Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Local Talent at the San Francisco Opera - Albert Gillette

Like Flossita Badger, Albert Gillette (Albert J. Gillette, Jr.) was a local vocalist who helped fill out the cast during the early days of the San Francisco Opera, performing in a dozen roles during their first two seasons.  Born in Salem, Oregon in 1896, he grew up in nearby Eugene. According to the 1913 Eugene High School yearbook (in, he was a vocal standout in the school's operetta production. He later went on to the University of Oregon where he sang with the men's glee club.

According to his 1917 WWI draft card (also in at the age of 21 he worked in Portland, Oregon at the Traffic Department for the Southern Pacific Railroad. By 1920 he sang in musical theater sketches at Portland's Liberty Theater. In 1921 he transferred to work for the Southern Pacific in Merced, California where he quickly became a major figure in the musical life there.

"Albert Gillette: Available for Concerts and Entertainments" (ad. in the Merced Sun-Star March 11, 1923)

A 1923 article announced that Gillette had been appointed to the Sherwood School of Music in Modesto. It also gave him an impressive resume claiming that he had been "brought to the Coast" by the legendary Sid Grauman who intended to engage him at this movie theaters. This article also highlighted Gillette's forthcoming appearances with the San Francisco Opera company. It also noted that he began his training under Hugo Reisenfeld and had appeared at the Rialto and Rivoli theaters in New York.

In 1924 he was listed as the director of the Modesto Conservatory of Music, but his professional focus had already moved substantially to the San Francisco Bay Area.  In February 1923, he was a finalist in operatic singing contest judged by baritone Titta Ruffo that was held by the San Francisco Examiner's short-lived radio station KUO. Between September 1923 and September 1924 he performed in the San Francisco Opera company's performances of Andrea Chénier, Gianni Schicchi, RigolettoRoméo et Juliette, Madama Butterfly and Tosca.

In the following years he performed extensively with the Pacific Coast Grand Opera troupe led by Arturo Casiglia. He also sang at many churches in San Francisco and Oakland and was active at Oakland's Athens Club. But Gillette was probably best known for his work on local radio where he was a frequent on-air recitalist on KGO, KPO, KFRC and KYA in San Francisco and KLX and KTAB in Oakland.

Albert Gillette, baritone, plays "Camille" in Lehar's "Merry Widow" the comic opera on KGO's Sat. eve. Dec. 5 program (source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)

As radio began to more toward more network programming, Gillette's vocal talents were broadcast across the airwaves of more West Coast stations. He perform and directed with Paul Steindorff's Radio Light Opera Company, broadcast from KGO but heard across NBC's Orange Network. In 1930 he transferred to Portland, Oregon where he continued working for NBC as the program director at station KGW.

Albert Gillette, former star of KPO is now Director of Programs for KGW, Portland. Word from the north indicates that the KPO favorite of several years ago is enjoying unrivalled success as the helmsman of KGW's programs. (Source: Broadcast Weekly December 6, 1931)

Luther F. Sies' Encyclopedia of American Radio 1920-1960 lists a few of the broadcast programs where Gillette was featured. He was a member of California Mixed Quartet on KGO in 1925, the Francisco Mixed Quartet on KPO in 1926 and the KTAB Quartet on KTAB in 1926. He also performed on the National Carbon Company Program on KGO in 1925 and on the Hour of Musical Gems on the NBC-Pacific Coast Network (Orange Network) originating from KYA, with Pacific Salon Orchestra conducted by Liborius Hauptmann. Gillette continued to sing opera in Southern California returned to the Bay Area in the late 1930s and resumed his appearances on Bay Area radio stations and stages. 

While Albert Gillette was ubiquitous on the Bay Area stage and airwaves for many years there are few accounts of his performance style.  A reviewer in the Pacific Coast Musical Review was "impressed with his histrionic ability. Gillette has the knack of making even the smallest sort of a role a thing of distinction." Another review in the Music Leader noted his "splendid acting, powerful baritone voice and fine diction."

Albert Jay Gillette died in San Francisco on January 5, 1956. His death notice in the Chronicle of January 6, 1956 did not mention his musical career but did note his membership in The Family, a local men's social club that actively presented concerts and plays.  He also kept a connection to his railway work -- the notice also stated that he was a member of the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks Local 854. He was buried at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma.

