by Elza Schallert
HE’S A NEW SCREEN IDOL AND HERE’S YOUR CHANCE TO READ HOW HE GOT THAT WAY!
DRUMS—drums—church solos—Gilbert and Sullivan operettas—drums…
The singing Nelson Eddy was born on a July 29th. in Providence, Rhode Island, the only child of lsabel Kendrick and William D. Eddy, with the heating of drums, the anthems of choral singing a part of his heritage.
It may sound as though the small Nelson had been born either to the Comanche Indians or into a professional world of entertainers. Nothing could lie farther from the truth. As a matter of fact, so alien was any idea of theatrical life in any of its aspects to any one of the Eddys that Nelson has been poor man, rich man, newspaper man. advertising man, iron worker—all but beggarman and thief—before his golden baritone came into its rich and rightful own.
For Nelson is of Puritan strain, of old New England heritage on his father’s side, of Dutch descent on his mother’s. The Methodist Church, the Ten Commandments, long Sundays of the Old Testament—the iron virtues of those stiffspined forebears of his, forged and welded the strong unmeltable metal of his character which has brought Nelson Eddy to the high place he occupies today.
It is necessary to one’s understanding of a man to discover who or what has been the dominant force in his life, the ruling influence. In the life of Nelson Eddy his mother has been, and still is. that force. A mother-complex, the Freudians would say. Well, why not? For Nelson’s mother has been more than a mother in the biological and affectionate sense of the word. She has been a fellow-worker, an anient sympathizer, a faithful believer and a staunch companion along every path he has trod. She lias shared his dreams, partaken of his deeds. And when, at tea the other day in his spacious and lieautiful Beverly Hills home, he went to the foot of the stairs and called, ‘Mom! Ma-ma!” and a young, animated woman came running down to pour the tea, you felt that the little boy was calling, with a man’s voice, the one who had made success possible for him in the past and sweet to him in the present.
NELSON EDDY said, meeting his mother’s eyes which are like his own forget-me-not blue ones. ”I probably am the happiest man in the world. If I had it all to do over again I would do just what I have done. 1 have no regrets. I have no nostalgia for ‘the things that might have been.’ The world is, to me, a workshop and a playroom with toys, tools and things which are simply inexhaustible. And the only ‘secret’ to it all is to keep in tune with the elemental force— call it God or what you will—to realize that it is letter to lie good than to be bad.”
Nelson’s heritage on his father’s side is sturdy New England stock. He said, “My ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower, however. They missed it by ten years. Result. I have no grandfather’s clock! The original Eddy, so far as I can trace, was christened John Eddye. He came over from England and settled in Massachusetts. A bit later, when Governor Winthrop paid the colony a tour of inspection with the object of listing the various trades and vocations of the colonists, he found Jokers, chandlers, farmers and fishermen, mechanics, dentists. But when he came to John Eddye. he was stumped. For John Eddye had no job. He wrote him down, finally, as ‘John Eddye, gentleman!’
“My mother’s mother was of Dutch descent. Mother was born in Atlanta, Georgia—and she was a well-known oratorio singer of her day.”
I’VE SAID that the small Nelson was born to the tap of drums, the beat of rhythm, the wings of song. He was. Both his mother and his father were musical. His father was. at one time, drum major in the Second Regiment Band of the Rhode Island National Guard. His grandfather played the drum and previously had drummed for fiftyfive years in another famous American band. As a small boy Nelson acted as mascot for the outfit. .He also played the drum in a school orchestra which consisted of drum and piano—when they could get a pianist! And he used to rat-a-tat-tat for his small schoolmates as they entered and departed from school. He said to me. “Drums have always played more or less of a part in my sulKronscious.” (Remember bow he sang the stirring “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!” in “Naughtv Marietta”?)
His childhood was threaded with the notes and octaves of music. His mother was, at one time, soprano soloist in a church in Providence and he, until his voice broke, was boy soprano soloist at Grace Church in the same city. All during his little-Ixiy years his mother taught him the fundamentals of music. She read scores with him. And often, when she was practising a solo for her church, the little golden-haired boy would like it and beg her to teach it to him. She would and so, on a given hour of a Sunday morning, the mother and son would be singing the same solo, both golden-haired, both young.
