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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Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen: The St. Louis Years — Part 3 • The James A. Drake Interviews

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The St. Louis Years — Part 3

 

In Part 2, Gus Haenschen recalled his early years in St. Louis — most notably, his piano lessons with Scott Joplin and music-publishing venture with Gene Rodemich.

In Part 3, Haenschen is now attending Washington University and first attracts national attention after a song he’s composed for a college musical is picked up for the 1914 edition of Ziegfeld’s Follies.

Read Previous Installments

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In “The Hatchet,” the official student publication [of Washington University], you’re listed as being in the School of Arts and Sciences, as well as in the School of Engineering and Architecture.

That was because I was taking music composition in Arts and Sciences while taking all my requirements for the Mechanical Engineering degree in the School of Engineering.

 

How were you able to write an operetta while meeting all the course requirements for the Mechanical Engineering degree?

I wrote it on my own — it was called “The Love Star,” and I had written it as a member of one of the popular clubs the University had. You see, I was taking music courses while I was studying engineering. I took two courses in composition and was a member of the Quadrangle Club. The University had a lot of student clubs, and many of them were performing-arts clubs.

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The Quadrangle was one of the two most popular clubs on campus. It was named after the design of part of the campus — the first series of buildings, the first four or five, were designed as Gothic quadrangles by the same architects who did similar buildings for the University of Pennsylvania. The first building, by the way, was named for Adolphus Busch, Busch Hall, which was completed in 1903, but it didn’t open until 1905 because of the 1904 Exposition.

 

Did you join the Quadrangle Club as a freshman, or were first-year students allowed to participate in student clubs?

Well, that club didn’t exist until I was a first-term junior [in 1910]. It was by invitation only, and because I was pretty well known in St. Louis due to my band and my partnership with Gene Rodemich, I was invited to join. I wrote “The Love Star” during the spring and summer of my junior year, and it was produced by the Quadrangle Club about two years, as I recall, after I had graduated. I was invited back to oversee it.

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The Washington University Quadrangle, c. early 1920s

 

Were there other student clubs that produced musicals and plays?

Oh, yes — the other popular one was the Thyrsus Club, which Fannie Hurst belonged to and I think was either president or vice-president of during her senior year. She was in the Class of 1909, and I got to know her then and, of course, much later in New York. She was cast in several of the plays during her senior year, and she wrote a very popular musical comedy [“The Official Chaperone”] that was produced by the Thyrsus Club during her senior year.

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Fannie Hurst

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From its history, I know that Washington University was co-educational after 1900, but was the undergraduate student body primarily male during your years there?

Not primarily, no. When I was a freshman, the male-student population was about 60% and the female population was 40%. When I came back in 1914 for the production of “The Love Star,” the female-student percentage had grown to almost 50%, so the enrollment of men and women students was just about equal by then.

 

Was the University integrated when you were a student?

No, unfortunately. I say “unfortunately” for two reasons. The first is that we’ll never know how many George Washington Carvers might have gone there or become researchers there. Washington University has been a research university for most of its history, especially since World War II, and we’ll never know how many more patents and how many more Nobel Prize winners we would have had if the University had not been segregated. And just imagine what the fine arts and the performing arts might have been like if we had had black students and white students in the same classes.

 

You said that segregation was unfortunate for two reasons. What is the second reason?

Well, the University was not only coeducational by policy, but also the staff that handled the admissions operations when I was a student really went after the brightest young women in high-school classes throughout the state. During my third year, the University started building a medical center. It wasn’t just a medical school, but a medical research center. It was finished just a couple years after I graduated, and within two or three years the medical school admitted its first women students. If the same push had been made for admitting black students — not just to the medical school and the law school but to all the schools and their programs — the University would have been a different place. But that didn’t happen till after World War II.

 

Your mention of the law school prompts me to mention that in your archives there are letters from another famous graduate of Washington University who credits you with getting him admitted: Clark Clifford. Was he also from St. Louis?

No, he was from Kansas but his ambition was to become a lawyer in St. Louis, so when it came time for him to go to college, he wanted to go to Washington University. He was a top student in high school and probably would have gotten into Washington University anyway, but he needed an alumni sponsor so he wrote to me and asked if I would meet with him. I did and was very impressed with him, so I made some calls on his behalf and also wrote a formal letter of recommendation for him. He got his bachelor’s degree there, and also graduated from the Washington University Law School.

 

You and he are probably the last ones to see it, but the two of you could almost pass for brothers.

Both of us have been told that, but I think it’s because we’re almost the same height and weight, we have the same hairline, and the same crop of wavy hair. But I have a bigger nose and he has a smaller one, so maybe that’s why I don’t see the similarity that others say they see.

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Look-alikes: Haenschen (left) and Clark Clifford

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You have another thing in common: Both of you are Navy veterans.

Yes, but in different wars. Clark is about fifteen years younger than I, and he was an officer during the last year of World War II. But it was because of his connection with Missouri, the home state of President Truman, that he became an advisor to Truman after he [Clifford] got out of the Navy. He planned Truman’s campaign for the presidency [in 1948] and I think was the one who convinced Truman that an old-style “whistle-stop campaign” would give him the edge over [candidate Thomas E.] Dewey.

 

In one of his letters to you, Clifford urges you to “make up something outrageous” when talking to reporters. What “reporters” is he referring to?

When I would take one of my radio shows to Washington, D.C., on tour, if I was in a restaurant or sometimes just walking down a street, some reporter would mistake me for Clark Clifford and would ask me a question about a policy or some pending legislation or whatever. I didn’t do it very often, but Clark was always goading me to give some outrageous statement just so that the reporter would have to tell his editor, and the editor would have to call Clark’s office to confirm or deny what he said. Then Clark would tell the editor that he had never talked to any such reporter. I wasn’t a good enough actor to pull that off more than once or maybe twice.

 

Returning to the Ziegfeld Follies, one song from “The Love Star” not only became popular but became the gateway to your career.

Yes, it did. My original title for it was “The Moorish Glide,” and somehow it got to New York where Max Dreyfus, the head of the T. B. Harms Company, wired me to come to New York to talk with him about turning it into a production number in the Ziegfeld Follies.

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Haenschen’s original self-published edition of “The Moorish Glide” (top); and the better-known T. B. Harms version, with addition of the new title

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Max liked the melody, so he bought it. At first he gave the tune to a very popular dance team on the Keith [vaudeville] Circuit called “Maurice and Walton.” Walton was the name of the female partner, Florence Walton, and most people thought her partner, Maurice, was also named Walton, but his real name was Maurice Mouvet. They used the tune in part of their act, so at first it was called “The Maurice Glide.” The tango was really popular at that time, so the title was changed from “The Maurice Glide” to “The Maurice Tango.” [1]

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Maurice Mouvet and Florence Walton

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When did the song become “Underneath the Japanese Moon” in the Follies?

 That happened when Max decided that it would be a good tune to use as a filler between scenes in the Follies. Because the tune itself was so short, he told me that it would need a good verse and, of course, good lyrics for the verse and the refrain. Max assigned Gene Buck to give it a title, write the lyrics, and work with me on a verse. Gene told me that the tune would be interpolated — in other words, not part of a production number — and that it would be sung by a boy and girl whose characters wouldn’t have names per se. One would be called “The Lone Boy,” and he would sing it to “The Lone Girl.”

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Song portfolio from the Ziegfeld’s 1914 Follies, including “Underneath the Japanese Moon”

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Because of the popularity of Madame Butterfly, the trend at that time was to use Japanese themes, so Gene [Buck] gave it the title “Underneath the Japanese Moon,” although it appeared in the first program as “Underneath a Japanese Moon.” When the “a” was changed to “the” I don’t really know, but the sheet music version that T. B. Harms published had the title “Underneath the Japanese Moon.”

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Victor’s versions of  “The Moorish (Maurice) Glide” and “Underneath the Japanese Moon” were both issued in August 1914.

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To have a song whose music you wrote in the Ziegfeld Follies must have been one of the highlights of your career. What do you remember about the opening night?

I was in an upper box as a guest of Gene Buck, and like every other edition of the Follies, this one was chock full of girls. Most were already famous from prior Follies — Ann [billed as “Anna”] Pennington and Kay Laurell were among the glamor girls that Ziegfeld was known for — and Leon Errol was not only in the cast but also produced that edition of the Follies. As for my little contribution, Cyril [Morton] Horne sang Gene Buck’s lyrics and my tune to Louise Meyers. That was a thrill for me, as you can imagine — but an even bigger thrill was that Bert Williams performed one of his songs right before my little tune was sung. Bert Williams was one of the biggest stars of the Follies — one of the biggest stars of that era, really, almost on a par with Jolson.

 

Did you get to meet Bert Williams?

I never got to meet him but wish I had because to me he was a comic genius. When you look at how many famous comedians Ziegfeld had in those years — Leon Errol, W. C. Fields, Ed Wynn, and then Will Rogers — it was Bert Williams who topped them all. Gene Buck, who worked with all of them, used to say that Bert Williams was the greatest comic who ever lived. Think about that: not the greatest comic the Follies ever had, or the greatest comic of that time, but the greatest comic who ever lived.

 

I’ve wondered whether you or Walter Rogers tried to persuade Bert Williams to record for Brunswick.

Around the time we started making recordings at Brunswick, he left the Follies so he could go on his own. [2] The shows he starred in got good reviews when they opened, but they didn’t have very long runs and his popularity started to slip. He was also having health problems, and he contracted either pneumonia or the Spanish flu and died from it [in 1922].

 

Returning to your Follies song, didn’t Max Dreyfus not only buy it from you but also put you on a retainer with T. B. Harms?

Yes, he put me on a retainer as an arranger. Max, you see, was an arranger himself. He had written some songs early in his career but none of them became popular, and he had much more success as an arranger. He and his brother Louis bought the T. B. Harms Company, which was an old publishing firm when he and Louis acquired it. What Max was the best — and I mean the best in the entire publishing business — at spotting raw talent. He had discovered Jerome Kern, and about ten years later he did the same with George Gershwin.

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Max Dreyfus as composer (top) and arranger

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You had a music-publishing company in St. Louis, am I correct?

Well, briefly, but it didn’t amount to much. The big publishing house in St. Louis was the Stark Music Company, which was founded by John Stark. He was the one who published Scott Joplin’s music. Mr. Stark had heard Joplin in Sedalia, where both of them were living, and from what his [Stark’s] son, E. J. [Stark] told me, Mr. Stark had persuaded Joplin to become a full-time songwriter. By the time both of them had moved to St. Louis, the Stark company was the biggest publisher of ragtime songs.

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“September Love,” from Haenschen’s music-publishing venture with Gene Rodemich, and a rare John Stark edition of an early Haenschen collaboration

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I demonstrated songs for Mr. Stark in and around St. Louis, and he published a couple of the songs I had written. They didn’t go anywhere — didn’t sell many copies — so I tried my hand and starting a little publishing company. I went to Mr. Stark and he offered to [print] copies of songs under my own imprint. I didn’t have enough money to make a go of starting a publishing company, so I talked to Gene Rodemich about it and he got his father put money in it. We put out a few songs we had written, but as I say, it didn’t amount to much.

 

Back to “Underneath the Japanese Moon,” when you received the retainer from Max Dreyfus did you move to New York City?

I couldn’t because I had my band in St. Louis, I had the orchestra exchange, and I also had my family to support, so I went back and forth to New York and would stay a week, sometimes two weeks if I could manage it. Even though I wasn’t full-time with T. B. Harms, I was a part of a stable of young arrangers and songwriters including [George] Gershwin, whose career had not really begun yet. I worked with George on his first Broadway musical, “La, La Lucille.” George had written songs before then, but this was his first full score for a musical. Max worked with him to make slight changes in the melodies of a few of the songs, and he had several of us — including Robert Russell Bennett, whom Max had just hired — work with George on the arrangements.

 

How much involvement did you as an arranger have in the lyrics of the songs in “La, La Lucille”?

None at all. Max had a different group for the lyrics. Buddy DeSylva and Arthur Jackson wrote the lyrics for most of them, and Irving Caesar, whom Max had hired around the time he put me on a retainer, wrote the lyrics for one of the songs, “There’s More to the Kiss.” He and George collaborated on the biggest hit of their early partnership, “Swanee,” which I was fortunate to have Al Jolson record when I was hired at Brunswick. [3]

 

Do you recall recording a medley from “La, La Lucille” at Brunswick, under your “Carl Fenton” name?

A record that I made? Do you mean that I directed at Brunswick?

 

This was a recording session that you played in, a piano-duet medley of songs from “La, La Lucille.”

Yes, now that you mention it, I do remember that one. I did the arrangement, and Frank Banta and I played the duet. [4] By the way, that’s Frank Banta, Jr. [Frank E.], I’m talking about. His father [Frank P.] was also a pianist and had made early recordings. Frank, Jr., was an excellent pianist and worked not only for us at Brunswick but for Victor and Columbia, and probably Edison too.

 

So much has been written about George Gershwin’s composing, arranging, and piano style. Did you work with him enough to see how he wrote? And what did you think of him as a pianist, being a very fine one yourself?

It’s hard to compare him with any other pianist of that time because he had a style that was unique. He wasn’t a stride pianist, although he could play in that style. He didn’t have the biggest hands or the longest reach — he wasn’t in the same league as James P. Johnson or Luckey Roberts, who had the longest reach of any pianist I ever saw — but his ability with chords is what made him stand out. His melodies came from chords. You can hear it in his “Preludes.” If you listen to them closely, you’ll hear how he finds melodic lines from the chords he’s playing.

 

One more question about Max Dreyfus. The general public only knows his name from the film “Rhapsody in Blue,” in which he was played by Charles Coburn. Was there any resemblance between Coburn and the real Max Dreyfus?

 None at all. If Max look like anybody, it was Mister Magoo — as bald as a billiard ball, and short in stature. But what a great, great man he was! All of us learned more from Max Dreyfus than we could ever put into words. He had a gentle, patient way of getting not only more work but the highest quality work from everyone around him. You were inspired just being in his presence. He always made you feel as if you were the only person who had his attention when he was talking to you, even though he might be going from one small cubicle with, say, Gershwin plunking out of tune on an upright piano, to another cubicle with another young writer who was working on lyrics, and doing that twelve hours a day, six days a week.

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Max Dreyfus

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Max never criticized anything you brought to him. Instead, in his almost grandfatherly way he would compliment you by highlighting certain lines or measures that he thought were really good, and then very tactfully call attention to any weaknesses that he sensed in the song. Then he would offer you at least one suggestion as to how you might improve it. There was no one else like Max Dreyfus in the music-publishing industry. Even Irving Berlin, who had his own publishing company, respected him. To all of us who worked with him — and he was “Mr. Max” to us — Max Dreyfus was Tin Pan Alley.

 

— J. A.D. (12/7/2020)

 

Editor’s Notes 

[1] Actually, “The Maurice Tango” is a entirely different composition, by Silvio Hein. It was published by Harms in 1912, before “The Maurice Glide.”

[2] Although Williams never recorded for Brunswick, the company signed Ham Tree Harrington, a well-known imitator, after Williams’ death. Harrington recorded a number of titles for Brunswick in the Williams style between 1923 and 1925, none of which appear to have sold well.

[3]  Haenschen is mistaken here, unless perhaps he was recalling an undocumented Brunswick trial session, which is not possible to confirm. Jolson recorded “Swanee” for Columbia, to which he was under exclusive contract at the time. Brunswick’s cover version was by the team of Al Bernard and Frank Kamplain.

[4] Brunswick 2012, in medley with “Tee-Oodle-Um-Bum-Bo” and “Nobody But You” (Carl Fenton’s Orchestra, Piano Passages by Carl Fenton and Frank Banta). Recorded in late 1919, this was the second-earliest release under Haenschen’s “Carl Fenton”  pseudonym.

 

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

 

 

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

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The St. Louis Years — Part 2
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> Read  The St. Louis Years — Part 1

 

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Scott Joplin

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There’s so much to ask you about Scott Joplin, so may I begin by noting that you are one of the few major figures in the music industry who can speak authoritatively about Scott Joplin because you worked with him.

I think your word choice, “worked with him,” makes my association with him sound more important than it was. I went several times to the Maple Leaf Club to pay him to help me learn to play ragtime the way he wrote and played it, and when he moved from Sedalia to St. Louis, which was around 1900, [1] I did a lot more work with him. But I was just one of several pianists who were studying with him in St. Louis, so I don’t want to give the impression that we became colleagues or friends or anything that would suggest a close relationship.

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This St. Louis Dispatch article from February 28, 1901, pre-dates Joplin’s move to St. Louis, still referring to him as a “Sedalian.” The European trip never materialized.

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Even if you had wanted to do that, would it have been possible with segregation? Wasn’t St. Louis as segregated as the rest of the South and much of the Midwest?

There were what you might call “black areas” and “white areas” of St. Louis, but I have to say that being a river town there was more interaction between blacks and whites in St. Louis than in many other cities. [2]  I’ll give you what I think it was one of the reasons why the races got along better in and around St. Louis: Mark Twain’s novels. I can still remember so many passages from Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

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About Scott Joplin, there are at least two photos of him—one as a young man about the time that his first ragtime pieces were published, and another when he was probably middle-aged. How would you describe his appearance when you were working with him?

 We were about the same height—I was six feet tall, and he may have been an inch shorter than I, if that much. He was stocky—he had put on a few pounds over the years, and his hair was rather thin. His speaking voice was in the baritone range, but it’s hard to describe how he spoke. The way I would put it is that he spoke with authority. He knew who he was, and how important he and his music were. [3]

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Joplin’s first St. Louis residence was an apartment at 2658A Morgan (since renamed Delmar Boulevard), which is now maintained as a Missouri state historic site. He and Belle later moved to a large house at 2117 Lucas, which has since been demolished.

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Did he live well? By that I mean, did he seem to enjoy his success?

Oh, yes—definitely. As I said, he moved from Sedalia to St. Louis, and he and his wife, whose name was Belle, had a sizable home with well-kept grounds. [4]  You have to remember that at that time, he was one of the most famous men in popular music in this country. He had written several of those great ragtime pieces by then and had also written one opera [A Guest of Honor] and was writing another one [Treemonisha]. So he was well-known, not just in Missouri but everywhere that ragtime, which he essentially “invented,” was being played.

