17 January 2020

Catherine Mastice, "Raritan Songbird"

Catherine Mastice was born on June 11, 1925, in Trenton, New Jersey and moved with her family to Raritan at the age of three. Today [January 2020] she is 94 and living in Westchester County, New York. Cathy Mastice, on the other hand, was born in the pages of the New York Daily News and hundreds of other American tabloid newspapers on June 7, 1949, and passed out of the public consciousness on June 4, 1952.

Cathy Mastice, 1949

In her brief three-years as a national figure, Cathy Mastice was a star of radio, television, and the concert stage. She was a recording artist who sold hundreds of thousands of records, sang at two New Jersey gubernatorial inaugurations, and helped dedicate the NJ Turnpike bridge named in honor of her Raritan Boro neighbor war hero John Basilone. Although she seems to have burst onto the scene from out of nowhere, Cathy Mastice was far from on "overnight sensation".

Part One - Ambition (1937-1949)

1939, age 13

One of the first newspaper profiles of Catherine Mastice described her:
"She's a small girl with dark curly hair and a Deanna Durbin smile, this Catherine Mastice of Raritan, 13-year-old mezzo soprano who gives so liberally of her vocal talent to organizations of Somerset and Middlesex counties - a small girl with a big ambition and more poise than one expects to find in a child of her years."
When that newspaper story was printed in April of 1939, the avowed ambition of thirteen-year-old Catherine Mastice was to one day sing as part of the Metropolitan Opera Company. Her parents began to notice her vocal ability at the tender age of two, but she didn't begin training seriously until she started with New Brunswick based voice teacher Hannah New when she was twelve.

22 October 1939 Home News
The Mastice home at 91 West Somerset Street (today the building houses Lou's Firearms) rarely saw the busy young singer during her years at Somerville High School. Weddings, private parties, parades, festivals and the like were now supplemented with the well-attended recitals put on by the influential Mrs. New. And people began to take notice.

8 June 1941 Greenville, NC News -
the "record" referred to is presumably appearing on
 100 consecutive weekly radio broadcasts.

It wasn't long before Catherine was tapped to sing on a weekly Saturday morning children's radio show called "Bright Idea" broadcast over station WEAF. She ended up being featured on the program for more than two years.

1941, age 16
This led to several appearances at the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair where she won rave reviews from the New York Times who called her rendition of Rossini's "Stabat Mater" the "highlight of the musical program". And the Metropolitan Opera took notice - granting her a "get to know you" audition - where she sang that same aria and was praised and told to continue her training. 

2 November 1941 Home News

Soon after the start of her high school senior year in the fall of 1941, Catherine was thrilled to win a $4000 scholarship to study at the Chatham Square School of Music in New York. She beat out four hundred other hopeful musicians for the award which is the equivalent of almost $72,000 today! Every day after school she would travel to the city to attend classes and return late at night to prepare for school the next day. She capped off her Somerville High School years by singing at graduation in June 1942. Plans to study music overseas after high school were dashed by the war, but Catherine didn't slow down for a second.

Singing at the Sergeant John Basilone Homecoming Parade,
19 September 1943
During the war, Catherine Mastice entertained the troops at the Stage Door Canteen in New York - and weekly at Camp Kilmer - and participated in numerous war bond rallies. Undoubtedly her most well-remembered appearance in those years was at the rally that capped the homecoming parade for Raritan's war hero, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient John Basilone, where she sang The Star-Spangled Banner, God Bless America, and a new song written especially for the occasion, "Manilla John".

26 June 1944 Home News
In 1945, the same year she was selected as the best singer in New Jersey by the State Federation of Music Clubs, the rising star began a long association with the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. She won much praise for her starring roles in The Mikado, The Merry Widow, and other productions. So in demand was Catherine Mastice in New Jersey that she was the only soloist at the gubernatorial inaugurations in both 1944 and 1948!

1947 Souvenir Program for The Medium and The Telephone
Catherine got a bit closer to achieving her operatic goals in 1947 when she auditioned and won a starring role on Broadway in Gian Carlo Menotti's disturbing modern opera The Medium. Just 22-years-old, she was cast as a middle-aged widow who seeks out a medium to contact her deceased 16-year-old daughter. Her performance can be heard on the original cast recording album of the opera and viewed in the December 1948 Studio One television production which can be found here. (The video is cued up to her entrance as Mrs. Nolan).