Albert Gillete's tombstone (source:


"Albert Gillette Goes to Modesto to Teach Music," Merced Sun-Star September 5, 1923

"Albert Gillette on Athens Program," San Francisco Chronicle June 20, 1926.

"Albert Gillette Will Sing in 'Lucia' Here," Oakland Tribune April 2, 1939

Alexandre, Constance H., "Pacific Coast Opera Co.," Pacific Coast Musical Review November 20-30, 1926.

"Arturo Casiglia," San Francisco Examiner December 27, 1925.

"'Barber' to Be Given in English in Pasadena," Los Angeles Times August 21, 1938.

"Gillette Will Song Six Songs," San Francisco Chronicle June 11, 1927

"Hanson and Powell Present Works with San Francisco Symphony," Musical Leader December 31, 1925.

"KGO Grand Opera on Air Tomorrow," San Francisco Examiner March 10, 1927.

"Local News," Merced Sun-Star July 20, 1924.

"Mainly about Merced," Merced County Sun November 11, 1921.

"Mikado to Be Given by KGO," San Francisco Examiner June 27, 1925

"Musical Club Closes Successful Season," Merced County Sun May 28, 1922.

Nunan, Thomas, "Millions Hear Greatest S.F. Air Program," San Francisco Examiner April 6, 1927.

"'Pagliacci' in KGO Broadcast," San Francisco Examiner March 6, 1927.

"Program for Dinner Concert Announced," San Francisco Chronicle April 17, 1926.

Sies, Luther F. Encyclopedia of American radio, 1920-1960 (McFarland, 2000).

"Steindorff Company in Tuesday Concert," San Francisco Examiner July 3, 1927.

Tuttle, Oliver W., "Famed Opera Baritone to Act as Judge," San Francisco Examiner March 15, 1923.

Tuttle, Oliver W., "Five Winners in Ruffo Song Test," San Francisco Examiner March 17, 1923.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Local Talent at the San Francisco Opera: Flossita Badger

source: San Francisco Opera Company. Annual season, 1925-1926

During the early seasons of the San Francisco Opera, the company hired internationally known stars for lead parts. Smaller, yet important, roles were handled by Bay Area talent. Flossita Badger sang in a handful of these parts between 1923 and 1934.

Born in Vermont in 1899, Flossita Badger grew up in California’s Central Valley. She moved to San Jose to attend the Conservatory of Music at the College of the Pacific where she graduated in Public School Music. Howard Hanson, then on the composition faculty, dedicated his opus 10 song "Exaltation" to her

After graduation she became a high school teacher, teaching music in Chowchilla and San Luis Obispo before being appointed head of the Music Department at Lowell High School in San Francisco. She took leave during this time to study opera in France and Italy.  During that time she performed with the San Carlo Opera Company in Naples.

Badger played one of the two lay-sisters ("due converse") in Puccini's Suor Angelica in the San Francisco Opera’s inaugural 1923 season. In 1925 she appeared in von Flotow’s Martha and later also played roles in Gounod’s Faust and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor during the 1926 season. 

Alfred Metzger wrote favorably of the latter performance in the Pacific Coast Musical Review: "as Alice [Badger] revealed a very delightful voice and interpreted her role in a manner decidedly satisfactory."

During these years she was a regular in the Opera Chorus.  She also sang as a member of the San Francisco Opera on the airwaves of KPO.  At the same time, Flossita Badger was also a frequent vocal recitalist in the Bay Area.  She married her piano accompanist Lincoln Batchelder in 1931.

Flossita Badger (image source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)

In 1935 she was selected to head the Music Department at the newly established San Francisco Junior College (today known as the City College of San Francisco). There she directed the A Cappella Choir and organized many opera workshops. The Examiner's Alexander Fried described her as the "skilled, lively director" of the opera program. While on the faculty of City College she took a six month sabbatical to continue her studies at Columbia University and Julliard. Throughout her performance career, Flossita Badger appeared on the radio, gave solo recitals, and performed with other opera troupes. She died in San Francisco in 1961, one year after retiring from City College.


"Choir Director Returns in Spring from Sabbatical Leave in NY," The Guardsman January 20, 1948.

Directory of Secondary and Normal Schools for The School Year 1919-1920 (California. State Board of Education, 1919).

"Flossita Badger," San Francisco Examiner September 22, 1929.

"Flossita Badger Dies Here," San Francisco Chronicle March 28, 1961

"Flossita Badger, Musician," [obituary] San Francisco Examiner March 28, 1961.