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Joplin and company rehearse “A Guest of Honor.”
(The Sedalia Weekly Conservator, August 22, 1903).

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What was a typical session with him like? How much time did he allot for each of your “lessons” with him?

Usually each session was about an hour, sometimes more, but I’d say an hour on average. He would have me sit at the keyboard, and he would sit to my left on a piano stool.

 

Am I correct in assuming that you only played his music?

Sure, of course. That’s why I did everything to persuade to let me pay him to teach me how to refine my playing of his rags. I spent practically a whole year with him, usually once a week.

 

Was he a stickler about tempo?

Most definitely! He hated hearing his music played too fast. He told me, and I think everyone else he talked to about tempo, that ragtime must never be played fast. I think he may have even had that printed on the sheet music of his songs.

 

I don’t believe that Scott Joplin ever made a phonograph recording, but I’m told that he did make piano rolls, so at least we have some idea how he sounded.

No, you can’t say that because those piano rolls are not reliable. I know because I’ve heard a piano roll of him playing “Maple Leaf Rag,” and it’s definitely not the way he played it. Many piano rolls were embellished—notes and chords were added to them—and the Joplin roll of “Maple Leaf Rag” has a bunch of bass notes that he never played.

Those bass notes were added to the roll—maybe with his permission, and maybe not, I don’t know. But what I do know is that there are far more bass notes in that roll than he ever played. Now, the style I had developed as a pianist had a lot of bass, and Joplin noticed that right away when I started [studying] with him. He said to me, “You’re pretty heavy with that left hand, and I’m going to need you to cut out a lot of that when you’re playing my music.”

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Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” as originally published by John Stark in Sedalia (top), and a later, far more common printing made after Stark moved to St. Louis (center). A long-forgotten song version was published in 1903, with the addition of trite lyrics by Stark office-boy Sydney Brown (bottom). Joplin biographer Edward Berlin notes that the arrangement, which uses only the rag’s opening strain, “is uncharacteristic of Joplin and was probably made by someone else.”

 

You made piano rolls too, am I correct?

Yes, I made about a half-dozen of them when I brought my band to New York City to make recordings that I could sell in St. Louis. I went over to Newark, which was then the capital of the piano-roll industry. There were several labels that each company had. The biggest company was QRS, which is still in business. I made my rolls for a smaller label called “Artempo.”

 

Was there a special piano you had to play to make piano rolls?

Well, there were two methods—maybe more, I don’t know—but there were two methods that I learned about in Newark and each one had a specially made keyboard. [5] One method required the pianist to play at about half the tempo he’d use if he were playing it for an audience, for patrons of a club or some other public place. That particular method had the piano keyboard rigged up to a series of individual “blocks”—small rectangular blocks that were made of oak and were slightly rounded on each end.

The actual “roll” was two layers of brown paper that were separated by carbon paper. When the pianist struck a key, one of those “blocks” would strike the top layer of paper, which simultaneously made an imprint on the bottom layer. The carbon paper that was sandwiched between the two rolls is what made the imprint [on the bottom roll]. After the pianist had finished playing whatever tune it was, a technician would use a razor tool that looked like a scalpel to cut out those impressions that the blocks had made on the bottom layer of paper. That would become the “master roll,” the template for making identical rolls to sell to the public.

The other method was much better because the piano keyboard was rigged to a series of hole-punches that were air-powered. These small, round, sharp-pointed punches would keep poking holes in the roll of paper until the pianist lifted his finger and the tone stopped. Afterward, that vertical string of tiny holes would have a border drawn around them, and a worker would use a scalpel to cut a rectangular strip exactly the length of that string of tiny holes. When that missing strip passed over the pneumatic bar in the player piano, it would cause the appropriate piano key to be depressed. The advantage of that method was that the pianist could play at the tempo he was accustomed to using—not half-speed like that other method required.

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An excerpt from Scott Joplin’s School of Ragtime advising  pianists to “catch the swing, and never play ragtime fast at any time.” The advertisement is from February 1908.

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What sort of “tips” would Scott Joplin give you when you were playing his music and he was sitting there near you?

He would tap out the correct tempo, and would get me to augment chords and say slightly ahead of the beat in some measures, or slightly behind it in others. He like to use the metaphor of a swing—like a swing on a playground or a swing suspended by ropes from a tree limb. He’d say, for instance, that to get a swing moving you have to push it. So in a passage, or on a particular note, he’d say to me, “Now push it here,” which meant to play it more forte or to play it a little faster. If I was playing a passage a little too fast, he’d say to me, “Lay back now.” He would tell me to picture the swing when it reaches the peak of its arc—that moment where it’s just suspended in the air, right before gravity takes over and the swing begins a downward arc. He’d say, “Swing it now”—meaning to hold the chord, to pause before playing the next notes.

 

When Joplin died in 1917, it was reported that he had contracted syphilis when he was young. Medical journals of that period listed three stages of the disease—primary, secondary, and tertiary—and in the secondary stage, the gradual loss of muscle control in the hands and legs would be evident. Did you see any hint of that when you were with him?

None at all. Not only his playing, but everything about him—his concentration, his hearing, his walking, everything—was normal.

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From The New York Age: March 29 (top) and April 5, 1917

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I’m interested to know what you think of the ragtime revival today, and how accurate the playing of those who are making LPs of the Joplin repertoire is compared to his own playing.

This young man [Joshua] Rifkin plays “The Entertainer” the way Joplin played it, and he does a good job with “Maple Leaf Rag” too. He is careful not to play ragtime fast, which is the mistake most of these “revivers” make.

 

In the 1950s, there was also a “ragtime revival” on recordings by Crazy Otto, and on television by Big Tiny Little, Jr., and Joanne Castle on Lawrence Welk’s weekly program. What was your opinion of their “ragtime”?

Some of that got started by the popularity of Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Old Piano Roll Blues,” but then it turned into a pop-music trend with Crazy Otto’s records. Tiny Little was just one of several Crazy Otto imitators, but of course he had the advantage of being seen and heard on television ever week thanks to Welk. Tiny Little was [Little] Jack Little’s son, and although he was probably as good or better a pianist than Jack was, his so-called “ragtime” playing on the Welk show was just “showy.”

Neither he nor Crazy Otto or any of those other imitators of the Crazy Otto style had anything to do with real ragtime. They were playing on uprights that were deliberately out of tune, and their fingering amounted to nothing more than playing the same note an octave apart by playing the higher note with the “pinky” and the lower one with the thumb. Most of them used rolling chords in the bass, which was all wrong. That’s the kind of playing that belongs in a saloon, and it has nothing at all to do with the ragtime of Scott Joplin.

— J.A.D.

 

Editor’s Notes

[1]  Joplin biographer Edward Berlin has Joplin moving to St. Louis in the spring of 1901 (Berlin, Edward A. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and his Era, pp. 97–98. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), which is consistent with the February 1901 St. Louis Dispatch article showing Joplin still in Sedalia.

[2]  Berlin identifies the area in which Joplin resided as St. Louis’ “red-light” district, bounded roughly by 12th Street on the east, Beaumont on the west, Clark on the south, and Morgan on the north (Berlin, op. cit., p. 90).

[3]  Haenschen’s recollections are in agreement with those of other Joplin acquaintances and associates, who described him as “not much socially,” “quiet, serious,” “unassuming,” and “always studying.” (Berlin, op. cit., p. 97).

[4]  In the previous installment, Haenschen recalled having first seen Joplin at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition; but based upon his recollection of Belle Joplin and the large house, the lessons probably took place during 1902–1903. Those were the only years in which Joplin is known to have occupied a house in St. Louis (a thirteen-room structure at 2117 Lucas, a portion of which the Joplins rented to boarders). The Joplins separated in 1903, and Scott Joplin’s only other confirmed St. Louis addresses were apartments.

[5]  Haenschen is referring here to methods used to produce “hand-played” piano rolls, an innovation that first appeared c. 1912–1913, as distinct from the more common practice of having technicians mechanically perforate the rolls.

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For More:

Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years

Gus Haenschen: The Radio Years

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© 2020 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

Gus Haenschen: The St. Louis Years — Part 1 (The James A. Drake Interviews)

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The St. Louis Years — Part 1

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Gus Haenschen (a.k.a. Carl Fenton) served as director of popular music for Brunswick records from 1919 until he resigned in 1927 to pursue a career in commercial broadcasting. His interviews with Jim Drake covering The Brunswick Years and The Radio Years have been posted previously. Beginning with this installment, Haenschen backtracks to recall his formative years in and around St. Louis..

 

As you mentioned, Frank Hummert* was also from St. Louis. Do you recall when you met him, and what he was doing in St. Louis at the time?

Frank got into the exporting business with a partner named Hatfield and their company, Hummert Hatfield, did very well. Being a river city, St. Louis was a natural for importing and exporting. Around the time of the St. Louis Exposition in 1904, when the city was growing rapidly, Frank got a real-estate license and soon had his own company. That’s how I met him.

My family was looking for a home, and my sister Alice, who was a telephone operator at the time, saw one of Frank’s ads in the newspaper. He arranged for us to rent a house on Russell Avenue until we could buy one. We had been living in a house my father had bought in Fenton, one of the suburbs, but we had a crisis in our family and had to sell that house and go into a rental until we could get back on our feet.

 

Is it difficult for you to talk about that period in your life?

No, not at all. The problem was my father. I never got along with him. He was a drinker—which is the main reason I don’t drink—and drunk or sober he was a womanizer, so he was rarely home. When he did show up, he was drinking most of the time, and he was disrespectful not only to my mother but to also my grandmother, who was living with us.

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Gus Haenschen at Washington University, St. Louis (from The Hatchet, 1912)

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Your birth name is Walter Gustave Haenschen. Are you named for your father?

His first name was Walter, but his middle name was Rudolf, or “Rudolph” as he anglicized it. All through my years in St. Louis, and in fact in my early years in New York, I was “Walter G. Haenschen.” My middle name, Gustave, came from my paternal grandfather, whose name was Gustavus but shortened it to “Gustav” without the “e.” He had been a very successful partner in a grain company, Haenschen & Orthwein, and that company helped make St. Louis a major player in the grain market. Before then, Chicago was the grain capital in the northern Midwest, and New Orleans was the grain capital in the south.

My grandfather and his partner, Charlie Orthwein, had become friends when they were working for a wholesale grocery company in St. Louis. The grain business was the fastest-growing part of the grocery industry, so my grandfather and Charlie Orthwein managed to get contracts with some of the big graineries in Chicago and New Orleans. So they created Haenschen & Orthwein and did very, very well. My grandfather’s territory was northern Missouri, and Orthwein’s was the southern part of the state. Eventually, my grandfather sold his share of the business to Orthwein and retired. I was very proud of my grandfather, so eventually I adopted his name, although legally I’m still Walter G. Haenschen.

 

What was your mother’s maiden name?

Freida Gessler—she was named after her mother, who lived with us in the Fenton house. My father left her for another woman when I was nine years old, and he divorced her a year later [in 1899]. That’s why we had to sell the house in Fenton and find a rental until we could get back on our feet as a family.

 

You and your sister were too young to go to work when your father left, so how did the family manage until you and she were old enough to be employed?

When we sold the house, we had enough cash to live on, so that wasn’t a problem at first. My mother was a very fine seamstress, so she became a dressmaker and that gave us some steady cash. We also took in a German girl as a boarder, so the rent she paid for her room and the use of one of our bathrooms added to the coffers. My sister Alice, who is four years younger than I, took night classes at a business college and became a bookkeeper. She got a job as a clerk with a very large bank, so she was bringing in steady money too.

By the time I turned thirteen, I was playing the piano in dime stores, demonstrating sheet music to customers, and playing in movie theaters accompanying [silent] films. In the summer months I was a lifeguard and a stunt diver at the Olympic-size pool that was built for the St. Louis Exposition. I also taught swimming and diving in the summertime, and all year long I was playing the piano anywhere I could get work.

 

How did you meet Gene Rodemich?

Gene was a year younger than I but was already well known in St. Louis as a pianist, bandleader, and the head of an orchestra exchange. We hit it off right away, and we were a good complement to one another. Gene was a good all-around pianist, but he played entirely by ear. Because I was a good sight-reader, he hired me as an arranger and also had me “sub” for him when he was over-booked. He had started writing songs, but because he couldn’t read music and couldn’t score them, he had me do them and also had me write the orchestrations for his band.

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Gene Rodemich, from a November 1916 feature
in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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Actually, I knew Gene’s father before I knew Gene. When I was doing stunt-diving during the summers, I got a pretty good reputation as a high-diver. But one afternoon, I mistimed a dive and hit the edge of the diving board with my upper teeth. I lost all four upper front teeth and had to wait for the swelling to go down enough for a dentist to make me a bridge that matched my natural teeth. That dentist was Gene Rodemich’s father.

At that time, Gene was not only holding down a full-time engagement as the pianist at the Grand Central Theater in St. Louis, but was also writing songs and running this orchestra exchange which put together orchestras of freelance musicians for various events. Two of his songs were local hits—one was called “Easy Melody,” which was essentially a ragtime piece, and the other was a ballad, “Dreams Come True.” I did the arrangements for almost all of the songs his band played.

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A Rodemich-Haenschen collaboration, 1913

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Being a dentist with a very large practice, Gene’s father was very successful, so the family lived well—they had a couple servants, I remember, and Gene had a nice car. Because he came from money, he could afford to take risks, and the orchestra exchange he created would have been a big risk if he didn’t have money to pay the musicians he put together for dance bands. But the orchestra exchange became a good money-maker, and eventually I bought it from him.

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Haenschen takes over Gene Rodemich’s orchestra exchange (top, April 1914). The teaser ad (bottom) is from January 1917.

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The orchestra exchange supplied the musicians for weddings, and I played at a lot of them, including Frank Hummert’s wedding to his first wife [Adeline Woodlock Hummert]. It was through one of those wedding engagements that I got an invitation to play at a big party that the brewery owner Augustus Stroh gave at his mansion. That event, which happened when I was working for Gene Rodemich’s exchange, was a turning point in my career.

 

In what way was it a turning point?

I wanted to go to college and become an engineer, but I couldn’t afford the tuition. Augustus Busch, who was on the board of trustees and was a big donor to Washington University, took a liking to me and got me admitted to the University’s school of engineering. He was a founding member of a very wealthy country club, the Sunset [Hill] Country Club, so he made sure that I played piano at a lot of the events there.

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Haenschen at the Sunset Hill Country Club, as orchestra leader (top, June 1914) and swimming star (bottom, June 1918).

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He was also an investor in the St. Louis Cardinals, so I got the idea that if I could put together a band, I could play between innings at the games. Mr. Stroh thought it was a good idea, so he told me that if I had a band, he would help me with the management so I could play between innings. I had a friend named Tom Schiffer, who played traps [trap drums], and he and I began putting together a band from the roster in the Rodemich orchestra exchange.

 

He’s identified as “Theodore Thomas Schiffer” in most sources that I have been able to locate—but he was called “Tom”?

Those were the days of Theodore Roosevelt, who was famously known as “Teddy,” although nobody called him that to his face from what I was told. Because of “T.R.,” any boy named Theodore was bound to be called “Teddy,” which Schiffer didn’t like. So he decided to be called “Tom” instead.

 

Did it take you long to put together a band?

No, because I had the pick of the roster of the orchestra exchange. Tom [Schiffer] was my full-time partner so he played in every gig I could get, but the other guys I hired would vary according to which ones were available on any given date. But the instruments were pretty much the same: a banjo or a mandolin, a trumpet, a trombone, two saxes, one clarinet, a Sousaphone, Tom Schiffer on the trap drums, and me leading the group.

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 How did you get the band on the field between innings?

The whole band was seated on a wooden platform, a large pallet, that had four small-diameter wheels and tires, and a hitch to pull it onto the field with a Model T Ford. We might do just two numbers between innings. Naturally, we began with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and then we’d play a rag or some other up-tempo tune. Whatever we played, we played loud!

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Between your classes at Washington University, your engagements at the Sunset Country Club, and the many others you were booking in and around St. Louis, how did you manage to get where you were going on time?

On a motorcycle. I had two of them at different times. Both were used, and I bought them from the Mound City Cycle Company. The first was a one-cylinder Royal, which was okay, but then I “upgraded” to a twin-cylinder Indian cycle with what used to be called “touch tires.” These were very durable tube tires that would take fast cornering very well and were good on any road surface.

When I rode I had to wear a cap, goggles, and what was called a “rain suit,” which was sort of a jumpsuit made out of tweed that was coated to make it waterproof. You had to have it recoated about once a year. It had a big zipper around the middle of this one-piece suit, so I could get in and out of it quickly.

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Haenschen takes a motorcycle trip, July 1912

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I always slipped on rubber galoshes to keep my shoes clean, and the legs of the rain suit were bell-bottomed so they would cover the tops of the galoshes. That rain suit helped keep my dress suit and shirt and tie clean. If it wasn’t for that twin-cylinder Indian, I wouldn’t have been able to make it from the University to wherever I was playing. But I made it on time every time, so I got a reputation for being very dependable.

 

We know from your collection that you made several trips to Sedalia, Missouri. Did you ride your motorcycle there? And what took you to Sedalia?

No, I took the interurban [train] to Sedalia. I went there because Scott Joplin, who was the “father of ragtime” and whose “Maple Leaf Rag” was a big hit, had agreed to let me meet him to talk about taking some lessons from him. I arranged to meet him at the Maple Leaf Café, where was playing. He named the rag after the café. I had seen him from a distance in St. Louis during the 1904 World’s Fair. He had written a rag called “[The] Cascades,” and during the first week of the fair [April 30–May 6, 1904], he had played it several times, and had made an arrangement for John Philip Sousa to conduct.

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Festival Hall at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Scott Joplin, who Haenschen recalled having seen at the fair, named his classic rag for the Cascade Gardens that fronted the hall.

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You were a teenager during the World’s Fair. Are there particular memories that you have of that event?

Oh, yes. I was fifteen at the time, and I have all sorts of memories of the fair. I went several times, and took my mother, grandmother, and my sister with me one of those times. One of the “wonders” we rode in was an electric streetcar, in front of the Palace of Electricity. Streetcars were pulled by horses in those days, so seeing this large, shiny electric streetcar was really something. The tracks were almost 2,000 feet long, if my memory is right, and you could ride the streetcar as often as there was an open seat in it. What seemed so amazing was that it would accelerate really fast but there was no noise, just the barely audible whine of the motor.

