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

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

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> Part 2  | > Part 3

 

Walter Gustave “Gus” Haenschen — perhaps best known to modern collectors as the fictitious band leader “Carl Fenton” — served as Brunswick’s manager of popular recordings from 1919 to June 1927, when he resigned to embark on what would become a successful career in broadcasting.

Compiled by Jim Drake from transcriptions of his interviews with Haenschen during 1972-1979 in Ithaca, New York; Norwalk, Connecticut; and New York City, this remarkable account appears here in its entirety for the first time. The four initial installments will cover Haenschen’s years with Brunswick, offering a firsthand look at operations in what was then America’s third-largest record company.

 

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In what seemed to be no time at all, in retrospect, Brunswick became a serious rival to the Victor Talking Machine Company, the dominant corporation in the recording industry.  What made Brunswick so successful so rapidly?

Well, there were several reasons. First, the Brunswick company was able to offer recording artists a “package“ that not even Victor could match.  We [Brunswick] could offer not only a much higher amount for retainer, but could also give the artist a higher percentage of royalties from the sales of the recordings.

Another advantage that we had was flexible release dates.  We adopted a flexible release-date policy very early in my time there.  Victor, you see, was at the top of the pyramid in the industry, Columbia was one or two tiers down from Victor, and [the] Edison [company], which had been a major competitor in the early years of the industry, had only a fraction of the market by 1919 even though they had the superior technology.  

Victor had a fixed day or date each month, and that would be the date that their new releases would be announced to the trade and the public.  If my memory serves me right, Columbia had the same policy, although I can’t say for sure after all these years.  But Victor was our main competitor, or so we liked to think, and by issuing new releases whenever the moment was right, we could very often “scoop” them.

Our flexible release-date policy was especially important where Broadway shows were concerned.  Take a musical like “Good News” or “No, No, Nanette,” for example.  At the premiere of shows like those, there would be representatives in the audience from Victor, Columbia other record companies, and several of us from Brunswick.   All of us would have one purpose in going to the premiere:  to figure out in advance which of the songs in the show would catch on and therefore sell records.

What was difficult was trying to second-guess the audience by trying to determine whether they were reacting principally to the production, the staging, the performer, or mainly the song.  If we had a hunch from the audience’s reaction that we were right, we could get an arrangement together, record it, and have it in our dealers’ shops weeks before Victor’s or Columbia‘s monthly release date rolled around.  That’s where our flexible-release policy gave us an edge.  We could release a new Brunswick record any day of the week.

 

You spoke about the type of backing Brunswick had.  Would you elaborate on that? 

What I have been calling “Brunswick” here—the phonograph and record company, in other words—was just one subsidiary of the Brunswick-Balke-Collander Company.  Even in 1919, when I was hired, it was an old and well-established company that had made its name in billiards and bowling equipment, and saloon fixtures of all kinds.  Most of the saloon fixtures were made in the mammoth [Brunswick] factory in Saginaw, Michigan, where they employed some of the finest woodworkers and cabinet makers in the world.

Prohibition cut deeply into the saloon fixture business, which is how the parent company decided to get into the recording industry.  A fellow by the name of B. Edward Bensinger, or Ed as we called him, headed the parent company, and he and the board of directors approved a plan to manufacture phonographs, using the equipment and skill they had in the Saginaw factory. 

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

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Brunswick was only making phonograph cabinets at first, and then they began making their own line of phonographs. This would’ve been about 1909 or 1910, and it was how I became involved with Brunswick when I was a college student at Washington University in St. Louis, my hometown.

I had an orchestra in those days and knew popular music pretty well, and I had a fairly good background in classical music.  After classes and on weekends, I worked at what was then the largest department store in St. Louis.  It was called Scrugg-Vandervoort [Scruggs, Vandervort & Barney], and it took up almost an entire city block.  I began working there part-time in the Music Department, which took up the entire sixth floor and included pianos, player and reproducing pianos, and all of the major brands of phonographs.

