The diva Madame Jeritza, Fannie Brice and Connie Francis were shining stars

Culture and Education
Published March 16, 1998

The diva Madame Jeritza, Fannie Brice and Connie Francis were shining stars

| Published March 16, 1998

Gov. Brendan Byrne with Madame Marie Jeritza, one of the luminaries of the opera world, in the 1970s. The Newark Public Library

From the opera houses of Vienna, Prague and New York to the discos of London, Paris and San Francisco, from the Broadway stage to old-time radio and on into contemporary television, Newark entertainers have satisfied demanding, demonstrative and discriminating audiences ever since there has been a show business.

Madame Maria Jeritza

Madame Maria Jeritza (Jedlitzka) was born in Brunn in today's Czech Republic in October, 1887. By 12 she was attending the national conservatory. Within a few years she was taking lessons from Professor Auspitz and singing in the opera house chorus. In 1910, she made her debut as Elsa in 'Lohengrin' and was interviewed for the Volksoper in Vienna. In 1911, she appeared in 'Tannhauser.' In just two seasons she sang a great variety of roles. In 1912 Richard Strauss's 'Ariadne auf Naxos' was written for her.

She sang in the Stuttgart Royal Opera and began a long friendship with the composer. At that time she was introduced to Austrian Emperor Franz Josef. Subsequently, she was invited to join the Vienna Royal Opera, debuting in 1912. In 1913 the Vienna Royal Opera bought out her contract from the Volksoper. She was well on her way to becoming one of the greatest opera stars of the day when she appeared in a Puccini opera. In fact, Puccini 'regarded her as one of his incomparable interpreters.' In 1915, she was invited to sing in America, but could not because of the problems of World War I. Six years later she appeared with the Metropolitan Opera in Korngold's 'Die Tote Stadt.' On Nov. 19, 1921, the New York Times said of her that 'her blond piquancy was undeniable. She is an actress of native ability and represented the wayward and controlled nature of the dancing woman with spirit, and full-blooded dramatic power. It seemed to indicate that she would be a valuable addition to the company.' Exactly one month later she appeared in the title role of 'Tosca.' Deems Taylor of the New York Herald noted that '…last evening…Maria Jeritza made her first appearance that left a packed house alternately breathless and cheering.' By the time she left the Met in 1931-32, she had performed 292 times in New York and 56 times on tour in 20 different roles. In 1934 she toured the country in a Rudolf Frimp operetta. Much later in her career, in 1951, she made a sentimental return as Rosalinde in 'Die Fledermaus.' In 1953 she stepped down from the Vienna State Opera, then made guest appearances in American and European houses. Throughout much of her life Jeritza was treated as a goddess of the opera, and on the grandest scale. She was honored by the Pope, and decorated by both the French and Italian governments. She was made an honorary member of the Vienna Royal Opera, presented with the Austrian Order of Knighthood, and given the Golden Ring from the City of Vienna. During her long lifetime she was married three times, first to Baron Leopold Popper de Podhurgen, then to motion picture executive Winfield Sheehan, and finally to Irving P. Seery of Newark in April 1948. Her association with Newark began after she married Seery, ending with her death in 1982. A large red brick house and its accompanying gardens and compound at Elwood and Clifton avenues was her home for almost three decades. The house included a small theater that was the site for private performances for many distinguished friends and visitors. Jeritza's talents included not only 'an ample and lustrous voice, notable for its radiance and security in the upper register. She belonged to the type of artist known as a 'singing actress,' freely yielding in both capacities and impulses that were sometimes more flamboyant than refined…' While she was successful in every operatic role she undertook, it was when she was performing Wagner and Puccini that she was most convincing and successful. Following World War II, she took part in fund-raising activities for the rebuilding of the Vienna Opera House, badly damaged in the war. In the near century of her lifetime, she was honored by an emperor and a pope, had operas written for her by some of the finest European composers, and was admired by an adoring public on two continents. At the end of her life, when appearing in public in Newark, New York, or elsewhere, her presence commanded attention, awe, and admiration, for she had already become a legend of considerable immensity.