Part Two - Stardom (1949-1952)

Italian-American media mogul Generoso Pope first heard Catherine Mastice sing at the unveiling of Raritan's John Basilone statue on June 6, 1948. Pope - a benefactor of the statue's construction as well as the first Italian immigrant to become a self-made millionaire - used the fortune he made in the sand and gravel business to purchase several Italian language newspapers and Jersey City radio station WHOM. In January 1949 he signed Miss Mastice to sing over the air every Sunday afternoon at 4:30. Now living in New York, she began to appear on other local radio and television shows and made her New York concert debut at the celebrated Town Hall in April. She even occasionally got her picture in the paper. There's no such thing as bad publicity, as she would soon find out, even if they spell your name wrong!

25 April 1949, New York Daily News
It was an appearance on bandleader Ted Steele's daytime show that prompted one New York entertainment columnist to nominate Catherine Mastice as "Television Find of 1949." This led to first an audition, then a May 24th appearance on Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater - the most popular evening program in the early days of television. Within two weeks Catherine Mastice would become a household name.

7 June 1949 LA Times
It had been suggested to Berle that since other nascent TV shows were featuring serious music in their telecasts that he might try the same - perhaps an opera number in the style of the Metropolitan's popular soprano Dorothy Kirsten. Finding Catherine Mastice sealed the deal - with a blonde wig and a costume from the same company that dressed the opera stars the young singer could perform one of Kirsten's signature arias - "Sempre Libera" from La Traviata. But was it a tribute or a send-up?

New York Daily News headline -
8 June 1949
As far as Miss Mastice was concerned, she sang the song straight - in character for that role and as she had sung it just a few weeks earlier at her Town Hall concert. It wasn't until two weeks after the show aired that Dorothy Kirsten announced that she was suing Berle for an undisclosed large sum for lampooning her and damaging her reputation. Whether Kirsten had even seen the program was debatable since she described Mastice as "most unattractive...with a long chin, big mouth, and pointed nose" - and described the performance as "screeching."

8 June 1949, New York Daily News

Berle issued a statement in defense of Catherine Mastice - calling her a "very capable and charming young singer" - but by this time the tabloid newspapers were all over the story. The up-and-coming soprano, in coordination with her press agent, threatened to sue Dorothy Kirsten for $100,000 over the unflattering remarks that "injured her reputation as a concert, stage, and radio singer." Not only that, but she actually sang her response to Kirsten at a June 9th press conference, and filed suit a week later!

Catherine Mastice singing her response Dorothy Kirsten's lawsuit
at a June 9, 1949, press conference.
Within a few months, the lawsuits were forgotten and Catherine Mastice was a bona fide celebrity. After fulfilling a summer engagement at Montreal's hip Carrousel Club, she returned to New York and, according to the newspapers, consulted a numerologist (press agent at work?) who suggested she begin billing herself as Cathy! Then it was off on tour with Milton Cross - longtime announcer of Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts - as part of the operatic quartet for his Arista Artists concert series.

22 December 1949 New York Daily News
At the close of the tour, she was contracted to appear in the famous Radio City Music Hall Christmas Show. She sang in both halves of the program - The Nativity and Good Cheer - and by all accounts was the star of the show. Performing four times a day, she helped Radio City set a then-world record attendance mark on December 30, 1949, after 30,887 people paid to see the show in one day. The line to get in was reported to be six hours long to see the three-hour show which also included the motion picture On the Town. Not waiting in line was the Sheik Abdullah, Prime Minister of Kashmir, who made Radio City the first stop on his New York visit just to catch Cathy Mastice!

2 September 1950 New Brunswick Home News
The first half of 1950 was filled with numerous TV and radio appearances, nightclub engagements, and getting her name in the gossip columns. Instead of the usual love-life or career items, columnists were fed a diet of wry bon-mots probably penned by a press agent. In any case, frequent mentions in columns by Earl Wilson, Walter Winchell, and the like kept the name of Cathy Mastice constantly before the public.

Gossip column mentions 1949-1951

A new career opportunity arose midway through 1950 when Cathy was signed as a pop singer by Admiral Records. Her first disc, featuring the old Ozzie Nelson song "Dream a Little Dream of Me", sold 90,000 copies the first month and filled jukeboxes across the country. 

Cashbox trade magazine, August 5, 1950

The only problem was hers was one of seven cover versions of that song released in the summer of 1950, Frankie Laine's being the most popular. Still, good reviews led to a follow-up disc "Sleep, Little Baby" later that year.

A and B sides of the two Cathy Mastice 78rpm discs on Admiral Records.

By the end of the year, she had jumped labels to RCA Victor, releasing two more discs in 1951.

A and B sides of the two Cathy Mastice discs, 45s and 78s on RCA Victor.