BUT at no time did the boy dream or plan to become a professional singer. Nor did his mother, music-conscious as she was, seem to be aware that her son’s slender throat lodged a miracle of sound.
He wanted, as a matter of fact, to become a civil engineer. “I didn’t,” he told me, “know what in blazes a civil engineer was but it sounded good. Sort of elegant and important. It’s just as well for me that I never got around to it because I can’t add six and four and make them come out ten, not without a struggle.”
But small Nelson’s boyhood was not all dedicated to music. He had a typical, wholesome devout New England childhood. His paternal great-grandmother owned a farm at Acushet, Massachusetts, and Nelson spent many an enchanted summer there.
God-fearing people, his father’s people, and they saw to it that he revered the stern, uncompromising God of his father. Methodist by family inheritance, young Nelson, in the course of his travels from one New England town to another, attended the Baptist, Congregational, Universalist, Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches. Thus he learned early that sect is not important but that worship is.
There never was any one established home in Nelson’s boyhood. His father, a machinist and an inventor of farm tools and naval devices, moved about from city to city, almost from season to season. So that the boy attended the Dartmouth Street Primary School in New Bedford, Mass., the Rhode Island Normal School in Providence, the Edgewood Grammar School in the same city and the Grove Street Grammar School in Pawtucket, R. I., from which he graduated.
A traveling salesman kind of life— but in every town his parents took a house, never an apartment nor a hotel suite. And his mother, the genius of home-making in her heart, made of each transient abode, a real home.
NELSON said to me, “I couldn’t give a life story without talking about my grandparents, my father’s mother and father. For they are more important in my life than I am! Mr. and Mrs. Isaac M. Eddy, their neighbors call them. But they were and they are, Gramma and Grampa to me. Their home in Pawtucket was my real home. I spent most of my week-ends there and it was there, with
them, that I learned most of the lessons that have stood me in good stead all of my life. I learned the value of gentleness and kindliness—the beauty of simple living. The robust virtues of character and heart. My grandfather it was who taught me to play the drum and the fife. My grandmother taught me a reverence for old things hallowed by long love and service.
“I spent dreamy hours among the old knick-knacks and daguerreotypes of that sweet-smelling, sweet-living house. I played with the toys my grandfather had played with. I ate the cookies my grandmother made for me and no food in all the world, neither on the Continent nor here, has ever tasted so good. Their sweetness and kindliness toward me was one of the joys of my childhood and their life-long loyalty and devotion to me is one of the prides of my manhood. They hang onto the radio every time I sing. They play, over and over again, every record I have ever made. And. whenever I record, I make records off the air and send them to them. Their favorites of my songs are the ‘Evening Star’ from Tannhauscr and ‘Going Home.’ I think they will be ‘going home’ very soon now—but they cannot make a home in heaven that will be any more heaven than the home they made for a little boy and a grown man, here on earth.”
Grammar school was the end of Nelson’s formal education. There was to be no high school, no college for him. At the age of fourteen he left the classroom forever and began, then, the self-education which—but of that more later on.
“I was.” the golden baritone told me, “a very dull child. I was good. I was obedient. I was a bit timid—I didn’t run with gangs. If a big fellow wanted to take a poke at me, I’d let him take it rather than start a fight. My deportment in school was always and consistently ‘D’—not because I was personally mischievous but because I always was minding other fellows’ business, poking my nose in where it didn’t belong. Meddling.
“I liked little girls. More especially little girls with curls. And I manifested my liking by pulling their curls, teasing them, sneering loudly, ‘ Aw, an old girl!”
