Michael Bartlett (1901-1978)

America’s Genteel Tenor

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Introduction. Handsome looks, engaging personality, and a well trained lyric tenor voice propelled Michael Bartlett onto the international musical stage.  During the 1930s and 1940s, Bartlett was one of America’s most popular tenors, starring in films, opera, Broadway, radio, concerts, and recitals. By the end of the 1940s, he had sung all over North and South America and Europe.


The Beginnings. Michael Bartlett was born Edwin Alonzo Bartlett on August 23, 1901 in North Oxford, Massachusetts at the Bartlett Homestead called Woodsides. His parents, Edwin N. and Grace (Davidson) Bartlett, were wealthy textile manufacturers and in the banking industry. He was a direct descendent of Josiah Bartlett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  In 1911, Bartlett was 10 years old and a long way from Broadway, films and some of the world’s leading opera houses, when he made his first public appearance in the Huguenot Steamer No. 1 Hall. He sang the saga of Little Boy Blue—a mostly North Oxford crowd filled the fire station hall.

Bartlett was educated in the Oxford public schools, Hotchkiss Preparatory School, and Princeton University (business degree, Class of 1924).   While at Princeton, he was a member of the Glee Club and the Princeton Triangle Club, starring in a number of the club’s productions.  During his sophomore year, he was a singer in a New York church and taught 250 children the church hymns—he was paid $80 a month. While at Princeton, Bartlett’s musical instructor and mentor was John Wells Barnes, noted concert and oratorio tenor and composer. After graduation from Princeton, he went to Italy to study opera.

 

Italy and Europe (1924-1929).  Renowned baritone Giuseppe Campanari heard Bartlett sing in New York and was so impressed with his voice that he arranged to take him as a pupil in Italy.  For three years under Campanari, Bartlett studied diligently, learning French and Italian, and attending performances at the LaScala Opera each night. In his first year, he mastered six operas.  Before he died in 1927, Campanari guided Bartlett, billed as Eduardo Bartelli, through his first real triumph in his debut as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor at Gorizio, Italy.  After the death of Campanari in 1927 in Milan, Alfredo Martino became Bartlett’s mentor and teacher and guided him through his concert debut in 1928. Again, billed as Eduardo Bartelli, he sang at a formal reception given by Countess Dentice de Frasso, the former Dorothy Taylor of Beverly Hills, California, in honor of Prince Umberto of Italy—a command performance, a rare honor for an American. In 1929, guided by Martino and Paul Longone (former manager of Caruso and later to become manager of the Chicago Opera Company), he joined an Italian operatic company and sang operatic roles in Gorizio, Trieste, Rome, Turin, Milan, Paris, and London. In March 1929, he gave a concert in Rome sponsored by Amy M. Beach, noted American composer and pianist, for the benefit of the American Hospital there.  Miss Beach said that Bartlett had a “lovely voice and style” and “sang superbly.” In August 1929, he returned to the United States. Shortly after, he joined a small traveling troupe and made his American debut in Reading, PA singing the lead role in Faust.

 

Opera. Michael Bartlett’s main passion was opera. After successful engagements in Italy, he joined a small traveling operatic troupe and made his American debut in Reading, PA in Faust. Engagements followed in New York and Philadelphia. Financially the tour was far from a success. By the time the opera company reached Philadelphia, things looked bleak.  Just at that time one of Winfield Sheehan’s movie scouts (Fox Studios) caught a performance and offered Bartlett a movie contract. In May 1930, Bartlett signed a contract with Fox Studios for $1500 a week to make musical fantasies—the first to be with Janet Gaynor (see Films below).

 

In 1932, he became a member of the American Opera Company and the Chicago Opera Company. In 1934, he was the Indian lover in the first opera at Radio City Music Hall. He made his debut with the Philadelphia LaScala Opera Company in February 1935 singing the lead role (Achilles) in Gluck’s Iphigenia in Aulide. During rehearsal, the orchestra, under the direction of Arthur Smallens, was so impressed with Bartlett that they  stood in unison and applauded him—a rare accolade for a rehearsal.

 

In 1939, he made his debut with the San Francisco Opera Company, singing the role of Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. He was joined by soprano Jarmila Novonta who was making her American operatic debut.  Over the next six years, he would sing often with Novonta in operas and concerts.