Later in 1951, a return to Montreal for an engagement at the Ritz Carlton Hotel was squeezed in among appearances at a memorial tribute to Al Jolson at Carnegie Hall, a benefit for the United Jewish Appeal at Madison Square Garden, and benefits for disabled servicemen and the March of Dimes. 

1 December 1951 New Brunswick Home News
One engagement that needed no "squeezing in" was the singing of the National Anthem at the dedication of the New Jersey Turnpike bridge over the Raritan River in honor of her former neighbor, marine hero Sgt. John Basilone. 

3 July 1952 New Brunswick Home News
At the end of 1951, newspapers reported that Fortune Pope - son of media mogul Generoso Pope - would be granted a quickie divorce by his first wife so that he could wed Cathy Mastice. In the end, it was nearly six months before they were married on June 4, 1952. It was announced that she would continue her professional career but for all intents and purposes, she abruptly retired.

Part Three - Mrs. Catherine M. Pope (1952 - )

As Mrs. Catherine Pope, Cathy traveled the world, mingled with international figures and six US presidents, and was involved in many charitable causes. Today she lives in Westchester County and will celebrate her 95th birthday in June.

Raritan Online - which has a great summary of the life of Catherine Mastice here - reported that when Catherine was asked a few years ago if she had any special memories of her time as a singer, she remembered singing for the troops stationed at Camp Kilmer during the war, saying, "The boys were so enthusiastic. It gave me a wonderful feeling to sing for them."

17 December 2019

Villa Teresa - Schweizer's Rest Farm - South Branch Hotel (1923 - 1976)

Hillsborough Township's South Branch Hotel, located on River Road just east of the village from which it took its name, has a unique history as first a private residence, then a commercial establishment, and most recently as a private residence once again. The purpose of this article is to primarily examine the middle of the three eras which ran from approximately 1923 to 1976.

The South Branch Hotel, 2008

Architectural historian Ursula Brecknell, in her 1981 report on the building, suggests that the mansard roof and other architectural details of the three-storied home discredit the oft-reported 1860s construction date. However, the Second Empire stylings of the house, including the belvidere, are consistent with the Captain Davey mansion, another Hillsborough home from that period. Moreover, members of the Veghte family have consistently stated that the home was built in the 1860s by Henry Veghte as the centerpiece of a farm that was once almost 400 acres. 

1873 map of Hillsborough

Future New Jersey State Senator William J. Keys bought the house and farm in 1884. He bred racehorses there, renaming the property Ellis Stock Farm after his wife's family. At this time the house was known as Ellisdale Manor.

Ellisdale Manor circa 1891
It is possible that at some point near the turn of the century the property was divided, as the Ellis Stock Farm continued to operate even after New York businessman James Buchanan "Diamond Jim" Brady purchased 117 acres including the house as a summer retreat for his girlfriend, broadway actress Edna McCauley, in 1903. Brady spent a fortune redecorating the house in a "country chic" style - including gaming rooms inside and recreation for his theater and business friends outside.

16 December 1908 Courier News
Diamond Jim Brady might have stayed longer in Hillsborough if Edna didn't run off to Europe with his best friend Jesse Lewisohn in the summer of 1908. By the end of the year, he had sold the farm to capitalist Meshech Frost. Frost was a distant cousin of Robert Frost, giving rise to speculation that the famous poet had visited Hillsborough during his cousin's stewardship of the property between 1908 and 1921 - although detailed chronologies of  Robert Frost's life show this to be unlikely.

17 August 1923 Courier News
Between 1921 and 1923 the property, now known as Fern Manor, was owned by New Yorker A.D. Shortt. The property was next sold to the Hospital of St. Elizabeth of Hungary and operated by the Sisters of St. Francis as a convalescent home. During this time the home was known as Villa Teresa.

The Villa Teresa Rest Home in the 1920s
The nuns who ran the facility also opened the property in the summer for picnic outings by area Catholic School students - thus beginning the site's five-decade association with religious groups.

1946 ad from the Courier News

Siegfried Schweizer came to the United States as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1937. At the time he purchased Villa Teresa in 1943 the property had been reduced to just 10.15 acres. He and his wife ran it as a boarding house/rest farm, and also had a summer camp for children. They particularly catered to other Jewish refugees from Europe during the post-war period.

Advertising Postcard for Schweizer's Rest Farm

It was in July 1947, during the Schweizer's residence on the property, that one of the most shameful episodes of anti-semitism in Somerset County history occurred when as many as nine Somerville High School boys made what was described as several "automobile raids" on Schweizer's Rest Farm in order to taunt a group of young Talmudic scholars - refugees from Czechoslovakia. The band threw firecrackers at the 40 youths, pulled their beards, and shouted "Heil Hitler". The scholars - all orphans between 15 and 20 years old whose parents had been slain by Nazis - were no doubt reminded of their five years of terror in Europe. The disgusting episode made national news that summer and prompted State Police to place a guard at the camp.