He first fell in love when he was seven and in the third grade. He said, reminiscently, “That was my first love affair. Doubtless the recipient of my rather murderous attentions didn’t know then and doesn’t realize to this day—if she remembers me at all—that it was love that was animating me. How should she? But it really was. I was seven, the young lady must have been all of six. Her name was Doris—you see, I do remember —and she had very pullable, golden curls, and sweet blue eyes. I teased her daily, hourly, all of the time. I threw spitballs at her. I dipped her curls in inkwells. I climaxed my attentions one day by chasing her home from school, throwing stones at her as she ran. Weird and wonderful are the ways of small boys, for all the time I was thinking how pretty she was, how much I loved her. At last, one particularly well-aimed stone cut her across the eye, a really bad gash. I followed her into her house and. above the din of her justifiable wails, unctuously asked her mother if I might be allowed to put butter on the bruise. My mother. I said angelically, had always told me that butter was very good. And her mother, touched by so much manly solicitude on my part, allowed me to minister to the hurt I had inflicted. She never knew, until later, that I was the culprit, the desperado of love. That must have been a shock to her illusions!
CURIOUS. Perhaps in some obscure way I fancied myself as Dan Cupid pursuing the victim of my affection with bow and arrow. I don’t know, I only know that it was love I felt. Love was in my mind. I was moony regularly about her. When I graduated from school, some years later, she was in the auditorium. I saw her there and planned to speak to her after the commencement exercises. But when I went to look for her she had gone and I’ve never seen her again. Doris—where, I wonder, is she?
“At the age of thirteen I had my next emotional disturbance. I was spending part of that summer at Sakonnet Point, R. I. There was a little casino there where the summer folk danced two or three times a week. I got the job of ticket collector and had permission to dance when duty permitted. I always gravitated immediately to the acknowledged belle of the place, the daughter of the local constable. I had overcome considerably my third-grade shyness or I could never have asked her to dance with me. since I couldn’t dance!
”She was very kind and patient with me, teaching me how to place my feet and go one-two, one-two so that I could, at least, circle ineptly about the ball-room. And the circle, that ancient and traditional mystic sign, caught us in the ring of love.
“We did all of the ‘tccnish things. We carved our initials on the trunks of trees, heart-enclosed. W e rode bicycles together. We took long walks, saying nothing and feeling all of the inexplicable keen agony of love at thirteen. Love which
has no tongue, no voice, only a heart!
“It all came to what seemed to me a tragic and frustrated end when, seated cozily behind a rock one day—getting up courage to kiss her cool cheek—her father, the constable, loomed up behind us and in the best movie-constable bloodand-thundcr voice bade me begone and his young daughter to run home to Maw
and he’d tend to her later!
“And so, we didn’t kiss. We never kissed at all, my sweetheart of thirteen summers, and I.
“Later, much later, came a love which dyed my life with all the colors of the spectrum, from sombre purple which is for pain to the reds and ambers of joy. But that is another, a much later part of my story.”
WE must diverge now to the day of young Nelson’s graduation from grammar school—his last clay in any classroom.
For at this time of his life his mother and father .decided to divorce and Nelson, instinctively and naturally, went with his mother. He was fourteen when his parents dissolved their marriage. He says of them now. “Two perfectly swell people who just couldn’t get along, temperamentally.”
Two wise people, too, who believed that a child should not be torn between two parents. A mother whose great love claimed her son. A father who acknowledged that love and gave it way.
And a little fourteen-year-old lad who had, now, to make his own way in the world.
Mother and son departed from Philadelphia and the Mott Iron Works owned by Nelson’s maternal uncle. There was the promise of a job as telephone operator for the boy. The promise was kept. Nelson plugged the switchboard and, a little later, was made shipping clerk which, he said, meant “underdog.”‘ “I was pretty young,” said Nelson, “and I hadn’t the ghost of an idea as yet what my role in life was to be. But one thing I “did know—that it was not to be that of underdog.”
And so. it is this same quality which, today, makes him take his scripts home, read the scene into the virgin record of a phonograph, then “act” with the records, thus learning his lines and perfecting all of the nuances at incredible speed—this same quality stood him in good stead at the iron works. For he made it his business to know the name, the history, the utilitarian value of every bolt and screw, every gadget and device manufactured in his uncle’s plant. He says, “I’m always interested in anything I’m doing—I have a consuming desire to know all there is to know about it.”