Fannie Brice

To jump from Maria Jeritza to Fannie Brice is like going from soup to nuts. But, Brice, like Jeritza was a genius of the American theater, she was the empress of radio comedy, an actor's actor, and mistress of theatre satire. Brice was born to Rose and Charles Borach in Brooklyn in 1891 and moved the following year to 78 William St. in Newark. At that time, Newark had 23 breweries and 1,400 taverns and bars that attempted to satisfy the thirst of its armies of factory workers. At first Fannie's father was a very successful bartender. According to reports, he soon owned six taverns he and his resourceful partner and wife Rose managed. There would have been no such success without Rose's dawn to dusk efforts. As the years rolled by, she continued to work even harder, but Charles 'took to the liquor' he sold and began gambling away many of their profits. In spite of a national depression and Charles' sloth, Rose managed to take Fannie and her sisters back to Hungary to see Rose's parents. Upon her return she left Charles and moved back to Brooklyn. As Fannie's father gradually drifted away, Rose became more important in her life. Some of Fannie's youthful melancholy was reflected in her acting career. From an early age she loved to entertain and make up stories. She wanted to be the center of attention, she wanted to be listened to and looked up to, but most of all she wanted to be loved. With sad eyes, she would ask a stranger on the subway how to walk to Brooklyn, told others her mother was starving, and on several occasions shoplifted in a Newark department store for the sheer thrill of the experience. But once her benefactors were out of sight, she and her sister would feast on hot dogs and sodas. Once they even attended the circus on the proceeds of the ill-gotten gain. While little is known of her formal education—she did spend some time in Newark and Brooklyn schools—Fannie apparently learned a great deal on the streets, things she later incorporated into her comedy routines. In Newark she would sneak into a local vaudeville house, Blaney's Theatre, to see 'blood and thunder melodramas.' At the age of 13 her take for winning amateur night competitions averaged $30 a week. The 10 years she spent in Newark's rough but respectable neighborhoods also added to her emotional inventory. But it was the art of acting, pretending and make believe, that was her ticket to paradise. By 1910 she left amateur night activities and joined the Ziegfeld Follies, followed by other follies in 1916, 1917, 1920, 1921, and 1923. By the 1920s a favorite of New York's smart set, considered as adept at 'caricature and satire, impersonation of the vamp burlesque of classical ballet, modern dance, and concert room vocalism.' Her greatest success came when she actually appeared in the movie 'Ziegfeld Follies' in 1934. Her movie career included 'My Man, ' 'Be Yourself' and 'The Great Ziegfeld, ' but many of us remember her from one of her radio shows, Baby Snooks, a series begun in the 1930s. She started on radio as a 'straight' singer with George Olsen's orchestra. Four years later, she teamed with Hanley Stafford as Daddy and the world of Baby Snooks was born. The show rocketed her into a $6,000-a-week salary, which she considered a steal because she could do Snooks blind. 'I don't have to work at it. It's part of me.' But Fannie's personal life was not equal to her stage success. That is probably why she was always escaping into the world of make believe. Like her mother, she was the family breadwinner, the spark of her failed marriages. Her first marriage was annulled, her second to Nicholas Arnstein ended in divorce, and her third, to producer Billy Rose, met the same fate nine years later. Apparently her greatest gift, not only to herself but to all of us, was in the creation of that little incorrigible character Baby Snooks as well as several movies and her involvement with the Ziegfeld Follies. Additionally, this many-talented lady designed dresses, painted, and decorated apartments for friends like Dinah Shore, Katharine Hepburn, and the Gershwins. Her generosity in a 'profession in which generosity is a tradition, was outstanding.' Personally, I'll never forget those outrageous radio romps with Baby Snooks and Daddy.

Connie Francis

Connie Francis, born December 12, 1938 in Newark, has been described as 'one of the top recording artists in the world of popular music.' The press called her a 'vivacious young lady who belts out a tune with vigor, a voice and a vitality and all the know-how she has earned in half a lifetime in show business.' It also has been said of her that 'she uses her very expressive face and in fact, a lot of the rest of her body in selling a song.' Because of accolades such as these, this popular 1960s vocalist was voted 'best singer of the year' during that time by American Bandstand, 'most popular vocalist of the year' by Billboard, 'best female singer of the year' by Cashbox, and 'best female vocalist of the year' by Photoplay Magazine. Born Concetta Franconero in the Ironbound section of Newark, her parents were George, a roofing contractor, and Ida, a housewife. Her grandparents were from Italy. Connie attended Miss Mascicola's Music School in Newark, and took lessons on the accordion or concertina. As a child, she played for lodge, church, and family gatherings. She attended Bergen Street School and Arts High School, and graduated from Belleville High in 1955. In addition to classes, she worked on the school newspaper, belonged to the international relations club, helped with student assemblies, sang in the glee club and won a state typing championship. Her singing career began with George Scheck's Startime TV show for talented teens. After appearing on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, she changed her name from Franconero to Francis. Early in her career she began appearing in local nightclubs and lounges. In 1955 she made several unsuccessful records and enrolled in New York University. About ready to give up show business she made one last record—a zinger. It was 'Who's Sorry Now?' Not only did it save her career, it resulted in her leaving college. Soon she began appearing on television shows. The public couldn't seem to get enough of her. Before long record sales reached more than 100,000,000! Her other hit recordings included: 'Everybody's Somebody's Fool' and 'Follow the Boys.' She was in constant demand for TV talk shows, the Las Vegas circuit, and personal appearances around the county. But there was a dark side to her story with all the aspects of a modern-day Greek tragedy. Just at the peak of her career, the 'British Invasion' brought the Beatles and an end to the 'bubble gum era' of the 1960s pop music. The girl-next-door innocent look was out, and the sexy generation was in. In 1974, she was raped in a hotel room and left under a pile of furniture. Then her favorite aunt was murdered. In 1977, she lost her ability to sing. At first the voice loss was thought to be psychological. Later it was discovered to be physical. She made a movie called 'Follow the Navy.' One of the critics called it the biggest film disaster since Pearl Harbor. In March 1981 her brother George was murdered by the mob after he testified against them. Soon after she entered a series of mental institutions, suffering years of pain. Today there appears to be a silver lining to the Connie Francis story. The girl who used to live next door has found a happy life in Florida. There remains as well a remembering public that hopes Connie will come home to remind us again of all our good old days.