30 January 2020

The Somerville Carnival - circa 1907

We all remember the sights and sounds of the summer carnival. Whether to benefit a local hospital, church, volunteer fire company or, as with the Hillsborough Rotary Fair of today, a civic organization, the annual carnival in Somerset County dates back to the 19th century.

The Somerville Firemen's Carnival circa 1907
In the early years of the last century, many Central New Jersey organizations, including the four Somerville volunteer fire companies, engaged the Excelsior Carnival Company to provide the rides and entertainment for a week of fun. Excelsior, under manager W.S. Miller, was in business for at least a couple of decades and sometimes billed themselves as a circus - but there were some important distinctions. Traveling circuses in those days usually came with elephants and menageries and trapeze artists and most importantly equestrians - the royalty of the circus. A company like Excelsior, on the other hand, while employing many "tent acts" did not have nearly the spectacle of a real circus. But that doesn't mean they didn't employ top-name entertainment.

A typical Excelsior Carnival setup circa 1906
Filling the gaps left by the lack of elephants and horses were many interesting and entertaining vaudeville acts. A look at Excelsior's roster for the 1905-1908 period gives us a clue as to what one could expect at the carnival.

The Somerville Firemen's Carnival circa 1908
Here are a few of the lesser-known featured performers: Prairie Flower, fortune teller; C. Lowe, electric palmograph; Jas. D. Bell, monologist; Charley Hopper, singing clown; J.V. Graybill's rifle range; Miss Edna, lightning crayon work; Billy Sheppard. character work; Aiken, juggler; Mrs. Astra, levitating illusionist.

Professor H.S. Maguire and Mascot
Of course, the nationally known acts were the real draw to the carnival. First among these was Professor H.S. Maguire and his "educated" horse, Mascot. Mascot was famous for being able to add and subtract and they had a long career in carnivals and vaudeville.

Don and Dot Ford poster collage
Excelsior usually had an escape artist on the show, most notably during this time period Don and Dot Ford. They performed all of the usual escape stunts - handcuffs, straitjackets, even water submersion. They would even accept challenges to break out of the town lock-up which they pulled off in great style during the 1906 tour in Plainfield, Morristown, and Somerville!

Don Ford before a jail cell escape
One of the most famous acts to ever appear with the Excelsior Carnival Company was Gus White's Punch and Judy Show. Punch and Judy shows were being performed for 100 years before Gus White saw one as a young man and realized he could do better. He built all of his own puppets and elaborate stage sets and soon had the best-known show of its kind in America.

Gus White's Punch, trade card

While there is no reason to believe that Somerville's fairgrounds or shows were segregated, we do know that some of what our great-grandparents found entertaining would be highly objectionable today - minstrel shows and other black-face entertainers were common during the period and were employed by Excelsior.

Chief Long Feather
Perhaps somewhat less objectionable was the archery act of Blackfoot Indian Chief Long Feather who, during the era of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Shows, toured with Excelsior.

In 1907 the carnival was in Somerville from July 3rd through July 13th. There was record-breaking attendance on Saturday, July 8th, and great weather for the entire run. And the best news, each of the four fire companies received a net profit of $100!

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."