25 July 1947 New Brunswick Home News

The Schweizers bought another property in South Brunswick in 1951 and sold the rest farm in 1952 to David Weiss. The Weiss family were also refugees from Eastern Europe who spent the war years in England before coming to the United States in 1947. The property, now reduced to just over 8 acres, was renamed the South Branch Hotel. 

According to a 1958 profile in the Courier News, most of the patrons of the "strictly kosher" hotel were "Jewish people from New York and Philadelphia, who desire to spend their weekends and holidays with people of their own faith and belief."

The South Branch Hotel, July 1958

It was during that year that Mrs. Weiss renovated the hotel - including updating the guestrooms and adding a large dining room. In the summer of 1972, the hotel became the home base for the US Olympic Cycling team

11 October 1976 Courier News

The hotel was quietly sold in 1976 and for the next 20 years had a succession of owners. The house was used briefly in 1997 by an auction company as a venue for estate sales.

Between 1998 and 2018 the historic home was once again a residence with just a single owner for those two decades. As of December 2019, the house is for sale.

23 November 2019

The Weston Hotel, Elmcrest Inn, et. al. (1914-1994)

It can't be insignificant that the only image of a Hillsborough Township building included in Snell's 1881 History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties is that of the residence of Captain Frederick Davey.

The Captain Frederick Davey residence,
from Snell's History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties (1881) -
notice the train on the left.
Frederick Davey, born in England in 1828, came to America with his older brother Henry probably before 1850. They first settled in Jersey City where they made their living as merchant seamen, eventually becoming captains and owners of their own vessels. Before the age of steamships, they plied the ports of the eastern seaboard in three-masted schooners. In 1856 Frederick married Rebecca Creby and the couple had three sons and two daughters. After 1860 they moved to Hillsborough, bought a farm in the Weston section, and built what later became known as the Captain Davey Mansion.

A portion of the 1873 Map of Hillsborough
The large three-storied house with a mansard roof and adorned with a square belvedere was located on what is today Manville's South Main Street at the intersection with Kyle Street. In the 1870 US Census, Frederick Davey is listed as a "Farmer", while Henry - living with the family - is listed as a "Sea Captain". After Henry's death in 1873, Frederick commissioned a schooner that would bear his brother's name. The Henry Davey, launched from the Taylor & Mathis shipyard at Cooper's Point, was at that time the "finest and largest schooner ever built on the Delaware." The Henry Davey was accidentally rammed and sunk by a steamship in 1882, after which Frederick Davey became a successful steamship agent. At the time of his death in February 1900, the old sea captain had, according to the New York Tribune, "accumulated a fortune."

1914 Ad in the New Brunswick Home News
Rebecca Davey sold the property and moved to Elizabeth that same year. The house next shows up in the historic record when it is purchased about 1914 by developer John J. Becker. He rechristened the house as the Weston Hotel, likely adding the wrap-around porch and making other improvements for railroad passengers - the Weston Station on the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad was just a short walk from the hotel - as well as tourists traveling by auto or horse carriage.

1915 ad from the New Brunswick Home News

In 1915 Becker built Elm Crest Park on the grounds of the hotel. The park included a magnificent pavilion described as having "one of the finest dance floors in New Jersey." An ad touted the park as "particularly well adapted for outings, picnics, clambakes, dances, and other affairs of this sort."

The Weston Hotel circa 1940 when it was the home of the Nebozinsky family.
Image from the Manville History Web site.

As primarily a real estate developer, John J. Becker was soon onto his next project and offered the hotel at auction in 1920. Sometime after that, it was purchased by Louis Nebozinsky and family who ran the hotel and lived there. They built a public meeting place known as Liberty Hall which for decades was used by community groups for large functions and private parties. In 1931 they offered to sell the property to the young boro of Manville to erect a municipal building. About a month later the hotel was raided by the State Police and Mr. and Mrs. Nebozinsky were arrested after alcohol was found - this was during the era of prohibition. 

1960s Elmcrest Inn ads
In the 1960s and 70s, the establishment was known as the Elmcrest Inn - featuring first go-go dancers and name entertainment for listening and dancing...

The Elmcrest Inn circa 1969
...and then re-launching as a Country & Western venue in the 1970s.