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Night-time illumination at the Palace of Electricity

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Electricity was a major draw at the fair. There was a Palace of Electricity, and Edison had helped raise a lot of funds for that exhibit. Westinghouse had his own building, and he had donated funds for the construction of an observation tower that was actually a radio tower. [Alexander Graham] Bell had invented a wireless telephone, and the generator for the wireless signal was inside the Palace of Electricity. Outside the building, there was a row of telephone receivers that didn’t have any wires. Workers from the Bell Company acted as guides, handing people a receiver so they could hear music or conversations that were being transmitted without wires.

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The fair’s pipe organ

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Another memory I have is the enormous pipe organ that was built specially for the fair. It was built in Los Angeles, and had six manuals, twenty-two rows of stops, and the largest and most numerous pipes of any organ in the nation at that time. The fair was supposed to open with a concert on that organ played by Charles Galloway, a famous Missouri organist. Unfortunately, there were problems with the organ and the concert had to be delayed for about six weeks. But when Galloway gave that concert, it was one of the great events of the fair.

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A New York-to-St. Louis auto caravan arrives at the fair.

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Weren’t automobiles and even airplanes a major attraction at the fair?

There were over one hundred cars on display—steam cars, electric cars, and gasoline cars. Most of the heads of the manufacturing companies came at different times during the fair—Henry Ford came, and I heard that [Walter] Baker, the inventor of the Baker Electric, was also there to demonstrate his cars. I don’t remember seeing but one airplane, which was on display rather than in the air. It was a Wright Brothers machine like the one they flew at Kitty Hawk.

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Haenschen recalled having seen a Wright Brothers plane at the 1904 exposition. Baldwin’s Airship was also there, as part of the St. Louis Department of Transportation’s display (bottom).

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Most of the buildings at world fairs were built to be temporary. Was that true of the ones at the St. Louis Fair?

Yes—many of them were made of plaster and hemp, but they were beautifully sculpted and painted and most of them still looked new at the end of the fair. They were constantly touched up. Now, Festival Hall, where Joplin introduced “Cascades,” was one of the permanent buildings, and it became part of the Washington University campus.

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The fair’s buildings were acquired in 1906 by the Chicago House Wrecking Company, which resold the more-permanent buildings and scrapped the remaining structures.

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.After the fair, the permanent buildings and the cascades and the pool where the Olympic swimming events were held were renamed the Exhibition Pavilion, which was later changed to the Forest Park Pavilion. It was still a draw when I was at Washington University. That pool was where I did most of my stunt diving, and it’s what got me an emergency appointment with Gene Rodemich’s dentist father.

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* Frank and Anne Hummert later founded Air Features, a broadcast production company with which Haenschen worked; see The Radio Years — Part 3.

 

For More:

Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years

Gus Haenschen: The Radio Years

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© 2020 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

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

Good Listening:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In this final segment of The Radio Years, Gus Haenschen recalls his later experiences in radio and the changes that took place as television came upon the scene.

Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:

Brunswick Years – Part 1  |  Brunswick Years – Part 2
Brunswick Years – Part 3  |  Brunswick Years – Part 4
Radio Years – Part 1  |  Radio Years – Part 2
Radio Years – Part 3

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About the music programs you were responsible for, I’m inclined to begin by asking you what the Hummerts’ fascination with Thomas L. Thomas stemmed from.

You would have to have known Thomas to understand that. If you have ever seen film of him, you’d understand it because he was a handsome man, very engaging, a first-rate musician, and very, very easy to work with.

 

But his voice, to my ears, is small and his tone is more of a lyric tenor than a baritone.

It wasn’t as small as you might think. His voice carried very well, even in a large venue. That didn’t matter on radio, of course, but when we were on tour and were singing in armories, his voice carried very well. And he could sing anything—he had a very wide repertoire—so if he sang a folk ballad, it would sound like a folk ballad, and if he sang a song from a Jerome Kern musical, it would sound like a Broadway singer would sing it. It was his versatility, more than anything else, that made him so popular.

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Vivian Della Chiesa (left) and Thomas L. Thomas

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John Raitt told me that Thomas L. Thomas was his model, and that he wanted to do as Thomas did and have a concert career as well as to sing on television and on Broadway.

When John was starting out, he asked me a lot about [Thomas L.] Thomas. John was meant for Broadway, and his voice is much more distinctive and a good bit larger than Thomas’s was. But John did not have the level of musicianship that Thomas had. John Raitt would never have had a concert career like Thomas L. Thomas did. Nor would Thomas have had a Broadway career like John Raitt has had.

 

Thomas had a brother, David Thomas, who was also a singer. Did you have David Thomas on any of the Hummert programs?

No. David Thomas was basically a character actor who could do some singing. His whole career was spent in Broadway musicals and plays. He was in just about every performance of “My Fair Lady” [on Broadway], singing a character role in the ensembles. But he was an actor, not a singer like Thomas L. Thomas was.

 

In your archive, there is an air-check of an arrangement you wrote for Thomas L. Thomas and Margaret Daum, a symphonic arrangement of “White Christmas.” Do you recall that arrangement?

Very well—especially when I got a call afterward from Irving Berlin, who gave me a real shellacking over the phone! He told me that I had not only ruined the song but that I had also “wasted” an entire minute distorting his melody before Thomas and Daum had sung a note.

 

Did you defend the arrangement?

At Brunswick, I had learned not to try to reason with Berlin when he was mad. I could have said, “At least I didn’t have them sing the verse,” which if you’ve ever heard it, has nothing to do with Christmas. The verse is a lament about being in Beverly Hills and being surrounded by palm trees instead of pine trees. Anyway, all I said to him was that it wouldn’t happen again. That’s all you could say to Berlin when he was yelling at you over the phone. You could also count on getting a short but very complimentary letter from Berlin a week or so later. He wouldn’t mention the incident but would tell you that he and his wife often listened to your program.

 

The “White Christmas” arrangement was broadcast on “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round.” Was Thomas L. Thomas the star of the show week after week, or was he on it only occasionally?

He was the male star of “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round” at that time, and he was also on the Monday broadcast of the show [“Monday Merry-Go-Round”] and later on Frank and Anne gave him a half-hour program called “Your Song and Mine,” which was a middle-of-the-week show. By then, he was singing a lot on “The Voice of Firestone,” which he continued to do on television. He was still concertizing, and he sang all over Europe and I think in Australia too.

 

The Hummerts had a show called “London Merry-Go-Round.” Were you involved in that show?

No. They owned the rights to it, but the show was cast and broadcast in London. I didn’t have anything to do with it, and for all practical purposes neither did Frank and Anne.

 

There was another variation called “Broadway Merry-Go-Round.” Did you oversee that show too?

Yes, in the sense that I put in Frank Black as the conductor and let him pick the songs. Frank and Anne had this fascination with Paris, so everything on that show was supposed to be French-themed. We mixed comic songs and ballads on that show. Fannie Brice did the first half of the run of that show, but she had so many other offers that she didn’t want to be tied down to a weekly radio show. Bea Lillie was very popular then, so she replaced Fannie Brice—but that show only lasted one season, if my memory is right.

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Haenschen with Vivian Della Chiesa

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The Hummerts had another French show, “The French Mignon Trio,” but there isn’t much about it in your collection. Do you remember the show?

Unfortunately, I do. I was against it, but Anne wanted a daytime music show with a small cast and nothing but French songs. She came up with the title, which I thought was atrocious, but I couldn’t do anything about it because once her mind was made up, there was no changing it. I wish I could remember who the announcer was, but his name escapes me. He couldn’t pronounce “Mignon” at first and had to be told that it was pronounced the same as “filet mignon.” I’m not sure whether that show lasted an entire season, or whether Frank quietly dropped it.

 

Going back to “Broadway Merry-Go-Round,” the Hummerts had another “Broadway” show on the air that same season called “Broadway Varieties.” What do you remember about that show?

That one ran about five or six years. It didn’t do very well at first, mainly because Jerry Freeman, whom I had picked to conduct the show and handle the arrangements, just didn’t work out. It was also French-themed—not every number, but at least some of them in every show—and Jerry Freeman just didn’t give the show any life. So I turned it over to Vic Arden, and he made a go of it. Fifi D’Orsay was one of the stars. Willie and Gene Howard were on that show too. That was a show that we started on NBC and then switched to CBS for a better time slot and higher advertising rates. We also did that with another show, “American Melody Hour.”

 

Was the theme of that show “The songs of the day so you can know them all and sing them all yourself”?

Yes, Anne [Hummert] came up with that one. That’s very typical of her [writing] style, by the way. That’s the style of the narratives on their soap operas. “American Melody Hour” was a good show because of the cast and the arrangements. Frank Munn did the whole run, and Vivian Della Chiesa did the first season. Vivian wanted to go on tour, where she could make a lot more money. She was in good standing with Frank and Anne, and she promised she would do any shows that they wanted her for. She stayed with them, and she was on several of their shows later on.

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Vivian Della Chiesa and Frank Munn on “The American Melody Hour” (Autumn 1941)

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Who conducted and did the arrangements for “American Melody Hour”?

Frank Black did all of them. When Vivian wanted to go on tour, we were in negotiations to move the show from NBC to CBS. When we went over to CBS, we put in Evelyn MacGregor, who was very good, and Jean Pickens was on the show for a time. Stan[ley] McClelland was the baritone, and he and Frank [Munn] did a lot of duets. And Carmela Ponselle too—she was on several of the “American Melody Hour” shows when we went to CBS.

 

There was a show called “Waltz Time,” which I believe you conducted.

That was a long-running show, but I only conducted its first season—maybe the first and second, I’m not sure—but most of them were conducted by Abe Lyman. We put together that show as another vehicle for Frank Munn. He sang on every program until he retired, and then we put in a young lyric tenor named Bob Hannon. We paired Frank with Lucy Monroe, who did almost the entire run.

 

For some reason, it’s hard to envision Abe Lyman leading an orchestra that played nothing but waltzes. Was it a “hard sell” to get him to do that show?

No, not at all. “Waltz Time” was a very popular program, and it made Abe a lot of money. It wasn’t the kind of music he preferred playing, but he still had his own band and was still touring with them. But this was a solid program in a very good time slot, and the money was very, very good.

 

Although these shows emanated from New York, several of the Hummert programs had “Hollywood” in their titles—“Hollywood Nights,” “The Imperial Hollywood Band,” and “MGM Radio Movie Club.” You conducted “The Imperial Hollywood Band” program, but did you also conduct the other ones?

Well, first of all, “MGM Radio Movie Club” wasn’t a musical program at all. Anne [Hummert] had this idea for a show that would simulate a movie studio. It was a dialogue show with actors playing the parts of directors, cameramen, producers and such. “The Imperial Hollywood Band” was a show we used for up and coming singers and instrumentalists. I did most of the arrangements, picked who would be featured on each program, and conducted the orchestra.

 

And “Hollywood Nights”?

That was a show we put together at NBC for Frank Luther, but it didn’t “take” and was only one for a year. Frank was a good ensemble singer but he wasn’t strong enough to carry a show by himself.

 

In those early days of network radio, who decided whether a show would continue on the air or be cancelled?

That depended on whether the show was sponsored. The ones that weren’t sponsored were underwritten by the network and were called “sustaining,” meaning that the network was paying the tab. If a show was sponsored, the sponsors would deal directly with the network’s advertising people. But for all the Hummerts’ programs, Frank dealt with the sponsors and with the network. He was the one who put the sponsors together with the shows, and he called the shots with the sponsors and the network. That’s how much power he had.

 

Would [Frank Hummert] take on a music program before he had a sponsor for it—in effect, “sustaining” a program until he could find a sponsor?

No, never. There was no money to be made in a situation like that. Keep in mind that Frank’s career was in advertising. Sponsors were what mattered the most to him.

 

One of the Hummert music program was called “California Theatre of the Air.” Did it originate in California?

No, it originated in New York. It was a knock-off of “Chicago Theatre of the Air,” the show that Col. [Robert R.] McCormick used as a showcase for Marion Claire. Frank knew McCormick from his [Frank Hummert’s] years in Chicago. That “California Theatre of the Air” only lasted one season because there was nothing distinctive about it.

 

The Hummerts also had a show called “Nightclub of the Air” in the mid-1930s. What was the premise of that program?

That show was pretty open-ended. Any of the popular bands could appear on the show, and Isham Jones, Gus Arnheim, Abe Lyman, Fred Waring, and Ted Fiorito were on it. Milton Cross was the announcer of that show.

 

The Hummerts also had a program called “Roxy Symphony Theater of the Stars.” How much interaction did they have with “Roxy” Rothafel?

Not very much because it was Roxy’s theater and the program was essentially a broadcast of one of the stage shows at Radio City Music Hall during the first year or two that it was open.

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S. L. “Roxy” Rothafel (left) and conductor Erno Rapee

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Were you involved with the show yourself?

No, hardly at all. Roxy had hired Erno Rapee as his conductor, and he had a staff of arrangers. The Radio City orchestra had over 100 players, and of course they had a large chorus and that famous dance troupe. All I did was to look over what would be sung or played. Rapee had done several sessions for us at World Broadcasting, so he and I knew each other very well, and he knew what songs the Hummerts wanted to hear. But Roxy and Radio City were so big that they didn’t need the Hummerts, so that program didn’t last more than a year or two.

 

There was another short-lived program around that same time, called “Waves of Melody.” What do you remember about that show?

I think that was the one that began as a fifteen-minute program at NBC, then Frank expanded it to a half-hour, and it went nowhere. Vic[tor] Arden oversaw the arrangements and conducted the orchestra, and Frank [Hummert] found a tenor that he wanted Vic to feature. I can’t remember the name of the tenor [Tom Brown], but he didn’t go anywhere and the show didn’t either.

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In your collection, there are arrangements for a show called “The Musical Revue” which you conducted. What was the format of that program?

That was basically “The Palmolive Hour” under a different title, with Frank Munn, Virginia Rea, and Elizabeth Lennox and our studio orchestra. Frank Black and I alternated conducting the shows, and we did the arrangements as well.

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“The Pet Milk Hour” in a later incarnation, as “Saturday Night Serenade.” This ad is from a 1940s Pet Milk cookbook.

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One of your most popular shows late in your radio career was “The Pet Milk Hour,” which we had talked about before. In the late-1940s you gave two singers a start on that show: Vic Damone and Florence Henderson. I don’t believe either one of them had any national exposure until you put them on “The Pet Milk Hour.” Had you auditioned them?

Perry Como had recommended Vic to me. I had met Perry when he was with Ted Weems’ band, and I had given him some advice when he went out on his own. Vic was ideal to work with. Florence Henderson wasn’t with us very long. She was a conservatory graduate and had wanted to be an opera singer, but she really didn’t have the voice for it.

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Perry Como recommended Vic Damone to Haenschen for the Pet Milk broadcasts.

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Are you still in touch with both Vic Damone and Florence Henderson?

With Vic, yes, but not Florence Henderson. She’s so big on television now, and she doesn’t like to be reminded of her radio days because it dates her. Vic is just as popular today as he was twenty-five years ago. He’s followed Perry’s example of keeping in shape physically and vocally.

 

The longest-running of the Hummert shows, and the one you were associated with from beginning to end, was “The American Album of Familiar Music.” You did that show for twenty years, so it must hold a special place in your memory.

That was my show, it was my format, and I had the pick of anybody I wanted for that program. From the start [in 1931], I always mixed light classical music with popular music, so I was able to vary the repertoire and give the show a different “feel” than the other [Hummert] programs. I had my “regulars” on the show—especially Frank Munn, Virginia Rea, Lucy Monroe, Elizabeth Lennox, and Vivian Della Chiesa—but I also had Bert[ram] Hirsch heading the string section, and an excellent chorus too. Over the years, all of the guys who played in our World Broadcasting sessions—both Dorseys, [Benny] Goodman, Artie [Shaw] and the others—were in “The American Album” orchestra.

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Haenschen as the face of “The American Album of Familiar Music”

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When “The American Album” went off the air in 1951, you continued touring with the entire orchestra and cast until 1954.

I liked those annual tours, and I had discovered a new tenor who was perfect for everything we did on that show. His name was Earl William Sauvain, and he sang under the name “Earl William.” Earl was built like a lumberjack, and was a very handsome young guy. And what a tenor voice! I owe Jim Melton for Earl William Sauvain because Jim had discovered Lilian Murphy Sauvain, Earl’s wife, who was also a singer and a very attractive, petite woman. Well, I put together the best vocal trio I had ever had on “The American Album”: Earl as the tenor, and a good-looking baritone named Michael Roberts, and Vivian Della Chiesa as our soprano. My one regret is that I hadn’t come across Earl much, much earlier, when I could have given him more exposure and a longer career as a star. He certainly deserved it.

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“American Album” artists: Gus Haenschen (top left); Vivian Della Chiesa (top right); Earl William (Sauvain) (bottom left); and Michael Roberts (bottom right).

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In 1953 and 1954, even though “The American Album of Familiar Music” was no longer on the air, you toured the country from October 27 to December 16, 1953, and then again from late-October to mid-December 1954, you performed in fifty cities in fifty days. That’s a grueling schedule in a caravan of buses!

I won’t disagree about the schedule—but you also don’t hear me saying that I didn’t want to do it. I loved being on the road with “The American Album.” We were received like royalty wherever we performed, and all of us had a great time doing those tours.

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After radio: Examples of an “American Album of Familiar Music” program and their grueling itinerary in the early 1950s, from Haenschen’s archive.

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Being responsible to the Hummerts for overseeing all of their music programs must have been extremely time-consuming. How did you manage all of those programs?

The same way I managed all of the popular-music recording sessions for Brunswick, and after that the output of the World Broadcasting Company. None of the Hummert radio shows were complicated from a musical standpoint—the arrangements weren’t hard to do, we had the pick of the best studio musicians and singers, and Frank handled the sponsors and the networks. Frank and Anne ran their entire operation—the music shows, the soap operas, the kids’ shows, the detective shows—like a machine. I had gotten used to that long ago, so it wasn’t a problem for me.

 

Were you surprised that they didn’t carry their “radio empire” into television?