He realized, too, that he’d had an incomplete education and that he would, from this time forth, have to be his own teacher, pupil and examiner.
He said, “I started to study then and I’ve been studying ever since. Only when you begin to dig for yourself do you realize how limitless is knowledge and how small a chance you have of scraping so much as the surface.”
He took all kinds of courses, this industrious youngster. He began with the Alexander Hamilton Business Course, by correspondence. Too poor to buy the text-books offered by the course he dug up a second-hand book store that carried them and bought them there. He also, at that time or a little later, bought “The Wealth of Nations,” a famous set of books on economics by Adam Smith.
He read omniverously. He read as he walked to and from business. He read, a book propped up in front of him, during his lunch hour. He read at home, in the apartment he and his mother shared, half the nights through. He read book? that would give him a background, familiarize him with the world he lived in, in all of its aspects. H. G. Wells’ “Outline of History,” Plutarch for ancient history, compendiums of science, art, biology, geology, psychology—sets of books that would, he said, “give me the whole picture.”
AND strangely and inexplicably, even then he did not know of the golden voice he possessed.
At the Mott Iron Works he was promoted from shipping clerk to follow-up clerk, a clerical job. He was earning twelve dollars a week and knew that that wage was probably tops for him, at his age. His mother was working, too, at the University of Pennsylvania. They were just barely making ends meet but they played it as a game, joyously, hand in hand.
“And then,” said Nelson, “one sweet day I suddenly decided that I hated it—all of it. And I up and said, ‘I’m quitting!’ I knew that I was taking a desperate step. But I knew, too, that mother would say ‘All right, son, it’s for you to decide.’ And she did. She always did. Which is why I am here today.
“But that day showed no glimmer of the future. I just knew that I had jolly well got to get another job and that without delay. And so, a rather shabby lad of some fifteen summers, I began the trek down the whole length of Chestnut Street. I went into every shop, cellar, loft, store and building from 16th Street to 7th. I didn’t miss one. And finally landed at the corner of 7th and Chestnut. It was the office of that famous daily, the Philadelphia Press. I got a job as night clerk, night cashier, night ad taker. I worked from five P.M. to midnight and eight dollars a week was my remuneration. And that four dollars deficit between the eight and the twelve irked my soul as nothing else has ever done. I’ve never been able to endure the feeling of going back, of losing ground. There were some advantages, of course, in that I had more time for reading and also I was taking, at the time, a correspondence course in art. I’ll wager that I’ve been the greatest correspondence-school-taker in the country! And in my spare time (spare time!) I tried my hand at writing obits at half-space rates.
“It was after a few such intensive months,” said Nelson, “that I conceived the idea of becoming a reporter. My obits read pretty slick, I thought. And I’d picked up a lot of reportorial knowledge by keeping my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut. And so, one bright courageous morning I advanced upon the City Editor and reminded him that he had once said to me, in an affable mood, ‘I’ll make a reporter out of you one of these days, young feller.’
“But alas for my Puritan upbringing which had stressed truth-telling though the stake be the reward! When the C.E. asked me my age I said ‘Sixteen, Sir.’ And the answer was, ‘You have to be eighteen in order to be a reporter.'”
It didn’t take Nelson longer than the walking distance to get down to the offices of the Evening Public Ledger and to the desk of that sheet’s City Editor. Whereupon the following pithy dialogue took place:
Nelson : “I want to be a reporter.”
C.E.: “How old are you?”
Nelson: “Eighteen, sir.”
C.E.: “What do you know about reporting?”
Nelson: (lapsing haplessly into truth again) “Not a damn thing, sir!”
C.E.: “Y ou’re hired.”
AND a full-fledged reporter he became. And then, just as things were going full tilt, came one of the newspaper’s periodic shake-ups and young Nelson was shaken off the Ledger and onto the Evening Bulletin where he did every type of reporting from murders, which he sometimes had to see, to major league baseball of which he had never seen a single game.
