30 August 2007

Pleasure Bound

Late summer of 1912. The sun still warms and heats but the warmth doesn't cling as it did only weeks before. The tree leaves, once lush and soft, now rustle crisply in the breeze sweeping in from the ocean only a few blocks away. End of season at Coney Island's Luna Park.

"Dardanella" (1919) - Calliope

This mother and her young son, about to enjoy a hot-dog (tongs are barely visible in the counter clerk's right hand) are, I believe, stopping for a bite to eat before venturing homeward. No child --- of 1912 or 2007, would be easily convinced to pause outside the gates of such a wonderland for food --- and even if persuaded, their attention would surely be intently fixed upon the entrance and the pleasures behind it. No, this young fellow seems content, a bit wistful and perhaps a bit bored at this point. He's had his day. Autumn is ahead --- and school, two elements that could easily result in his pensive pose. Hence, perhaps, this end-of-summer fling provided by an understanding and indulgent mother.

You may consider this blog entry to be something of an end-of-summer fling too, as it consists of little more than the voices, music and faces of another day. Simple pleasures I wanted to share with readers before taking a long overdue and much needed holiday in early September, with the next scheduled entry due to appear here the week of the 17th.

While the piping, somewhat mournful strains of "Dardanella" still linger, let's listen to a different version of the melody --- this time vocalized across the great expanse of time by Vernon Dalhart and Gladys Rice (a photo of whom can be found at the conclusion of this blog entry.)

"Dardanella" (1920) Dalhart & Rice

It's always a jolting surprise to hear Vernon Dalhart's clear melodic voice freed of country, western or hillbilly trappings --- regional vocal dialects that he could turn on and off at will, and lay on as thinly or thickly as required. Personally, it's this unaffected voice that I find the most pleasing and effective, for he possessed a fine sweeping range all too often kept under wraps in things like "The Prisoner's Song" or "The Wreck of the Old '97"--- recordings which would define him to this day, despite the fact that Dalhart as a man seemed to have vastly little in common with the overall clad hayseed character they conjure up. The distinguished, crisply suited gentleman we see here seems so at odds with the recordings which would long outlive him!

Al Jolson would introduce "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody" in the 1918 stage production of "Sinbad" (404 performances) and would keep the tune at the ready throughout the rest of his career. A simpler, but no less effective rendition was recorded by Vernon Dalhart (left) and I'll leave it to readers to decide if the tune holds up sans wringing hands, breast beating and bended knee.

"Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody" (1918)

You won't encounter a more gentle and endearing Dalhart than in the next offering, "My Baby's Arms," which was introduced by vocalist John Steel in "The Ziegfeld Follies of 1919." While Dalhart couldn't claim the crystalline trills that Steel so effortlessly flung from his slight frame, this performance of "My Baby's Arms" gives some indication of how effective Dalhart was upon the classical and light opera stage where he began his career in such vehicles as "Madame Butterfly," "Girl of the Golden West" and "H.M.S. Pinafore."

"My Baby's Arms" (1919) - Vernon Dalhart

And here's John Steel himself, in his mid-twenties --- at the dawn of the 1920's --- pictured outside his home, dressed for summer and seeming anything but the incredibly powerful tenor who entertained thousands between 1918 and 1923 via "The Ziegfeld Follies" and two editions of "The Music Box Revue." If publicity photos are any indication, Steel was a quiet and thoughtful fellow --- taking pride in his garden, tending to his pet parrot, tinkering with a home wireless set.

Born in 1893 (or 1900, depending upon source) of Scotch and Irish parents, John Steel hailed from Montclair, New Jersey. As a child, Steel displayed a remarkable interest in and talent for music, and sang in he boys choirs of various New York City and Brooklyn churches.

At 15, he left school and found employment in an office but steady offers to sing in various churches and for societies soon became his primary source of income. He joined up as a performer with tent shows, touring New England states and upon declaration of War, he traveled overseas for a year to sing for the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Forces.

On his return home, he received his first offer to sing in a legitimate musical stage production, "The Maid of the Mountains," which played at the Casino Theater in New York City in 1918. Lasting only for 37 performances, it nonetheless made him an overnight sensation and he received numerous lucrative offers --- chief among them from Florenz Ziegfeld, with whom he'd rise to the heights of fame while introducing a string of hits that would include perhaps the definitive Ziegfeld tune, "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody."

Steel's career seems to have peaked with his contributions to "The Music Box Revue," and a nationwide vaudeville tour on the B.F. Keith Circuit didn't do much to prolong it outside of being well attended by thousands of patrons curious to see the singer in person. Despite his glorious voice, Steel presented a pleasant albeit average figure --- neither especially memorable nor impressive. Then too, Steel's voice would prove to be at odds with the sort of music that would mark the 1920's --- but as to why he didn't pursue a career in the musical theater beyond 1923 is any one's guess and a loss to the medium.