Fried, Alexander, "Opera Excerpts Bring Campion Festival to End," San Francisco Examiner August 30, 1952.

Howard Hanson Collection: Series 3: Manuscripts (Sibley Music Library, Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester).

Metzger, Alfred, "Winter Opera Season at Columbia Theatre Artistic Success," Pacific Coast Musical Review January 5, 1926

"Jr. College Music," San Francisco Examiner September 8, 1935.

"Reception to Girls at College of Pacific," San Jose Mercury-News October 14, 1917

"Roseville High School," Placer Herald June 21, 1913.

"S.F. Musicians Plan Troth," San Francisco Chronicle January 4, 1931.

"Training Teachers Lags in America, Says Columbia Man; Spirited Talk at High School," Santa Cruz Evening News October 19, 1920.

"Varied Musical Fare to Be Broadcast by KPO," San Francisco Examiner September 16, 1926.

"Voice Students Given Opera Training Chance," San Francisco Examiner October 31, 1948

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Most requested Art, Music & Recreation Center books (Dewey 700s) - March 2023

It's not surprising to see our list topped with a celebrity autobiography like Love, Pamela by actress Pamela Anderson. Rock star autobiographies also popular with U-2 front man Bono's Surrender and Los Angeles punk rocker King Congo Powers' Some New Kind of Kick. Another popular book in this category is A Heart that Works, actor-comedian Rob Delany's memoir of losing a young child.

The Grand Affair is being regarded as the definitive biography of prolific American expatriate artist  John Singer Sargent whose paintings are currently on display at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.

There are two sports related titles. Good for A Girl by Lauren Fleshman is both a memoir and a work of advocacy for young women runners. The Inner Game of Tennis, published 15 years ago, is a surprising title on a list of otherwise current titles showing that must continue to provide insights into achieving success in that competitive sport.

Interior design books are consistently popular at the San Francisco Public Library. How to Live with ObjectsPatina Modern and Home Therapy are the latest titles to appeal to our patrons.  Ballet books also circulate well and there are two new works on that subject on our list. Mr. B. is a biography of famed choreographer George Balanchine; The Wind at My Back is a memoir by African-American ballerina Misty Copeland who pays tribute to pioneering ballerina Raven Wilkinson who served as an important inspiration to her.

Women Holding Things is a collection of art and essays by another San Francisco favorite, Maira Kalman. The most surprising title on the list is The Architecture of Suspense. This university press title mixes architectural history with the corpus of director Alfred Hitchcock's films.

Happy reading!

Love, Pamela by Pamela Anderson (Dey St., 2023).

Good for A Girl: A Woman Running in A Man's World by Lauren Fleshman (Penguin Press, 2023).

The Grand Affair: John Singer Sargent in His World by Paul Fisher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022).

Patina Modern: A Guide to Designing Warm, Timeless Interiors by Chris Mitchell and Pilar Guzman (Artisan, 2022).

How to Live with Objects: A Modern Guide to More Meaningful Interiors by Monica Khemsurov & Jill Singer; photographs by Charlie Schuck (Clarkson Potter/Publisher, 2022).

The Architecture of Suspense: The Built World in The Films of Alfred Hitchcock by Christine Madrid French (University of Virginia Press, 2022).

Home Therapy: Interior Design for Increasing Happiness, Boosting Confidence, and Creating Calm by Anita Yokota, principal photography by Ali Harper, additional photography by Sara Ligorria-Tramp (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2022).

A Heart that Works by Rob Delaney (Spiegel and Grau, 2022).

Mr. B: George Balanchine's 20th Century by Jennifer Homans (Random House, 2022).

Surrender: 40 songs, One Story by Bono (Alfred A. Knopf, 2022).

The Wind at My Back: Resilience, Grace, and Other Gifts from My Mentor, Raven Wilkinson by Misty Copeland, with Susan Fales-Hill (Grand Central Publishing, 2022).

The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to The Mental Side of Peak Performance by W. Timothy Gallwey (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2008).

Some New Kind of Kick: A Memoir by Kid Congo Powers with Chris Campion (Hachette Books, 2022).

Women Holding Things, text and art by Maira Kalman (Harper Design, 2022).