1970s Elmcrest Inn ads
When James Wirzman owned the business in the 1980s it was known as Wirzman's Inn. He continued the country music entertainment while also promoting the venue's banquet facilities, and again featuring go-go dancers in the Rooster's Coop Lounge - until they were "swept away" in 1982.

1980s Wirzman's Inn ads
In 1985 the place was bought by brothers Rich and Ed Komoroski who turned it into a tropical-themed nightclub called Coconuts. As a commentary on what anyone in 1985 thought of the once grand and historic Captain Davey Mansion, it might be mentioned that the brothers were hoping to remake the exterior of the building as a giant tropical "hut".

The interior of Coconuts, circa 1985
After a "touchy situation" in 1986 involving male dancers during a "Ladies' Night" event, the brothers decided to switch to a non-alcoholic establishment.

Harmony Hill, February 1989

In 1989 there were new owners and a new name - Harmony Hill. They changed the place from a bar/nightclub to a straight-up restaurant and banquet facility. They hired an experienced head chef - an immigrant from Poland who specialized in food from his native country.

17 April 1994 Home News
Almost before the first pot of pierogies was plated the business had morphed once again. Now it was a teen club called The Red Zone. Complaints about noise and unruly behavior of the patrons - including possible gang activity - roiled neighbors in the nearby residential community. The controversy boiled over in 1993 with the Manville Board of Health passing a noise ordinance and the Town Council contemplating banning teen clubs altogether.

25 September 1994 Courier News
Residents were relieved when The Red Zone closed in June 1993 and was demolished in 1994 to make way for a CVS.

18 November 2019

The Neshanic Hotel (circa 1838 - 1930)

The earliest mention of a public building in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey, is that of the Neshanic Dutch Reformed Church which began construction in 1759 on Amwell Road. The second listed building is the inn directly across the street. Commonly known today as the Neshanic Hotel, the roadside hostelry probably looked much different before 1838.

The Neshanic Hotel circa 1908
It was in that year that the New Brunswick, Millstone and Flemington Stage - with intermediate stops at Flaggtown, Shannock (Neshanic), Clover Hill, and Reaville - was first established. Although likely enlarged mid-century, we can comfortably date the inn at Neshanic - in its current form - to that time.

1850 Map Detail

It was also around this time that the inn property was acquired by John M. Stevens (1787-1879). We know from Snell's History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties (1881) that township committee meetings and voting took place at Stevens' Hotel in the 1840s.

The "three-way stop" heading east on Amwell Road, circa 1900

We can also conclude that it was Stevens who enlarged the building to its current size and gave it the well-known appearance of a large three-story home. At one time there was even a square belvedere reached by a ladder in the center of the roof. Stevens also likely built the large stables that once stood to the east of the hotel - so necessary for an inn on a major post road. 

Advertisement from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 1888
The first floor of the hotel originally had four common rooms, each with its own fireplace. Upstairs were six guest rooms, The third floor was left as attic space and probably was intended as an excuse for the half-window detail as seen from the outside.

"Titman's Hotel" circa 1912
After Stevens' death in 1879, the hotel passed to his daughter Margaret and her husband Wesley H. Horner. Since the railroad lines built in the 1860s and 1870s bypassed the little village of Neshanic the hotel was unable to transition from post road traffic to railway passengers. Without the business of weary travelers, the Horners attempted to reinvent the hotel as a vacation destination. Perhaps they are the owners who added the two-story porch to the front of the building. Newspaper ads touted. "no malaria, no mosquitos, bass fishing, boating, fresh milk, eggs, and vegetables: lawn, shade, veranda; stabling, good drives."

Accommodations listing from a traveler's guidebook, 1912

The hotel passed out of the Stevens family after the death of Wesley Horner in 1899. It was then purchased by future Neshanic Station entrepreneur Andrew Holcombe, who owned the property for about a decade before selling it to Baltus Titman in May 1899. Titman continued to advertise the hotel for holiday excursions - and according to a railway traveler's 1912 guidebook, it was the most expensive hotel in the area! Titman passed away in 1915 and the hotel was operated by his son Chauncey for another 15 years.

Photograph for the Village of Neshanic National Register application, 1979
In the 1920s Titman's Hotel was regularly the site of township committee meetings and was also used to house crews building utilities and infrastructure in Hillsborough. Laborers building the Tuscarora oil pipeline stayed at the hotel, as did the men who built the improved road between Neshanic and Clover Hill. In fact, shortly after Chauncey Titman dies in 1929, his widow Minnie married State Highway inspector John Connor.

After the March 1916 fire.
The couple decided to close the hotel in 1930. In recent decades the hotel was transformed into rental apartments and has been vacant since a March 2016 fire.