“There wasn’t much of life I didn’t get to know first hand,” remembers Nelson, “the seamy side and the silken side. And all the while I was studying advertising. When I left the paper I went into advertising agency work. And got to be a pretty expert copy writer and make-up man.
“It was about this time that I began to amuse myself by singing with phonograph records. I’d buy the records, learn the songs and sing ’em. I also bought a guitar and accompanied myself. I had company evenings, using the records for accompaniments and drowning out, I am afraid, the original singers thereon.
“It never dawned upon me, however, with one of those dramatic sudden sunbursts of revelation that I had a ‘voice’ which I should give to the world. It did occur to me that here, in my singing, in the pleasure I got from it, might be another avenue of work, another ‘job.'”
Everyone in Philadelphia, in the whole world of music for that matter, knew of David Bispham, the great American baritone of his time. And it was while he was still copy-writing and making-up that Nelson walked himself into the atelier of David Bispham one fine morning and said, “You teach, sir? Will you teach me?”
David Bispham said, “Sing.” And Nelson, very young, totally untrained, stood there and sang an Italian aria memorized from one of his records.
“AFTER I had sung my aria for David Bispham,” Nelson Eddy told me, “I went about my business as usual and didn’t give it any more thought than I had previously given to try-outs for other jobs. It didn’t strike me then as being a memorable occasion. I certainly didn’t spend the intervening time between the singing of the aria and the ‘word’ Mr. Bispham had promised to send me pacing the floor or tearing my hair.”
No. He wouldn’t. There is something refreshingly undramatic and unpretentious about this young New Englander who has never been “above” any kind of a job, who has carved his own way with his own hands and his mother’s help ever since he stepped off the commencement platform of the Grove Street Grammar School at the age of fourteen and so, by devious and hard-working routes on to the concert and opera, screen and radio stages of the world.
THEN, TWO days after his audition with David Bispham he returned home one evening to find a photomailer awaiting him. It contained a photograph of David Bispham. And the autograph read “To Nelson Eddy, the Coming Baritone —or I miss my guess, David Bispham.”
But David Bispham didn’t miss his guess. Thus did he herald the fame of the blond young man from New England.
Even then he did not fling out his chest and heave a mighty “I am made!” He knew what jobs are. Hard work. Gradual advancement. Tardy recognition. He said, “During my reporting days I’d met up with enough broken-down tenors and baritones, actors and actresses, poets and ballerinas to know that salt tears and failure are easier to achieve than laurel wreaths and applause. I knew that this might mean another job to me with the usual hard work and slow advancement. It held, I am sorry to say, no thrill.”
He returned to Mr. Bispham and asked the maestro if those flattering words had meant that he would teach him. The maestro would. Nelson said, “I can’t give up my job, you know. I have a good game. Advertising. It takes most of my time. Besides, lessons cost money and a copy-man makes very little.”
“Singing is a good game, too,” said Mr. Bispham. “It’s been pretty good to me.” After several serious and persuasive talks Mr. Bispham finally convinced this practical young man that a little study couldn’t hurt him and might open new and lucrative fields to him. It was the new and lucrative fields that prevailed upon Nelson, not the lure of the lights nor the fandango of applause.
They were not destined to be of a very long duration, those first lessons. For scarcely had they got well under way when Mr. Bispham died. And then Nelson tried one teacher and another, learned the operatic roles of “Aida” and “Pagliacci,” sang with the Philadelphia Operatic Company, with the Savoy Company, an organization devoted to giving the works of Gilbert & Suillivan. He joined the plays and players, A Little Theare group, and appeared in two of their plays singing and dancing. The Plays & Players, by the way, only engaged Nelson after thumbing the pages of the Social Register and finding the Eddy name safely listed among the socially desirable.