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

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Our store was the largest victor dealership in St. Louis.  But during the holiday season each year, we had all kinds of trouble getting Victor to deliver the Victrolas our customers had ordered.  One holiday season when we were particularly troubled by Victor’s backlogging, I succeeded in getting the management to introduce and heavily promote Brunswick phonographs.  Well, the sales exceeded everybody’s expectations.  That made me something of a fair-haired boy at Scruggs-Vandervoort, and also put me in a very good light with the Brunswick sales representatives for getting them a large contract.

 

The Victrola was the biggest selling phonograph of that era. How were you able to persuade buyers that the Brunswick phonograph was equal to or even better than a Victrola?

As you do in any sales business, I pointed out the advantages that the Brunswick had over the Victrola. At the time, and this was in the early 1910s before World War One, a Victor phonograph would only play lateral-cut recordings.  Just as Edison was committed to vertical-cut recordings to the exclusion of any other type, so the Victor Talking Machine Company was committed purely to lateral cut recordings.

There was another company, Pathé, which had at one point a fairly good market share.  Pathé recordings were vertical-cut, like Edison Diamond Discs, but they had much wider grooves and used a ball-shaped sapphire stylus for playback.  Well, Brunswick had made a series of vertical-cut recordings before I joined the company.  I’m not sure when they did them, but I don’t recall any Brunswick vertical-cut records when I was working at Scruggs-Vandervoort.  

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(Left) Vertical-cut Brunswicks were recorded in the U.S. but sold only in Canada. They later were pressed with updated labels (right) stating “Jewel Point Record” (right), again for sale only in Canada.

 

Our recording engineer at Brunswick, Frank Hofbauer, was the one who had recorded them.  He told me that none of those records was ever sold in the U.S.  They were only sold in Canada, which was the main market from what I understood, and some were exported to England for sale there.  But that was before I was with the company, and after I left Scruggs-Vandervoort to join the Navy. 

 

What was it about the Brunswick phonograph that you highlighted as selling points to customers at Scruggs-Vandervoort?

The biggest selling point for Brunswick machines was the tonearm, which was called the Ultona.  It was really a marvelous design from an engineering standpoint because it would play both vertical-cut and lateral-cut recordings, and it had the appropriate stylus for each type of record.  By rotating the playback head, you could select either to use a disposable steel needle to play Victor or Columbia recordings, or a ball stylus—we used emerald rather than sapphire for the ball stylus on the Ultona—to play Pathé recordings. 

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

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The Ultona had two good-sized mica diaphragms mounted back-to-back, each with its own damping rings, in a nickel-plated “head” that could be rotated to play each type of record.  One of the two diaphragms had an elliptical stylus for playing Edison Diamond Discs.  The [Ultona] also had a sliding weight build into its tonearm, inside the tube that connected the reproducer to the sound box.  That sliding weight was necessary for playing Edison records because it lightened the pressure of the stylus on the grooves of an Edison disc. 

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A June 1919 ad for the Brunswick Ultona. There were already many “universal” reproducers and phonographs on the market, but the Ultona was better-engineered, and the only one to be produced by a major national corporation of Brunswick’s stature.

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It was the Ultona tonearm that made the Brunswick an “all in one” phonograph, and it was priced competitively with the Victor machines.  That “all in one” feature, plus the beautiful cabinetry and a wide selection of styles and finishes and prices of Brunswick phonographs, were the selling points I used at Scruggs-Vandervoort.  

 

Did any of the founding members of Brunswick-Balke-Collander have an involvement in the phonograph part of the corporation?

The founder, John M. Brunswick, had died in the last [nineteenth] century, and his son-in-law, Moses Bensinger, who had married J. M.’s daughter, Eleanora Brunswick, had died just after the turn of the century.  Ed [Benjamin Edward] Bensinger  was a son of Moses Bensinger.  Ed has a son who’s named after him, but who goes by “Ted.”  The first Brunswick, J. M. Brunswick, had bought out another billiard maker, Hugh Collender, who also died before the company became involved in the phonograph business. 

