one of his other pseudonyms, would record “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree,“ the “sh“ in the word “shade” would not record most of the time. So he would put a “J” after the “S” and sing “s-jade,” which the diaphragm would pick up.

 

When Brunswick began making and issuing its own recordings, did you have almost all of those same singers that Victor and Columbia had—singers like Henry Burr, Albert Campbell, Elliot Shaw, Lewis James, Royal Dadmun, and Billy Murray?

We had all of them except Billy Murray, whose voice we felt was too well known because he had recorded for everybody since almost the very beginning of the industry.  But we had all the others [2], and they were easy to work with because they were professional recording artists. That was their income.

We recorded them under pseudonyms, and each one of them had about three pseudonyms that he used for different companies.

The same for the women singers like Elsie Baker, who recorded under about three different names at Victor alone. Victor and Columbia used most of the male singers I mentioned in trios and quartets with different names—the Sterling trio, the Shannon Four, and so on. Individually, none of those singers was what anyone would call a great vocalist. But when they sang together in small groups, the effect was very, very good.

 

You recorded under pseudonyms yourself, correct?

Yes, mainly as Carl Fenton. I came up with that name by combining the St. Louis suburb where I grew up, which is called Fenton, with the first name of one of my mother’s relatives. He spelled his name with a “K,” and I changed it to a “C.” That was sort of a carryover from the songwriting and arranging I did before I joined Brunswick. Over the years I have written about fifty songs under assumed names.

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The fictitious Carl Fenton’s Orchestra was Brunswick’s house dance band. Haenschen managed the group and wrote many of its arrangements, but he did not play on the recordings. [3]
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Bandleaders sometimes sent surrogate groups on the road under their names in the 1920s. Here, a “Carl Fenton” orchestra plays Muncie, Indiana, on December 15, 1926 — the same day the actual orchestra was recording in New York.

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For example, I got a call from Charlie Chaplin, whom I had gotten to know quite well, telling me that Mary Pickford needed a song for a United Artists movie she was making called “Rosita.” I wrote the melody under the name “Paul Dupont.”  Two others I used from time to time were “Paul Krane” and “Walter Holliday.” One of the reasons I used pseudonyms was because I was associated by name with Brunswick, so if a song like “Rosita“ was scheduled to be recorded by Victor, my counterpart there—I should say my competitor there—would kill the song because my name was on it.

The person I’m talking about, incidentally, is Nat [Nathaniel] Shilkret, who was my counterpart at Victor.  Shilkret was an excellent arranger and a very fine musician, but he was very difficult as a person and he took competition to a frankly silly degree. Because of that, any song that I had anything to do with was not going to be recorded by anybody and Victor.  But since “Rosita” was written by “Paul Dupont,” the song sneaked by Shilkret and was recorded by several singers at Victor.

Recently I found out that even Rosa Ponselle had recorded that song for Victor. Now to be fair, that could be because Shilkret was not the director of Red Seal recordings. That was Rosario Bourdon, not Shilkret.  And Ponselle, of course, was one of the biggest stars in the Victor Red Seal catalog, so if she wanted to sing it, they weren’t likely to say no to her.

 

Speaking of Ponselle, did Walter Rogers ever try to lure her or other Victor Red Seal vocalists to Brunswick as far as you know?

Yes, several of them. Walter knew Rosa Ponselle personally, so it was not hard for him to get to her with an offer. Although she had a manager, a wonderful woman named Libbie Miller, Rosa made all of her own decisions. What I heard was that she was being paid so well by Victor, and that she had had a bad experience when she recorded for Columbia, that she would not leave Victor because of the status of the Red Seal recording label and the amount of money they were paying her.

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Although Brunswick’s Hall of Fame series boasted some stellar artists, Haenschen admitted it was “no match for the Victor Red Seal label.”

