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"Gems" Records: Some of Them are Jewels

Anybody who sorts through piles of recordings comes across some "Gems" records - "Gems from San Toy", "Gems from It Happened in Nordland" (Victor Herbert's first stage hit), "Gems from Listen, Lester", "Gems from No, No, Nanette", etc., etc. Although some of the music may be forgettable, these records are often the only way of hearing what was presented on the stages of Broadway, London and Toronto in the early years of this century and before.

A good example is "Robin Hood", written as an opera by the American composer Reginald de Koven, but seldom performed now. But from 1890 one company, known as the Bostonians, performed it 4000 times. That's a run of 11 years! By 1926, the opera had been presented 8000 times, making it the most performed American work. Some of the music is quite charming, including the wedding song "O, Promise Me", which has been recorded many times over the years (Paul Robeson, Jan Peerce, Louise Homer, etc.) and a drinking song called "Brown, October Ale" (recorded by Reinald Werrenrath and Graham Marr, a much under-rated baritone).

Victor recorded "Gems from Robin Hood" at least three times - a single sided 12" record in 1909, a double sided in 1914, and an early electric in the fall of 1926.

Another popular "Gems" record was "The Bohemian Girl" by Michael Balfe. It, too, was classed as an opera, and ran for 100 consecutive performances at Drury Lane Theatre in London, a record at that time. It has since been performed more times in Toronto than any other stage work and a concert version was presented in Toronto only last year. Its hit tune "Then you'll remember me" has been recorded by a host of tenors including John McCormack. Again, there are at least three Victor "Gems" records of "The Bohemian Girl".

A casual listening of "Gems" electrical records of the 1920's will produce many vocal surprises. Even though his name does not appear on the label, Richard Crookes, one of the greatest American tenors, can be recognized in "The Desert Song" (High C and all), "Rose-Marie", and the electric "Robin Hood".

The 1930's produced a new batch of Victor "Gems", mostly on Red Seal. Some good singers were used, but sparingly. Rise Stevens was given a 2-line solo in "Gems from Blossom Time" in 1935. Jan Peerce appeared in "Naughty Marietta", "Sweethearts" and "The Red Mill", but he too was used sparingly. In "Naughty Marietta" he gets a 3-line solo (lasting 33 seconds) while Anne Jamison sings for just short of 3 minutes. Jan Peerce was, at that time, at the beginning of a brilliant career which would eventually make him an international favourite. And who was Anne Jamison? Well, she grew up in Toronto, attended Loretto Abbey, and studied under Arthur Blight, Toronto baritone, whose granddaughter was a guest at one of our meetings last year.

"Gems" records take me back to an age when music was tuneful and for all people. New York was then the North American capital of show business and I would like to have been there in 1917 when "Chu Chin Chow" opened starring Tyrone Power (the film star's father). I would like to have seen Christie MacDonald (a Canadian) knock them cold in "Sweethearts" of 1913. I would like to have attended, in 1908, the opening night of "The Waltz Dream" by Oscar Strauss which launched the career of Canada's pride, Edward Johnson. It would have been interesting to see a 1910 failure, "The Girl and the Kaiser". What on earth could it have been about?

So until the time machine is invented, my dreams and "Gems" will have to be my gateway to the past.