HE played in “The Marriage Tax,” Mrs. George Dallas Dixon’s society musical which was elaborately produced at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. He said, “I played the part of the King of Greece—and imagine my chagrin when I glanced at the program on opening night to find that I was billed merely as the King of Greece! The next morning my feelings were considerably assuaged when I opened the morning papers to find my first press notice. My anonymity had served me well for it was all very flattering. There was a demand for the real name of the King of Greece.”
Nelson’s life in those days and in the days to come would sound like a copy and a very detailed one of the Musical Directory if everything he did, every role he sang were to be listed in proper sequence. The sequence is relatively unimportant, perhaps. What is very important is the methodical block-by-block way in which this young man went about building his career.
It was when he joined the Philadelphia Civic Opera Company under the tutorship, conductorship and boss-almightyness of Alexander Smallens that he made his next great forward stride. “It was,” Nelson told me, “the work of Alexander Smallens that moulded me into an opera singer.”
In that company Nelson sang twentyeight roles. And in that company also, was one Edward Lippe, himself a singer of note, later to become a teacher of singing and one of Nelson Eddy’s closest and dearest friends. And Edward Lippe listened to the young man with the silver-gold hair and the steady eyes and the quiet smile and knew, as David Bispham had known, that here was a voice in the grand manner. He knew, too, that young Eddy’s voice would suffer irreparable damage if he did not learn to conserve it and to conserve himself, did not cease from working in an office, taking correspondence courses, burning the bright candle of his youth at both ends. And both ends work, not play. He knew that he must be made to stop singing in churches, in four-a-day movie houses, wherever and whenever he could command a job.
“You have a very fine voice,” he told him. “You won’t have it long. You are singing too much. You are wearing it out.”
And by that admonitory talk averted a tragedy. For one whole summer Nelson studied with Edward Lippe and then was turned over to William Vilonat who had been Lippe’s teacher too.
There had come into Nelson’s life, by this time, another influence. . . .
Nelson said to me, “So many people have wondered, have thought it strange that I have never been engaged, nor even rumored to be; have thought it odd that a young man, especially a young man in professional life, has not been seen, here, there, everywhere, with this charming girl or that. Am I a recluse, people have asked? Does my music so enthrall me that the ordinary humanities are unnecessary to me? Am I a woman-hater? What?
THE answer to these queries, curiosities and wonderings is a simple NO. I shall tell you… a little..
“About the time I first began to study voice I was still attending Sunday School. My teacher there was a charming woman and when I was confirmed she was my godmother. She was very musical, very interested in all things and all people musical. Her mother and my mother, she and I soon formed a congenial quartette.
“In the meantime a friendship deep enough, strong enough to be called love had developed between my godmother and me. She gave me so great a devotion, so overwhelming an affection that I felt the need of no other. I can and I do pay her now the affectionate tribute of saying that for anything I am today or may be tomorrow she is in no small way responsible.
“Everything that a woman could do for a man she did for me. She was patient, self-sacrificing, tender. She made, for many years, all other women seem but pale reflections of herself.
“And this is why, this is the real reason why I did not go junketing about with girls of my own age. This is the explanation of why I did not become involved in the customary romances.
“I have left much unsaid. To speak of this at all is like touching something both painful and beautiful on the quick. I can only repeat that this very strange interlude is why I have never gone about as other young men, have never become engaged, have never married.”
When William Vilonat spread before Nelson Eddy the map of his life and said to him, “You must do this—go here—go there,” a less resourceful young man might
have been confounded. New York—Dresden—Paris—how, on his mother’s small salary and with no savings garnered from the years of barely making ends meet— how could he?
But Nelson invariably accepts a challenge with his head flung high. He answers the questions of life in the affirmative. He never says “Can’t.” Besides, now he had faith in his own ability. The faith given him, first by David Bispham, then by Alexander Smallens, Edward Lippe and Vilonat.
Once that faith was established he went to a wealthy Philadelphia banker who had known his family for many years. With the simplicity and directness which characterizes everything he does, he laid his problem and his plan on the banker’s table. He explained that there was gold in his throat but that he needed gold in order to mine it. And he came away from that interview with several thousand dollars in his wallet.