The third founder, Julius Balke (Sr.), also died before the phonograph division was organized.  But Julius Balke’s son, who was named after him [Julius Balke, Jr.], and Ed Bensinger were major stockholders and executives in the overall corporation.  They were what I would call appropriately active in the phonograph division, meaning that they weren’t intrusive and never interfered in what we were planning or what we were releasing.  But they kept a close eye on the phonograph division.

 

How did the new Brunswick phonograph affect the public profile of the Brunswick parent company?

Well, the phonograph division was what gave Brunswick-Balke-Collender a reputable name with the public.  As I said, the company had been known for elaborate saloon fixtures, billiard tables, and bowling equipment.  In the early-1900s, most bowling was done in large bars.  Bowling alleys came later.  So the company was associated with the tavern and bar business, which was anything but reputable in the eyes of most women.  But when Brunswick began producing not only phonographs but a line of recordings, the company was now seen in the same light as Victor.  So in effect, the phonograph business made Brunswick reputable in ways the company had never been, as far as the general public was concerned.

 

When did you join Brunswick?

I enlisted in the Navy in 1917 with hopes of being sent to the front in France, but probably because I was an engineer, I spent my entire tour of duty at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn machining metal parts, doing a lot of welding and working on ship propellers.  I did go to sea, but it was just to repair ship engines in other ports.  When I was mustered out and I docked in New York City in June of 1919, to my complete surprise I was literally met at the dock by Brunswick executives.

I was taken to the Plaza Hotel where Brunswick had a large suite for me and all of my family from St. Louis, whom they had brought to New York to be with me.  They give me a car to use and paid for anything that I wanted my family to see or do in Manhattan.  They gave me two days to do all of that, and then I was to meet with them in another suite at the Plaza.

There, they offered me a position which they had just created for the new record division.  I was to be the founding director of popular music releases. When they told me what they were going to pay me, I actually thought I had misheard them.  They offered me $50,000 a year plus stock options, and also told me to order any make of automobile that I wanted, with any accessories I wanted on it, and that it would be mine as long as I was with the company.  One of the men said, “We don’t mean a Model T [Ford], we want you to get the car you want.”  I took them up on it and ordered an emerald-green Buick convertible.  I’ve driven new Buicks ever since then.

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Early Brunswick managers. These photos appeared in a January 1920 Talking Machine World article announcing the launch of Brunswick records in the U.S.

 

At that meeting I was introduced to one of the great men in the recording industry, Walter B. Rogers, who had been a cornetist with the Sousa band and was also the musical director at Victor.  Walter had been one of the early instrumental soloists, a cornetist for the [Emil] Berliner and early Victor companies in the early 1900s. I was told that Walter would be the director of classical-music releases, and that we would work together as a team to direct all recordings that Brunswick would release.  We were also responsible for auditioning prospective singers and instrumentalists.  Later on, Walter had his own band at Brunswick, and made a lot of successful recordings for the company.

 

Some sources indicate that Walter Rogers didn’t join the company until 1922, but that you were with Brunswick as early as 1916. 

No, no—that’s totally wrong.  Walter Rogers was one of the very first employees at Brunswick.  Now, I’m not in a position to know exactly how he was paid.  I suppose it’s possible that he was on some kind of retainer, or an exclusive consulting contract, and was paid that way.  That’s possible, but I doubt it.  Anyway, he and Frank Hofbauer were the first two members of the phonograph division as far as I know.

 

What was the range of your responsibilities as director of popular-music recordings?

I had to approve all arrangements that were used in the sessions, changing them where necessary—and in most of the vocal sessions I did the studio conducting, too.  When we were recording a dance band, I just directed the overall session, of course.  Acoustical recordings were tough to arrange for, and sometimes the musical groups we would be recording, would naturally want to use their best arrangements.  But we had to revise their arrangements for the limitations of the recording process. 

It was a far different matter, you see, when a dance band was recording a song than playing at in a night club or a ballroom. When a band would play in public, especially in the early-1920s, they tended to follow what was then a current fashion by adding fifth notes to major chords.  It sounded great in a ballroom, but in an acoustical-recording session the fifth note would sometimes give the impression of a minor chord just because of the recording process.  So it would be my job to scrutinize all these arrangements and delete or otherwise revise troublesome parts.