Not really, because television and radio were totally different in the late-1940s. Most people thought television was a fad that would go away. Even after the coaxial cable that linked the East and West coasts was completed, television sets were expensive and unreliable, and the networks—especially NBC—saw themselves as radio networks. If you remember television in the late-1940s, you’ll remember that except in New York and Chicago, television went on the air in the morning, and then went off the air until the late afternoon. The market for television programs was kids’ shows until Milton Berle started his Texaco show.

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1954 advance booking notice for the “American Album” group

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You could have turned “The American Album of Familiar Music” into a television program, much the same as Fred Waring did with the Pennsylvanians. Were you at all tempted to do that?

Actually, Fred persuaded me to get into television. He was sure it was here to stay. [Paul] Whiteman had gotten a television show, and NBC had already televised Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, so Fred really encouraged me to go into television. But Frank [Hummert] didn’t want to make the switch, and I had already been in show business for thirty years, mostly on radio except for my years at Brunswick, so I didn’t want to get involved in a new medium.

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Reviews for the “American Album” concerts, early 1950s

 

You did at least one television show with Jimmy Durante in 1949 or 1950. How did that come about?

He asked me to conduct the orchestra for one of his television shows. I used to kid Jimmy that I knew him before he was Jimmy Durante. I met him when he was a ragtime pianist.

 

That was before he teamed with Lew Clayton and Eddie Jackson?

Long before that. I’m talking about 1919, when Jimmy was the pianist with the Original New Orleans Jazz Band. In those days, Lew Clayton was in big-time vaudeville with Cliff Edwards. They were a big draw on the Keith Circuit, and with the Shuberts—they were an opening act for Jolson at the Winter Garden. But back when I met Jimmy Durante, he was just a ragtime pianist in cafes. Then he opened his own club, the Club Durant, and got Lew Clayton to invest in it. That was the start of Clayton, Jackson and Durante.

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Jimmy Durante (center) with the Original New Orleans Jazz Band, c. 1919.

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Where was the television show you conducted for Jimmy Durante telecast?

At NBC. I have a kinescope of it. Jimmy had come into his own long before then, and he was a big star. If you think about his career, he has done everything and has done it well. He was in one of the earliest jazz bands in New York, and then he made it big on Broadway with Clayton and Jackson—but it was Jimmy who was the star. He went into radio, and was also in several films that did very well, and then he became a television star. I feel so bad for him now because of the stroke he had about three years ago [in 1972]. Jimmy is one of the nicest guys in show business, and he’s the same off the stage as he is on the stage.

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Haenschen (right) signing autographs for “American Album” fans in Boston. Earl William (Sauvain) is at the left.

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After “The American Album of Familiar Music” went off the air, and you did the annual tours, were you still with the Hummerts?

I still had my position with Air Features, but television had taken hold by then, and Frank was having health problems. His health began to fail around 1960. It’s been almost ten years since Frank died [in 1966].

Do you still see Anne Hummert?

My wife spends time with her. Anne is a lost soul without Frank. They were so wrapped up in each other because of the sheer amount of shows they had on the air. But they had no children and very few friends, so Anne didn’t have many people to help her through Frank’s illness and death.

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Anne Hummert in 1939, when she was honored by editors of The Biographical Dictionary of American Women as “One of the most important women in America.”

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I should have asked you this first, but what brought you to the Hummerts, or the Hummerts to you?

Frank offered me the position. He came to me.

 

Just Frank Hummert, and not Anne?

She had nothing to do with it. Frank and I had known each other long before he got into radio.

 

Had you met him when he was in the advertising business in Chicago?

No, no—in St. Louis. Frank’s father, whom Frank is named for [Edwin Frank Hummert, Jr.] was an exporter in St. Louis. Frank, who was five years older than I, started out working for his father in the export business. He wrote ads for the family business, and was such a good writer that he was hired by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Then he got into the real-estate business, first as an agent and then as a broker, and he made a ton of money in real estate.

Frank was also a “regular” at the St. Louis Cardinals games. My band played between innings, and Frank looked me up when he was still with the Post-Dispatch. He gave me a lot of good press. Then he decided to start his own advertising agency—and my band, and then Gene Rodemich’s, were among his first clients. When Frank married his first wife, Ellie [Adeline Eleanor Woodlock], I was the pianist at their wedding reception. Ellie died in her early forties, when she and Frank were living in Chicago.

Anne knew that I had been part of Frank’s life with his first wife, and I think that’s why Frank never involved her in any of his dealings with me. But like so many other things in my life, my years with Frank Hummert go back to St. Louis. That’s where it all started for me.

— J. A. D

 

In the next installment, Haenschen recalls his formative years in St. Louis, including previously unpublished details concerning his privately made Banjo Orchestra records.
Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:

Brunswick Years – Part 1  |  Brunswick Years – Part 2
Brunswick Years – Part 3  |  Brunswick Years – Part 4
Radio Years – Part 1  |  Radio Years – Part 2
Radio Years – Part 3

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

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Gus Haenschen: The Radio Years — Part 3

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The Radio Years — Part 3

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In this installment, Haenschen takes us inside Frank and Anne Hummert’s radio programming empire and offers a glimpse of a coming sea-change in the recorded-sound industry — the introduction of tape mastering and editing.

Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:

Brunswick Years – Part 1  |  Brunswick Years – Part 2
Brunswick Years – Part 3  |  Brunswick Years – Part 4
Radio Years – Part 1  |  Radio Years – Part 2

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After the “Champion Spark Plug Hour,” your files indicate that your next major radio appearance was the “RCA Demonstration Hour,” a mid-afternoon program on the NBC Blue network in August 1929. What are your recollections of that program?

That was a one-time program that [RCA founder and president David] Sarnoff wanted. He specified that he wanted familiar classical melodies featured on that program.

 

According to newspaper accounts of the broadcast, you conducted “Gustave Haenschen’s Little Symphony Orchestra” and also “The Singing Strings.” Do you recall any of the arrangements you used on the “Demonstration Hour”?

Only a few that Frank [Black] had arranged for our “Singing Strings”—the Meditation from Thais, an arrangement of the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, familiar classical melodies of that sort. The program was very well received because NBC and RCA really promoted it. That was the advantage of being with NBC during its early days. [NBC founder David] Sarnoff was very accessible to us, and his energy and vision were inspiring because radio was still new, and we were new to radio.

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Program listing for the “RCA Demonstration Hour” (July 1929)

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With very few exceptions, your radio shows were owned by Air Features, Inc., and from your personal archives I gather that you and all of the artists who performed on those programs were also employed by Air Features. Was Air Features a subsidiary of NBC or an independent production company?

The short answer is that Air Features was the name that two of the most important and powerful people in the radio industry came up with for their incorporation papers. From about 1930 till 1950, these two people, Frank and Anne Hummert, produced, directed and controlled 135 radio programs of every kind imaginable. Soap operas, which they essentially invented, were their bread and butter as far as most of the public knew, but they also produced and aired cooking shows, detective shows, kids’ shows, game shows, and of course musical programs.

To appreciate what Frank and Anne built, just add up the number of hours each week that their programs were on the air—an average of 36 hours of airtime every week. That was unheard of from independent producers, and it’s still the most airtime any producer or for that matter any performer has ever had on the air at the same time.

 

That’s more than Arthur Godfrey, who seemed to “own” television and radio in the 1950s, had on the air every week.

Not just “more,” but much more. At his peak, Godfrey accounted for about 15 hours a week on the air—not quite half of the total weekly airtime the Hummerts’ shows commanded. And their shows were on all three networks: the two NBC networks, the Red and the Blue, and on CBS.

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Anne and Frank Hummert

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In your archives, there are few photos of the Hummerts, and they look more like a father-daughter team than a husband and wife. Frank Hummert appears to be considerably older, very bony-looking, with thinning hair and a slight curvature in his neck. Anne Hummert, on the other hand, looks like she could be his daughter. Her personal trademark seemed to be her white-framed glasses and ever-present stenography pad. Were they as eccentric as photos of them suggest?

“Eccentric” fits them pretty well. They had become very, very wealthy from their radio shows, although Frank had been wealthy by most any standards before he hired Anne as an assistant. Frank had been an advertising executive for most of his working life, and had also made a lot of money in residential real estate when he was young. But that was years before he met Anne, when he was married to his first wife. She died young, and as often happens when a man loses his wife, Frank threw himself into his work. His work became his whole life. Then years later, he married Anne.

 

Do you know how they met?

Sure, of course. Her name was Anne Schumacher at that time. She was a college graduate [of Goucher College] with a real gift for writing. She had gotten a job writing for The Baltimore Sun while she was still in college, and the city desk editor, John Ashenhurt, took a liking to her. He and Anne got married in the late-1920s, I think in 1927 or 1928, and Anne became pregnant not too long after they got married.

Then Ashenhurst got an offer from one of the newspapers in Chicago, so they moved there. It was all right at first, but Anne had been used to working and was now stuck at home raising their baby. She was eager to find any kind of writing job she could get, and could work from home as much as possible.

Chicago was home to a lot of advertising agencies, and one of the biggest was called “Blackett-Sample-Hummert.” From what Frank told me, he had been offered a partnership in the agency but turned it down because he didn’t want to be tied to them. He and they compromised by putting his name on the agency because Frank was the key to their success. He turned out so many catch phrases, or slogans, for all kinds of products, and he was raking in money for the agency, so he was able to have his name on the agency without being tied to them.

 

When did he meet Anne [Ashenhurst]?

Frank was known for working almost around the clock, so he had several assistants—that agency was a very big operation—but a lot of them didn’t last because they couldn’t keep up with the workload he demanded. He happened to hire Anne to fill one of those assistant jobs when somebody quit. Well, he soon found out that she could outwork anybody. He kept testing her by giving her more and more to do, but the more responsibilities he gave her, the more ads she turned out. She was as driven and as meticulously organized as he was.

 

Was it Anne Hummert who conceived of the so-called “soap opera”?

No, no—that was Frank’s idea. Around the time [William S.] Paley got into radio in the late-1920s, his new network, CBS, was following the lead of NBC for daytime programs. It was obvious that women, or “homemakers” as they were called, were the audience for daytime radio. The two NBC networks put on daytime programs that were geared to women, including dramas, but those programs weren’t “serials”—in other words, Tuesday’s program didn’t pick up where Monday’s left off.

Frank had always been a movie fan, and like most of us who went to the movies in the 1910s, he saw how popular a serial called The Perils of Pauline was with movie audiences. That serial was so popular that other movie studios started producing serials, and they sold a ton of tickets.

What Frank [Hummert] did was to take the movie-serial concept and put it on radio. Then he got companies he was dealing with as an advertiser to sponsor them. Procter and Gamble was one of his biggest clients, and he got them to sponsor these daytime radio serials. That’s where the phrase “soap opera” came from. The “soap” was from Procter and Gamble, and “opera” was from the plots of these daily dramas, which had more twists and turns than Il Trovatore.

 

So, then, Frank Hummert came up with the idea of a daytime radio serial—but didn’t Anne Hummert write most of them?

Oh, no—that would have been impossible! It’s really hard to imagine today how many programs Frank and Anne Hummert had on the air on all three networks. They were producing sixty soap operas every week. Each of those shows aired Monday through Friday, so that meant that they had to have 300 scripts a week just for the soap operas—and soap operas were only part of [the Hummerts’] weekly schedule. There were all of the musical programs, not to mention the detective shows, kids’ shows, sports programs, and all the other shows they were responsible for every week.

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The Hummerts’ “soap opera factory” (1944)

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How did the Hummerts manage so large an operation?

Well, there are two answers to that question: their drive, which was phenomenal, and their ability to stay ahead of the growth of this empire that they built. Those two ingredients—the fact that both of them were so driven, and the fact that they could create and produce so many programs every year while also thinking up new ones and foreseeing how to manage their current programs and preparing the new ones simultaneously—that’s what made them so successful.

 

Yet they could walk down the busiest streets in Manhattan and no one knew who they were.

That’s right, and that’s just how they wanted it. You have to understand that they were in the entertainment industry. They were in show business but they weren’t entertainers—they weren’t “show people,” they were business people. For them, all of the trappings that entertainers typically want—their name in lights on a marquee, crowds of fans wanting autographs, and all of that fluff meant nothing to Frank and Anne Hummert. What mattered to them was power, wealth, and above all anonymity. The name of their holding company was Air Features, Inc., not Hummert, Inc.

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Anne and Frank Hummert (center and right) at CBS

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How would you describe your role in Air Features? What was the range of your responsibilities with the company?

I was the Director of Musical Programs for the whole corporation, so I was responsible for putting together, overseeing, and in several cases arranging and conducting all of the Hummert musical programs. There were fifteen different programs every week during the 1930s and 1940s, and I was the one who had to put together the orchestras, choruses and soloists, review and approve all of the [musical] arrangements for every program, review every script for the announcers, and oversee all of the rehearsals for every one of those programs.

 

How in the world did you do all of that?

I guess the way I would answer that is by saying that like the Hummerts, I was in the “business” of entertainment, and I had already had similar responsibilities at Brunswick, and even more when we created World Broadcasting and built it into a very large enterprise. I was used to getting the maximum amount done in a minimum amount of time. I could get all of the top studio musicians because they had worked with me already and knew what I was like to work for. The same with the arrangers, especially Frank Black. Between us, we hired dozens and dozens of arrangers.

 

Is it true that the Hummerts would only pay scale to musicians?

Well, that was their policy, but I had a lot of discretion about how much I could give as bonuses to players or singers who were making a lot of money for us. In the early 1930s, during the worst of the Depression, if you were a studio musician, steady work was the most important thing to you. If I approved hiring you at Air Features—and I would only do that for musicians I had already worked with, or ones who the best players recommended to me—then you had all the work you could possibly want. You might not like the music you had to play, but you were guaranteed long-term work as long as you were doing your best for us on the air.

 

About the selections for each program, did you choose them?

Technically, no—Anne Hummert picked every song for every program. But she was so busy with the soap operas and the other shows that I would draft the selections for each program, and she would approve most of them as soon as she read the draft. I knew what she liked, which was a mix of waltzes, love songs, operetta arias, and some “light” classical music, so I suggested what I knew she wanted to hear.

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Bob Hannon, Evelyn MacGregor, and Victor Arden reviewing music for the Air Features series, “Waltz Time.”

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How could she possibly monitor that many weekly music programs?

She couldn’t, any more than she and Frank could monitor sixty soap operas and the twenty or more other programs that they produced. They contracted for air-checks for all the programs, but they rarely had time to listen to them. But what they would do was to drop in unannounced at rehearsals. They could tell in two or three minutes how a rehearsal was going, and if they didn’t like some aspect of what they were hearing, whoever was responsible for that program would have a memo in his mail slot by the end of that same day, telling them what was good and what wasn’t good. The fact that they would drop in unannounced to any rehearsal is what kept the actors, announcers, and all the musicians in top form.

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The Hummerts drop in on a rehearsal.

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With your own schedule, being responsible for every facet of fifteen weekly musical programs on all three major networks at one time or another, how much rehearsal time could you put in before a broadcast?

I limited all of my shows’ rehearsals to thirty minutes before airtime. That meant the players and soloists were to be in the studio one hour before airtime, to spend the first half of that hour going over the arrangements and warming up. At exactly thirty minutes before airtime, they were to be in place, either sitting behind a music stand or on a riser if they were in the chorus, or standing near the microphones if they were soloists.

I would start the rehearsal by saying, for example, “Number 8, first ten bars of the refrain,” and whoever was scheduled to sing or play the eighth number on the program had to begin performing it immediately. As soon as I heard that it was right, I would motion for them to stop and then I’d pick another number and have the orchestra or the chorus perform several bars of that selection.

Keep in mind that these were many of the top studio musicians in the industry, so this was their livelihood. They knew that rehearsal time was kept to a minimum, and that if they weren’t in peak form and ready to go when the “On the Air” light went on, they weren’t going to be on the payroll anymore.

 

You mentioned that Frank Hummert was a widower when he hired Anne as an assistant. It seems as if she rose to the top of his agency in no time at all, and then was overseeing all of their soap operas—and somewhere during that timeframe, they got married.

Frank was in the advertising business, as I said, when he came up with the idea of matching clients with these daytime serials that he came up with. He had hired Anne as just another assistant, but what made her stand out was that she could conceive characters and scenarios for entire shows on her own. If my memory is accurate, she started at a fairly low rung on the ladder, but the whirlwind of shows she conceived and wrote is what made her stand out. Frank promoted her to a vice presidency after she had been there only two years, and he made her a partner in the firm about a year and a half later.

 

Considering the difference in their ages and backgrounds, what did they have in common?

There were several things, beginning with their frugality. They were living in Chicago when they got married, but the radio networks were in New York City, so for a year or more they commuted to Manhattan by train. They would take the Twentieth Century Limited on Sunday, stay in an apartment they rented in New York until Thursday afternoon, and then take the train back to Chicago. On the way there, they would listen to parts of Friday’s broadcasts while they were in their first-class cabin in the sleeping car.

When the money really started rolling in, they moved to Manhattan and took a palatial apartment on Fifth Avenue. They ran their household with the same efficiency as their radio shows. When my wife Roxie and I would be invited there for dinner, we’d always eat a light meal before we went there because all that Anne served was tomato soup out of a can, and some canned peaches or pears for dessert. Frank and Anne were non-drinkers—as we were—but they knew my tastes, there was always a cold bottle of Coke at my place at their kitchen table. My wife will tell you that I keep Coca-Cola in business.

Frank and Anne never “entertained” in the social sense of the word. Very few people were ever invited to their apartment. If you were among the few who were, and you were given a tour of their huge apartment, Anne would walk in front of you, pointing out this or that furniture and other décor—and as soon as she would take you from one room to the next, you’d hear Frank behind you turning off the lights!

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August 1933 advertisement for “The Maxwell House Show Boat”

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One of the most heralded shows you produced for Air Features took place on June 15, 1933, when the premiere broadcast of “The Maxwell House Show Boat” was aired “live.” All of the aluminum airchecks from that premiere have been saved and almost all are in remarkable condition. According to one of the stars of the premiere, Lanny Ross, you had scheduled Don Voorhees to conduct the program, but that he had taken sick an hour or so before the “live” broadcast and you substituted for him. Do you recall that last-minute turn of events?