 

In 1941, Michael Bartlett sang just about every lead that was available at the Cincinnati Zoo Opera. He was Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly with soprano Rosa Tentoni and Fausto Cleva conducting (July 6 and 10); was Alfredo in LaTravita with Tentoni as Viloetta and Antonio Dell’Orefice conducting (July 16 and 30); was des Grieux in Manon with Cleva conducting and soprano Grace Moore (July 20 and 24); and Cavaradossi in Tosca with Grace Moore and Cleva conducting (July 27 and 29).  In 1945, he returned as Cavaradossi with soprano Stella Roman.

 

In September 1945, Bartlett sang at the Chicago Citizens Opera Company, appearing in Smetana’s The Battered Bride with Jarmila Novotna and Verdi’s Rigoletto with Joanne Jennings and Alfred Orda.  In 1946, he toured Texas with baritone Robert Weede in Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West

 

In May 1947, he appeared with the Philadelphia LaScala Opera Company twice: sang opposite Norina Greco in Madame Butterfly and joined Dorothy Kirsten in Romeo and Juliet. In March 1951, Bartlett returned to sing with Eleanor Steber and Robert Weede in LaTravita. Later in 1951, he toured the country (44 cities) with Ira Pettina and a company of 65 in Sol Hurok’s production of Die Fledermaus.  The tour finale was a week of performances at the Hollywood Bowl (July 10-14, 1951). 

 

In the United States, he appeared with every major opera company, including the San Francisco Opera Company, Chicago Opera Company, Chicago Civic Opera, Chicago Citizens Opera Company, Cincinnati Zoo Opera, the Rochester Civic Opera, the Philadelphia LaScala Opera Company, Philadelphia Grand Opera Company, St. Louis Grand Opera, Newark City Opera Company, the America Opera Company, the National Opera Company, the New Opera Company, Michigan City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera Guild, and New York City Opera Company.  Highlights of his operatic career were the following:  appearing with Grace Moore in Cincinnati Opera performances of Tosca and Manon (1941); singing opposite Jarmila Novotna in her American opera debut in Madame Butterfly for the San Francisco Opera (1939); for the Chicago Opera Company, playing Alfredo to Violetta with soprano Helen Jepson (1941); appearing with Jeanette MacDonald and Nicola Moscona in  Romeo and Juliet (November 1944) before a sold out house; singing the La Boheme duet with Grace Moore in the film, Love Me Forever; and singing the Act IV Huguenots duet with Marion Talley in the film, Follow Your Heart.

 

During his career, Michael Bartlett mastered over 35 different operatic roles and sang opposite some of the greatest opera singers of all time, including Jamila Novotana, Dorothy Kirsten, Jeanette MacDonald, Stella Roman, Eleanor Steber, Gladys Swathout, Helen Jepson, Rise Stevens, Helen Traubel, Grace Moore, Lily Pons, Marion Talley, Lotte Lehman, Delia Rigal, Ira Pettina, Roberta Peters, Blanche Thebom, Rosa Tentoni, Norina Greco, Marita Farell, Anna Kaskas, Adleide Bishop, Marina Kosherz, Herta Glaz, Margit Bokor, Gladys Kuchta,  Rose Bampton, Robert Weede, Lawrence Tibbetts, Igor Gorin, Nicola Moscona, Leonard Warren, John Charles Thomas, Jan Peerce, George Chehanovsky, Alfredo Gandolfi, Jan Kiepura, and many others.

 

Radio. Michael Bartlett soared to new heights and popularity as a radio favorite. He had his own nation-wide radio program from October 1933 to August 1934. He replaced tenor Frank Parker as a temporary singer on the Jack Benny Hour in 1935—had a 13 week contract.  His singing Through the Years and Ah!  Sweet Mystery of Life on one of the Benny Shows brought an avalanche of fan mail. He left the Benny Show on October 27, 1935, when he signed a long-term contract with Columbia Pictures. On April 16, 1936, through the magic of radio, millions of South Americans listened to a Hollywood musical show that featured Bartlett, Bing Crosby, Francis Lederer, Dixie Dunbar, and Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse character.  Leo Carillo was the master of ceremonies.  Bartlett appeared on all the major radio programs, including Mary Pickford’s Pickfair, Hollywood Hotel, Lux Radio Theater, Paul Whiteman Hour, Whiteman’s Music Hall, Great Moments in Music, Your Hit Parade, and the Bell Telephone Hour.  In 1940 and 1941, he appeared opposite Marion Claire on the Chicago Theater of the Air in the Chocolate Soldier, Blossom Time, and Bittersweet.