Thursday, February 23, 2023

George Stinson - San Francisco's Singing Cop (pt. 2)

George Stinson--As A "Cop" -- Was Discovered by Gaetano Merola
image source: San Francisco Call-Bulletin October 21, 1939

previous entry: "George Stinson: The San Francisco Opera's Singing Cop, pt. 2" (February 14, 2023)

George Stinson and his family returned to New York on May 25, 1939 aboard the ocean liner Conte Di Savoia. After nearly a year and a half of operatic lessons in Italy he was back in San Francisco in early June where he began preparing for his San Francisco Opera debut. Merola had assigned four operas for him to learn in Italy, Verdi's Aida, La Forza del Destino and Il Trovatore plus Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci. It was fitting that he would sing the latter; often compared to Enrico Caruso he would sing the legend's signature role of the clown, Canio. 

He sang his premier San Francisco Opera performance on October 21, 1939 with thirty of his friends from the California Highway patrol to root for him. Stinson noted how his real world experience had prepared him for that moment.
I'm going to sing it the way it really is. I've seen life as a cop. I've seen people attempt suicide and commit murder. I've eaten at those those dumps along skid row when I worked the Bridge.
George Stinson as Caneo (source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)

The audience loved Stinson in his debut bringing him back for several curtain calls. San Francisco's music critics were also unanimous in their praise of his debut.  Alfred Frankenstein of the Chronicle wrote:
His voice is extremely large and powerful, fresh and youthful in its clarion ring, and a splendid vehicle for the passionate unrestraint of Canio's woes, lamentations, and vengeful resolutions. He lacks stage experience, and no man on peaceful earth had better reason to be nervous, but he carried his assignment through to an ovation richly deserved.
Alexander Fried of the Examiner opined that this was the:
...most resounding success a new local artist has ever won with the San Francisco Opera Company... Nature has endowed Stinson with the sort of dramatic tenor voice that impresarios dream of dream of. It is powerful, brilliant, broad of range. It has thrilling top tones. It is a voice with intrinsic emotional content.
Marie Hicks Davidson of the San Francisco Call proclaimed that Stinson was "the vocal find of the season" adding that:
Stinson appears to be on his way up to the heights. He is gifted with a robust tenor voice of golden quality which Merola says has more the Caruso timber [sic] than any who has ever aspired to the Caruso mantle. It has a Martinellian clarity and a lower range of barytone [sic] brilliance.

He reprised this role in a second performance on October 31, 1939.

In the mean time he found steady work performing in the community, notably a dozen appearances at the Golden Gate International Exposition. He later revealed that he made pretty good money performing--500 dollars for each opera performance (equivalent to over $10,000 today) and 200 dollars for each appearance at the Exposition. Now fondly known as "San Francisco's famous singing cop" he also performed at a number of wartime benefits. He even sang at baseball legend Joe DiMaggio's first wedding.

George Stinson as Radames (source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)

The following season the San Francisco Opera announced that George Stinson would star as Radames, the captain of the Egyptian guard, in Giuseppe Verdi's Aida during their 1940 season.  However, it was announced at performance time that he would bow out of the first October 31 performance due to illness.  As Herb Caen first reported:

Over-rehearsed George Stinson, "the singing cop," came up with a sore throat Wed. night and couldn't sing the lead in "Aida"--so short, bespeckled Frederick Jagel was imported by plane from the East to fill the gap.

He later updated his reporting. Jagel was actually already performing in California, which Caen suspected was more than coincidence. He emphasized that Stinson did not have a sore throat, nor was he over-rehearsed.

The reason for the whole mixup--and this is very much on the inside-- reportedly was Mme. [Elisabeth] Rethberg, who didn't feel up to the chore of singing "Aida" opposite a "new" singer. This despite the fact that in dress rehearsal, only Stinson had given a perfect performance.

Another notable detail is that Gennaro Papi conduct the opera, not Stinson's mentor and supporter Gaetano Merola. George Stinson did star opposite Rethberg in the second and final performance of Aida on November 1, 1940. Alexander Fried's review was again favorable, remarking that Stinson "did himself great credit" in the role. Alfred Frankenstein's review was mixed. While praising Stinson's "splendid tone, power and vigor," he also perceived "moments of difficulty and insecurity" in his performance.

That was, in effect, the end of George Stinson's operatic career. Although he carried on as a professional singer for a while afterward, by late Spring of 1941 he had returned to his old job at the highway patrol. He remarked that "It has been a grand experience and a successful one, but I'm happier here with the people I know, doing the work I like and have always done." 