John Steel would survive until 1971, at which time he would succumb to a heart attack in New York. That same year, his widow, one Jeanette Hackett, would be involved in what was described as a "dreadful accident" while in the Hamptons, necessitating a requirement to transport her via air to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

Two melodies from "The Ziegfeld Follies of 1919"...

"Tulip Time" (1919) John Steel

"My Baby's Arms" (1919) John Steel

... and from "The Music Box Revue," a recording that still packs a mighty dose of emotion after all the many years since I first heard it on a summer day that now seems as long ago as the year in which this disc was first recorded.

If you listen to only one John Steel recording from these pages, please have it be this one:

"Say It With Music" (1921)

A gentle song... a gentle man, John Steel.

The rather plain woman pictured right, trying her hand at the telegraph key, is the remarkable Ada Jones, a name that even the most casual of explorers of early phonograph history will encounter time and again, be the medium cylinders or discs.

Despite bouts with epilepsy, Jones was incredibly prolific --- producing recordings in great numbers for just about every phonograph label of her day, and in a myriad of voices that could (and did) in one recording session effortlessly switch between the Bowery coquette, an old Southern "Mammy," ladies of German, Irish, Jewish, Italian or Swedish origin and just the simple working girl experiencing the pleasures and mechanical traps of the early 20th century --- subway trains, amusement parks, nickelodeons, dance-halls and quick service restaurants.

Born in the United Kingdom but a resident of the United States since early childhood, Jones would work at the recording microphone virtually up to her last days, which arrived in May of 1922 following a collapse on-stage at a concert recital in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

Surviving cylinders and discs, ravaged by time, often wreck havoc with Ada Jones' characteristic clear and ringing diction and vocalizing, but when you encounter a Jones recording that has managed to survive largely unscathed, the experience is always memorable no matter how mundane the material might be.

"Any Little Girl That's A Nice Little Girl (Is the Right Little Girl For Me)" dates from 1911, and once you understand that "rats" (worn in the hair) are small wigs, that "beading" one's eyes is to apply an early form of mascara, and that a "Straight Front X.Y.Z." is underwear, you just might enjoy this!

"Any Little Girl That's A Nice Little Girl..." (1911) Ada Jones

Billy Murray (pictured right with Aileen Stanley) was frequently paired with Ada Jones at the recording microphone, and therefore perfectly suited to provide the spoken introduction to a 1931 revival of "Any Little Girl" that was utilized as part of a bouncing-ball musical screen cartoon. Even without visuals, it's a wonderful listen.

"Any Little Girl..." (1931)

By the time Billy Murray was paired with Aileen Stanley for a series of memorable recordings, the day of Edison's two-minute vaudeville sketches bring pressed into soft black wax were ancient history in terms of technology, but despite his advancing years, the pugnaciously dapper Murray let the years fall away and his voice, which remained virtually unchanged, beautifully complimented the soft tones delivered by Aileen Stanley --- a vocalist equally adept at wailing jazz, dialects, scatter-brained comedic impersonations and simply a wistful young woman of the 1920's pining for love.

A trio of fine recordings, two of which feature the Stanley and Murray pairing at its best, and the third presenting Aileen Stanley in fine form as a solo artist.

"Whadda You Say We Get Together?" (1926) - Stanley & Murray

"I Can't Get Over A Girl Like You"
(1928) - Stanley & Murray

"All By Myself" (1921) - Stanley

A syndicated newspaper item from November of 1929 reveals there was far more behind tenor Franklyn Baur's placid exterior than anyone might suspect:

"Do you know what a 'dead pan' is? No? Well, a dead pan is a fellow who sits in a theater and no matter what happens his face keeps the same sheet of asbestos over it. He wouldn't smile or applaud if he was passing the Statue of Liberty when she suddenly put down her light and broke into the national anthem."

"That is why Franklyn Baur likes radio so much better than the stage. There are no dead pans sitting out front making you feel as though you want to suddenly leap into the air and yell "whoopee" right in the middle of the most serious number to find out whether their faces are painted on -- or just vacant."

"For, you see, Franklyn happens to possess a glorious tenor voice. And he likes to stand up before an audience and feel that they are with him. Sometimes when he was in vaudeville he would come out and the house would leave him 'cold.' There often was no cooperation or response. This happens a great many times. There are towns in the country famous for their dead guns and the show folks dream them. The actors never do as good work. Then the dead pans kick to the management and wonder why."

"Franklyn says of the radio studio: 'It's just great -- standing there in front of the old mike, giving him all you've got -- and feeling that out there somewhere in the wide open spaces are your friends -- the framers and their families sitting in the living room smiling and happy and appreciating you. The radio fans aren't dead pans. Their letters prove that. I haven't once felt as though I'd like to go back to the stage or concert. The mike satisfies me perfectly. I don't miss the lights and applause -- no sirree!'"

