AMERICAN RECORDING PIONEERS
The Walter Scanlan Scandal:
By Allan Sutton
Van Brunt began recording in 1908, as a Billy Murray imitator. The statement that he was Thomas Edison’s favorite tenor has been widely repeated, although there is no known documentation of Edison himself ever having made that assertion. The rather average pay that Van Brunt received for his Edison work, 1 and the number of his recordings that were rejected — sometimes as the result of acerbic comments from Edison himself — certainly do not suggest that he received any favored treatment from the inventor. However, within a few years it was apparent that Van Brunt’s sights were set on something more than just a studio career. By early 1914 he was appearing as a solo act on the B.F. Keith vaudeville circuit, playing the Colonial and the Alhambra theaters in New York. 2
Having achieved some success in vaudeville, Van Brunt made the move to Broadway with a starring role in Eileen, which premiered at the Sam S. Shubert Theater on May 12, 1917. 3 Various sources claim that Van Brunt changed his name for the production at the urging of Victor Herbert, the show’s composer—a story that cannot be confirmed or refuted, although Herbert apparently had no qualms concerning the decidely non-Irish name of Greek Evans, another Eileen star. Whatever the impetus for the name change, Van Brunt chose to appropriate the name of Walter J. Scanlan, an Irish tenor who enjoyed great success on the American stage in the late nineteenth century, but who died at the height of his career without having made any recordings. There was no secret surrounding the name change; the New York Times review of Eileen stated quite clearly that Scanlan’s “real name is Van Brunt.” 4 Both the press and the record companies had trouble with the name, often misspelling it “Scanlon.”
a cast of Broadway newcomers, Eileen's producers didn't spend a great
The cast of Eileen was made up of actors generally not well-known to Broadway theater-goers. Of the other male principals, Greek Harry Evans was newly arrived in New York from the Chicago Opera Company, and Scott Welsh had so far played only minor roles in a few Broadway productions. One of the female leads apparently relied on her status as the daughter of an influential New York magistrate to land her role. In the leading role of Captain Barry O’Day, Van Brunt performed four solo songs. Edison, to whom Van Brunt was under exclusive contract at the time, did not have Van Brunt record any of them, although two were covered by other Edison artists—still more reason to question the claim that Van Brunt was Edison’s favorite.
Reviews of the show were positive, although the Times writer lavished most of his praise on the score and on Victor Herbert’s enthusiastic conducting. Van Brunt got a cursory nod, with the reviewing noting only that “Van Brunt, alias Scanlan, is a lyric tenor whose voice is adapted to Irish music.” 5 Eileen closed on Broadway after only 64 performances, but Van Brunt made a sufficiently good impression that he was signed to star in other Broadway musicals, including the long-running Somebody’s Sweetheart (Central, 1918) and the less successful Always You (Central, 1920). But once again, he is not known to have recorded the songs he performed in these productions.
In late 1920 Van Brunt suddenly took his leave of Broadway and began touring with small road companies, appearing in pseudo-Irish revues across the country. He was still highly popular as a stage performer, with a New York Times writer at one point opining that he was in a position to offer serious competition to such long-entrenched “Irish” stars as Chauncey Olcott and Ernest Ball. But Van Brunt was absent so long from the New York stage that in 1923 he was named by the Times as one of the “stars whom New York never sees.” 6
A likely reason for Van Brunt’s abrupt departure from New York came to light in 1924. In December of that year, it was disclosed that Van Brunt had deserted his wife Lillian in 1920 and was now living with a woman who claimed to be Mrs. Walter Scanlan. In a statement published in the New York Times, Lillian Van Brunt claimed she would have sued her husband earlier, had he not pleaded with her to “spare him the publicity that would result from the disclosure of the fact that Walter Scanlan, known to the public as ‘The Irish Tenor,’ was Walter Van Brunt, who deserted his wife and lived with another woman, representing her to be his wife.” 7
Van Brunt did not attend the trial, at which it was proven that he was living with, and had recently fathered a child by, a woman calling herself Ruth Scanlan. Lillian Van Brunt testified that she believed her husband’s annual income to be $20,000. She was awarded $50 per week in alimony by Justice Tierney, who made no attempt to mask his disdain for the singer. “The defendant has taken the name of a very decent man...who died some years ago,” he declared. “He might have taken some bad actor’s name if that is the way he acted toward you. He may sing Irish songs, but the Irish are a pretty decent people, as a rule. I will award you $50 a week, and if he doesn’t pay it he may sing in jail, because I will put him there.” 8
Van Brunt’s theatrical career was already in decline by the mid-1920s, and the national publicity surrounding his trial probably did nothing to reverse that trend. To further complicate matters, he was being used less frequently by the Edison studio, and his Edison pay rate seems to have been cut following Charles Edison’s takeover of the phonograph division in 1926. 9 He returned to vaudeville in the later 1920s, working as a solo act at Proctor’s 58th Street Theater and other lesser houses in and around New York, and performing at special events like ASCAP's 1928 memorial concert for Victor Herbert.
1928, with his theater career over, Van Brunt teamed with his old protégé
Billy Murray in
In late 1928, still calling himself Walter Scanlan, he teamed with Billy Murray, who had recently been dropped by Victor. In the late 1920s and early 1930s the team recorded for Victor, Brunswick, and Edison, as well as several dime-store labels, before switching to radio work. Their broadcasts together are explored in detail in Billy Murray on the Radio.
1 Edison Studio Cash Books
(1916–26). Edison National Historic Site (Orange, NJ).
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