The Chronicle also reported him saying that "I guess I am just a cop at heart ... a cop and an American and I don't go much for these kissing foreigners." Stinson would maintain that he was misquoted. He wrote a letter to Herb Caen.
Dear Herb: I've noticed articles in the paper regarding my return to the Highway Patrol, which are O.K. except for the quote attributed to me, that 'I don't go much for these kissing foreigners.' Can you help me correct this story? I am sure I don't know what is meant by kissing foreigners, and I certainly did not make such a statement. I have many friends who were not born in this country but who, I'm sure, would think badly of me and Americans if this mistake were left uncorrected.
However, Stinson after his return from his studies in Europe was quoted by an Orange County newspaper as remarking that "In Italy... men think nothing of kissing one another on the mouth." His outlook reflects more culture shock than actual xenophobia. The glamorous world of the stage was very different from other workplaces that Stinson had known like the military and the highway patrol. Years later, he also remarked that the operatic world was too cutthroat for him.
When you're out on a job with some other cops, you know you can count on them to be behind you. But when you're out there on the opera stage, some of them other stars are hoping you'll croak.
But at heart, he may have left opera simply, as Herb Caen later put it, because "he wasn't of major league operatic caliber, and nobody knew better than he (an honest guy)."

With World War II on, Stinson enlisted with the Navy with the rank of chief specialist where he assisted Military Police in maintaining order in the transport of personnel aboard troop trains. The Navy allowed him to entertained sailors at military hospitals. He also participated in the dedication of ships launched at Marinship or of military housing at Hunters Point. He left the service with the rank of lieutenant.

After the war he returned to the California Highway Patrol to work for his pension.  He was stationed in the Sacramento area and gave occasional performances.  The last newspaper notice is for a singing appearance in Placerville in 1952.

Even though George Stinson's operatic career did not amount to a great deal, it is clear that he was blessed with a beautiful, strong voice. He also showed great perseverance and a love of opera to advance as far as he did.  More than a decade after giving up opera he confided with journalist Bernard Taper that:
I'm singing better than ever now. I don't know what's happening to me. The voice is getting smoother, but it's still got its old robust quality, too. I'm singing them high C's like never done before, without any effort. My breath control is better now, too. Like I said, I've been meditating. And all of a sudden one evening, it came on me what my teacher in Italy meant when he kept telling me to breath for singing like you do for speaking, the same naturalness.
George Stinson died in Yountville, California on April 2, 1973.


Caen, Herb, "I'll Always Remember," San Francisco Examiner April 9, 1950

Caen, Herb, "Memos to Myself," San Francisco Chronicle November 14, 1940.

Caen, Herb, "Monday Medley," San Francisco Chronicle May 5, 1941.

Caen, Herb, "Pocket of Notes," San Francisco Chronicle November 1, 1940.

"County's Erstwhile Singing Cop Back in S.F. from Italy," Santa Ana Register June 6, 1939.

Davidson, Marie Hicks, "Opera Season Has Scored a Triumph," San Francisco Call November 4, 1939

Davidson, Marie Hicks, "'Singing Cop' Is on Road to Fame Now," San Francisco Call October 23, 1939

"Early Days of State to Live Again Tonight" San Francisco Examiner January 25, 1940

"14 Operas Listed for Performance This Fall," San Francisco Examiner May 10, 1940.

Frankenstein, Alfred, "International Cast Sings French Opera Beautifully," San Francisco Chronicle November 2, 1940.

Frankenstein, Alfred, "Singing Patrolman Makes Good in Famous Role of 'Pagliacci," San Francisco Chronicle October 23, 1939.

Fried, Alexander, "San Francisco Prepares for Gala Opera Opening," San Francisco Examiner October 6, 1940

Fried, Alexander, "'Singing Cop' Out of Aida: Tenor Ill, But Sings Tomorrow," San Francisco Examiner October 31, 1940.

Fried, Alexander, "'Singing Cop' Wins Triumph in 'Pagliacci'," San Francisco Examiner October 22, 1939

"Hunters Point Project Dedication Sunday," San Francisco Chronicle October 20, 1943.