 

Were you involved at all in the development of the Brunswick recording process?

No, none of it.  As I talked about earlier, Brunswick had been involved with Pathé, but that was before my time.  Everything was in place by the time I was hired—the first recording studios, or “recording rooms” as we called them—and a lot of test recordings had been made by the time when I got the offer to become the director of popular-music releases.

 

What was Frank Hofbauer’s background, and why did he become so important to Brunswick?

Frank had worked directly for Thomas Edison and brought all of his knowledge to the design and development of the recording lathes, diaphragms, and cutting styluses for Brunswick.  Before that, he had been with one of the very early companies in the industry, the Leeds Phonograph Company [sic; the Leeds & Catlin Company].  Frank was the man who was responsible for the incredible quality of the Brunswick recording process. 

 

How old was Frank Hofbauer when he joined Brunswick?

I would say he was in his late-fifties, maybe even sixty when he went with Brunswick.  He was really one of the pioneers in the recording end of the industry.  We [Brunswick] also had another very important man in the industry, a fellow named Darby, who had worked with Emile Berliner in the early days of the industry.

 

In what seemed to be a time when men preferred to be known by their initials, Darby’s name is often shown in print as “W.S.K. Darby,” or just plain “S. K. Darby.”  What was he called when you worked with him?

He was called “Will” at Brunwick.

 

For the recording equipment in the studios, did Frank Hofbauer use the Dennison recording machines which Victor used?

No, he had to design his own machines.  We couldn’t use Dennison machines because Victor owned the patent on them.  The design that Frank came up with had a cast-iron frame rather like the harp-shaped frame of a grand piano.  Because of his work with Edison, Frank settled on a groove width of 1/250th of an inch, and a speed of 80 r.p.m.  He used the same formula for wax recording blanks that he had used at Edison, and he also had an electric coil on the cutting stylus, which heated the cutter and made a cleaner groove in the wax master.

 

Were Frank Hofbauer’s recording machines powered by electricity or by clockwork-style weights?

By cast lead weights.  Electricity was not reliable in 1919.  There would be voltage surges and often variances in the voltage that would cause fluctuations in the speed of the motor, and therefore in the speed of the finished recording.  Most electric motors of that time also had a detectable sound when they were running. 

Although leather belts were used to connect motors to machinery, some of that motor noise could be captured by the recording diaphragm.  There was also the problem of power outages, which were much more common then than they are now.  So, the system of weights and pulleys was completely reliable, no matter what the weather. 

 

Did Frank Hofbauer also design field-recording machines?

Oh, yes—those were a necessity.  We used them when we were traveling to other cities and states to make recordings. The field recording machine—and there were a half-dozen of them because there always had to be a back-up machine and also because we started doing a lot of field recording in the first two or three years of the company—was an A-frame design with the lathe, turntable and diaphragm and the cutting stylus mounted on top of the frame.

 

Could you describe one of these portable machines in more detail?

Well, the frame itself was about five feet high, tapered, and had four legs.  The legs were four-by-fours, solid oak, and the recording turntable and lathe and cutting head were mounted on top of an oak platform.  There was oval-shaped lead weight suspended below the deck. That lead weight powered the turntable and the lathe.  There were places all around the tops of the legs where steel rods could be attached to hold up to three recording horns. 

The horns were attached by rubber tubes to the cutting head, meaning the recording diaphragm.  The horns could be tilted downward if necessary, as in, for example, recording a grand piano with the lid open.  The usual configuration for a session like that would be to have one horn angled downward to pick up the sounds of the piano strings, and the singer or instrumentalist would be playing or singing into a second horn. The field recorder could be disassembled for shipping fairly easily.

 

Was there a specific formula for the making of the wax master from which the recordings were made?

Yes, the formula was Frank Hofbauer’s, and it was probably the same one that Edison had used for the wax masters. 

