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

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

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(Smithsonian Institution)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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(Radio Annual, 1949)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Were you in the opera house when he died?

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

 

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

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

 

That was at his debut?  

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Do you recall Marian Anderson’s Met debut?

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Radio Annual, 1949

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

You mentioned Evan Williams.  Where did you hear him?

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

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

 

Did Evan Williams sound like his Victor recordings?

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

 

You made several Victor recordings yourself, correct?

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Do you recall what year that would have been?

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Milton Cross broadcasting from the Metropolitan Opera House

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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