Nelson and Vilonat sailed for Europe, for Dresden. But Nelson felt none of the
thrill of adventuring abroad.
HE said, “I thought only of the terrific amount of work ahead of me. I felt no more emotion in going to Europe than when I was transferred from one newspaper office to another. I never really ‘saw’ Europe. Not, certainly, the cafe and boulevard life of the Europe of pleasure. We lived with a German family in Dresden. Very simply. I studied and practiced for hours every day. I attended opera every night. I learned the great opera roles in four languages. I did exercises and scales and slept, ate, thought and talked work—work—work. I worked all of the time. I subjected my mind and body and the instrument in my throat to the gruelling, unremitting process which is operatic training. I never met a girl. I never had a rendezvous with anyone except,” Nelson laughed, “Vilonat.”
Which probably accounts in great part for that young and shining quality of untouched youth which is Nelson Eddy’s today. He has tapped so few of life’s pleasures and pastimes. Y oung love—gay romancing—casual adventures—the crazy, happy-go-lucky, catch-as-catch-can kaleidoscope of youth are all ahead of him. For he has never known youth.
“And then,” Nelson took up the thread, “after I got back, Arthur Judson, one of the biggest concert masters in the world, took me under his management and put me in the ‘big time,’ touring the country with various orchestras. I began to be an entity in the concert and in the singing world. I had the same sense of achievement and satisfaction that I had had in the Mott Iron Works when I got to know the product I was handling.”
Life began to read more than ever like a musical directory decorated with laurel wreaths. One becomes helplessly amazed in the imposing list of orchestras he has sung with—the Philadelphia Orchestra, Detroit Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony in Oratorio . . . The conductors he has sung under awe the most ambitious . . . Wassali Leps, Alexander Smallens, Fritz Reiner,
Alberto Bimboni, Sylvan Levin, Albert Coates, Pietro Cimini, Sir Hamilton Harty, Alfred Hertz . . . the radio hours he has filled with song include the Hoffman Hour, Newton Hour, Atwater Kent Hour, Maxwell House Show Boat, Ford Motor Program, Columbia Concert Broadcasts, Hollywood On The Air, Philhar-monic Orchestra Broadcasts, New Y ork Stadium Oratorio Broadcasts and the Firestone Garden Concerts . . . They stand as the tangible insignia of the work, the indefatigable work which has been the dominant factor in his life.
At about this time, too, William Vilemat passed away and Kelson resumed his studies with Edward Lippe who had definitely abandoned singing for the teaching of singing. Kelson said, “I’ve been with Lippe ever since, or he’s been with me. He’s even come to Hollywood, lives here now, and is doing extremely well. He’s not only my teacher but one of my closest and dearest friends. That’s his picture over there, on my desk. Almost every other night he’s apt to drop in on us, stay for dinner, spend the evening messing about with my records and recordings. We have no set schedule for lessons now but whenever I strike a snag I run yowling to him for help. If I have trouble reaching or holding a certain note he helps me.
IT was while I was on tour, while singing at the Los Angeles Philharmonic that the movies came, as it were, into my life. There were, it developed, movie scouts in the Philharmonic audience. I’d never heard of movie scouts! They came to me
after one of the performances and asked me to make a screen test. They might as well have asked me to do a little act on the Midway at Venice Pier so foreign was the idea of working in pictures to me. I’d never thought of such a thing. And it came to me as a shock. But there it was —another job! I thought it over, with prayer and fasting. The much-publicized glamor of Hollywood played no part in my decision because, to tell the truth, I don’t think I’d ever heard about it. It was a new medium. With one song I could reach most of the world from where I stood rather than having to carry my voice with me from city to city. Then, too, I could have a home, li’c could have a home at last, my mother and I. As though it were something I had been missing all of my life, a sharp nostalgia for a home woke in me immediately I realized I could have one. I thought of all those migrations of my childhood, from one town to another. I thought of all the touring I had done. Yes, it would be pretty sweet to have our own place, our own things, a garden and flowers and books and dogs . . . to take some sort of root . . .