Lang, Harry, "10,000 Watch DiMaggio and Actress Wed," San Francisco Examiner November 20, 1939

"Memorial Day Launching at Marinship," Sausalito News June 3, 1943

"Perennial Twins Hold Opera Stage Tonight," San Francisco Call-Bulletin October 21, 1939

Fried, Alexander, "Sayao, Schipa Win Acclaim with 'Manon'," San Francisco Examiner November 2, 1940

O'Brien, Robert, "San Francisco," San Francisco Chronicle January 18, 1943

"Placerville Rotary Aids Charter Day for Jackson Club," Placerville Mountain Democrat May 15, 1952.

"Singing Cop Back to Start Career," San Francisco Examiner May 26, 1939

"The Singing Cop: He'll Make Debut Saturday in Opera That Made Caruso," San Francisco Chronicle October 19, 1939.

"Singing Cop Triumphs in 'I Pagliacci'," San Francisco Chronicle October 22, 1939

"Stinson Welcomed after Study in Italy," San Francisco Examiner June 5, 1939.

Taper, Bernard, "Since Then: Ex-Singing Cop Is Still a Cop--But with Fewer Worries," San Francisco Chronicle January 14, 1951.

"Tenor Stinson Leaves Stage for Patrol Job," San Francisco Chronicle April 29, 1941

"Verdi's 'Aida' to Be Sung Tonight," San Francisco Examiner October 30, 1940.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Presentation: Chip Lord and the Long Goodbye to the Automobile

Virtual Library - Zoom Program
Wednesday, 2/22/2023
12:00 - 1:30

Artist Chip Lord chronicles his life-long involvement with the automobile from childhood fascination to the central material of art making with the group Ant Farm and beyond. Ant Farm (1968 – 1978) made Cadillac Ranch (Amarillo, Texas, 1974) and Media Burn (San Francisco, 1975) during the first decade of video and conceptual art and Lord’s critical art practice continued while he was a Professor at U.C. Santa Cruz (1988- 2010). This visual lecture was first given in the Graduate Lecture series at the S.F. Art Institute and then at the Toledo Art Museum during the exhibition, “Life is a Highway: Art and American Car Culture”, 2019.

Video art works by Lord are in the collections of MOMA, New York; The Tate Modern, London; SFMOMA; BAM/PFA and other museums. He is Professor Emeritus in Film & Digital Media at U.C. Santa Cruz and has also taught at CCA Architecture and the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University. He lives in San Francisco.


Presented by the Art, Music & Recreation Center of SFPL. This program will be recorded.

Titles available @ SFPL by and about Chip Lord and Ant Farm:

  • Ant Farm, 1968-1978 / by Constance M. Lewallen and Steve Seid ; with additional essays by Chip Lord, Caroline Maniaque, and Michael Sorkin ; and a timeline by Ant Farm. (2004)  729.0922 L58a  
  • Ant Farm video / executive producer Chip Lord, producer Starr Sutherland, supported by UC Santa Cruz research funds, distributed by Facets Video, Video Arts a Digital Studio production. (2003) DVD 709.04 ANT 
  • Automerica : a trip down U.S. highways from World War II to the future : a book / by Ant Farm ; written by Chip Lord ; designed by Chip Lord and Curtis Schreier. (1976)  629.222 An861a 
  • Media burn : Ant Farm and the making of an image / Steve Seid ; forward by Chip Lord. (2020)  700.411 Se426m 
  • Space land and time: underground adventures with Ant Farm / produced and directed by Laura Harrison and Elizabeth Federici. (2011)  DVD 729.0922 ANT  

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

George Stinson - The San Francisco Opera's "Singing Cop" (pt. 1)

The sensationalist October 1, 1937 frontpage headline in William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner read: "Span Traffic Officer Held Operatic Fine: Tenor May Write Own Ticket to Fame." In 1935, Gaetano Merola discovered a local barber's daughter, Josephine Tumminia, who he helped to train and cast in leading roles. A few years later his new discovery was George Stinson, an officer with the California Highway Patrol. 

George Stinson and Gaetano Merola (source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)

The Examiner article claimed that "Merola heard Stinson singing through the midst [sic] one foggy night, stopped, marveled, then asked what was his training, whether he would like to sing in opera." Even though George Stinson was presented as a Merola discovery, he, like Josephine Tumminia, had a considerable amount of professional experience behind him when he arrived in San Francisco, 

George Washington Stinson must have had a difficult childhood. All sources give his birthdate as March 15, but different articles and genealogical sources disagree about his birth year, giving it alternately as 1898, 1900, or 1903. Born in rural Vienna, Missouri, he and his siblings lost both of their parents at a young age and ended up in a Saint Louis orphanage. He was adopted by a family in the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood at 12 and at age 17 he entered the armed services in the aviation corps in Lake Charles, LA. He then worked for a short time as a deputy marshal in Longville, LA before re-enlisting the artillery corps where he was stationed in Vladivostok, Russia and the Philippines. Other accounts noted that he played football and was a wrestler and a boxer.