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We could have more than matched what Victor was paying her, but our “Hall of Fame” series, which was what we called our classical recordings, was no match for the Victor Red Seal label.  We did try to get Carmela Ponselle, her older sister, to leave Columbia for Brunswick. Walter [Rogers] talked to her privately several times, but she was quite indecisive, as I recall, and I think she was hoping to become a Red Seal artist like her sister.  But as I said earlier, we had Elisabeth Rethberg, Sigrid Onegin, Maria Ivogun and others, so we did very well with them.

 

Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, whom you mentioned earlier, was also an exclusive Brunswick artist. Later in the 1920s he went to Victor, but his start was with Brunswick.  I realize that Walter Rogers was responsible for recording him, but do you remember any of the sessions with Lauri-Volpi?

It’s funny you should mention that because I had a small role in dealing with Lauri-Volpi.  Our negotiations with him had gone smoothly, although he was rumored to be a very difficult person.  It wasn’t that he was difficult, just that he would get very frustrated because didn’t speak English.  Walter understood some Italian but could not speak the language, so he couldn’t communicate with Lauri-Volpi except through a translator.

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Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, from the 1924 Brunswick catalog

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As you probably know, Lauri-Volpi was an erudite man.  He was a trial lawyer in Italy, and was also one of the most decorated soldiers in the Italian army during World War One.  As it turned out, he spoke German and French fluently, and since German was my first language, I was able to talk with him as if we were both speaking English.  That put him at ease, and almost every time he came for a recording session, Walter asked me to be there as a sort of intermediary.

The recording sessions went very smoothly, and Lauri-Volpi was always fully prepared and learned how to sing into the recording horn very ably. Yet his was one of the voices which simply did not register well in acoustic recordings.  He was, so to say, the polar opposite of Mario Chamlee, whose voice was relatively small, as I explained earlier.  Lauri-Volpi’s [Brunswick] records, on the other hand, sounded almost nothing like he did in person.  His voice had incredible squillo—what singers call “ping”—especially in his high range, but our recording diaphragms didn’t capture it.

 

Let me ask you for your recollections about singers and instrumentalists who recorded for Brunswick during your years there.  Please tell me what come to your mind when you hear their names.  I’ll begin with Paul Ash.

I had known Paul from some of his tours on the West Coast, and from St. Louis.  At the time we signed him he was leading a theater orchestra in San Francisco, at the Granada theater. I think we began recording him in 1922 or 1923, I’m not sure.  Paul couldn’t use his theater arrangements in the recording studio because of the acoustic process, we did arrangements for him that approximated the style of his dance band, which he called “Synchro-Symphony.“  He did well for Brunswick, and Brunswick did well for him.

 

One of the most famous bands that Brunswick had was Red Nichols and His Five Pennies.  The “Pennies” [at various times] included Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and others who became famous on their own in the late-1930s.  Did you put together the “Five Pennies”?

No, they recorded for Brunswick after I left. [4]  I used Red a lot in our studio sessions, but just as a member of our studio band.   Although the name he picked for his group, Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, is an obvious one, when I was at Brunswick we had a suggestion box in our outer office.  We encouraged anybody who worked there to come up with names for new bands.  If we ended up using one of the names, whoever suggested it got a cash bonus.

Some of the names were of non-existent hotels and cafés—but if they sounded good, we used them and then made up arrangements to give the new band a distinctive sound.  The actual “band” was nothing more than the same dozen or so musicians that we used in every other [acoustical] session—but the arrangement and the made-up name usually worked, and the records sold well enough.

 

You also had Gene Rodemich’s orchestra under contract at Brunswick.

Yes, Gene was one of the first we signed at Brunswick.  I had known Gene in St. Louis, where he had an orchestra exchange.  I worked for him at that exchange, and I bought it from him when he decided to go to Chicago and then to New York with his band.

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Gene Rodemich’s Orchestra, from the 1924 Brunswick catalog

 

Next, Al Bernard.  What do you recall of him?

Al Bernard was more of a novelty singer, rather like Frank Crumit was. He could do songs in different styles and did them well.  Most of what he did were blues like “Memphis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues” and such.  And he did a lot of novelty songs—for instance, “Lindy Lou,” songs like that. He recorded for Columbia and may have recorded for Victor, but I’m not sure about that. [5]  In the mid-1920s we also paired Al [Bernard] with Russell Robinson, and gave them the name “The Dixie Stars.” They did some of the same types of routines that Billy Jones and Ernie Hare did.