 

Apart from your success selling Brunswick photographs in St. Louis, why do you think the company chose you to be the founding director of popular music releases?

After a while I found out why, and it was because Walter Rogers had been impressed with me when my little orchestra, Haenschen’s Banjo Orchestra, made trial recordings at Victor in 1916.  It was just my trio, with a banjoist and with Tom [Theodore Thomas] Schiffer on traps and my banjoist. 

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

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Although none of those trial recordings was ever approved, Walter took a liking to me.  So it was he more than anyone else who was responsible for my being picked to head the new popular music releases division of the company.

 

Where were the Brunswick studios located when you joined the company?

They were using a temporary studio on East 21 Street.  That didn’t last very long because I remember that we moved the studios to the top two floors, the twelfth and thirteenth floors, of a brand-new building, the Brunswick Building, at 16 East 36th Street in Manhattan.  There, we had executive offices on the twelfth floor and two recording studios on the top floor.  Later, we moved to the top floor of an even bigger Brunswick building at 799 Seventh Avenue.   

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

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One of our two main competitors, Columbia, had their studios on the thirteenth floor of another downtown building, the Gotham.  The reason we [i.e.,Brunswick and Columbia] built studios on the highest floor of a tall building was to be as far above the noise of traffic in Manhattan, while also being able to have large windows that could be opened during warm weather to keep the studios cool. 

 

We forget that there was a time when air-conditioning didn’t exist.

That’s right—there was no air conditioning back then, and we couldn’t use electric fans during recording sessions because even the quietest of them made just enough of a breeze to cause sheet music to flutter.  Our studios had wire lines stretched from one wall to the other above the recording horn, and the arrangement—not an actual score, but a sheet of paper showing the order of the choruses—was attached to the lines by metal clips.  If you had fans running, even slow-speed ceiling fans, it didn’t take much air to cause those sheets of paper to flutter

At 16 East 36th Street, we had large windows that helped cool the studio, except when it rained.  When that happened, we resorted to fans—not ceiling fans, but several large Westinghouse fans that were mounted on a wood frame so that the blades were an inch or two above a long tub filled with large blocks of ice. 

We used rheostats to control the speed of the fans so that they could run more slowly when we were recording.  As soon as a “take” was finished, we’d turn the rheostats to maximum voltage and hope that the rain would stop.  Sometimes there would be thunderstorms, and we had no choice but to wait out the storm because a thunderclap could ruin the wax master. 

 

Do you have any recollection of the first recording ever issued on the Brunswick label and after you joined a company?

The first singer I can remember making records was Elizabeth Lennox, a wonderful mezzo soprano—more of a contralto, really—who is still my friend.  On the instrumental side, we had a fine violinist, Elias Breeskin, and if my memory is correct, his recordings were the first ones that Brunswick really promoted.

 

What would a typical workday be for you and Walter Rogers, and how much interaction was there between you?

We worked together very, very closely.  Walter would ask me to check the placing of instruments in relation to the singer or the instrumentalist and the recording horn.  My recordings were said to have a very good balance, although I don’t know where that got started exactly—but Walter would ask me to give him my opinion about instrument placements.  I can remember sitting through different takes with Sigrid Onegin, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Edith Mason, Maria Ivogun, Giuseppe Danise, Michael Bohnen, Leopold Godowsky, and Joseph Hofmann among the other great artists we had under contract. 

I have particularly fond memories of Sigrid Onegin, Elisabeth Rethberg and Michael Bohnen.   We were especially lucky with Onegin and Rethberg since both of them were just at the beginning of their American careers when we got them under exclusive contracts.  They were also two of the dearest, loveliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.

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

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Michael Bohnen was big, fun-loving fellow.  Because my family were immigrant Germans, German was my first language and so I spoke German with Bohnen in the studio. I remember one time him coming into the studio looking like hell!  He had welts all over his face, and a few fresh cuts, and his shirt was a mess.  Naturally we asked what it happened to him and he sort of kiddingly said that he had cut himself shaving. Chances are that somebody insulted his heritage, and in good Germanic fashion he probably let them know with his fists that he was not too happy about it!  But what a fine musician he was—and he was as great an actor as he was a singer. 