He came to California in 1922, working as a fireman in Huntington Beach, CA and then joining the California Highway Patrol in 1926. Alongside news reports of him stopping derelict drivers there were articles remarking on his natural vocal ability. An article in the Santa Ana Register quotes Los Angeles Examiner music critic, Otheman Stevens, who enthused:
It is a rare blessing to meet an artist in the making. There are quite a lot of us who believe we have experienced that by hearing Motor Cop George Stinson sing several arias. Stinson some time ago interested his fellows, and Chief Snook of the State Motor vehicle department in his voice. This gives good promise of being a dramatic tenor of rare sweetness and great power.
It was around this time that Stinson had his fateful encounter with famed operatic contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink. His opportunity for opera success began when he stopped her chauffeured car in San Juan Capistrano for speeding. When he pulled the car over, he recognized her and expressed how much he admired her asked whether he might sing for her. When he finally gathered up his nerve she declared "In this moment I have found a great tenor." She asked him to join her and perform a benefit recital together in Anaheim.

June 4, 1930 concert announcement
source: Santa Ana Daily Register in the Newspaper Archive California Edition database

She also funded his musical education to the tune of $1,500. From that time he studied with Los Angeles-based Italian-American vocal coach Guido Caselotti who presented him in recitals and on the air on station KECA.  The California Highway Patrol realized what a public relations asset they had in a "singing cop" and dispatched him to all 58 counties as a safety ambassador talking about the dangers of speeding and drunk driving and breaking into song.  During this time he also appeared on screen in the 1936 Universal Productions picture Crash Donovan.
OPERATIC FINE--George Stinson, State Highway patrolman, station on the Bay Bridge, is a real operatic find, says Gaetano Merola. He is now studying voice. (San Francisco Examiner October 1, 1937)

In 1936 he was transferred to work at the newly-finished San Francisco Bay Bridge and to bring him into the proximity of the San Francisco Opera company. An impressed Gaetano Merola proclaimed Stinson's voice as "startlingly like that of Caruso." But the director cautioned: "He is not ready this year, but by next year I expect his voice, which is really remarkable, will be ready for a place in the company. It is already beautiful now." 

Merola trained Stinson for seven months while trying to arrange for him to study opera in Italy. Local opera-lovers as well as opera stars like Giovanni Martinelli, Gina Cigna and Kirsten Flagstad took up a subscription to allow Stinson to take a leave of absence to study voice in Europe. Chinese-American Doctor Henry Wong Him, listed in City Directories as a "physician and surgeon, specialist in Chinese system of diagnosis and treatment" was a principal contributor to this fund.

The highway patrol grant him leave to study in Italy. Seen off by Gaetano Merola and Atilla Lamponi of the Metropolitan Opera Company he departed from New York City aboard the Italian ocean liner Saturnia with his wife and teenage son in January 1938. The Examiner reported that he thrilled his fellow passengers with his singing.

Singing Cop On His Way. En Route--to Italy, then--opera? George Stinson, Golden Gate bridge traffic officer, sails on Liner Saturnia for voice study (San Francisco Examiner January 10, 1938)

He studied opera with Vittorio Moratti in Milan. The October 1938 issue of the magazine California Highway Patrol printed excerpts of letters from Stinson and wife wrote home describing their experiencse in Italy. He reported that he had a contract to sing in a production of Il Trovatore, but noted that all performers in Italy had to audition for a commission to obtain permission to sing on stage. In another article he expressed surprise at seeing himself in Crash Donovan with the rest of the cast dubbed into Italian while his singing was in English.

To be continued....