 

Films.  In April 1930 in Philadelphia, Fox Studios scouts heard Michael Bartlett sing.  They immediately offered him a movie test and contract.  In May 1930, Bartlett signed a film contract with Fox—40 weeks at $ 1,500 a week and headed for Hollywood. Winfield Sheehan, chief of production for Fox Studios, told Bartlett that he needed a new first name—Edwin would not do, but Michael would. Thus, he became Michael Bartlett. He was to make musical fantasies, the first being with Janet Gaynor.  However, he never appeared before Fox cameras—Fox believed that musicals were passed and would not financially make a profit—musical pictures had gone out. Fox Studios wanted Bartlett to play regular second leads and other acting roles and forget his singing.  He might have done that except for the advice of his friend, actress and singer Elsie Janis. She told Bartlett that “you spent over eight years developing your voice and you should go back to Broadway where you can use it.”  Bartlett returned to New York and six months later he was in the Broadway hit, The Cat and Fiddle. Thus, Fox paid him a large salary--$60,000, plus expenses--for doing no film work. He would wait three years before he appeared in a film.

 

In 1934, Bartlett starred in a short musical film called the Gem of the OceanGem of the Ocean.  His co-stars were French musical star Jean Aubert and Sheldon Leonard, both appearing in their first film.  The singing of the Forever duet by Aubert and Bartlett is one of the film’s highlights.  Warner Bros. re-released the film in the summer of 2005 with Flight over Tokyo.  

 

In 1935, when Grace Moore decided to sing part of La Boheme in her second Columbia picture, Love Me Forever, the studio wanted a well-known operatic star to sing opposite her. Few operatic stars were young and handsome with a well-trained lyric tenor voice like Michael Bartlett.  Columbia executives rejoiced when they heard him sing.  He was so good that Columbia Pictures had the picture cut and cut so that he would not upstage Grace Moore. Although he sang for only six minutes, film critics and theater audiences were thrilled when they saw and heard Bartlett—most felt that he had out sung Grace Moore. He had become the new musical sensation in Hollywood—Columbia signed him to a long-term contract. 

 

Bartlett was next featured with Claudette Colbert and Melvyn Douglas in She Married Her Boss (1935), an amusing, whimsical comedy that was well received by theater goers.  For this film, the studio had Bartlett grow a mustache to make him look older—the only time he ever had a mustache.  In 1936, he appeared in the Columbia film, The Music Goes Round, starring Harry Richman and a host of stars. Bartlett sang the theme song in an operatic fashion, culminating in a high C note—one of the highlights of the film.   Bartlett was in rehearsal for a second film with Grace Moore, called Cissy, based on Fritiz Krieler stage musical by that name.  Due to the friction created by Miss Moore over Bartlett’s singing performance in Love Me Forever, Columbia Pictures renamed the film, the King Steps Out, and substituted actor Franchot Tone for Bartlett. Thus, after three films at Columbia Pictures (being paid $1,000 a week), he left Columbia for Republic Films. Republic was trying to get into the musical film business. Thus, it signed Metropolitan Opera soprano diva Marion Talley and paired her with Bartlett in the musical, Follow Your Heart (1936). The film was not well received by the film critics due principally to the story line and directing by Aubrey Scotto. Bartlett and Talley, two well trained singers, sang admirably throughout the film with the Act IV duet from Meyerbeer’s  Les Huguenots being one of the highlights. Bartlett’s singing Magnolias in the Moonlight was another highlight. It was the only film that Marion Talley ever appeared in.

 

In late December 1936, Bartlett left for England to make the musical film, The Lilac Domino (1937) for Grafton Films.  June Knight, musical star of Broadway and films, was featured with Bartlett, and they were supported by S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, Fred Emney, and Cameron Hall.  Film was directed by the well known director Frederic Zelnik. Bartlett was paid $30,000 for the film. The movie was released in England and Europe in 1937, but not released in the United States by United Artists until December 1940.