“And speaking of my childhood reminds me that I’ve not mentioned my father since we talked of boyhood days. He’s remarried. He lives in Jamestown, Rhode Island. I always go to see them when I am anywhere in the vicinity. Wc are very good friends, my father and I. I have a small eight-year-old half sister, too. Martha Virginia. And Martha Virginia is very musical. She plays and sings with more than average ability. Whenever I am in New England my father brings her to my concerts and we have great times together. Their interest in me is one of the pleasantest things in my life.
“But to go back-it was the thought of a new job to be done, the thought of having a home that finally clinched my decision to try the movies. I rented this house here in Beverly Hills. Mother came out. We engaged servants, bought cars, and began to live as we have never been able to live before.
“I’ve gone at this film work in what might be called the true-to-type way, I suppose. I mean, I’ve started from the ground floor up. I’ve tried to learn everything there is to learn about the making of pictures. I started by studying the recording and photography. I wanted to know how to photograph properly. I wanted to understand the processes of recording. The words you sing on a concert platform come out very differently on the sound track. I had to make sure what those differences might be. I learned the vagaries of panchromatic make-up. I did a couple of singing ‘hits’ in pictures. Time dragged. I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. For the first time in my life I knew the flat taste of discouragement. I had concert and radio work, too, of course but I had never tackled anything I hadn’t been able to beat—and I certainly didn’t want the movies to count me out. Then came ‘Naughty Marietta’I”
And by the light in his blue eyes, the smile framing his mouth, I knew the satisfaction he must be feeling . . . the fan mail coming in by the tons, literally. Fan mail he reads himself, every letter of it. His mother culls them over first, separates them into piles giving the most urgent precedence—and then Nelson reads and answers them when answers are especially requested. Satisfaction over a job well done—none of the egotistic inflation which sometimes fevers fame.
Part of Nelson’s apparatus for experiments adorns the sumptuous living room of his Beverly Hills home. His mother casts an indulgent but deprecatory eye in the corner where stand the phonograph, the wirings and records and waxes and other paraphernalia of her son’s scientific abracadabra. For the outfit resembles a sound laboratory. And with this apparatus Nelson spends the time other stars spend at night clubs, dancing, polo playing or golfing. He can make records in which he sings different choral parts. He then puts them all together and plays off a oneman chorus. He can do all kinds of stunts.
He said, “I read the scenes of my scripts into this phonograph, you see. Then I play back the record and ‘act’ with the scenes, thus learning my lines in half the time it would take me otherwise. In this way I have a chance to act as my own critic, to correct my mistakes. I must look very funny standing in the room all by myself arguing, making love, singing, fighting or pleading—but it’s a perfect way to study dialogue and I’m thinking of working out a portable outfit that any actor can use.
“And so, Hollywood has meant to me much the same as any other job. Hard work. Study. Slow advancement. Tardy recognition. Gorgeous and spontaneous recognition, when it came.
“I go out very little. One week I may go out with a different girl—usually nonprofessionals—every night in that week. And then, for two and three weeks at a time I go nowhere. I have a few friends of whom I am very fond—W. S. Van Dyke who directed us in ‘Naughty Marietta,’ Edward Lippe, Jeanette MacDonald, Bob Ritchie, Elsa Lanchester, Frank Morgan. Gene Raymond . . . I’m going to Arrowhead this week-end with Gene. I like him. He’s read books. He can talk about a few things other than personalities and local gossip. I read a lot. I’ll always read. I’ll always go on studying. I play some tennis. I spend a lot of time with my recordings. I practice an hour or so almost every day. Not always. I always run the scales or roll off a bit of a song while I’m shaving. I’ve never done much practicing before a concert or any performance. I believe in saving my vitality and my voice for the performance itself.
“I’m just a hardworking fellow, I guess. I would like to be known as a singer who voices America to the world. That’s about the ‘Why’ of me. “It’s a magnificent world and I’m one of the happiest men in it.”