Their record speaks for them - Edith Day

Preview by David Munro

A MONTHLY assessment of the careers of stars of the musical theatre as represented by their commercial recordings.

2 Edith Day

"…………..Oh, what a beautiful day". Oklahoma's introductory scene was set in 'a glorious summer morning', but the opening number could equally well apply to October, or any month of the year. It could also personify this month's star subject - Edith Day

Born in 1896, in Minneapolis (she died in 1971), Edith made her first stage appearance in her hometown in 1915 and thereafter was constantly employed in musical productions in America and England until the 1930s.

Since then, she only appeared sporadically; her last appearance being in Noel Coward's Sail Away in 1962.

Described as a dark, round faced, slightly pop-eyed, pretty, sweet little ingénue, she sang and danced her way to fame as the eponymous heroine of Irene (pictured left) in 1919. Prior to that, she had appeared in Going Up, the English version of which brought into prominence another star of the musical theatre whose career parallels hers - Evelyn Laye, with whom she later starred in 1943 in the ill-fated Sunny River at London's Piccadilly Theatre.

The number with which she is constantly associated, Alice Blue Gown, came about - according to her - as follows; during rehearsals of Irene she felt she needed a stronger number as her ostensible showpiece, Sky Rocket, was in the second act and she didn't feel it was strong enough and that she wanted a sure fire number in the first act to establish her character.

She says that she had become associated in the public eye through a vaudeville appearance with a sentimental ballad Little Grey Home in the West. She therefore asked Harry Tierney (the composer) if he could write her a similar number. Apparently, none too pleased, he sat down at the piano and reversed the melody line of the opening of Little Grey Home in the West and Alice Blue Gown was born.

How true this is who can say now? Certainly, melodically, there does appear some justification to the story as will appear if you listen to her singing it on Edith Day, an LP devoted to her Musical Comedy career (World record club SH 138). The recording of the number on this LP is taken from the English cast recordings, which originally appeared on English Columbia 78rpm records. These have all been transcribed by an American company, Monmouth Evergreen (MES7057), but so far, do not seem to have appeared on CD.

Edith also recorded Alice Blue Gown (and the title song Irene) for American Victor (45173 - HMV B-1115), which was transcribed on RCA Vintage series (LPV560) Originals /Musical Comedy /1909 -1935.

The English cast records were made after Irene opened at the Empire Theatre in 1920.

When the show closed, an attempt at a sequel, Jenny, with Edith in the name role proved a failure and she returned to New York to appear in Orange Blossoms (Sigmund Romberg - 1922) and Wildflower (Rudolph Friml - 1923), the English production of which featured Howett Worster, who later played Gaylord to her Magnolia in Showboat.

In March 1925, she returned to London to commence her four years of starring roles at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which resulted in her being known as the Queen of Drury Lane.

The Shows concerned were Rose Marie (1925), The Desert Song (1927) and Showboat (1928).

She recorded her major songs from all these shows for English Columbia and these appear on the Edith Day LP. In addition, The Desert Song set reappears coupled with The New Moon on World Record Club (SH254), as does Showboat on World Record Club (SH240) coupled with Sunny.

Pearl has now released The Desert Song on CD (GEMM CD9100) and a truncated Showboat on CD (GEMM CD 9105), but poor Rose Marie appears to have been ignored!

Sadly after Showboat, her career suffered a setback when she opened the Prince Edward Theatre in a production of Rio Rita (1930), which failed. The show had well passed its sell by date (it pre-dated Showboat on Broadway, where it opened the Ziegfeld Theatre). There had been a film starring Bebe Daniels doing the rounds and public interest for operetta had dropped. The Depression may also have been a factor. For whatever reason, Edith Day seems to have been blamed and, from then on, despite occasional appearances in the West End, her star was on the wane.

She did record five songs from Rio Rita on English Columbia, three of which appear on Edith Day. All five, however, appear on Pearl CD (GEMM CD 91115). It is perhaps ironic that the score of Rio Rita was by the same composer and librettist as Irene - her greatest success and her greatest flop!

No major parts were being offered her. Vivian Ellis wanted her for his Drury Lane flop, Song of the Drum, but seemingly no-one else did. Perhaps for her sake, it was just as well, as the other major woman's part was played by Marie Burke (Julie to her Magnolia in Showboat) and rumour hath it that their on stage affection was not echoed off. So she went on a tour of the variety halls for the next two years with Robert Naylor (a Tauber replacement).

She and Naylor recorded two discs during this period for Parlophone - two titles from The Desert Song and one each from Rose Marie and The Land of Smiles. I have never seen nor heard these but, given the quality of Parlophone recordings, they are probably well worth hearing. As far as I am aware they have not been transferred to LP or CD.

She then (in 1932) went on tour in Luana, a Hawaiian operetta by Rudolf Friml, possibly destined for London but which never arrived. This was never recorded on either side of the Atlantic.

After this, a revival of The Desert Song, with Harry Welchman at the Coliseum in 1936, and Sunny River in 1943, neither of which had significant runs, were her only two appearance on the stage until Noel Coward, having heard she was in financial difficulty, her husband having died and her only son killed in World War Two, gave her a part in his comedy Waiting in the Wings (1960) and a song (dropped from the American Version) Bronxville Darby and Joan in Sail Away (1962).

Her final recordings were a selection of her successes (1934) for Decca, one side of which was transferred to LP Great Stars of Musical Comedy (ACL1182) and a track on the English cast recording of Sail Away.

Her career was relatively brief but during that period her success was phenomenal.

Her name is still remembered and her great shows (in the main) are still available on CD and LP if you can track them down.

What caused her years in the wilderness? Her own assessment was that she had been lucky because: "You see, darling I couldn't act, which in those days didn't really matter". A self-assessment which, I feel, was a little unfair.

Perhaps it was true of her earlier successes but Magnolia was, and is, a very exacting role, so Kern and Hammerstein, who approved the English production of Showboat, would never have allowed her to appear if they didn't think she could act the part.

My personal assessment is that the Thirties theatre had no time for the operetta star and although there were parts she could have played, she was content to retire to the South Coast and be a doctor's wife and mother.

As a footnote, she once wrote to her local amateur operatic society offering her help when they were producing one of her vehicles. She received a polite letter back saying that all the chorus parts were filled, but if she would like to apply next year, they would be happy to audition her. A story she told with great gusto and amusement.

Anyone with her history who can take a rebuff like that and find it funny is a 'Star' and I hope, if you find her records and listen to her vocal artistry, you will agree with me on this.

Edith Day, I salute you - and long may your reign at Drury Lane be remembered.

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