'Singing Cop' Puts Uniform in Mothballs
George Stinson, San Francisco motorcycle policeman, whose voice landed him a free trip to Europe to study with the best German and Italian teachers, puts away his uniform for good, with the aid of his wife. World-known musical stars are paying their expenses.--(Associated Press photo.) [source: International Herald Tribune January 10, 1938]

The Art, Music and Recreation Center's Exhibit "Bringing The Opera to The People and The People to The Opera" closed on January 12, 2023

Previous blog entries written for the San Francisco Opera Centennial:

"'Housewife' Josephine Wiper Returns to the San Francisco Opera Stage" (December 27, 2022)
"Josephine Tumminia and the San Francisco Opera" (December 12, 2022)
"Josephine Tumminia's Fame Goes National, then International" (December 19, 2022)
"Armando Agnini and The San Francisco Opera Stage" (November 16, 2022)
"Merola Organizes San Franciscans To Present Outdoor Opera on The Peninsula" (October 31, 2022)
"The Big Game, North Beach and The San Francisco Opera" (October 13, 2022)
"Bring The Opera to The People and The People to The Opera" (September 12, 2022)


"Audience Gives Ovation to Madame Schumann-Heink and George Stinson in Anaheim," Santa Ana Daily Register June 5, 1930.

"County's Erstwhile Singing Cop Back in S.F. from Italy," Santa Ana Register June 6, 1939.

"County's 'Singing Cop' Chosen for Safety Campaign," Santa Ana Daily Evening Register October 2, 1934.
"Golden Voiced Policeman Here," Los Angeles Times December 28, 1937

Holly, Hazel, "Pacific Musical Society Will Hold Opera Tea Thursday," San Francisco Examiner October 25, 1937

Jones, Isabel Morse, "Words and Music," Los Angeles Times August 13, 1933.

Maslin, Marsh, "Dr. Him Is Repaid," San Francisco Call October 26, 1939.

“Merola Finds Tenor Policing S.F. Bay Bridge,” San Francisco Chronicle October 1, 1937

“October Tea to Be Brilliant Event,” San Francisco Chronicle October 24, 1937

"Officer Geo. Stinson's Study of Opera is Successful," The California Highway Patrol October 1938.

"Opera Chorus Heard in Radio Broadcast," Los Angeles Times June 2, 1935

"S.F.'s Singing Cop Ready for His Debut," San Francisco Chronicle May 26, 1939.

"Singing Cop," Time January 10, 1938.

"Singing Cop Back to Start Career," San Francisco Examiner May 26, 1939.

"Singing Cop on Way to Italy," San Francisco Examiner January 10, 1938.

"'Singing Cop's' Voice Praised by L.A. Scribe," Santa Ana Register September 17, 1928
"Singing Patrolman to Leave for Italy," San Pedro News Pilot November 25, 1937

"Span Traffic Officer Held Operatic Find: Tenor May Write Own Ticket to Fame," San Francisco Examiner October 1, 1937.

"Stinson Welcomed After Study in Italy," San Francisco Examiner June 5, 1939.

“Today in The Chronicle,” San Francisco Chronicle November 24, 1937.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Presentation: Celebrating Nina Simone

Tuesday, 2/14/2023
12:00 - 1:30
Virtual Library - ZOOM

Author and music historian Richie Unterberger celebrates singer, songwriter and pianist, Nina Simone. One of the most eclectic artists of the mid-twentieth century, Simone blended soul, jazz and pop with both romance and biting social commentary. This event will feature uncommon film clips with performances of some of her greatest songs, including “Four Women,” “Mississippi Goddamn,” “I Put a Spell on You,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” 

Richie Unterberger is the author of numerous rock history books, including volumes on The Beatles, The Who, The Velvet Underground, Bob Marley and 1960s folk-rock. He teaches courses on rock and soul music history at several Bay Area colleges. His newest book, San Francisco: Portrait of a City, was published this year by Taschen.


This virtual program is offered as a one-time event only by agreement with the presenter. THIS PROGRAM WILL NOT BE RECORDED. Presented by the Art, Music & Recreation Center.

Nina Simone Bibliography - SFPL​
Nina Simone : the biography / David Brun-Lambert (2009) 780.2 Si56b 2009 ​
Princess Noire : the tumultuous reign of Nina Simone / Nadine Cohodas (2010) 780.2 Si56co  ​
What happened, Miss Simone? : a biography / Alan Light (2016) 780.2 Si56Li  ​
I put a spell on you : the autobiography of Nina Simone / Nina Simone with Stephen Cleary (2003) 780.2 Si56a 2003​
* An author search (Simone, Nina) yields over 65 items in the SFPL catalog including vinyl, eMusic, CD’s, music scores, eBooks, DVD/Blu-Rays, eVideos and eAudiobooks.​