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Al Bernard (left), and with Ernest Hare (right), Bernard’s performing partner before Hare joined Billy Jones. (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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What do you recall of the Brox Sisters? 

They were a popular group that did three-part harmony on novelty songs and some blues and southern songs.  They were actual sisters, siblings, which you might already know. They were only a couple of years apart.  Lorayne was the eldest, then Bobbe, and the youngest was Patty.  They had a good run in vaudeville on the Orpheum circuit.  We signed them when they were performing in one of Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revues in the early 1920s, and we backed them with Gene Rodemich’s band. [6]

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The Brox Sisters, c. 1924 (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

 

Next, the Capitol Grand Orchestra. What do you recall of that orchestra?

It was the pit orchestra of the Capitol Grand Theater in Manhattan. The conductor at that time was a fellow named Dave [David] Mendoza, a very good conductor and arranger.  A little later, Erno Rapee became the band’s conductor.  As a pit band for a large theater, this was a sizable group, although we had to pare it down because of the limitations of the acoustical process.  So we used mainly their brass, reeds, and some of their violas and cellos for their recordings.

By the way, the acoustical process was problematic for some instruments.  For some reason, our recording diaphragms, both in the studio and in our field-recording machines, would vibrate excessively on one note played on a cello. We would have to get around that by having our cellists play that particular note one octave higher or one octave lower, depending on the arrangement.

Back to the Capitol Grand Orchestra, when they were at the Capitol Grand Theater they played all sorts of instrumental music, but we recorded them in classical pieces only—the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, Peer Gynt Suite, and overtures from Traviata and a few other operas.

 

You also signed a group called the Castlewood Marimba Band.  What do you recall about them?

That was just the Yerkes [Jazzarimba] group under a different name.  Marimba bands were very popular, and the Yerkes band had a distinctive sound. [7]  Now, as the Castlewood group, they didn’t play jazz music.  We had them record mainly Hawaiian songs, which were popular back then.  Before I went to Brunswick and made “personal records” of my banjo orchestra at the Columbia studios in New York, I made one called “I Left Her on the Beach at Waikiki” [sic; “at Honolulu”]. There must’ve been twenty songs with the word “Waikiki“ in the titles.  The Castlewood, or Yerkes, marimba band recorded a couple of those Waikiki pseudo-Hawaiian songs for us.

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Haenschen and some popular Brunswick bandleaders gather on the roof of the recording studio for a publicity shot. (Talking Machine World, February 1923)

 

Among the major symphony orchestra is you had under contract at Brunswick was the Cleveland Orchestra, correct?

Yes, but we didn’t do much with them until electrical recording came in.  The limitations of the acoustical process made symphonic recordings very difficult, very challenging. The conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra at that time was Nikolai Sololoff, who was born in Russia but emigrated as a teenager to this country and studied music at Yale University.

 

Do you know what percentage of Brunswick’s sales came from popular-music recordings as opposed to classical recordings?

Somebody in the company once calculated the percentage on a fifteen-part basis.  Why fifteen was the number they chose, I have no idea, but I remember that thirteen-fifteenths of our revenue came from popular-music recordings.  Only two-fifteenths, then, came from our classical recordings.  But there was a prestige market in classical recording—the Victor Red Seal was the epitome of prestige back then—so at Brunswick, as long as our popular releases kept the profits up, we were able to sustain our classical wing.

 

During the 1920s, so-called “collegiate bands“ were very popular.  Is it true that you tried to sign several of those groups including Waring’s Pennsylvanians and the Yale Collegians?

Yes, but we weren’t successful in either case.  Fred Waring and I were very good friends, and I did everything in my power to get him to sign with Brunswick.  But Fred had a very lucrative contract at Victor, so we weren’t successful.  We played a lot of golf together, especially on the West Coast when I went there to record and set up a temporary studio in Los Angeles.  I tried every tactic I could think of to get Fred to sign with Brunswick, but I could never get him to come with us.