Yes, but I insisted that because the program had been promoted heavily with Don as the conductor, the broadcast should be done with his name mentioned as the conductor. I had no need to have my name announced as the actual conductor, and Don was a good conductor whom we used a lot at World Broadcasting, so I wanted him to get the credit and the money for that premiere broadcast. I’m glad to know that the air-checks still exist, and I hope to hear them again.

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A different take on Voorhees’ departure from “The Maxwell House Show Boat” (Akron Beacon-Journal, December 25, 1933)

 

The next radio program I found in your archives was called “The Chevrolet Chronicles.” According to press clippings, the program was conducted alternately by you and Frank Black. What was the format of the program?

That program didn’t last long, and it was mainly because the format wasn’t right. The one broadcast I remember was with Eddie Rickenbacker, the famous American “ace” of the 94th Squadron in World War One, who spoke about the progress in air transportation and the need for the U.S. to have the best air force in the world. We arranged some World War One songs for that program, but the format didn’t leave much room for expanding it to something that listeners would wait for week after week.

 

Decades later, in the early-1950s, you were on radio again with Chevrolet, but in commercials rather than on a weekly program. In each of the commercials, you arranged the music to fit the repertoire with which the artist was most associated, and after the first verse of “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet,” each artist would say, “Thank you, Gus Haenschen, for your beautiful music.” Do you remember those commercials?

Oh, sure, very well. I was retained by the Campbell-Ewald [advertising] agency to come up with celebrity commercials endorsing the Chevrolet. Dinah Shore was already associated with Chevrolet, which was her sponsor. General Motors and Campbell-Ewald wanted a broader representation from famous singers, so I was given a sizable budget to recruit them. I’m please to say that the roster I put together included many of the singers I had performed with, and in some cases had helped their careers when they were young.

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Thomas L. Thomas, Margaret Daum, and Haenschen on the long-running “American Album of Familiar Music” (August 1950).

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Who were some of those singers, and what did they sing in these commercials?

What they sang was just the Chevrolet jingle, “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet.”  I called on John Charles Thomas, Thomas L. Thomas, Gisele Mackenzie, Dick Powell, Dorothy Kirsten, Jan Peerce, and even Lauritz Melchior to record these commercials.  We recorded them on audiotape and then pressed them on microgroove transcription discs, which were sent to stations across the country from all three radio networks at the same time.

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Dick Powell (left) with Haenschen, during production of Campbell-Ewald’s Chevrolet commercials (Gus Haenschen Collection)

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You allowed your name to be mentioned as the conductor, which seems unusual for you.

That was Campbell-Ewald’s idea, not mine. We allowed three takes for each commercial. Audiotape had come in by then, so it was much easier to edit and correct any mistakes.  Except for Melchior’s, almost all of the other commercials were recorded in one or two takes. But Melchior was having trouble with his top tones that day, and was also garbling some of the words, so his [commercial] took about six or seven takes. I can still hear him trying to sing, “See da You-Hess-Hay in your Chev-rrro-let / America is da gr-gr-greatest land of all,” and ending it with an A-natural on the last take, “And see it in your Chev-rrro-let!”

He couldn’t get the A-natural during take after take, so we finally had to have him sing the line a tone lower, and a bit slower, so that our engineers could increase the playback speed and splice in the A-natural. When it was aired, that commercial got the most attention because of the way Melchior sang it. That series of commercials won an annual award, and I got a hefty bonus by Campbell-Ewald. That was a very good year from me.

 — J. A. D.

 

Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:

Brunswick Years – Part 1  |  Brunswick Years – Part 2
Brunswick Years – Part 3  |  Brunswick Years – Part 4
Radio Years – Part 1  |  Radio Years – Part 2

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

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

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

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Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:

Brunswick Years – Part 1  |  Brunswick Years – Part 2
Brunswick Years – Part 3  |  Brunswick Years – Part 4
Radio Years – Part 1

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Both Conrad Thibault and Annamary Dickey have commented on what an unusual team you and Frank Black were. They said that in every observable way, the two of you seem to have nothing in common except being pianists, arrangers, and conductors. Considering those differences, would enable the two of you to work together so well in radio?

I can see the differences they’re talking about, but they didn’t see how Frank and I interacted as business partners. What made it work, really, was Frank’s sense of humor—which was never on display in the studio—and the fact that we accepted our differences. Frank was extremely ambitious and ultimately it paid off for him: he became the Music Director for NBC. He had wanted to become a nationally known conductor of classical music. He knew that I had no such goal and that I was more interested in leading a balanced life, being not only married but the father of four kids. I can conduct most of the classical vocal and symphonic repertory, but as Frank knew, my real interest was in popular music.

 

There are almost no photos in which Frank Black is shown smiling, so it’s hard to detect any sense of humor from photographs of him.

Yes, but he had one. After he got a doctoral degree, he began insisting that he be billed and called “Dr. Frank Black.” He wanted an honorary degree because NBC always referred to Walter Damrosch as “Dr. Walter Damrosch.” He had graduated from Haverford [College], and his fame on radio netted him an honorary degree from there. I have two honorary doctorates but to me they’re nothing more than that—they’re honors, not degrees. And by the way, they come with a price tag on them because you’re expected to give money to the college.

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Frank Black in the 1930s (left), and billed as “Dr. Frank Black”
on a World War II–era V Disc

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Anyway, I really used to give it to him about this “Dr. Black” business. I would be in my office and would deliberately buzz our switchboard operator and say, “Please put me through to Dr. Black, and when he asks you who’s calling, tell him it’s Dr. Haenschen.” I used to razz him about it—never in front of a performer, of course—but I might say to him, “Jeez, Frank, this elbow of mine is really giving me trouble. Would you take a look at it and write a prescription for me?” He’d laugh because the razzing was a private thing between us.

 

Did you socialize together?

From time to time I would invite him to join Roxie and me and the Meltons on my boat. Frank was very fond of Jim Melton, and they worked together on several of Jim’s radio shows. He always wanted Frank as his conductor, and Frank liked working with Jim. So Jim and his wife Marjo [Marjorie], and sometimes just Jim and Frank and I, would cruise around Long Island on Sundays.

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Haenschen aboard the yacht that Frank Munn and
James Melton helped him restore (1929)

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I’ve seen photos of what you call your “boat” but those who were on it say it was a full-fledged yacht.

Technically, it was because 56 feet qualifies as a yacht. It was a mess when I bought it. It was built before World War One, and I had to redo it completely, which I enjoyed. I had two very able “helpers” in Jim Melton and Frank Munn, along with my son Richard and several of his friends. Jim Melton was a self-taught woodworker, and of course Frank had been a machinist, so I called on both of them to help me redo this yacht. Frank [Munn] and I did most of the machining in my shop at the house, and Jim did some of the finishing with marine-grade varnish. We’d work on it for three or four hours, and then we’d go in the house and Roxie would have our cook make whatever we wanted to eat.

That boat—or yacht—project, along with Jim’s collection of antique cars, had a lot to do with how he and Frank Munn became good friends. I couldn’t count how many gears, pulleys, and body panels I made in my shop for Jim’s growing collection of cars. Frank [Munn] would come over and he would work with me to sketch the parts and do the [specifications]. I did all the welding because I was pretty good with either gas or electric welding, which Frank hadn’t done a lot of. As Jim watched us making these special parts, he came to admire Frank more and more.

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Antique-car enthusiast James Melton at the wheel, with members of the Denver Horseless Carriage Club (1950).

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It was the same with the yacht. Frank [Munn] and I tore out the steam powerplant that the boat originally had, and I put in a twelve-cylinder gasoline engine that I had bored out, and I added a supercharger to maximize the horsepower. I put in a smaller gas engine to drive an AC generator so we could cook electrically and use electric lights, fans, and other appliances. I designed the new drive system, and Frank [Munn] and I made the transmission and machined the main drive shaft. I bought the propeller, and after working on so many of them when I was in the Navy, I knew how to balance it to get the most out of it.

 

What you call your “shop” is a little like what you call a “boat.” Your “shop” is a metal-working factory, and I think you’ll agree with that.

Well, all right, I’ll go along with “factory” because I can make just about anything there, I built it when I bought the acreage we live on in Norwalk [Connecticut], and as you probably noticed, all of the machines were originally belt-driven. I left all of the drive shafts in place, including the big Westinghouse motor that powered them, but then I adapted each piece of machinery to be run by a separate motor.

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Haenschen as blacksmith (St. Louis Globe-Democrat,
April 23, 1939)

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Your son Richard told me a story that I’m sure you’ll remember because it involved Frank Munn and the entryway to the cabin.

That was a hell of a thing. After I finished replacing the beams on the door frame of the cabin, Richard said to me, “Dad, that the space is too narrow for Frank to be able to go into the cabin.” That’s where the galley was, so we served our meals in the cabin. I couldn’t redo the entrance at that point, but I was so glad that Richard caught it because I special-ordered dining tables and large swivel chairs for the deck, and I had an electric awning that could cover the entire back of the deck so that I could always eat there with Frank. And on that subject, this will tell you about Jim Melton: he was just tall enough, about six-feet-three, that he had to watch his head when he went into the cabin. He used that as an excuse to eat on the deck with Frank and me.

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 (Left to right) Frank Munn, Lucy Monroe, and Gus Haenschen in a 1936 publicity shot for “The American Album of Familiar Music.” The program made its debut on NBC on October 11, 1931.

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The sad fact about James Melton was that he died young, apparently from alcohol poisoning. Would you ever have predicted that his life would come to such a tragic end?

No, I didn’t see it coming but later on, when I had to deal with that in my own family, I learned more about alcoholism. Being hyperactive is often a factor in alcohol abuse, and it was in Jim Melton’s case. Anyone who knew Jim will tell you that he was hyperactive. He had to be doing something all the time, and it was very hard for him to relax. He couldn’t sit and have a leisurely conversation with you—he just wasn’t made that way.

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Melton in the movies (1935)

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When he would come over to our house, if the weather was nice, I would ask him to help our son Richard get better at football. Jim had played football in high school, and maybe at the University of Florida when he went there. So he would go outside and throw pass after pass to Richard and any friends of Richard who might be visiting that day. That would help him burn off some of his energy, and then he’d be calm for a while.

 

What was it about him that enabled him to get so many radio programs in prime time, with some of the biggest-name sponsors?

He had a way with people, especially people in power, but his eagerness almost always got in his way. For instance, he got to know Henry Ford II and his wife, and on a boat trip with them he talked Henry Ford into sponsoring a radio program for him. If he dealt with Ford the way he did with other sponsors, he’d get what he wanted and then would either want more—usually more money—or else he would stop socializing with them, or do something that sent a message that he had gotten what he wanted and that was that. I always thought that Henry Ford gave it just to put a stop to Jim badgering him about sponsoring a show for him. He could be very pushy that way—and after a while Ford pulled the plug on that show.

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Frank Black (left), Dorothy Warenskjold (center), and James Melton during a “Ford Festival” broadcast in the early 1950s.

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He even managed to get Irving Berlin to let him do an entire program about “Annie Get Your Gun” a week or so before the Broadway premiere—and Berlin was even part of the broadcast.

Yes, but there were reasons for that. At first, Berlin wasn’t as confident about “Annie Get Your Gun” as he was with the shows he had done when he was younger. As I remember it, it wasn’t until Dick Rogers told him how perfect the score was that Berlin felt that the show was going to be a hit. From then on, Berlin took every opportunity to promote the premiere. Melton’s show had good ratings at the time, so it was a good program for Berlin to promote “Annie.” And trust me, there wasn’t one word in Melton’s script, or one bar of music, that Berlin didn’t approve during the rehearsals.

If you look at the number of radio shows that [Melton] had, many of them didn’t last. He had to be the singer and the emcee, which was a big mistake because he minimized the announcer’s role. All he wanted the announcer to say was, “And now, here’s our star, James Melton,” then introduce the commercials, and say “Tune in next week” at the end of the show. He thought he was a great emcee but he was adequate at best. Frank Black often had to tell him that he was talking too fast when he was introducing whatever song he was going to sing next.

 

Were you surprised when he made the transition from popular music into the tenor ranks of the Metropolitan Opera?

The Met had always been his goal. I remember his debut in The Magic Flute very well, which was done in English in that production. Jim had very good guidance. [Wilfrid] Pelletier helped refine his phrasing in the French and Italian roles. [Melton] looked great onstage because he was tall, broad-shouldered, and very trim. He was especially good in Traviata, which I saw him in several times.

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James Melton as Pinkerton in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Madame Butterfly.

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He had always wanted to sing Pinkerton in Butterfly, which he did at the Met, but it wasn’t his best role. The tessitura was a little too high for his voice. He was at his best when he could sing a B-flat. Now, he could sing the B-natural and even the high-C, [but] they didn’t have the “ping” that a tenor needs to have if he sings Pinkerton.

 

Did you stay in touch with him after it became apparent that he was becoming more and more dysfunctional?

No. I had to cut him off. I had already seen enough in my life, going back to my own father, of how destructive alcohol can be to a family. Jim called me at home at all hours of the night, drunk and wanting money from me, so finally I just cut him off completely. He died in some fleabag hotel, drunk and alone. Roxie and I stayed close to Marjo and their daughter Margo, and we felt helpless because of the way he left them. He abandoned them. One thing that struck me was that his alcoholism never affected his voice. He made some low-budget recordings a year or so before he died, and he sounded just like he did twenty years earlier.

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(Top) In 1948, Melton moved to Florida with his collection of antique cars and opened Autorama, a tourist attraction that closed following his death in 1961. (Bottom) Melton on a cut-rate Tops LP in the 1950s, an ignominious ending for a one-time Victor Red Seal star.

 

His style seems to have changed, though. After he left The Revelers, he sounded like an Irish tenor, but after the war he sounded more “mainstream” for want of a better word.

He was trying to sound like [John] McCormack at first, almost to the point that he sounded like an impersonator. He stopped that after he had a bad experience with McCormack.

 

Did you know John McCormack?

In a funny way, yes. We had the same dentist, a very well-known oral surgeon in Manhattan. I was surprised that McCormack let him do this—although it’s probably because McCormack didn’t have to pay him—but the dentist was very proud of a special set of dentures he had designed for McCormack to use in his concerts.

These dentures were very lightweight, and the upper plate had no artificial “roof”—it was just a U-shaped denture that left the roof of the mouth exposed. They were cosmetic, not for eating, and the dentist was so proud of them that he had a set in a display case in his waiting room, with a thank-you note that McCormack had signed.

Anyway, I was introduced to McCormack several times but I can’t say that I knew him. I had heard him in concert when I was in college, and maybe four or five times later on. There was nobody like him on a concert platform.

 

Returning to you and “Dr. Black,” how did the two of you and your other partners go about developing the World Broadcasting Company?

For the first three years, World Broadcasting was all-consuming. We had to hire lots of musicians, arrangers, and engineers for Sound Studios, which we built and where we did the recording sessions. The small independent stations were clamoring for more and more recordings, so we had to run Sound Studios almost like a factory. We started recording at 10:00 a.m., Monday through Friday, and took a half-hour break at 2:00 p.m., which usually lasted about forty-five minutes by the time we were recording again. We would record till 6:00 p.m., and that would be a typical daytime session.

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(Top) World Broadcasting / Sound Studios’ 1931 announcement of Western Electric Noiseless Transcriptions, embodying vinylite pressings and other improvements. (Bottom left) A standard World Broadcasting transcription label, mid-1930s; (bottom right) Sound Studios’ special “Superman” transcription label, 1940s.

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Since most of the guys we hired to play for us were in bands and had nighttime gigs, we started holding a midnight session that would last till 3:00 a.m. We did those on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. We always had the best catered food—a really impressive buffet—at every daytime session and at those midnight ones as well. But the food, good as it was, wasn’t what enabled us to get anybody we wanted in our sessions. The key was that we paid everyone 25% over scale for each session. This was during the worst of the Depression, so a really driven guy like Artie Shaw would do a morning and afternoon session before playing an evening gig with whatever band he was playing in.

 

Aside from you, Ben Selvin, and Frank Black, who were the conductors you retained for the World Broadcasting sessions?

We used everybody we could get—Vic Arden, Ed Smalle, Ben Bernie, Jack Denny, Jerry Freedman, Harold Stanford, Don Donnie, Gene Ormandy, Don Voorhees, and of course Ben [Selvin]. For the first year, Ben, Vic [Arden] and Frank [Black] and I conducted the daytime sessions.

 

Were Abe Lyman and Gus Arnheim with you at World Broadcasting?

No, they were in California by then. But we did give some aspiring conductors their starts as well. We may have been the first to have André Kostelanetz conduct, and also Edwin McArthur. Both were pianists and arrangers for us.

 

I’d like to make it a matter of record that when you and Eugene Ormandy happened to see each other here at Philharmonic Hall when he was with a group, he made a point of introducing you to each of his friends and said you had given him his start, but as a dance-band leader.

It’s true, and we also used Gene as an arranger.

 

We’ll also make it a matter of record that you said to him, “Good to see you, Gene, and if this symphonic gig doesn’t work out, I think I can get you some dance-band work.” From your files, it appears that every future leader of one of the big bands—Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, the Dorsey brothers, Harry James, Glenn Miller—all played in World Broadcasting sessions. So did Jan Peerce, among the vocalists you used a lot at World Broadcasting.

He wasn’t “Jan Peerce” back then. He was “Pinky Pearl” when we first hired him. He was exactly the kind of performer we were always looking for. He was a violinist and a singer, and he could play “straight” violin as well as jazz violin. As he told you, his inspiration was Joe Venuti, the greatest of them all. Jan wasn’t the improviser that Joe Venuti was, but he was very, very good. As a singer, he could do songs from operettas like The Student Prince, Rose Marie, and the others, but he could also sing like a crooner. We used him under lots of different names.

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Jan Peerce (left) and Ben Selvin

 

I know that you wanted to get his brother-in-law, Richard Tucker, for some World Broadcasting sessions, but I take it that Peerce blocked it. Is that right?

I had no idea that there was such animosity between them, but I found out when I mentioned to Jan that I’d like to use Tucker for some studio sessions. Tucker was doing the “Chicago Theatre of the Air” every week, and he was building a name for himself through those broadcasts.

 

Was Peerce already at the Met at that time?

