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

MILTON CROSS INTERVIEW
Part 2 of 3
James A. Drake

.

.

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

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

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

What was Farrar like as a person?

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

.

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

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

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

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

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

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Eileen Farrell?

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

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

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

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

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

.

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

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was Caruso’s a beautiful voice in your judgment? 

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

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

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

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

.

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

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

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

..

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

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

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

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

______________

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

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

 

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

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

.

Radio Annual, 1949

.

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).

________________________

.
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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

Milton Cross broadcasting from the Metropolitan Opera House

.

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.

________________

[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.

___________________________________________________

© 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.

.