 

His brother, Tom Waring, was more popular for a while than Fred, if I’m correct.  Tom Waring wrote some beautiful songs, and was one of the early pop singers and pianists who made Vitaphone short films.  Did you try to get both Warings under contract with Brunswick?

No, and that’s a touchy subject because the relationship between Fred and Tom wasn’t the best after their banjo orchestra became popular.  This was before Waring’s Pennsylvanians, when it was just Tom and Fred and one or two other boys that they had grown up with.  Tom wrote “Sleep,” which was the Warings’ theme song for years, and he also wrote “So Beats My Heart for You,” which is a great song, almost a classical song.  Tom wasn’t a good pianist, nor was he much of a singer, but he got popular on his own.  But there was a rift between them after a while, and Fred went his own way—very, very successfully.

 

Some of the singers and musicians who were with the Pennsylvanians almost since the beginning have said that the rift was because Tom was gay and that Fred couldn’t accept it.  That was rumored, but is there anything to that?

As I say, the relationship between Tom and Fred was strained—and yes, that was rumored.  But I have no idea personally, and even if [Tom Waring] was, it has nothing to do with his music or anything else for that matter.  Like Fred, Tom was a very nice guy, and his songs are his legacy.  But let me talk about Fred, because there are things about him that not a lot of people would know.

First of all, Fred doesn’t play any musical instrument.  Tom was a self-taught pianist, but Fred didn’t play an instrument.  In their banjo-orchestra days, he played the musical saw, but that doesn’t count that as a musical instrument.  Fred never had any formal training as a conductor either, yet he became one of the best choral and orchestral conductors in the music industry.  Robert Shaw credits Fred with convincing him to become a choral conductor.

Fred was also a “tinkerer.”  He didn’t have any formal training as a machinist or an engineer, but he was intrigued by gadgets of any kind, and would always try to improve them.  One of the reasons we became such good friends was because I was a machinist and a mechanical engineer.   Fred often came to my little “factory“ on my acreage in Norwalk, and I designed and made gears and other parts for some of his inventions.

You might know this because you mentioned the Yale Collegians, but there’s a connection between Fred and Rudy Vallée and me.   In the 1930s Rudy developed quite a liking for daiquiris.  He also developed a disdain for having to wait so long for a bartender to chip enough ice with a hand pick to be able mix a daiquiri.  We were at an American Federation of Musicians event when Rudy mentioned this to Fred Waring.  That sparked Fred’s interest in developing what became known as the Waring blender [which Waring spelled “Blendor”].

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Fred Waring and his “Blendor”

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Fred talked about that blender design with me several times because he was trying to develop a combined electric motor and high-torque gearing system, or transmission, that would fit into the base of his blender.  He had already designed the glass pitcher that would contain the ice and ingredients in daiquiris, and he designed a configuration of blades that was entirely his own.  I had suggested something like propeller blades in miniature, but Fred tried that and the blades didn’t work very well.  So he designed a bi-level set of blades—two near the bottom of the pitcher, and two more blades about an inch higher than the lower pair.  That turned out to be much more efficient.

When he finally arrived at the ideal combination of an armature, field coils, and a transmission that gave the motor more than enough power to crush ice, he had “invented“ one of the best-selling appliances of all time. I still have one of the very first ones and that he gave me.  Naturally, the very first one off the production line went to Rudy.

 

In his autobiography, Rudy Vallée maintains that the vocal trio which sang the chorus in George Olsen’s recording of “Who?” was responsible for the rise of jazz vocal trios such as the Rhythm Boys.  Do you remember that recording, and what its impact was at that time?

I know Rudy has said that, but I tend to think it had an impact on him, and possibly [Bing] Crosby when he and Al Rinker and Harry Barris became [Paul] Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys, but I don’t remember that particular recording having any impact on us at Brunswick.  But it may have had an impact on Rudy, who was singing in a trio himself at that time.  He was the saxophonist of the Yale Collegians and he also doubled on clarinet—he was a very good clarinetist—but the leader of the Collegians at that time was a fellow named Les Laden.  Rudy succeeded him, if I remember rightly.