Yes, and he was doing very, very well. He was managed by [Sol] Hurok, and he was one of Hurok’s personal favorites. I don’t know what [Peerce’s] problem with Tucker was, but Jan blew his top when I brought up his name, and it really put me off. I knew several of the guys who helped Jan when he was coming up, and I couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t let anybody help his brother-in-law. But fate has a way of taking care of things, and Tucker is the “king of the Met” and Jan isn’t there anymore. He did well on Broadway, though, in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

I was able to help Tucker after all, and I know that Jan found out about it. I had heard from John Charles Thomas that he was having trouble getting a summer replacement on “The Westinghouse Hour,” so I suggested Tucker to John, and Tucker ended up being his summer replacement.

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(Left to right) Conductor Emil Cooper, Richard Tucker, Paul Althouse (Tucker’s teacher), Jan Peerce, and Edward Johnson after Tucker’s Metropolitan Opera debut (January 25, 1945)

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Who were some of the other singers who made World Broadcasting transcriptions?

Most of the singers we had at Brunswick—Elizabeth Lennox, Virginia Rea, Frank Luther, Billy Hillpot, Billy Mann, Morton Downey, Scrappy Lambert, and of course Frank Munn—worked for us at World Broadcasting. We also used Irving Kaufman, and sometimes his brother Jack, when they were available.

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A 1939 ad for World Broadcasting’s Library Service. Along with Associated, NBC, and others, World offered a subscription service that provided radio stations with long-playing, multi-selection transcriptions by nationally known artists—some of whom appeared under aliases because they held exclusive contracts with the commercial labels.

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Vaughn Monroe shows up in some of the World Broadcasting sessions. Was he one of your singers?

No, Vaughn played trumpet with us, although he did sing in trios, quartets and such. He was like Jim Melton, who doubled as a sax player for us while he was in The Revelers.

 

Let’s stay with the saxophone, because just about every sax player seems except Carmen Lombardo played in those Sound Studios sessions. I’m assuming that you know all of the Lombardos, am I right?

Oh, sure. I had tried to get them during my last year at Brunswick. Ben [Selvin] signed them to Columbia, and he really helped them. You know why Guy is the leader, don’t you? It’s because he’s the only one of the brothers who wasn’t a good musician. Supposedly, he played the violin but he wasn’t any good, yet he was nice-looking and he had a good speaking voice so he became the leader. Carmen [Lombardo] is the one who came up with the Lombardo sound, and he was always the behind-the-scenes leader of the band. Guy’s real passion is boating. I think he’s still competing in big-league powerboat racing.

 

Your friend Tony Randall is on a television campaign to bring back Carmen as the band’s vocalist. Do you think that will happen?

As long as Carmen doesn’t have to be interviewed, he might do it for Tony because they’re good friends. Anybody who knows Carmen will tell you that he’s nothing like the caricature of him. Of the brothers, Carmen is the one who’s known for liking the ladies, and they like him. He also has a great sense of humor. So do Victor and Lebert and Guy. Their philosophy has always been that the more they get made fun of, the more attention the band gets, and they laugh all the way to the bank. But make no mistake about it, Carmen is the leader and the main arranger, and always has been. The precision of that sax section is Carmen’s doing. They play so tightly that even their vibratos are in synch.

 

One of the sax players you used in many World Broadcasting sessions was Fred MacMurray, whom I never knew was a musician.

Fred was a very good tenor-sax man. He was with George Olsen’s band, but he did as much freelance work as he could get. He did some singing with George, as did Fran Frey, another of George’s sax men. We used Fran in some of our sessions, but not as much as Fred. Later on, Sid Caesar did some work for us [at World broadcasting] and he played in one of my radio bands.

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Future comedians Fred MacMurray (top left) and Sid Caesar (top right) did session work for Haenschen at World Broadcasting, as saxophone players. Below, Caesar with the Coast Guards’ Brooklyn Barracks Band (center, standing with clarinet).

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The comedian Sid Caesar?

Yes, that Sid Caesar—a hell of a good tenor sax man. He had been playing sax in the Catskills while he was doing comedies and impersonations there. He was in the Coast Guard during the war, but he was stationed in New York and he played for us as often as he could.

 

How would the great sax players of what’s now called the “Big Band Era” compare with such greats as Rudy Wiedoeft and Benny Krueger, whom you recorded at Brunswick?

If Rudy or Benny were still here, they would tell you that the Brown brothers, or the Six Brown Brothers as they were billed, were every bit as good as they were. Tom Brown led the band, which was a saxophone quintet at first—two alto saxes plus a bass, baritone and tenor sax. The other brothers—Bill, Percy, Alec, Fred, and Vernie—played the bass, baritone, and tenor saxes. For me, though, Rudy Wiedoeft was the best sax player I ever worked with, but I also knew him better than the others.

Rudy, Benny [ Krueger] and all of the top-notch sax players back then had what reed players call a “diaphragmatic vibrato.” Some of the later sax players used jaw muscles for the vibrato. Tex Beneke could do both, but a lot of the time he used the “jaw vibrato.” If you watch film of Tex playing, and then watch Rudy Wiedoeft, you won’t see any movement of the jaw in Rudy’s playing. That’s the difference between a vibrato that comes from the diaphragm, like an opera singer has, and a “jaw vibrato.” Sax players can get away with a jaw vibrato, but a clarinetist can’t because the embouchure, or the way the lips are placed on the mouthpiece, is much tighter than on a saxophone.

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Haenschen plays Detroit (May 2, 1940)

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You had another reed player who has done very well for himself: Mitch Miller.

Mitch was one of the best oboists in the business—I can’t think of any other oboist who could match him.

 

He and Percy Faith, with John Hammond, remade Columbia Records. Was Percy Faith in any of the Sound Studios sessions?

No, he wasn’t in New York in those days. He’s Canadian, and the Lombardos helped him get work in Chicago as an arranger and conductor. He worked for Jack Kapp at Decca, and later on he conducted “The Contented Hour.”

 

That was one of your radio shows, wasn’t it?

Yes, and most of the band had also done World Broadcasting sessions with me. Both of the Dorseys, Glenn Miller, and I think Artie [Shaw] were in “The Contented Hour” band during my time with the show.

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Do you remember if Benny Goodman was in that band? Was he a “doubler” like Shaw was?

Benny Goodman is one of the finest clarinetists I’ve heard, but he was also one of the worst sax players I ever heard. What amazed me was that he couldn’t tell the difference. He couldn’t hear how bad his tone on the sax was. Now, Artie, on the other hand, was every bit as fine a sax player as he was a clarinetist. The same with Jimmy Dorsey, who was equally good on both instruments. I would put Jimmy Dorsey and Artie Shaw up against any sax players, even Rudy Wiedoeft, and they would hold their own.

 

Do you recall the incident that Artie Shaw talked about, the incident between Benny Goodman and him during a rehearsal that you were conducting?

That was for one of our radio shows, not World Broadcasting—but yes, I remembered it when Artie brought it up. The two of them were side-by-side in the sax section, and Artie always played the lead and Benny the second part. All I remember is that when we ran through a passage a second time, the lead sax was under pitch and had this buzzy sort of tone. I stopped and said, “Who played that?” Benny jumped up and said, “I did!”

I remember questioning Artie, and him saying that Benny had asked him to play the lead for change. All I said was, “Don’t do that again” and went on with the rehearsal. If I didn’t know Benny, I’d think he still holds that against me. But I know him, and he’s just plain dense. There are so many stories about what an oddball he is, and most of them are true.

 

Did you have black players in the World Broadcasting sessions, along with white players?

Definitely. The sax players, for instance, included Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter, who were terrific players, and they were good clarinetists too.

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Benny Carter (top) and Johnny Hodges.

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Was there any resistance from white players?

Not unless they wanted to get fired. Seriously, though, every player we had—and I can’t think of a single exception—were in awe of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Duke Ellington because they set the standards for jazz. I had recorded Duke at Brunswick, but that was before he developed his own style. That’s just a short list if you think of the pianists of that era—James P. Johnson in particular, and Fats Waller, who was a classical organist in addition to a terrific pianist.

A lot of the small stations in the South and the Midwest wanted gospel songs, so we brought in groups from the Tuskegee and the Fisk University singers. Often we used members of the choirs of the big congregations in Harlem.

 

Especially in the Midwest, there must have been a demand for “hillbilly” music. Did you import any performers like the ones Jack Kapp brought to you at Brunswick?

No. When Jack [Kapp] was recording those backwoods players, he was using field-recording equipment most of the time. We never did field recordings. All of our sessions were done at Sound Studios.

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1937

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You had some of the finest brass players ever—and yet there was one whom neither you nor Ben Selvin have any memory of: Bix Beiderbecke. When I interviewed both of you and brought up that name, Mr. Selvin said, “Oh, he was great,” or words to that effect, and then he said, “Didn’t you think so, Gus?” Your reply, which I transcribed, was, “Benny, I don’t know how many people have asked me about him, and to tell you the truth I never heard of him.” That prompted Mr. Selvin to say, “I thought I was the only one! I’ve been shown pictures of this guy, and I swear he was never in any band that I recorded!”

But that’s the truth. The stories I’ve heard are that even Louis Armstrong considered him an equal. I find that very hard to believe, but Artie [Shaw] said he roomed with [Beiderbecke] and that he was in several World Broadcasting sessions. Jim Lytell remembered him very well, too. All I can say is that if the guy was in any band that I directed, he must have sneaked in, played, and sneaked out.

 

It’s more remarkable that Ben Selvin had no memory of Beiderbecke because it was Ben Selvin who got Paul Whiteman to sign with Columbia, and Bix Beiderbecke was in the Whiteman band at that time. Is it possible that both of you didn’t know all the players you used at World Broadcasting and on some of your radio shows?

Well, if you want to be literal about it, it’s possible but very, very unlikely, especially at World Broadcasting. We always had five or six players on call for every instrument in those sessions. We had to have that many because of the number of recording sessions day after day.

Now, it is possible that a player we didn’t use very often—and keep in mind that we hired players based on recommendations from the other players on our payroll—it’s possible that some player might not stand out because of the type of music we were recording. We weren’t recording jazz, we were recording pop instrumental music.

To be honest about it, most of the players who were “regulars,” and I’ll use the Dorseys as an example, played in our sessions for the money because that’s all that was in it for them. I’m sure Tommy Dorsey couldn’t stand many of our arrangements, but it was steady work and very well-paying work. Payday was every Friday, and if a player needed an advance, we’d give it to them and deduct it at the end of the week.

You have to remember that these guys were known to each other, but not to the public. In 1932, Artie Shaw could walk down any street in broad daylight and nobody would know he was. Ten years later, he would be hounded everywhere he went. But during the worst of the Depression, all of these players needed the money, and we were paying more than they were getting anywhere else. Our sessions went like clockwork, so they were in and out, and maybe back again for a second or even a third session. World Broadcasting was a business, and we ran it like one. We were the Ford Motor Company of the radio business.

J. A. D.

 

Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:

Brunswick Years – Part 1  |  Brunswick Years – Part 2
Brunswick Years – Part 3  |  Brunswick Years – Part 4
Radio Years – Part 1

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

 

 

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

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The Radio Years — Part 1

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Gus Haenschen (a.k.a. Carl Fenton) served as director of popular music for Brunswick records from 1919 until he resigned in 1927 to pursue a career in commercial broadcasting. His interviews with Jim Drake covering the Brunswick years have been posted previously. Beginning with this installment, Haenschen recalls his equally remarkable career in radio.

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Some radio historians credit you with pairing Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, and also for putting together The Revelers and making them popular nationally. [1] What do you recall of them, and your role in their popularity on radio?

Where do these stories get started? I had almost nothing to do with the radio success of Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, nor with The Revelers’ success. At Brunswick I had directed a lot of recordings of Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, but as separate performers. In fact, one of our early Brunswick recordings of a male duet was with Ernie Hare and Al Bernard, not Billy Jones. [2]  If you look at the Brunswick files, you’ll see that I had put a lot of male duos together—Frank Bessinger and Frank Wright, Ed Smalle and Billy Hillpot, for example.

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Al Bernard (left) and Ernest Hare, c. 1920.
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Ernie Hare was with [Brunswick] almost from the start. We used him mainly for popular ballads. I don’t think we signed Billy Jones until a year or so after we had Ernie [Hare] under contract. Billy was a light baritone [sic; tenor], and we had him record ballads and novelty songs for us. I can only remember two recordings we did of Jones and Hare together. [3] One was some novelty song, nothing memorable, but it didn’t sound anything like the Jones and Hare of network radio. A little later, we wrote an arrangement of a novelty song, one of many that sprang up after the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, a ditty called “Old King Tut.” These were acoustical recordings, as I recall, and of the two only “Old King Tut” sold very well for [Brunswick].

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Billy Jones (left) and Ernest Hare, in the early days of radio
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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While we’re talking about record sales, you may remember when Gene Austin made a comeback in the 1950s. He was a guest on Red Skelton’s television show, and Skelton told viewers that he had done research on Austin’s career and that he had sold over 80,000,000 recordings in the 1920s and 1930s. Is that figure even remotely possible?

That’s nonsense—absolute nonsense! When you interviewed Ben Selvin and me, you’ll remember that we had a big laugh about how many of Ben’s recordings of “Dardanella” were sold. Some so-called researcher claimed that that recording sold 6,000,000 copies. As he and I said when we laughed about it, during the 1920s if a record sold 100,000 copies it was considered a big money-maker. In the early-1930s, as I said before, the record market almost dried up because of the Depression. And let me tell you, Gene Austin probably got a big laugh out of Red Skelton’s “research.” [4]

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Gene Austin, c. 1927 (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

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Thanks for clarifying that. Going back to the subject of Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, did they work for you at all on radio?

Not that I recall. They got into radio early, and they attracted very good sponsors. You probably know their radio theme songs: “We two boys, Jones and Hare / Entertain you folks out there / That’s our hap-hap-happiness,” when they were sponsored by the Happiness Candy Company, and “We’re Billy Jones and Ernie Hare / We’re the Interwoven Pair,” when Interwoven Hosiery sponsored their show. They became one of the most popular duos on radio, but I didn’t have anything to do with it and I certainly didn’t “put them together.”

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Jones and Hare, as caricatured by Gaspano Ricca in 1929. The caption refers to their split with the Happiness Candy Company, and subsequent loss of their “Happiness Boys” billing.

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Did you play any role in The Revelers and their radio popularity?

Frank Black gets the credit for The Revelers. It was Frank’s up-tempo arrangements and the hours and hours he spent rehearsing them that made The Revelers one of the most popular groups on radio. [5] Until he began working with them, they were just another male quartet—the Shannon Quartet, or the “Shannon Four” as we billed them at Brunswick. I’m not sure about this but as I remember it, the original group, the Shannon Quartet, had Charles Harrison, Wilfred Glenn, Elliot Shaw, and Lewis James. Ed Smalle was their pianist, and sometimes he sang with them while he was at the piano.

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The Revelers in the late 1920s: Frank Black, Elliott Shaw, Lewis James (back row, left to right); James Melton, Wilfred Glenn (front row, left to right)

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When Frank [Black] took over as accompanist and arranger, he changed the Shannon Four to a quintet by adding Franklyn Baur as the lead tenor. Between Frank Black’s innovative, tight-harmony arrangements and Franklyn Baur’s voice as the new lead tenor, plus the name change from “Shannon Four” to “The Revelers,” the quintet really took off on radio. Frank [Black] and I did feature them on our first radio program after I left Brunswick, “The Champion Spark Plug Hour.” I wrote the introductory theme song for the show, which I titled “March of the Champions,” and we called our studio orchestra “The Champion Sparkers.”

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Haenschen (inset, and back row, third from right) and Frank Black (far left) with The Champion Sparkers (1930)

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Did you know Franklyn Baur very well? I ask because the arc of his career was rather short, and he seems to have disappeared from radio and recording for reasons that are unclear.

I knew Baur only as a performer for us, but I didn’t socialize with him or have any involvement with him other than in rehearsals and on the air. There’s no question, at least in my mind, that he made the difference in the success of The Revelers. He had a distinctive voice—a good tone quality, very good intonation, and a range that was more than adequate for the music he sang. He was a good musician with a precise sense of rhythm, which was necessary for the type of arrangements Frank [Black] wrote for The Revelers.

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From Radio Revue (March 1930)

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Do you recall anything specific about working with Franklyn Baur?

He was easy to work with for the most part, although as The Revelers got more press, he tended to want more of the limelight for himself. That created some tension with the others in the group because they were more experienced—most of them were veterans in the [recording] industry, while he was a newcomer by comparison—and, so to say, they were not as impressed with Baur as Baur was with himself.

One funny thing about Baur that used to drive Frank Black nuts was that Baur “conducted” while he was singing. He’d “conduct” with his hand and index finger, and Frank [Black] felt that he did it just to call more attention to himself. Frank had to lay down the law with him about that, but [Baur] would still do it every once in a while.

 

The conventional wisdom about Franklyn Baur’s brief career was that he wanted to become an operatic tenor and performed a recital of French and Italian arias and songs at Town Hall, but received negative reviews and abruptly retired because of those reviews.

That’s not true. His Town Hall recital [on December 4, 1933] went very well and the reviews in The New York Times and the other major newspapers were very good. He toured as a recitalist for another two years, maybe more, but as happened with other pop-music tenors before him, he sang too often—he was still on radio too—and some of the arias he chose for his recitals were wrong for his voice. [6] He developed a nodule on one of his vocal cords, and unfortunately the operation to remove the node wasn’t successful and left him with an impaired voice. That’s what shortened his career.

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Baur’s December 1933 Town Hall recital received generally positive reviews. These excerpts are from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (top left), Brooklyn Times Union (bottom left), and Hartford (CT) Courant (right).

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After Franklyn Baur left The Revelers to pursue his recital career, did James Melton replace him as the lead tenor?

Frank Luther took Baur’s place at first, if my memory is correct, and then Jim Melton succeeded Frank Luther. [7] Melton was a better tenor than Baur, and his performances with The Revelers were exceptional. At that point in Melton’s singing career—he was a tenor-sax man with us before he began singing and before he replaced Frank Luther in The Revelers—he was young and eager and very easy to work with. But he too had bigger ambitions and as time went on, his ambition got in his way. As good as Baur had been for The Revelers, Frank [Black] and I thought that Melton was even better.

