JEANETTE MacDONALD – Hollywood Diva Remembered at the War Memorial Opera House

A conversation with Scott Foglesong

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

The last time American soprano and great M.G.M. musical film star Jeanette MacDonald appeared at the War Memorial Opera House was on Thursday, January 13th, 1949. She was the guest artist of the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Pierre Monteux. In addition to favorite songs from her films, the classical portion of Jeanette’s repertoire included arias from Faust, Louise, Romeo et Juliette, Madama Butterfly, and songs by Bizet and Delibes. The reviews were generous. Beginning Wednesday, June 9th, the picture-perfect image of Jeanette MacDonald as “The Girl of Golden West” will grace the Grand Lobby during each of SF Opera’s eight performances of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. My friend, Scott Foglesong, took on the challenge of the Lobby’s display case. “The fun-thing,” he says, “was figuring out how to do it. You’ve got this very small space to work with. How are you going to use it?”

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DAVID BELASCO

Scott Foglesong’s day-job is a couple of blocks away at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where he is chair of Music Theory and Musicianship. Symphony audiences know him as a frequent lecturer at pre-concert talks. His articles appear regularly in the playbills. I also know that Scott can spot a P.T. Barnum-type opportunity in a heartbeat. GTGW is loaded with plenty of side-show history. Producer David Belasco’s “Girl” had her eyes on the Great White Way when it opened on November 14th, 1905. It was a big guns success. Composer Giacomo Puccini set sites on the Metropolitan Opera for the 1910 World Premiere of his La Fanciulla del West. Enrico Caruso would sing the role of the hero, “Dick Johnson” (aka, “Ramirez” – a masked bandit!). Twenty-eight years later, M.G.M’s executive producer Louis B. Mayer was keeping a constant watch on the Studio’s budget. He must have seen a goldmine when he signed America’s “Singing Sweethearts” – Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy – to a sumptuous re-working of Belasco’s play with a new score by Sigmund Romberg. And – just to be safe – a few numbers by Bach, Mendelssohn, and Liszt were thrown-in for the High Brows.

“Bit by bit as I saw it through,” Scott explains, “I realized we’ve got to have one side be about the creation of it and one side about the show proper – so that each side is self-contained. The side facing the theatre will be a nice little look at each of the three acts. As you go around to the front, there is all the essential about the creation of the opera and the play. It seems to me it holds together. It took a long time! The idea I started with was to do almost all 1870s stuff. That would have meant alot of time at the California Historical Society. I still think that would have worked. But this is more fun.”

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Hollywood’s Girls of the Golden West – 1923 and 1938

Scott has also created a 10-minute video that will be continuously running on two wide-screen TVs near the entrances to the theater. He includes an overview of the four film versions of Girl of the Golden West and a three-minute clip of the signature “Card Scene” with Jeanette MacDonald and Walter Pidgeon (as “Sheriff Jack Rance”). Dealing herself a hand of three Aces (one she has marked) and a pair of Queens, Jeanette gambles for the life of her beloved bandito, “Ramirez”. The Sheriff knows that “Girl” has cheated in the bargain and then berates her unseemly behavior. All for an outlaw! Jeanette sparkles in her desolation as she succumbs to their original terms of a two-out-of-three game – promising the Sheriff her closely-guarded virtue and petite hand in marriage should she lose. All the while, “Ramirez” (Nelson Eddy) has been nearby, slumped on the floor, unconscious from a bullet wound. According to most accounts, Mr. Eddy’s unflinching black-out was due more to the bottle off-screen than any battle on-screen. It was clear that something had cooled the flames of the “Singing Sweethearts”. Maybe it was Jeanette’s marriage a year earlier to the not-so-closeted second-string actor, Gene Raymond. Despite its sepia-toned print and use of filtered lenses, even the most die-hard fans of Mr. Eddy recognized their golden baritone was a little slurry in the saddle.

I wanted to see how Scott would work-in Jeanette MacDonald. I met with him in the workroom at the Museum of Performance and Design. He and Mimi Manning, Exhibition Manager at the MPD, had the display items sitting on fabric marked with blue-tape corners to define the boundaries. My eyes zoomed straight to Jeanette’s face – a treatment of a familiar Lobby Card from the 1938 film and one that is in my own collection.

scott-and-mimi
SCOTT FOGLESONG and MIMI MANNING.
Photo, S.M.
Nelson and Jeanette (lower right)

Scott: Starting from the left, the title – “Divas and Desperadoes”, Puccini, a picture of the production team. That’s Gatti-Casazza – the Met Director, Toscanini – the conductor, David Belasco – author of the original and also the stage director, and of course – Puccini himself. My text focuses on Puccini coming to America – the idea that is a blend of an American story-melodrama and Italian opera. And what trouble they had doing that and what got right and what they didn’t. Then we move across to two things: a panorama of the setting of the times above, and below – information on the actual writing of the libretto. Which took years! Puccini had a lot of trouble. He went through two librettists. All of the correspondence between Puccini and Carlo Zangarini – who was the main one – has survived. I have a copy and a translation of this letter which is about Minnie’s character. They wanted to be sure she stayed strong. One of the things they wanted to avoid was for her to be this shrinking violet / fainting-type of melodramist. Instead, she’s the real hero of the show. The next section is devoted to the original production, the 1905 Belasco play. I found a beautiful poster, a novelization of the play published in 1911, and from the MPD – a program from the original show.