 

Today, Rudy Vallée is associated nostalgically with the “Roaring Twenties” of flappers, bathtub gin, raccoon coats and such.  The year 1920 is now associated with the beginning of jazz on recordings, and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band is credited with making the first ones.  Other sources maintain that either Ted Lewis or Paul Whiteman were the first to make jazz recordings.  What do you recall of that time period?

It depends on what you define as “first.”  In my opinion, it was Ted Lewis who was the first to make jazz recordings.  He had an exclusive contract with Columbia, and he had made a name for himself and his band at Rector’s restaurant before Nick LaRocca and his group [the Original Dixieland Jazz Band] were playing at Reisenweber’s Café. [8]

 

Where would you place Paul Whiteman, who was billed as “King of Jazz” and made two recordings for Victor, “Whispering” and “The Japanese Sandman,” that seem to have sold over 100,000 copies. 

Well, first of all, Ben Selvin had some big-selling records for Columbia, so Paul [Whiteman] wasn’t the only one who was recording “syncopated jazz,” as it was called then.  Ben also recorded for Brunswick and sold a lot of records for us.  But Ted Lewis, not Paul Whiteman, was the first to record jazz for a major label. [9]

 

What was your relationship with Paul Whiteman like?  How would you describe it?

We knew each other through mutual friends when Paul began recording for Victor.  When he announced the Aeolian Hall concert where Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was introduced, he hadn’t told George [Gershwin] about it, so Paul had to get an orchestral arrangement together pretty fast because George had written the “Rhapsody” for piano, not an orchestra.  I was one of about a dozen or more arrangers who were invited by Paul to review the arrangement that Ferde Grofé was writing for the “Rhapsody.”  We would meet in the late afternoons or after dinner at different venues where Paul, George and Ferde Grofé would hold these meetings.

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Paul Whiteman (center, standing), with Ferde Grofé at the piano
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Do you recall the other arrangers who were part of the group that Whiteman invited to review Grofé’s emerging score?

Not all of them, but I remember that Frank Black, Robert Russell Bennett, Isham Jones, Ben Selvin and I think Harry Akst were part of the group.

 

Who was more involved in those sessions—Whiteman, Gershwin or Grofé?  And who had the final say in the resulting arrangement?

Ferde Grofé was the center of it because he was writing the arrangement.  George was there during most of the sessions, but he didn’t say much.  It was Paul who was in charge—it was his orchestra—and he handled those sessions wonderfully.  I remember how he would take each of us aside as these sessions went on.  He would lean over my shoulder and say, “How do you think it‘s going, Gus?  Do you see any part that could be better?”  He really “fathered” the “Rhapsody” as it was first played at Aeolian Hall.

 

Was the orchestra present for those sessions?

No.  None of us needed the orchestra because we were hearing the arrangement as we were reading the copies that were handed to us at the start of each session.  No professional arranger needs to hear an orchestra, or any instrument in an orchestra, because he knows the timbre and range of every instrument, and which ones go together better than others.

 

Were you at that now-famous Aeolian Hall concert?

No, but I was at two of the orchestral rehearsals of the “Rhapsody” after Ferde Grofé completed the arrangement.  I don’t think he scored all of the piano passages that George [Gershwin] played in that premiere.  George did a lot of improvising, from what I was told.

 

When I interviewed Elizabeth Lennox, she told me about an incident that happened between you and Paul Whiteman when you conducted a performance of “Rhapsody in Blue.”

That was the strangest thing that ever happened to me during a performance.  I was asked to conduct the “Rhapsody,” which I had done on other occasions, so I was glad to do it again.  Frank Black was the pianist, by the way.  I was about a fourth of the way into the performance when suddenly I felt myself being lifted off the podium—lifted by Paul Whiteman, who was drunk.  He hoisted me with his big arms wrapped around my chest.  As he was lifting me, all he said was, “Sorry, Gus, this is my baby!”

 

How did the orchestra and the audience react?