 

I’m assuming that not all of your memories of Brunswick’s classical artists are as endearing as the ones you just mentioned.

 Two that I could have done without were Claire Dux and Marie Tiffany, even though I had good working relationships with both of them through Walter [Rogers].  Claire Dux had one stock answer every time she encountered any sort of opposition about anything she wanted.  She’d look at you with a well-rehearsed kind of innocence and say, “But—but—I am the golden Claire!”  You can imagine how many responses our studio musicians dreamed up for that line!

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

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Marie Tiffany, as you might know, later married Bill Brophy, who was my boss, essentially.  She was extremely ambitious career-wise, although her opera career never reached the heights she probably hoped for.  Her ambition, and then her relationship with Bill Brophy, sometimes made things a little tense.  Although he married her, she had been his mistress for some time.  

 

What was the hierarchy of the phonograph division of Brunswick?  Who was the head of it, and who reported to whom?

The head of the company was Ed Bensinger, and the next in line under him was Bill [William A.] Brophy, who was the general manager of the phonograph and recording division.  Technically, Percy Deutsch reported to Bill Brophy, but since he was a Brunswick family member, he had more influence than Bill had.  There was also a “Music Department” in the company’s executive structure, which was put in about the time I joined Brunswick.  It was headed by a fellow named Henry P. Eames, and I think his supervisor was Bill Brophy. 

Bill Brophy was also Frank Hofbauer’s supervisor, as I recall.  Then there were Walter Rogers and I, Walter being responsible for classical-music releases and I being responsible for the popular-music ones.  We reported to Bill Brophy.  There were other departments which had general managers and other executives—the Sales department, the Promotion department—and also regional managers for various parts of the country.

 

Were you involved in any with the annual catalogs that Brunswick issued?

No—those were done by the Promotion department.  Today, we would call it the “Advertising Department.”  It was also responsible for the monthly supplements, the printed advertisements in newspapers and magazines, and all of the company’s announcements and news releases. 

If I had had any say about those catalogs, I would have urged that we not issue them at all because of our flexible-release date policy.  We could have issued monthly supplements to our dealers instead of an annual catalog.  But we were expected to print an annual catalog because Victor and Columbia issued them. 

“We [Brunswick] compiled and published in our annual catalogs all of the records that were available to dealers as of October of the previous year. In other words, the Brunswick catalog for 1925 listed all of the recordings that had been released as of mid-October 1924.”

Like the Victor and Columbia catalogs, ours were divided into two sections, each printed on different-colored paper.  All of the recordings, popular and classical, were printed in alphabetical order, with the price listed for each recording.  Unlike Victor, which issued all of their Red Seals in single-sided form until 1922 or 1923, we issued only double-sided recordings, either ten-inch or twelve-inch. 

All of our popular-music records were priced at $.75 for a double-sided disc.  Our classical recordings, which were printed on gold-colored paper in the second part of the catalog, were priced at $1.00 or a maximum of $2.00 for a double-sided recording.

 

Did Brunswick issue many of the same titles that Victor and Columbia had issued?

Yes, we were a case of what you might call “follow the leader.”  For example, duets like “Whispering Hope” by Louise Homer and Alma Gluck were very popular Victor Red Seals, so we had Marie Tiffany and Elizabeth Lennox record the very same arrangement for us at Brunswick.  We also copied the arrangements and phrasing of Victors instrumentalists like Fritz Kreisler.  We had Max Rosen record many of Kreisler’s most popular Victor recordings, so he became Brunswick’s Kreisler.   We even had our own “Caruso.”  That was Mario Chamlee.

 

Did you audition Chamlee?

Not in the usual sense, no.  Archie Chalmondeley—that was his real name—was still in his khakis when he made a “personal recording” at the Brunswick studios.  Every record company did “personal recordings,” typically after-hours or on a Sunday, because the singer or instrumentalist had to pay for them out-of-pocket and also had to pay for the piano accompanist. 