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Frank Black in the NBC studio (March 1930)

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Back to your and Frank Black’s first radio programs, I had the impression that “The Palmolive Hour,” which you directed, was your and his first radio show, and that Frank Munn and Virginia Rea sang under the pseudonyms “Paul Oliver” and “Olive Palmer.”

“The Palmolive Hour” was our second show. It was better known because it was in a better time slot and was promoted a lot more than “The Champion Spark Plug Hour.” And yes, Frank Munn was our tenor on the “Champion” program, just as he was on the “Palmolive” show, but he sang under his own name on the “Champion” program. Incidentally, I never asked Frank to sign any exclusive contract with us. I wanted him to be able to perform on as many programs as he was offered and could also continue recording for Brunswick and any other labels. Frank and I had become very close friends by then, and I wanted to see him have the best career he could possibly have.

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From Radio Revue (December 1929)

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I’m not sure this is the right time and place to ask to you recount the conflict between James Melton and Frank Munn, but I will ask you to repeat what happened, and what your role was during and after the incident.

Well, it happened in midtown Manhattan after a late-afternoon rehearsal for “The Palmolive Hour.” As I’ve said, Frank was very sensitive about his weight, so he only felt comfortable in certain public places. One of them was his favorite restaurant, just a small place in midtown Manhattan that served good food and treated him like the star he was. He and I had dinner there a lot, and we always enjoyed the time we spent together because Frank was such a sweet guy.

As we were leaving the restaurant and waiting for our driver, I saw Jim Melton approaching us. He was wearing a tuxedo, so he was probably going to a performance after eating a light dinner. In those days, by the way, not only the soloists and the conductor but everyone in the orchestra wore tuxedos. At NBC, the feeling was that through radio we were coming into the listener’s home, and that we should be formally attired even though no one but the studio personnel could see us.

As Frank [Munn] and I were leaving the restaurant and I saw Jim Melton walking toward us with a small group around him, I could tell from his gait and from the look on his face that he was drunk. I don’t like to say this, but Jim Melton was an obnoxious drunk—I don’t know how else to describe him when had been drinking. He walked up to me and said to me, in front of Frank Munn, “Why do you let this fat pig sing on your show instead of me?” Then he turned to Frank and began calling a “pig,” “hog,” and a string of vile curse words.

Melton kept it up and kept it up, and then said sarcastically to Frank, “Oh, Mr. Munn, you’re such a big star, I want your autograph!” Frank just looked down at the sidewalk while Melton was acting out this mocking rant. It went on until suddenly Frank grabbed Melton’s arm in a vice grip—a group so hard that Melton’s knees buckled and he was writhing in pain. Calmly, Frank used his other hand to retrieve from his vest pocket his prized Duofold “Big Red” fountain pen. After uncapping it with his teeth, he wrote his signature across the starched white “bib” of Melton’s tuxedo.

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James Melton (left) and Frank Munn, c. 1930

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When he [Frank Munn] finally capped his pen with his teeth and let go of Melton’s already swelling forearm, he stared at Melton and said, “If I ever hear of you saying terrible things about me again, I will hunt you down and I will break you in half!” By then I had stepped between them, but there was no need because Melton was moaning, his forearm was swelling rapidly and he was coming out of his drunken state.

The next morning at my home, I got a frantic call from Jim [Melton], telling me that his wife told him what he had done the night before and how sorry he was for the insults he had hurled at Frank Munn. He pleaded with me to ask Frank, if he would agree to it, to come to my home so that Melton could meet him there and apologize to him face-to-face.

Jim [Melton] arrived first, his forearm wrapped in medical tape and in a sling, and soon Frank Munn arrived at my house. We sat at my dining-room table, and Melton was so distraught that he actually began to cry. He asked Frank how he could ever forgive him for what he had said the night before. Frank never took his eyes off Melton, and never said a word until he saw how genuinely sorry Melton was.

At that point, Frank extended his hand across the table and waited until Melton grasped his in a tearful handshake. “Jim,” Frank said reassuringly, “it never happened. I have always been an admirer of your singing.” Melton broke down again, but when he regained his composure he assured Frank had he also admired Frank’s voice and artistry. That whole incident was scary, believe me, because I knew Frank Munn’s raw strength. He could have easily fractured or even broken Jim Melton’s forearm. Yet from then on, the two men became each other’s biggest promoter.

James A. Drake
Merritt Island, Florida

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1929

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Editor’s Notes

[1] Victor held exclusive rights to The Revelers name on records; therefore, the group appeared on Brunswick as The Merrymakers.

[2] Bernard and Hare both began recording for Brunswick in late 1919, immediately after the company switched to the lateral-cut process. As a duet, they first appeared on Brunswick 2004, the fourth lateral-cut release in the standard Brunswick series.

[3] Jones began recording for Brunswick c. November 1920. His initial session produced one solo and one duet with Ernest Hare. The team of Jones and Hare actually made numerous recordings for Brunswick from 1920 through 1925, some with top billing, and others as vocalists with dance orchestras that included Haenschen’s own.

[4] Haenschen is correct in asserting that these figures are grossly inflated. In early 1928, for example, the Managers’ Committee of the Victor Talking Machine Company reported the following average sales per release for several of the company’s popular artists: The Revelers (71,900 copies per release); Jesse Crawford (70,000); Johnny Johnson’s Statler Pennsylvanians (47,134 copies); Roger Wolfe Kahn’s Orchestra (46,000); Irene Bordoni (32,134). The figures were significantly lower for Red Seal artists. Rosa Ponselle, one of the line’s better sellers, averaged only 10,740 copies per release for the same period.

[5] Ed Smalle was The Revelers’ original pianist and arranger. Frank Black began working with the group in late 1926, based upon evidence in the Victor files, which reveal that other pianists (including Frank Banta and Milton Rettenberg) were occasionally substituted for Black at the group’s recording sessions.

[6] Baur was also one of the most prolific recording artists of the 1920s, making countless sides (often under pseudonyms) for cheap labels like Banner and Grey Gull, in addition to his work for the more respectable brands.

[7] Luther, soon to be better known for his country-music duets with Carson Robison, replaced Baur c. September 1927 and stayed only briefly, being replaced in late November by Melton, based upon the Victor files.

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Read  Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years

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

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

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> Part 1  |  > Part 2  |  > Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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From The Talking Machine World (February 1926)

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

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

 

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

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

 

You also toured the Victor and Columbia studios?

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Isham Jones’ Orchestra in Chicago (Library of Congress)

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Looking back, do you have any regrets?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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> Part 1  |  > Part 2  |  > Part 3

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 3

The James A. Drake Interviews
Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 3

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> Part 1  | > Part 2

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It was in Los Angeles that you recorded Charlie Chaplin with Abe Lyman’s orchestra, am I right?

Yes, Abe Lyman’s band with Charlie listed on the records—we did two sides, as I recall—as “guest conductor.”

 

Although it’s known today that Chaplin wrote the scores for all of his films, I doubt that it was known then. How did you come to record him as a “guest conductor”? Did you know him at that time?

Not personally, no, but of course I was a fan of his movies. Charlie contacted me through Abe Lyman. That’s how those records came about. Charlie wrote songs all the time, and he wanted to have about a dozen of them recorded. When Abe [Lyman] told me that Charlie was interested in having his songs recorded, I told Percy Deutsch about it and he said to pay Charlie whatever he wanted because having the name Charlie Chaplin on Brunswick records would be one of our “exclusives” and would sell a lot of records for us.

 

Did you negotiate a contract with Chaplin?

He didn’t want a contract. Money wasn’t a factor because he was already one of the wealthiest movie stars and was also one of the “big four” [Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, David Wark Griffith, and Chaplin] who founded United Artists. What he wanted to do was to have his songs recorded, and he also wanted to conduct them and then play a violin solo in some of the recordings. So basically, he agreed to try out some recordings with us, and if there was a demand for more, he would talk to us about royalties and such.

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Publicity shots from the May 1923 session (the exact date has not survived in the Brunswick files). In the top photo, Gus Kahn is seated at the piano, with (left to right) Haenschen, Chaplin, and Abe Lyman.

 

What do you remember about making the recordings?

Charlie was so excited that he wanted me to show him everything about the recording process. I took Frank Hofbauer to Los Angeles with me because he was our “expert,” and he would design the permanent studios we intended to build there and would also do the recordings we made in the temporary studio we used. So I spent almost a full day with Charlie, showing him how the recording process worked.

Then Abe [Lyman] and Gus Kahn and I spent part of an afternoon with Charlie. Gus worked directly with Charlie to write the arrangements for the first two songs we were going to record. Everything was going well until Charlie played the violin for us. He was self-taught, and he played left-handed so he had his violin strung the opposite of a standard violin. His playing was so amateurish that there was no way we were going to allow him to play any solo passages on a Brunswick recording.

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Although Chaplin’s record was widely advertised, it was not a big seller for Brunswick. Some dealer ads, like the lower example, claimed that Chaplin played violin on the record, which Haenschen recalled was not the case.

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Because Abe [Lyman] knew him well, I left it to Abe to have to tell Charlie that he couldn’t play on an actual recording. But we agreed that Charlie should really conduct the recording session, which he did—not with a baton or with his hands, but with his violin bow. The day we made the first two recordings, he brought a camera crew with him. They set up all sorts of lights around the studio, and the crew filmed him and us during the whole session. It was a fun experience, and afterward Charlie treated all of us to a dinner at his studios.

Unfortunately, the “try out” that all of us had envisioned didn’t sell any records. Looking back, I can see why. At that time [1923], movies were silent and Charlie was seen but never heard. And as you said, very few people knew—or cared—that he wrote the scores for his films. Movie audiences weren’t listening to his music, they were watching him on the screen. In the silent-movie days, no one associated Charlie Chaplin with sound recordings, so the fact that he was listed on two Brunswick sides as the “guest conductor” of the Abe Lyman band didn’t mean anything from a promotion standpoint.

But that wasn’t the end of it—in fact, in some ways it was just the beginning. Charlie wanted to record all of the songs he had mentioned, about a dozen of them, and he was relentless about it. He sent me telegrams day and night, he nearly drove Abe Lyman crazy, and then he sent me scores that he had had someone make of all the songs. I had to find more ways of saying no than I had ever known until then. Finally, he stopped “campaigning” and went back to working day and night on his movies.

But about the time [Chaplin] had given up on us, Rudolph Valentino contacted us and wanted to make records too. [1] Everyone knew that Valentino was a splendid dancer, and of course he was the biggest name in movies in the mid-1920s. He told Bill Brophy and me that he had studied voice in Italy, and would sing on our recordings. We had no reason to dispute what he said, so we agreed to record him in New York. We did—and the two songs he sang on those recordings were the worst ever made by Brunswick or any other company.

 

What did he sing? Was it an opera aria or a song?

I can only remember one of them, the “Kashmiri Song,” which he sang in English. He spoke English fluently, by the way. [John] McCormack and so many other real singers had recorded it, and it’s a good song so we figured Valentino could sing it credibly. Of course, we also figured that having his name on a Brunswick label, and introducing him to the public as not just the great lover, the movie star, but also as a singer would be another exclusive for us.

Well, the recording was an absolute disaster! If he had ever had a voice lesson, it didn’t “take” because his timbre was awful, and his intonation was even worse. He was either under-pitch or above-pitch throughout most of the recording. The other one we made with him was a popular Spanish song [”El Relicario”] that he sang in Spanish—and it was even worse than the “Kashmiri Song.” Both of the test pressings were so bad that we would never have released them. If we did, we would have been the laughingstock of the industry.

 

Was Valentino as relentless as Chaplin was about pressuring you to release them?

Percy Deutsch and two other executives, Ed Bensinger and Bill Brophy, kept putting off Valentino by telling him that Brunswick would prefer to wait to release his record in connection with his next biggest film. They kept putting him off for almost two years, and then—and this sounds awful—he solved Brunswick’s problem by dying in 1926.

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Brunswick did not release the Valentino recordings, although a catalog number to them was assigned following his death. In 1930 it dubbed the recordings, with spoken introductions, for a special release by the obscure Celebrities Recording Company.

 

Those recordings were released after his death. Did Brunswick release them after all?

No, no. Some record company—it wasn’t Brunswick—put out a sort of “memorial record” with a pompous introduction explaining that these two songs were the only time that the voice of Valentino was ever recorded. I don’t know how those test recordings got released. Maybe somebody got the test pressings from his estate, I don’t know. I had left Brunswick by then, so I don’t know if the company got an injunction or sued whoever it was that released them. [2]

 

In your files there are letters between you and Oliver Hardy about making records for Brunswick. Do you recall your dealings with Hardy?

Yes, and they were very pleasant. I met him when I went to Los Angeles to set up the temporary studio, the one where we recorded Chaplin. You may know this, but everybody who knew Hardy called him “Babe,” not “Ollie” or “Oliver.” He had been a singer before he got into [motion] pictures, and he had a very pleasant tenor voice. The problem was that he and Stan Laurel were making silent pictures, so no one knew that Hardy could sing. But he could really sing—and he did when he and Laurel made sound pictures. He was also a hell of a golfer, by the way. Like Bing [Crosby], he was almost a par golfer.

 

Your files also contain some correspondence with two other film stars, Ramon Navarro and John Boles, who wanted to make records with Brunswick. Do you recall dealing with them?

With Navarro, yes, in Los Angeles. He was a competent “salon pianist,” but as with Hardy, no one knew that he had any musical ability. The same with John Boles. Although I did meet with him and he was a very nice guy, [Boles] was another case of a silent movie star who could sing credibly but no one knew it, so there was no point in having him make records for us. As a movie star, he was nowhere near Valentino, but [Boles] could sing—his voice was a light baritone, or maybe a tenor with a limited top [range] and a fast vibrato—but he made several successful sound films later on. [3]

 

Among the vocalists you recorded at Brunswick, there are two tenors I’d like to ask you about. The first is Frank Munn, whom you discovered. How did that come about?

Being a machinist myself, I had a lot of friends who were master machinists. I kept hearing about this rotund machinist who had this beautiful tenor voice, but had lost part of his index finger in an accident and was now driving trucks. After a while I found out his name, so I looked him up in the phone book and found that he was living in a little apartment in the Bronx.

Frank was a very shy man, and when I introduced myself to him and told him that I heard he was a singer, he seemed kind of lost for words. I could see how reticent he was, so I asked him where he liked to eat, and then told him I want to treat him to lunch on a Sunday. He was still very reticent when we got together, and I think it was because he had found out that I was with a major record company. I actually had to convince him to audition for us—that’s how shy he was.

Frank was what used to be called a “Mister Five-by-Five.” He was about 5’ 5” and he weighed close to 300 pounds, so he was almost as round as he was tall. He had two suits and two dress shirts that had to be custom-tailored for him due to his size. He was single back then, but later he married a wonderful woman, Ruth, who was the dream of his life. She took wonderful care of him, and they were such a great couple. Being so overweight, he was extremely sensitive about it, but in her eyes he was as handsome as a movie star—and she loved to hear him sing.

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Frank Munn, from Radio Revue for February 1930

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We [Brunswick] were already doing the “Brunswick Hour” when I met Frank, and we had ironed out the problems with electrical recording by then. His voice recorded so well that it amazed all of us. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had made some personal recordings and had even done a trial recording for Edison. [4] But those were acoustic recordings, and like Nick Lucas, Frank didn’t have the kind of voice that recorded well acoustically. [5] But on electrical recordings and on radio, Frank’s voice was just beautiful.

Because of his obesity, his boyish face, very light skin, and the timbre of his speaking voice—which was exactly like his singing voice—and his shyness, you wouldn’t take Frank for being a strong man. Well, one day in the studio we found out just how strong he was. It was a hot summer day, and we were re-doing the studios—we had three of them, and one studio was still equipped with one of the very heavy acoustic recorders that Frank Hofbauer had designed. We needed to get it out of there, and four workmen were hired to remove it.

Well, only two showed up—and we waited and waited for the other two, but they never showed. We were on a tight schedule and weren’t doing any recording while the studios were all being redone, so I was infuriated about these two workmen not showing up. It was very hot—this was in July, I think—and tempers were getting short. Frank was there to rehearse in another room with several men from our Brunswick Male Chorus. He was always punctual, and had arrived early for this rehearsal.

When he saw what was going on, he said to me, “I can help with this,” and he picked up one side of this very heavy machine as if it didn’t weigh ten pounds! The other two workmen were struggling to keep it off the ground, but Frank was not only lifting and moving what it would have taken two men to do, he was also telling the other two to move this way and that way until that machine was out of the room.

Word got around that Frank was super-strong, and when some of the guys would tell him they had heard about it, Frank reacted very modestly but you could tell it meant something to him. From then on, we made bets about what he could lift. One bet that I especially remember was whether he could lift the rear end of a Ford sedan high enough that the rear tires would not be touching the pavement. One of our [Brunswick] fellows had a four-door Model T with a back bumper on it, and I watched Frank Munn put on a pair of leather gloves and lift the entire rear end of that Ford until the tires were almost two inches above the pavement!

 

Frank Munn’s voice has a very sweet quality, for want of a better word, on his recordings. Had he studied voice formally?

Frank never had any lessons as far as I know. His voice was just “natural.” It wasn’t large, nor did it have much of a range. When I wrote arrangements for Frank’s recordings, I tried not to have him sing above an A-flat because he didn’t have much of a top. But the timbre of his voice gave the impression that he was singing higher. To me, the best things about his singing were his intonation, his phrasing, which was always on the beat, and his natural diction—no rolling of the Rs and that sort of thing.

Frank was ideal for recording and for radio because he was never seen by an audience, so he didn’t have to worry about his obesity. He didn’t like having photos taken, but we used the best professionals and they lighted him in ways that emphasized his dark hair and his eyes and his smile, not his body. When he had to pose for longer shots, he would stand behind a piano so that the photo would be of his upper body.

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A hand-colored photo of Virginia Rea and Frank Munn, with Haenschen at the piano (1928)

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I remember a photo session with Frank, Virginia Rea and me—I was seated at the piano, and they were in formal dress standing in front of microphones—which became the cover picture for one of the monthly radio magazines that were popular back then. The photo was hand-colored, and the background was quite dark. Frank positioned himself slightly behind Virginia [Rea], and his black tuxedo blended into the dark background. He was very fond of that magazine-cover photo.