The guys in the orchestra could see him coming to the podium, so they sensed that he was going to do something but they just kept playing and didn’t miss a beat.  There was a kind of gasp in the audience, some murmuring that I could hear, but when the performance was over they applauded loudly.  My guess is that many of them thought the whole thing was a stunt that had been planned so that Paul could make a surprise appearance and conduct his “baby.”

I do want to say about Paul that he was the first bandleader I know of who insisted on written arrangements for his recordings.  During my first years at Brunswick, if somebody played a good “lick,” we’d use it on other recordings but we never wrote it down, never put it on score paper.  We could have, because all of the guys in our bands were sight-readers.  But we were only using about a dozen players for our [acoustical] recording sessions, so we didn’t use formal arrangements.

 

As the years went on, Paul Whiteman seemed to denigrate you whenever you did something new—for example, when you formed an all-string orchestra. 

Yes, he said in some interviews that he was the first to have an all-string orchestra, the “Swinging Strings,” and that he was a violinist and cellist but I was a pianist and didn’t know how to arrange for an all-string orchestra.

 

Why do you think he reacted that way?  He was still a top name in popular music, so it’s hard to understand what his motive was.

He was still a big name, but not like he had been in the 1920s.  During the late-1930s and throughout the [Second World] War, the Dorsey brothers [Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey], [Benny] Goodman and [Artie] Shaw, Glenn Miller, and so many other bands eclipsed Paul’s popularity.  Paul was still trying to establish himself as a “serious” conductor and was fronting what he called a “concert orchestra.”

Paul did everything to excess, including his drinking, which got worse after the War.  I think he felt that these other bands had surpassed him with the public, and that he needed to make sure they [the public] knew that he had been the “King of Jazz” who started it all, and who had made the “Rhapsody in Blue” famous.

You probably know that he became a disc jockey on network radio, and he used those broadcasts to tell his version of the history of jazz—especially how he introduced the “Rhapsody” to the public.  George [Gershwin] was dead, and Ferde Grofé had written “The Grand Canyon Suite” and was famous on his own by then, so the other principals in the birth of the “Rhapsody in Blue” weren’t there to tell their stories of how it came to be.

 

Going back to collegiate groups for a moment, at Brunswick you had a group called the Collegiate Choir. Was that group affiliated with a particular college or university?

No, not at all. It was just a group of vocalists we had under contract, ones we used for any number of groups like that.  I doubt that many of them ever saw the inside of a college. [10]

 

You had a number of very well-known pianists under contract, including Zez Confrey.  Did you direct and conduct his recordings?

Well, I directed them but there was nothing to conduct really.  Zez was a very good novelty pianist who is known for “Kitten on the Keys,” which became a very popular piano piece. We would like to have had Felix Arndt under an exclusive contract, but we couldn’t get him. [Arndt had died in 1918]  Yet we certainly made the most of his very popular composition “Nola,” which he named after his wife.  I had my Brunswick band, the Carl Fenton Orchestra, record an arrangement of it.

 

Did you play the piano part yourself?

No.  I was the recording director and in this case the bandleader, but I didn’t play on the recording.  There was a sort of unwritten rule that Walter [Rogers] and I were not allowed to play in any of the recordings we directed.  We had all sorts of great commercial pianists at Brunswick, including some in the administrative staff like Bill Wirges.  So we had no trouble getting very good pianist for all of our recording sessions.  But I did play in some of our first recordings—I remember playing piano on Rudy Wiedoeft’s first recordings with [Brunswick] soon after I joined the company in 1919.

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Rudy Wiedoeft in the early 1920s
(G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

 

You also recorded one of the very popular dance bands of the World War One era, the Joseph C. Smith orchestra, which was associated with Victor for the most part.  Some have wondered whether there was an actual musician and band leader named Joseph C. Smith.  Was that a pseudonym or was this a real person?