"Franklyn is perhaps the most typical Broadway type this writer has met in radio. If you could have seen and heard him telling about those 'eggs that sit on their hands and are afraid they'll crack the asbestos on their faces if they give a fellow a tumble' you would have seen a different Baur. Very different from the violin-toned tenor who sings to you every week."

"Once upon a time not so many years ago -- for Baur is still young -- only 25, he was the terror of the lightweight champs around New York and at one time held an amateur championship. Now he is learning to fly and will soon receive his pilot's license if he hasn't already. This brown-haired, gray-eyed singer-fighter-flyer was born in Brooklyn, New York and educated at Amherst College. He has made over 1,000 phonograph records. One of the most interesting things about the story of Franklyn Baur is that he was 16 before he even discovered he had a voice. Two years later he was selected as tenor soloist for the Rockefeller Park Avenue Baptist Church."

Baur's career would be prolific, memorable and ultimately short lived. Not unlike John Steel at the beginning of the decade, Baur would contribute a defining moment in the history of the "Ziegfeld Follies" with his appearance in the 1927 edition in which he introduced "A Rainbow of Girls" and "Oooh, Maybe It's You." By 1933 he abandoned his singing career. Never married, Baur passed away in the home in which he was born at the age of 46, in 1950.

"Where Is the Song of Songs For Me?" (1929) Theme song of "Lady of the Pavements"

"I Loved You Then As I Love You Now" (1929) Theme song of "Our Dancing Daughters"

"Ziegfeld Follies" Medley (1927) - Part One, and Part Two

To close this post, a photographic and musical album to linger on and
entertain until I return and posting resumes, in mid September.

The concluding story of the abandoned revue "March of Time" will be offered
in that next post, and a good many interesting items are planned for Autumn.


The Brox Sisters
Excerpt from "At The Nightclub" (1929)

Art Hickman & His Orchestra
"Avalon" (Introducing "The Japanese Sandman") (1921)

Walter Van Brunt (Walter Scanlan)
"A Picture Without A Frame" (1923)

Marie Rappold
"Smiles" (1919)

The Peerless Quartet
John Meyer, Henry Burr, Frank Croxton & Albert Campbell
"Since Mother Goes to Movie Shows" (1916)
"For Your Country and My Country" (1917)

The Crescent Trio
Charles Hart, Elliott Shaw & Lewis James
"Whispering" (1921)

Al Bernard
"The King Isn't King Anymore" (1925)

Johnny Marvin
"The Jersey Walk" (1926) - From "Honeymoon Lane"

Gladys Rice
Featured with Vernon Dalhart on "Dardanella" (see above)

News Item
11 May 1922

Until Next Time!,
(Always Precariously Balanced Between the Past and Present!)


Anonymous said...

Franklyn Baur never married because he was gay. He lived with his lover and retired from singing in 1933 due to the conservative reaction and religious revival in the 1930's that led to large number of gay stars retiring (e.g. Ramon Novarro, William Haines) Only those stars who pretended to be heterosexual and arranged sham marriages were allowed to continue in their careers with the widespread homophobia that spread throughout the country in the late 1930's..

Bill Ferry said...

Hi Jeff!
As always, another great post. Glad to have you back; today's charming mix of sentimental photos and music is just the right tonic for this Labor Day weekend. Your "March of Time" teaser has me joyfully awaiting your next chapter!

Jeff Cohen said...

Bill: Thanks for the encouraging note, especially as this sort of all music post isn't the norm for either me or these pages. Those voices and faces though, have long been near and dear to my heart --- as they have been with countless other 78rpm collectors, and I welcomed the chance to give them their own little showcase, as it were. :)

If I can finish up, I just might be able to post the concluding "March of Time" entry before I depart for holiday --- I'm certainly going to try. Keep watching, and listening!


Jeff Cohen said...

Anonymous: One can only hope that Franklyn had at least some measure of happiness in his personal life then, given the facts you provided. He seems a tragic figure --- battling his own demons with ventures into things like prize-fighting and piloting airplanes --- and then stepping before microphones to sing such delicate musical confections. Poor fellow.

While not related, I'm curious as to the slight disfigurement above his upper lip in these unretouched photos. Scar tissue from a fight injury? Operation to fix a birth defect? If anyone out there has any knowledge or thoughts on the matter, by all means share 'em!


Joe said...

Jeff: This was a really nice way to finish off the summer. It's good to see and hear what people did in times past. Looking forward to more about the March of Time. Thanks for all the hard and thoughtful work.

Joe Thompson ;0)

Glenn said...

I love the voice of Franklyn Baur - thanks for posting this information here as it seems very difficult to find anything out about him.

I try and collect his 78s every time I see them - he had a beautiful voice.