 

Michael Bartlett returned to Hollywood in March 1937 and rented actor Charles Farrell’s home for six months.  He was ready at moments notice to make films, but received no offers.  While waiting, he launched his record career with Columbia Records in Jun 1937—recording Puccini: La Boheme — Che gelida manina (Act I) on one side, and Lenoir: Parlez-moi d'amour on the other side.  These recordings were followed by recordings of “My Heart Will Be Dancing” and “You Are My Love Song”—both from the film Lilac Domino. On September 4, 1937, Frank Shields (the tennis player and actor) and his wife, Rebecca staged a farewell party for Bartlett in Hollywood as he left for New York City and Broadway.  Like his co-star in the Broadway musical Three Waltzes, Kitty Carlisle, Hollywood had not treated Bartlett well.

 

In the early 1940s, he made a number of filmed soundies (equivalent to today’s filmed videos) for Castle Films and Official Films. The most popular ones were Mother Machree (1941), The Little Grey House in the West (1941), Streets of New York (1941), and Take Me Home Kathleen (1942).

 

 In 1957, Bartlett last appeared before the film cameras as part of Carol Longone’s operalogue series (Dynamic Films). The film featured an abridged version of the opera Andrea Chenier and featured Carol Longone as the narrator, soprano Rosa Savoia, baritone Bernard Green, and Bartlett.

 

Broadway and Stage. On Broadway, he was featured in a number of musical plays: The Cat and Fiddle, replacing  Georges Metaxa in August 1931; Vincent Youman’s’ Through the Years (1932) with Natalie Hall; Theater Guild’s production of School for Husbands (1933); Oscar Strauss’s Three Waltzes with Kitty Carlisle (1937-1938); Stephen Foster’s Oh Susannah with Bettina Hall (1939), and Stephen Sonderheim’s Follies (1971-1972).  For four  of the shows—The Cat and Fiddle, Through the Years, Three Waltzes, and Follies—he was a featured cast member that also made the national tour for these musicals.  Off Broadway, he was featured in many musicals, including Blossom Time, New Moon, Madame Dubarry, Naughty Marietta, the Merry Widow, Bittersweet, Unfaithfully Yours, and the Fair. He sang often at Radio City Music Center.

 

Concert and Recital.  From the early 1930’s until the late 1960s, he gave concerts from coast to coast as a recitalist and soloist with major symphony orchestras. He sang in every major auditorium, theater, and symphony hall across the country.  After returning from Hollywood, one of the first concerts he gave was at the Drake Hotel in Chicago in May 1931. In January 1932, he was back in Chicago for a concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  In 1934 and 1935, he sang solo concerts backed by the Philadelphia Civic Orchestra. In September 1935, he gave a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. On February 26, 1940, he gave a concert in Havana, Cuba, backed by the Havana Philharmonic Symphony under the direction of Massimo Freccia. In July 1940, he gave a concert in Cleveland before an enthusiastic crowd of 6,551. Even after four encores, Bartlett was recalled again and again.  In October 1941, Bartlett was accorded a welcome that will be long remembered at the Worcester Music Festival in Worcester MA—sustained applause for nearly eight minutes by 3,800 concert goers.  Four years earlier, Bartlett was provided the biggest homecoming and testimonial dinner for an individual by the city of Worcester (up to that point)—at the testimonial he was presented the key to the city. Even though his home was 10 miles away in North Oxford, Worcester considered Michael Bartlett one of its own and appreciated his musical talents and achievements.  

 

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, he sang often at the Hotel Pierre, the Stage Door Canteen, Town Hall, and Radio City Music Center, all in New York City.  He also sang at outdoor theaters and bowls, including  the Hollywood Bowl (1935 and 1951), Grant Park in Chicago (1945), The Muny—St. Louis (1933, 1934, 1951, and 1972), Lake Whalom Theater (1939), Wilmette Bowl (1941), Chamber Music Concerts, Meridian Hill Park, Washington DC (1941), and International Friendship Gardens (1945).   