Sure, he was real all right, and a very capable ensemble leader.  He recorded for us, he recorded for Columbia under different names, and of course his band was a good-selling outfit for Victor. But his style was eclipsed by [Paul] Whiteman’s by the time we signed [Smith]. If I remember correctly, we just used him as the leader of a trio.  I don’t think we ever used him as a bandleader like Victor did. [11]

 

You also recorded Bennie Krueger’s orchestra, correct?

Oh, yes.  Bennie was one of the great saxophonists of all time, on a par with Rudy Wiedoeft.  We were so pleased to have both of them under contract at Brunswick. They were good friends, by the way. Although Bennie didn’t write songs like Rudy did, they were pretty much equal so I would say as far as the instrument.

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Bennie Krueger’s Orchestra, from the 1924 Brunswick catalog

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You also had Herb Wiedoeft, Rudy’s brother, under contract at Brunswick, am I right?

Yes, Herb came with us, and he was an excellent brass player and a very fine bandleader too.  During the acoustic [recording] days, he brought a handful of his men to the studio and they sat in with our players.  Later on, he got a lucrative contract at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, and he called his group “The Cinderella Roof Orchestra,” from the rooftop dance floor at the Biltmore.  I recorded Herb in Los Angeles when I went there to set up a temporary studio for Brunswick in the summer of 1923.  You may know this, but Herb was killed in a car accident when he and his band were at the top of their popularity [in 1928].

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

 

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

[1] Lucas’ first vocal Brunswick recordings were made on December 23, 1924; Austin did not begin recording for Victor until January 1925.

[2] Burr, Campbell, and Dadmun made only vertical-cut Brunswicks, presumably before Haenschen’s arrival. Of that group, only Burr appeared under a “pseudonym” (as Harry McClaskey, his actual name) on Brunswick.

[3] Personnel of the “Fenton” orchestra varied by session. Full personnel were not listed in the Brunswick files, but “extras” were, including at various times Hymie Faberman and Red Nichols (cornet), Bennie Krueger and Rudy Wiedoeft (saxophones), Phil Ohman and Frank Black (piano), John Cali and Harry Reser (banjo), Joe and George Hamilton Green (xylophone, marimba), Edmund Thiele and Rubie Greenberg (violin), and John Helleberg (tuba).

[4] The Five Pennies recorded several sides for Brunswick prior to Haenschen’s departure, beginning on December 8, 1926 (Haenschen’s orchestra was recording in another studio on the same morning). Most of the Five Pennies’ many Brunswick recordings were made after Haenschen’s departure.

[5] Bernard made several recordings for Victor in 1919 and 1921, including vocal choruses with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

[6] Accompaniments were by Bennie Krueger’s Orchestra (sometimes with arrangements by Arthur Johnson, the sisters’ pianist), not Gene Rodemich’s Orchestra, according to the Brunswick files.

[7] Haenschen is referring to Harry A. Yerkes, who managed several bands that performed under his name. (This was  not the same individual as Columbia executive H. [Hulbert] A. Yerkes, as has been erroneously claimed in some works.) Yerkes left the band-management business in early 1925, and subsequent Castlewood recordings were made by a group that usually included Joe and/or George Hamilton Green, according to the Brunswick files.

[8] Haenschen apparently is referring to the band that recorded as Earl Fuller’s Rector Novelty Orchestra, a unit from which (including Ted Lewis) recorded for Victor as Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band. The Rector orchestra did not begin recording until June 1917, by which time Victor had already released the first true jazz recordings, by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

[9] Haenschen is in error here; see footnote 8. Whether the music Whiteman’s orchestra was performing in the early 1920s constitutes jazz in even the loosest sense of the word remains a topic for debate.

[10] Participants at various times included Rose Bryant, Wilfred Glenn, Charles Harrison, Theo Karle, Elizabeth Lennox, Virginia Rea, and Marie Tiffany, among others, according to the Brunswick files.

[11] Brunswick did record a number of titles by the full orchestra during 1922–1923, in addition to the trio selections.

 

> Part 1  | > Part 3

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

You performed at the Pan-American Exposition, correct?

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Giuseppe Anselmi

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

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

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

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Alessandro Bonci, 1910

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

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

 

Where in Italy did you make your debut? 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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