Sunday, January 12, 2014

Gustave Haenschen and James Melton

More from Dr. Jim Drake. (He is President Emeritus of Eastern Florida State College, formerly Brevard Community College, and the author of several singers' biographies.)

 Back in November he e-mailed me as to whether I had any memories, or had unearthed any information in my book research, about the friendship, both social and musical, between conductor and recording industry executive Gustave Haenschen.

Regrettably, I had few memories of Gus and his wife Roxie, except that I knew they were close friends of both my parents.  So Jim filled me in, and I thought his remarks would also be of interest to those who follow this blog.  With his permission, I reprint some of them here:

Born near St. Louis in 1890, Haenschen became the Director of Popular-Music Recordings in 1919, when the Brunswick Record Company was formed.  In 1929, Haenschen left Brunswick to become one of the founders of World Broadcasting Services, which supplied pre-recorded musical programming for the burgeoning radio industry.  Haenschen continued to be a major figure in radio broadcasting into the early 1950s, when he retired.  Years later, in the late 1960s, he came out of retirement to co-direct the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts as an executive of the G.H. Johnston Company, which produced the broadcasts under Texaco's sponsorship.

I was fortunate to spend considerable time with Gus Haenschen throughout the 1970s, when I was a young professor and administrator at Ithaca College, where Haenschen was a major donor and long-time member of the Board of Trustees.  I also had the pleasure of co-directing an oral-history project that Haenschen funded for recording and archiving interviews with early radio and recording artists.

I recall vividly our many conversations about the friendship between your father and Gus Haenschen--not only their musical association (the two first met in 1926, Haenschen recalled), but also the time they spent together working on a number of your father's antique cars.  Haenschen was a mechanical engineer (he had graduated from Washington University's College of Engineering) and was also a metallurgist and metal-fabricator.  In his shop on the acreage of his estate on Old Rock Lane in Norwalk, CT, he fabricated missing or damaged gears and other metal parts for several of your father's automobiles.

He also spoke of the intense rivalry between your father and tenor Frank Munn, who was a "regular" on "The Palmolive Hour" and many of the other radio shows that Haenschen co-owned or produced.  Although Munn's ultra-light lyric-tenor voice had none of the fullness of tone nor the throbbing intensity of your father's range, Munn and your father had a mutual friend in Gus Haenschen--and on one occasion, during a chance encounter between the two tenors outside a Manhattan restaurant, Haenschen literally had to step between Munn and your father to prevent an escalating verbal incident from turning into an outright fistfight.  But throughout the twists and turns of the Melton-Munn rivalry, Haenschen managed to remain friends with both men, and was especially elated when your father was offered a contract by the Metropolitan Opera Company.

On a related note, I had the privilege of writing the biographies of Rosa Ponselle (first for Doubleday in 1982, and later for Amadeus in 1997, her centenary year), Richard Tucker (for E.P. Dutton, 1984), and Lily Pons (Amadeus).   All were genuine admirers of your father (including Tucker, who rarely spoke about any other tenors), and Ponselle spoke very warmly of your father as a singer and as a man.

...and in a follow-up e-mail to me Jim wrote:

 Both Roxanne and Gus had wonderful things to say about your parents, and all of the good times that they had together.  As you may remember, Gus was an exquisite pianist (in addition to being a conductor, arranger, and songwriter), and when your parents would come to the Haenschens for dinner, Gus would make his way to the piano, encourage your father to sing, and would accompany him on the Steinway.  

Regarding the Munn-Melton rivalry, to be candid about it, I never understood what would prompt your father to give a single thought to any other tenor, especially one who had--as Frank Munn had--an indistinctive tone quality, a notably small voice, and a very limited upper range (he rarely sang above an A-natural, and relied on the falsetto more often than not).  I could understand a rivalry between your father and (say) Richard Crooks, or Jan Peerce, or the young Richard Tucker, because they were American tenors, and they were on the Metropolitan rosters and were singing in the same general repertoire in which your father excelled.  But Frank Munn?

What made it even stranger was that Munn, according to Gus Haenschen, never thought of himself as a rival of your father.  Munn was contented with his weekly radio engagements, and had no aspirations beyond that.  Additionally, Munn was very sensitive about his physical appearance--for most of his career he weighed well over 300 pounds, and was reluctant to be photographed, let alone to make any personal appearances.  Your father, by contrast, was tall, trim, broad-shouldered, and looked like a movie star.  

Personally, I have always been enamored with your father's singing.  Although I never had the privilege of hearing him in-person, I "discovered" James Melton when I was in my early teens, and I acquired every recording of his that I could find.  Among my favorites was his Victor Red Seal of "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen," with "Oh, Dry Those Tears" on the second side of the disc.  And among his opera recordings, I consider his "Siciliana" from Cavalleria to be matchless--and I could readily list a dozen more. 

Thank you, Dr. Drake, for this wealth of information, and for letting me publish it here! 

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