 

Another tenor you had under contract at Brunswick was Theo Karle. What do you recall of him?

We made a lot of recordings with Theo Karle. If I had to liken him to another tenor, at least on recordings, I’d say that he was Brunswick’s Giovanni Martinelli. He had an unusual timbre that on [acoustical] recordings sounded somewhat like Martinelli’s. He recorded tenor arias from Italian and French operas but did them in English, and also sang oratorio selections for us. We recorded him singing operetta selections—he was the main tenor in our Brunswick Light Opera Company—and he also recorded several Irish ballads. His wasn’t a great voice, but it recorded well and he was very easy to work with.

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Allen McQuhae (left) and Theo Karle

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Another tenor I want to ask you about it your Irish tenor, Allen McQuhae. Was he Brunswick’s John McCormack?

If he thought he was, someone should have disabused him of it. He was an “Irish tenor” only in the sense that he was born there, and sang some of McCormack’s repertoire. Most of his earlier [career] was spent in the Midwest—Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati—singing with their symphonies. At that time, he was singing French and Italian arias, and some oratorio pieces. I think he had also done some singing in Canada, which is where he emigrated after leaving Ireland.

Personally, I never thought much of his voice or of his singing. His timbre wasn’t that distinctive or attractive, and the dynamic he preferred the most was forte. There was very little subtlety in his singing, and nothing memorable about it either. We used him more as a pop singer than an “Irish tenor” at Brunswick. He had made some recordings for Edison, and they weren’t very good, so to be honest about it, I wasn’t in favor of giving him a contract. I wanted Joe White, but he was already under contract to Victor so I couldn’t get him.

 

You’re referring to Joseph White, the “Silver-Masked Tenor”?

That’s right, Joe White of the [B. F.] Goodrich Silvertown Cord Orchestra. To me, Joe sounded the most like McCormack of any of the tenors I had heard. He and I became very good friends, and I would love to have had him under contract at Brunswick. But he was already with Victor and was doing very well as Goodrich’s star tenor. He had sung on radio before Victor put him under contract, and he had also sung in Europe if my memory is right. But it was as the Silver-Masked Tenor at Victor that he was best known on radio and recordings.

Joe has a son who sang under the name “Bobby White” on several radio shows, particularly “Coast to Coast on a Bus” with my friend Milton Cross [as announcer]. Bobby had an unusually beautiful voice as a boy, and Joe oversaw his training and taught him all of his [the father’s] songs. Joe was still singing, but then he had an accident and broke one of his legs. As I recall, the break wouldn’t heal, and that leg had to be amputated. Through all of that, Joe made certain that Bobby would make the transition into adulthood as a tenor, and he surely did a wonderful job. Today, Bobby—or Robert—White is a nationally known concert tenor and gives recitals all over the world.

 

Am I correct that you also had Ted Fiorito under contract at Brunswick?

Well, at that time Ted was the pianist of the Oriole Orchestra, which he led with a violinist, Dan Russo. They made a good number of recordings for us as the Orioles [sic; Oriole Orchestra or Oriole Terrace Orchestra]. Several of their recordings were done in Chicago because their orchestra had a long engagement at the Edgewater Beach Hotel there.

 

One of the most unusual groups you recorded at Brunswick was the Mound City Blue Blowers, a group which became nationally known in its own right. How did they come to your attention?

Through Al Jolson. The credit for the Mound City Blue Blowers goes to Jolson. We were recording him at the Statler [Hotel] in Chicago, and these three young guys had been bugging Jolson to give them a hearing. Finally he got tired of it, so he passed the buck to me and got me to give them an audition. I think we made a couple of test pressings, unwillingly, and we sort of tossed off the whole thing by telling them that we’d have to issue their records on a trial basis, and if they sold anything we might talk to them later.

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(Top) The Mound City Blue Blowers c. early 1925, comprising (left to right) Dick Slevin, Jack Bland, Eddie Lang, and Red McKenzie. The group originally was a trio, minus Lang, although Brunswick’s ad for their first record pictured a quartet.

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The one who put together the group—it [initially] was a trio—was Red McKenzie, who was from St. Louis. Red went on to have a very fine career, but when we auditioned the Blue Blowers I wouldn’t have given him or the other two a snowball’s chance in hell. All Red did was play a comb with tissue paper wrapped around it.

Yet here was something different about the sound of the group, so it gave me something to work with. One of the three played banjo—Bland, Jack Bland, was his name—but he was no Harry Reser, so I backed him with Eddie Lang on guitar and I also put Frank Trumbauer in the next set of Blue Blowers recordings we made. Well those records sold, and sold, and then sold some more. We couldn’t believe it because these young guys were nothing more than a “kitchen band,” what with jugs and all of that. [6] But here they were, selling a lot of records for us.

 

Returning to classical Brunswick artists, and in particular violinists, you spoke about Elias Breeskin and Max Rosen earlier. Let me ask you about other violinists you recorded at Brunswick: Fredric Fradkin, William Kroll, Bronislaw Huberman and Mishel Piastro.

Kroll wasn’t a soloist—not for Brunswick, I mean. He was the violinist in a trio, the Elschuco Trio, with a pianist [Aurelio Giorni] and Willem Willeke, who was a superb cellist. Max Rosen, as I said, was [Brunswick’s] Fritz Kreisler. The others were not in his class, although Huberman was a close second to Rosen. Huberman had studied with Joachim, and had been a sort of prodigy when he came to this country. He had played all over Europe by then. We recorded him in the standard repertoire that Victor had in its catalogs.

Piastro and Fradkin were competent violinists, but they didn’t sell a lot of records and didn’t have the following, the careers, that Rosen and Huberman had. Breeskin was a fine violinist, and we got a lot of mileage out of having him at Brunswick because he was the violinist Caruso chose as an assisting artist for his U.S. concert tours in World War One. By the way, another [violinist] Caruso had as an assisting artist in some of his concerts was Xavier Cugat. Back then, he was “Francis X. Cugat.”

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Haenschen recalled getting “a lot of mileage out of having [Breeskin] at Brunswick” because of his association with Caruso.

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Among the legendary pianists Brunswick had under contract were Josef Hofmann, Leopold Godowsky and Elly Ney. First, let me ask you about Josef Hofmann. It was rumored that because his reach [i.e., the span of his hands] was somewhat short compared to, say, Rachmaninoff, that he used a special piano that had slightly narrower keys than a standard concert grand.

That was much later, not when he was with us. It would have been quite a trick to have one of those special Steinways hauled from his studio onto the top floor of the Brunswick building. No, when he recorded for us, he used the same grand pianos that the others you mentioned used. We had four grands, all of them seven-feet models. Two were Steinways and the other two were Knabe grands.

Hofmann always played one of the Steinways, but it had a standard keyboard. It’s true that his reach was short compared to Godowsky’s, but even Godowsky said that Hofmann had the finest technique of all the concert pianists of that time. Hofmann had very strong hands, incidentally, and he could get more volume out of any of our pianos than even Godowsky could. That’s saying something because Leopold Godowsky was one of the greatest pianists ever. One thing about Josef Hofmann just came to my mind: he had a special chair built for him—he had a number of them, actually—and he would only record in that special chair.

 

Do you mean a “chair” rather than a piano stool or bench—that is, a seat with a back on it?

Yes, an actual chair with a back on it. The height of the back was maybe twelve inches, not much more than that, and it was angled slightly forward. There was something about the height and the angle of the back that kept him in a position that was ideal for his playing. That’s what he used in his concerts, and he always used it in our recording sessions. He was a wonderful guy, always a lot of fun to work with.

Another point about his style that always struck me when I watched him recording for us: his fingers were never more an inch above the keys, and his wrists were always on the same plane as the tops of the keys. He didn’t go in for showy stuff—no bringing his arms up to his shoulders and then down to the keys, or any of that Liberace fluff.

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Elly Ney (left), and Josef Hofmann (right, in the Columbia studio)
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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And Elly Ney?

Elly was a great pianist, and one of the few women pianists who had very successful careers at that time. She was German but spoke English well. She was a bit on the flamboyant side and had a really captivating personality. There was a very famous pianist in Vienna, [Theodor] Leschetizky, who taught a lot of famous concert pianists. Elly’s concert promoters always highlighted that she was a pupil of Leschetizky. One day I remember Walter [Rogers] asking her what he was like as a teacher. She said, “I don’t really know. I only had two lessons with him!”

 

One of the most interesting of Brunswick artists was Marion Harris, who seems to have influenced not only Rudy Vallée but many other performers. How did you get her to record for Brunswick?

Marion was our biggest-selling female artist in our popular-music division, and she was ahead of ones like Ruth Etting, Belle Baker, and Kate Smith when they were starting out. Marion had been a headliner in vaudeville so she was very much in demand, and she had made some recordings for Columbia [7] before we got her to come to Brunswick.

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Marion Harris and Isham Jones’ Orchestra (Jones second from left)
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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The first recordings I remember making with Marion was when we put her with Isham Jones’s band. Her voice came through spectacularly—I was going to say “loud and clear”—on all of the acoustic records she made with us. Hers was one of those voices like [Mario] Chamlee’s, which the old [acoustical] process captured wonderfully. She was always available whenever we wanted her, and we recorded more songs with her than probably any other female pop singer in our catalog.

 

Brunswick also had Margaret Young, who sang some of the same blues songs as Marion Harris. What do you recall of her?

There was nothing original about Margaret Young. She had been in vaudeville, and then she patterned herself after Marion Harris. But [Young] wasn’t in the same league as Marion—not by a long shot. For every Margaret Young record, we probably sold twenty times as many Marion Harris records during the acoustical days. When we went into radio with our “Brunswick Hour” broadcasts, we made sure Marion was on as many of those [broadcasts] as possible. Really, Marion was the first white woman to sing jazz and blues the way the great Negro singers sang them.

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Margaret Young (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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That brings me to the topic of what were called “race records” in the 1920s. Did Brunswick have a separate catalog of these “race records”?

Yes, although we limited it mostly to the Vocalion label. Vocalion was a low-priced label that we thought would be attractive to Negro buyers. [8]  Now, we did have a very fine black singer, Edna Hicks, and some other blues singers whose names I’m sorry that I don’t remember. We had several different catalogs, just like Victor did. One of them was a “Jewish catalog” that featured singers like Isa Kremer, who sang Yiddish folk songs, and several great cantors as well. Like Victor and Columbia, we also had catalogs in other languages, which were distributed in Europe, South America and Asia.

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Although Brunswick had a race-record program, its Vocalion label served as the company’s primary outlet for race material. Originally managed by Jack Kapp, the race department was taken over by Mayo Williams in 1928, after Kapp was promoted to general manager.

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The Vocalion label also included what today would be called “country and western,” correct?

Yes, although it was called “hillbilly music” back then. Jack Kapp was the manager of Vocalion after we acquired the label.

 

Jack Kapp, who founded the American Decca label?

Yes, that Jack Kapp—and I apologized to him so many times for the way I dealt with him at Brunswick that he finally told me to stop it! I couldn’t stand anything “hillbilly,” but Jack would scour the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia for these backwoods yodelers and fiddlers, and he would record them wherever he could come up with a makeshift recording studio.

I had to meet with Jack quarterly, sometimes more frequently, so he could play these field recordings to get my approval for them. He knew that I hated that kind of music, but he was always trying to “convert” me. He’d be playing a test pressing and he’d say to me, “Now, isn’t that a good guitar lick? And how about that harmonica!” I’d roll my eyes and tell him, “What you call a ‘good guitar lick’ is what I call bad guitar playing!”

We’d go ’round and ’round arguing about these hillbilly players, and I always ended up approving whatever he brought. The reason I did was because, first, they sold a lot of records in rural areas that never bought Brunswick records until then, and second because Jack kept finding better and better talent. Plus, Jack was so enthusiastic about discovering new talent that his enthusiasm rubbed off on me and everyone else he worked with.

 

Were you surprised at how successful he made Decca?

Honestly, when he pitched the Decca idea to me and invited me to invest in it, I said no because I didn’t think there was a market for phonograph records anymore. There had been all kinds of improvements in the technology, of course, but I was so involved in radio that I didn’t pay any attention to phonograph records. I had put all of that in the rear-view mirror when I left Brunswick, and when I heard that Jack had been named manager of Brunswick after the 1929 stock-market crash, I felt sorry for him. But what I should have considered was how determined, how driven, Jack was.

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Jack Kapp (right) during his Decca years, with former Brunswick  stars Al Jolson and Bing Crosby

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These days, we hear a lot about “visionaries.” Jack Kapp was a real visionary. His success with Decca kept the recording industry going, and his investors—especially Bing Crosby—believed in him and put a lot of money into Decca. A lot of the artists Jack had worked with at Brunswick followed him to Decca. Just when Decca was doing very well, there was a shortage of shellac that Jack had to contend with. That happened when we [the U.S.] entered World War Two. But he weathered the shellac shortage, and Decca grew during the war.

Then came the revolution in the industry when Columbia brought out the long-playing record, RCA came out with the 45 r.p.m. format, and magnetic tape revolutionized how recordings were made. It was Jack Kapp, in my opinion, who kept the industry going during the middle of the Depression. Without him, I’m not sure that there would have been much of an industry left because the vast majority of Americans barely had enough money to buy food.

 

Earlier, when you were speaking about Marion Harris, you mentioned two topics that I want to ask you about: electrical recording and the “Brunswick Hour.” Frank Black was played an important role in the “Brunswick Hour,” if I’m correct. How did you and Frank Black meet?

Walter [Rogers] and I hired Frank as a staff pianist and an arranger for our classical and popular recordings at Brunswick. I’m not sure when we hired him, but I would guess 1921 or 1922, after we were well-established in the industry. Frank was the fastest and most versatile arranger I’ve ever known, and I’ve known and worked with a lot of them. As you said, he had an important role in the “Brunswick Hour” broadcasts. He wrote many of the arrangements for them and was the pianist in them too.

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Frank Black (undated photo, and a 1937 caricature)

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How would you compare the two of you as pianists?

Frank was the better pianist—he was much more versatile than I was. I played in one style, which we called “ragtime” back then, but [which] came to be known as “stride” when James P. Johnson and other black pianists became well known. That was the style I learned in St. Louis, the style that Scott Joplin helped me to refine. Frank, on the other hand, could play in almost any style, and he could hold his own with some of the classical pianists. But his most important role for us at Brunswick was his extraordinary speed and output of very imaginative arrangements.

 

What led you to become a partner of his in radio, where the two of you became nationally known as a team?

That started with the first broadcast we did of “The Brunswick Hour.” Between us, Frank and I wrote all the arrangements for that first broadcast. We just clicked when it came to writing arrangements for radio broadcasts.

 

Those “Brunswick Hour” broadcasts were well-received by the critics, and certainly by the public. Was that your first performance on radio?

Yes. Before that, my only experience with radio was building them for me and my family and friends. [David] Sarnoff envisioned radio becoming the dominant form of entertainment, and between 1920 and about 1924 radio technology improved to the degree that the [radio] sets had cone-type loudspeakers that made it possible for a whole family to listen to a broadcast. Until then, loudspeakers that were used with one- or two-tube receivers were basically megaphones connected to a diaphragm like the one in a telephone receiver.

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The earliest “Brunswick Hour” programs featured a “Music Memory Contest” that was suspended after several broadcasts. (March 1925)

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Do you remember how you felt about hearing radio broadcasts through an electrical amplifier and loudspeaker, compared to listening to an acoustical phonograph record?

Well, hearing the full range of sound coming through a cone-type loudspeaker made what we were doing in our recording studios seem almost primitive by comparison. It was obvious that radio was going to replace phonographs as the source of entertainment.

When you look back, you can see why radio was the future. Our twelve-inch phonograph records had a playing time of about four minutes at the most. A radio program could be any length, from fifteen minutes to an hour or more, and it was free in those days. Later, when sponsors came in [to fund radio broadcasts] and network programs aired commercials at the beginning and end of a [radio] show, radio was still free of charge to the people at home.

 

Do you recall the financial recession of 1921–1922 and its effects on the recording industry?

Oh, yes. Phonograph sales went to hell, and so did record sales. Like Victor, Brunswick weathered that downturn better than the other smaller companies. In our case, it was because of the parent company’s diversity and the money they could afford to lose in the phonograph division. But I would say that by 1923, anyone in the recording industry could see what was going to happen [with radio] because acoustical recordings cost money and their sound was inferior compared to a high-quality radio broadcast in the middle-1920s.
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©2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

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

[1] The Valentino session (May 14, 1923) preceded Chaplin’s by two years.

[2] Brunswick catalog number 3299 was finally assigned to the recordings in 1926, but the release was cancelled. Both selections were remastered by Brunswick in August 1930, with the addition of a spoken introduction, for the apparently unrelated Celebrities Recording Company (Los Angeles).

[3] Hardy, Navarro, and Boles made no known recordings for Brunswick.

[4] This recording, made for Edison on November 18, 1924 (one month before Munn’s first Brunswick session), was eventually approved for release in October 1926.

[5] However, Munn’s earliest Brunswick recordings are acoustic.

[6] Trumbauer was added beginning with a session on March 13, 1924, Lang beginning with a session on December 10, 1924. Jugs were not used.

[7] And Victor.

[8] Vocalion records initially were reduced to 50¢ from 75¢ following the label’s acquisition by Brunswick, but were soon reinstated as a standard 75¢ line following dealer protests. However, Haenschen is correct in observing that Vocalion served as Brunswick’s primary race-record outlet. Jack Kapp was in charge of the race catalog, which probably explains Haenschen’s limited recollections.

 

> Part 1  | > Part 2

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

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

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> Part 1  | > Part 3

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Nick Lucas

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

You recorded under pseudonyms yourself, correct?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, from the 1924 Brunswick catalog

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Gene Rodemich’s Orchestra, from the 1924 Brunswick catalog

 

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

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

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

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What do you recall of the Brox Sisters? 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Fred Waring and his “Blendor”

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Was the orchestra present for those sessions?

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

 

Were you at that now-famous Aeolian Hall concert?

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

 

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

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

 

How did the orchestra and the audience react?

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Did you play the piano part yourself?

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

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

 

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

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

 

You also recorded Bennie Krueger’s orchestra, correct?

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

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Bennie Krueger’s Orchestra, from the 1924 Brunswick catalog

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

 

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