Nelson Eddy: A Short Biography
Nelson Ackerman Eddy was born on June 29, 1901 in Providence, Rhode Island. He was introduced to the world of music at a young age since his mother was a church soloist, his grandmother a well-known oratorio singer and his father worked as a stagehand at the Providence Opera House.
Throughout his early childhood, Nelson was part of a boys' choir and soprano soloist at two churches, as well as a drummer in his school orchestra. His parents seperated when he was fourteen years old, so he quit school and moved to Philadelphia with his mother. For the next year or two he worked at Mott Iron Works, a plumbing supply house, as a telephone operator and a member of the shipping department.
Nelson soon decided to pursue a career in the newspaper business and landed a job as a night clerk and obituary writer. Over the next four years he held jobs at three different papers, working his way up the ladder as a reporter of police news, murders, trials and politics before being fired from the department for singing on the job. He transferred to the Sports department, never admitting that he'd never seen a professional baseball game.
Nelson was soon a regular sportswriter and interviewing the likes of baseball great, Ty Cobb. It was not long before he moved on to rewriting headlines and then again working as a copywriter. His stint in the newspaper business was almost finished.
All through the years, Nelson never gave up on music. He studied the famous baritones of the era, sang along with records on the phonograph and began mastering phrasing, accents and foreign languages. In 1920 he "auditioned" for David Bisham, a former singer with the New York Metropolitan Opera, who had turned to teaching in his retirement. The next day, Bispham sent an autographed photo to Nelson inscribed, To Nelson Eddy, the coming baritone --- or I miss my guess.
Nelson began taking private voice lessons and singing in recitals and stage productions. When he was twenty three years old, he won first prize in a music competion. The prize was a chance to appear with the Philadelphia Opera Society at the Academy of Music. He appeared first as Tonio in I Pagliacci with the Philadelphia Civic Opera Company. He was so nervous at this first performance that when he walked off the stage his bright red hair was streaked with silver, causing him to forever after appear blonde. It was not long before Nelson Eddy quit his job and devoted himself entirely to the study of music.
For the next couple years Nelson studied with different teachers in America, but in 1927 he decided to go to Europe to study seriously, spending much of his time in Dresden. When he returned to America less than a year later, he was ready for a serious career as a concert singer, having mastered German, and becoming proficient in numerous other languages. He began appearing at numerous concerts, as well as continuing his appearances with the Philadelphia Opera. It was not long before his name was well known.
In 1933, Nelson replaced soprano Lotte Lehmann in concert in L.A. He was so well received that encores began in the middle of his recital and favorable reviews written in the papers. The private secretary of Louis B. Mayor, the head of MGM Studios, was in the audience and completely won over by the tall, handsome baritone with the strong voice. She convinced Mayor to offer Nelson Eddy a film contract. After careful thought, Nelson signed the contract.
At this point in his career Nelson was experienced in radio, knew over thirty operatic roles and hundreds of concert selections, with his real dream being the day when he could make $10,000 dollars a year by singing. It would not be long before that amount was the price of a single evening's work.
Nelson spent most of the next two years waiting for a real assignment. MGM, however, did not take him seriously and did little more than offer him a minute or two on screen in a few unmemorable films. Finally, in 1935, they cast Nelson opposite established star Jeanette MacDonald. The movie was an adaptation of Victor Herbert's Naughty Marietta, and it was an immediate box office hit. Jeanette MacDonald became an instant "pair" in the mind of the movie-going public and were soon after household names.
Opera slowly faded from Nelson's career as films, recordings and appearances took up more and more of his time. His hobbies included sculpting, riding and recording. He built a recording studio in his house and began experimenting with the new art of layering multiple voice tracks in one recording. He collected sheet music and scores, ammassing signed copies by all the major composers. Another passion was pewter and the money earned in Hollywood allowed him to indulge in a large collection.
After a five-year friendship and a long, private courtship, Nelson married Anne Denitz Franklin, ex-wife of director Sidney Franklin. Their marriage on January 19, 1939 took place in a Judge's chambers in Las Vegas with only Nelson's mother, manager and silent film star Doris Kenyon present at the ceremony. The marriage took the Hollywood gossip columns and fan magazines by complete surprise, many predicting that the union would not last. Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Eddy were married twenty-seven years, until his death.
Nelson appeared in a total of 19 films during his career as well as doing concerts and radio work, which included hosting the Chase and Sanborn Hour with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy in 1936. The classical-style musicals were not as popular during WWII when flag-waving popular songs were the "in" thing, so Nelson Eddy spent hours in the Hollywood Canteen, became and air-raid warden and spent months out of the country on USO tours.
In 1946 Walt Disney approached Nelson Eddy and hired him to sing and narrate the last sequence of Make Mine Music where he is heard as "Willy the Operatic Whale" who sings as a bass, a baritone, a tenor, a soprano, and a hundred-voice choir. All voices were sung by Nelson Eddy and fianlly gave him a legitimate chance to use the layering techniques that he had been experimenting with for years. It seems a trivial achievement in today's time, but it was a technical masterpiece at the time.
Northwest Outpost in 1947 was Nelson's last film. He was bored by the lack of plot and the second-rate packages that the studio was offering. The age of the operetta was all but dead and the modern audiences wanted new music. Nelson realized that his movie-making days were over, so he bought out his contract and left MGM.
His career was at a stand-still. Opera was not an option as he knew that he could no longer compete with the current stars. The concert circuits had been killed by the introduction of radio and radio, in the form that he knew it, had been killed by the birth of television which was the newest form of home entertainment. This seemed the most logical choice for the focus of his career, but he had never been comfortable in front of the camera and the idea of live shows scared him too much. He only made occasional appearances on other people's shows.
Nelson was unwilling to retire, wishing to work until he dropped. The only option left to him and his style was the Night Club circuit, so he set out to build a show. His long-time friend and pianist, Ted Paxson, came with him and newcomer Gale Sherwood, became his singing partner. Their show was a hit, with Nelson singing classic concert favorites and performing his film hits only as encores. They toured the country for fourteen years and became one of the most famous acts of the 1950s.
On March 5, 1967, Nelson Eddy made an appearnce at the Sans Souci Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. Part of the way through the concert he forgot the words of a song that he knew well. The audience felt that he was clowning, since he was famous for forgetting lyrics, but his pianist, Ted Paxson, knew differently. Paxson called for a doctor and escorted Eddy back stage where he collapsed from a stroke. He was taken to Mount Sinai hospital, but never regained conciousness. He died the next morning and was buried in Hollywood Cemetary next to his mother and, later, his wife.