Archie had made a personal recording in our studio, but we didn’t know anything about it because that was not “commercial,” not part of our responsibilities.  Frankly, we thought that those were just “vanity recordings.”  I know because I made several of them at Columbia when I had my band in St. Louis.  Anyway, Frank Hofbauer suggested to Walter Rogers and me that this young tenor’s “personal recording” sounded very impressive. 

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

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The acoustical-recording process was hit-and-miss, and some voices recorded well and others didn’t.  Archie’s voice on that recording sounded almost like Caruso’s.  In person, he didn’t sound like that—actually, he sounded more like Tito Schipa—but our recording equipment made him sound like Caruso.  Well, we really capitalized on that.  We signed Archie to an exclusive contract and changed his last name to “Chamlee.”  His first series of Brunswick discs show his name as “Archer Chamlee,” but at Walter’s suggestion his first name was changed to “Mario.”

Walter [Rogers], who had conducted many of Caruso’s Victor Red Seal recordings, coached Chamlee to mimic Caruso’s phrasing and dynamics.  If you listen to Chamlee’s Brunswicks of arias and songs that Caruso made famous at Victor, some of Mario’s recordings could pass for Caruso’s if you didn’t look at the label on the record.

Richard Bonelli was another “find” for Brunswick.  Do you recall his audition?

Yes.  He was “Dick Bunn” when we auditioned him, but at Walter’s suggestion he Italianized his last name to “Bonelli.”  His voice wasn’t that large, yet it recorded “big”—even more so than John Charles Thomas, who was nationally known and far more experienced than Dick Bonelli.  And just as Walter had coached Chamlee to mimic Caruso’s phrasing, he did the same with Dick, using Titta Ruffo’s Victor recordings.  Just as Mario became Brunswick’s Caruso, Dick Bonelli became our Ruffo.

 

Your files show that John Charles Thomas was one of the first vocalists who was given an exclusive contract by Brunswick.  Did you play any role in that?

Yes, I’m happy to say that I did.  Walter [Rogers] knew of John from his success in light opera, but he didn’t know John personally, which I did.  I had met him in 1914, when I was at T. B. Harms during the time that Gene Buck was writing the lyrics to my tune that became “Underneath the Japanese Moon” in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1914.  John Charles Thomas was then singing in a Shubert production of a musical called “The Peasant Girl.”  I got to know him then, and we became friends.  I watched him grow into a real Broadway star, especially in “Maytime.” 

When I joined Brunswick, he was one of the first singers I had in mind for our recordings, and he was one of the first to know that I had accepted an offer with Brunswick and that I wanted him in our catalog.  But he had just signed a contract with Aeolian Vocalion, and he couldn’t get out of it.  So we [Brunswick] had to wait until we acquired the Vocalion company and its artists.  From then on, John and any of the other performers who had made records for Vocalion were recorded in our new studios, when the Brunswick building at 16 East 36th Street was finished. — To be continued

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

 

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James A. Drake is the author of seven books and more than fifty academic and commercial articles. Two of his biographies, Ponselle: A Singer’s Life (Doubleday & Company), and Richard Tucker: A Biography (E. P. Dutton Company), with forewords by tenor Luciano Pavarotti, were selected as Books of the Month by the National Book Clubs of America. His other books include Rosa Ponselle: A Centenary Biography; Teaching Critical Thinking; Popular Culture and American Life; and Lily Pons: A Centennial Portrait (with K. B. Ludecke). He was also a contributing author to the 24-volume American National Biography (Oxford University Press, 1999) and The International Dictionary of Opera (St. James Press, 2000) and served on the editorial board of The Opera Quarterly.

 

> Part 2  | > Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

 

How did Gigli and Schipa compare in Elisir?

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What do you remember about the trauma of that event? 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Did Caruso ever speak of Gigli in your presence?

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Do you remember the Met premiere of Andrea Chénier?

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Do you have any idea how Gigli regarded Caruso?

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

 

What do you recall of Gigli’s Met debut?

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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