 

Over the years, Bartlett gave concerts and recitals to raise funds for many charitable organizations, including the American Red Cross, the American Diabetes Association, the American Cancer Society, the Purple Heart Society, the American Theater Wing, the Navy Relief Society, and many others—some examples follow. On May 10, 1934, he sang at the Navy Ball Group in Washington DC, with Mrs. Sara Roosevelt, President Roosevelt’s mother, in attendance. In Jun 1940, Bartlett participated in a benefit concert at the Café Trouville in New York City for the British-American Ambulance Corps. In May 1941, he provided a benefit concert for Travelers Aid. In June 1942, he was joined by baritone Lawrence Tibbetts, actor Clifton Webb, and others in providing musical entertainment for the benefit of the Navy Relief Society at the home of Stanton Griffis, a wealthy banker, promoter, and tycoon.  In December 1943, he gave a special musical program at Morris Cafritz’s home in Washington, DC, for 50 convalescent soldiers and sailors. Cafritz, a wealthy DC businessman and entrepreneur, specifically requested Bartlett for the program.  Program was attended by many generals and admirals.

 

World War II—United States Marine Corps (1942-45).  Michael Bartlett was a very patriotic individual. At the age of 41, he enlisted in the US Marine Corps in November 1942. Two months later he was commissioned as an officer and would eventually rise to the grade of Captain.  He would serve as a military aide to Major General Philip H. Torrey, Commanding Officer of Quantico Marine Base. He traveled extensively with General Torrey to the West Coast and Pacific area. In March 1943, he provided a concert to his fellow Marines—it would be the largest gathering of Marines for a show at Quantico during the war years. He was backed by the 50 member US Marine Corps Band and he received five encores. He would later say that this concert and the reception he received from his fellow Marines was one of the highlights of his career. In addition to this concert, he sang regularly at the Officer’s Club. While stationed at Quantico, he was sent to a bond rally at nearby Falmouth VA, then a town of 400 people. When he finished singing, the town’s people had subscribed $5300 in war bonds.

 

Retirement and Comeback.   After singing the lead in the opera Carmen at Hunter College’s Auditorium in January 1953 (orchestra conducted by Enrico Leide), he returned to the Bartlett Estate in North Oxford MA to rest his voice and take care of his aged mother.  After nearly 30 years of continuous singing, his voice shown effects of hard use, but was still serviceable. He would not sing in public again until April 1962. During his nine year absence, he worked with his longtime friend and mentor, the legendary tenor Giovanni Martinelli, to work out some voice problems.  Under the guidance of Martinelli, he learned the roles in Otello, Tristan and Isolde, and Aida. 

 

In April 1962, with Martinelli in the audience, he launched his comeback before a capacity crowd in the Wellington Auditorium in Oxford MA with an evening of song and opera—a benefit concert for his church, the North Oxford Baptist Church. He was joined by former Metropolitan Opera diva Delia Rigal and operalogist and pianist Carol Longone. His performance was well received. In April 1963, he gave a benefit recital for the American Diabetes Association at the Little Theater in Worcester—again, Martinelli was in the audience.  In December 1964, he appeared in concert with pianist Leonidas Lepovetsky at the Hunter College Assembly Hall with the American Symphony Orchestra of New York (Enrico Leide, conductor). In 1965, he made concert appearances on the West Coast and appeared on San Francisco television in a one hour special feature on opera talk. In November 1965, he replaced ailing tenor Ferrucio Tagliavini, in Philadelphia’s Grand Opera presentation of Die Flederamus, appearing with sopranos Roberta Peters, Blanche Thebom, and Brenda Lewis. In March 1966, Bartlett sang the title role of Otello in two performances in Syracuse.  He was featured with soprano Sylvia Khatchadourian and baritone Richard Torigi and backed by the Syracuse Symphony under the direction of Karl Kritz. In November 1966, he gave a concert in Providence backed by the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Francis Madeira. 

 

In 1970, he was selected to play the role of Roscoe, an aging tenor, in Stephen Sonderheim’s Follies.  Bartlett started with the pre-Broadway engagement in the Colonial Theater in Boston in 1971 followed by the Broadway production which opened on April 4, 1971 and ran for 522 performances. After the Broadway run, Bartlett was a cast member that made the national tour, which culminated at the Schubert Theater in Century City, CA (July 22nd, 1972 - October 1st, 1972). This would be Bartlett’s last major performance.

 

Death.  In December 1977, Michael Bartlett was hospitalized at the Hubbard Regional Hospital in Webster MA. He died there on February 3, 1978 and was buried in the family plot in the North Cemetery, Oxford MA.

 

  

 
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Copyright © 2011 by Dr. Jack Dwyer

 

Complied and written by Dr. Jack Dwyer, a life long friend of Michael Bartlett and his mother, Grace Davidson Bartlett. 
This web page is dedicated to their memories.