Seán: That is the most incredible item.

Scott: It just came up out of the blue, I was not expecting to find it. Then I found this photo of the original star, Blanche Bates. She is on record for having criticized the opera very bitterly – for having cast Czechoslovakian soprano Emmie Destinn as “Minnie”. Blanche felt it should have been an American. But, that was their decision and she was quite annoyed about it. She also played the lead in Belasco’s Madame Butterfly.

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BLANCHE BATES and EMMY DESTINN

Scott: Then on the side panel is a blow-up of postcard which is a reproduction of a lobby card. What it is mainly / when you get right down to it / what it’s for – is to tell people to come see the 10-minute video I made. It’s about the four movie versions of Belasco’s play and the opera.

Seán: I have an original of this lobby card in my Jeanette MacDonald collection.

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Scott: This will tell everyone to go watch the video. On the reverse side of the display – my idea is that we’d go Act 1– Act 2 – Act 3. This is the 100th Anniversary of the premiere at the Met. The star, of course, was Enrico Caruso as “Dick Johnson”. With the photo, I point out how his costume was authentic because he looks proper – like an Americano and not like a Californio, although that’s what the character really is. Remember, the character’s name is really “Ramirez” and he is an outlaw. Moving on, the theme of the panel – booze.

Seán: Where did this bottle come from? “Silver Dollar Pure Rye Whiskey”.

Scott: I found it on eBay. It may not be 1870s, but close enough. The shot glasses came from Cliff’s Hardware.

silver-dollar-whiskey
Photo, S.M.

Seán: You can find anything at Cliff’s. How did you get the aged appearance on the shot glasses?

Scott: Sandpaper #1, the big stuff. Then I took them outside and rubbed them all over on the back porch. The paper money comes from the Internet, which I printed out, and the dice are new. I went on a hunt and found some rocks and a fake arrowhead, all from a five-and-dime store – except for one piece of pure mica. The middle panel is devoted to Act II. The photo is from the original production and will be blown up. It shows “The Card Scene” where Minnie wins her lover from Jack Rance, sung by Pasquale Amato. All these photos are from the Met archives. Then I had this idea to show the poker hand. I found what looks like antique playing cards, but they’re actually brand new. The Bicycle Company makes pre-stressed cards that come in a pre-stressed box. Brand new, looks used. The last part of the panel has the hanging scene.

Seán: Who’s the guy in the tree above Caruso?

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Photo, S.M.

Scott: When they started doing the 1910 opera production, Zangarini suggested that the character “Billy Jackrabbit”, an Indian boy, be the hangman. They were rehearsing the scene, Belasco comes in and says, “No-no-no!” – because, with all the bad feelings there were in those days, no Native American would have been allowed to put a rope around “Dick Johnson’s” neck. So, they got this other guy and put him in a Civil War outfit – notice the buttons. I figured this would be the Law & Order panel. The Colt 45 is a movie prop, made in Spain. It doesn’t shoot, but it looks lived-in and has a great trigger click. The bullets that would work with it are fake. By the way, it’s getting very difficult to find Western stuff. Kids don’t like it anymore – they want transformers. I wanted to find a set of spurs, maybe a holster.

Seán: Hey, we live in the Castro! You’d think you could find stuff like that on any corner.

Scott: I didn’t want those kind of spurs! The fact is, you can’t find them in the toy stores anymore – for a buck-ninety-five. But you can find a Sheriff’s badge at Cliff’s. I made the noose myself. That’s my Boy Scout training – coming in handy. It’s sash cord – which is white – that I soaked in a bowl of Harmati Estate Assam Tea.

Seán: From Kenya?

Scott: The color is perfect.

Seán: What was the most fun part of this assignment?

Scott: The most fun thing you haven’t seen yet. That’s the video. Making this video was a hoot-and-a-half. It’s about the film versions of Girl of the Golden West. The frustration was my wanting to have the poker scene from a couple of the movies. I really wanted the one from the original film from 1915 by Cecil B. DeMille. I was hoping some prints of it had survived through the American Film Institute. So, I called. There is a safety print, a nitrate print – but not yet a digitized version. It’s never been put out. It’s considered the worst of all his early films. But I researched the lead actress, Mabel Van Buren, pretty carefully and I do have some stills from it on my video. I had a lot of fun making the video – doing the voice-overs, the cropping, the cuts, the dissolves, and putting in the background music. Another thing that was really fun was the afternoons I spent at the MPD library looking through materials. The library has tons of things. I looked through pictures and playbills of every production that San Francisco Opera has done of it since the 1930s. I was looking up some stuff on Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy and found this huge collection from this woman that was obsessed with her – four packing boxes full of stuff. We found a guy that had done a whole thesis on a Stanford production of the original play – a huge book of pictures, ideas, and notes. It was just all fun.

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Enrico Caruso (Dick Johnson) about to be hung, Emmy Destinn (Minnie),
and (right) baritone Pasquale Amato (Sheriff Jack Rance)

Click here to purchase tickets: LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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