Sunday, September 25, 2011

One of the great things about writing this blog is the memories folks send me: of their parents performing in one, of being serenaded to sleep by a song from another. The fact that there's so little about the creators is a constant frustration... and then this appears in one's email box:

Searching on “Hattiebell Shields” recently, I came across your review of “The Palace of Carelessness.” I can tell you a bit about the authors. Hattiebell, Ivine and Laurene Shields were three sisters, daughters of George Shields, a Scottish immigrant, and Agnes Stoker, born in Ogden, Utah and the daughter of English Mormon immigrants. The girls had two brothers, Claude Lester Shields and John William Shields. My wife Bonnie is the granddaughter of John William Shields, thus the sisters are her great aunts.

The three sisters traveled on the Chautauqua Circuit, performing music. Ivine was operatically trained and made her debut at the Chicago Met and had a brief career. She also played piano. Hattie played cello; she also sang support vocals and played piano. Laurene did dramatic readings, sang and played piano. After their touring days, all three taught music, either privately or in the schools. They wrote several operettas for schools. We own “The Palace of Carelessness,” Station Cloudville,” and “Lindy: An Ode of Glorious Achievement.” My wife does not know if they wrote more operettas.

You are correct that there is little about them on the web. A search for “Shields Trio of Chicago” brings up a web page at the University of Iowa that contains their publicity brochure.

It was nice to see my Bonnie’s great aunts still mentioned. Thanks for posting your comment on their work.

Sincerely,
Bill Fenton

Here are the lovely ladies themselves. The back of the flyer notes:

The SHIELDS TRIO of CHICAGO INDIAN SKETCHES IN COSTUME A VOCAL AND INSTRUMENTAL PROGRAM Figure Figure Figure Figure The SHIELDS TRIO of CHICAGO Figure PERIOD COSTUME SELECTIONS READINGS AND DRAMATIC SKETCHES Figure THE SHIELDS TRIO of Chicago THE SHIELDS TRIO is an extremely attractive and unique organization. It is most unusual to find three such talented and attractive young ladies in one family. Each of these sisters is an individual artist, and the ensemble is altogether satisfying. These versatile and experienced entertainers offer a program of irresistible charm, consisting of dramatic sketches, and a variety of costume specialties including an Indian musical sketch, numbers in period frocks and hats, monologues and songs in various costumes. IVINE is a singer who has the rare gift of telling a story in song. Her clarity of enunciation and charm of personality captivate her audiences. She is also a pianist of ability. LAURENE is a dramatic reader of great talent, power and charm. She appeals to young and old as she draws from her large repertoire the humorous, the dramatic, the pianologue, etc. She is an excellent accompanist and singer. HATTIE-BELL, 'cellist, possesses a splendid technique and a lovely tone. She plays with equal skill and feeling the old favorites and the works of the masters. She is also an accompanist and joins in the ensemble singing. Figure THE SHIELDS TRIO of Chicago Press Comments from Here and There CHICAGO: Miss Ivine Shields, a singer whose work was exceptional from every viewpoint … splendid voice and dramatic style … won unstinted acclaim from the audience. She has good concert style and appearance … petite and very pretty … (Chas. E. Watt.) Hattie Bell, 'cellist … displayed a beautiful, full singing tone … played with manifest authority. Laurene elicited hearty laughs from the audience … showed great versatility … a charming personality, a musical voice and dramatic power. Ivine sings … with splendid style songs of the kind that require a singer who can project a story in song. This is her special talent. Laurene … as a picturesque Indian maiden … shows great dramatic power … exceeded our greatest expectations. Hattie Bell's 'cello solos delighted the audience. Miss Ivine Shields' enunciation is so pure that not a word went amiss—phrased correctly and scored heavily with her listeners. (Musical Courier.) ILLINOIS: Hattie Bell … showed wonderful technique and mastery of her chosen instrument … Laurene … an appealing personality and voice … true character interpretation … Downers Grove will welcome these young ladies again. The Shields Trio … a delightful program … enthusiastically received … (Wheaton). Laurene … voice capable of great variety of tone colorings … splendid portrayal of characters. (Wheaton.) Each of exceptional talent. (Lake Bluff.) UTAH: Laurene … excellent interpretation and delivery … great ability as reader and interpreter. (Ogden.) Ivine … sweet toned and excellently cultured soprano . . both a pianist and singer of ability. (Ogden.) Ivine … delighted and surprised a large audience … forced to appear after each number … beautiful renditions. (Salt Lake City) OHIO: Hattie Bell … wonderful technique and mastery of her instrument. (Fayette.) Hattie Bell … played with skill and feeling. (Elliston.) Figure DESIGNED AND PRINTED BY THE W. M. KING SERVICE, CHICAGO

Many thanks to you as well, sir.

THE GOVERNOR'S DAUGHTER

Madness, political intrigue, and dirty old men making improper advances — sounds like just another day on the front pages of the New York Times, but they're also a huge part of the very bewildering GOVERNOR'S DAUGHTER (1929) by Alfred Wakeman (book and lyrics) and Ira Wilson (music), the latter of whom gave us the "themes on a limited variation on Chopin" ENCHANTED ISLE and the "doesnt he know more than one melody by Stephen Foster?" JEANNIE.

It's election time in Calibama, and Mr. Goodspeed is anxiously waiting by the radio to hear if he's won the governorship. He's a nice enough fellow, so you know already that in the world of the high school operetta, he's won — but his wife, even before hearing the news, is already planning on the next big step: using this to get at all those people who did her wrong.

Once the results are in, the place is swarming with reporters, all of whom want to know every little detail they can about their new governor, but he's a bit more worried about the whereabouts of his daughter Jane. Not to worry — right on cue, she shows up with her chorus of girlfriends, and she simply cannot wait to tell her almost fiance Johnny about the news.

But Mom has other plans for Jane in the form of Senator Snow, an elderly ("almost fifty!") man whose marriage to Jane could be politically advantageous. First, tho, she has to get John out of the way, and she does so by playing first on his insecurities about the book he's waiting to have published and next on his love for her ("If you really love her..." — well, you know the drill there.). He agrees to break off the engagement and, as Mrs. Goodspeed further insists, will not tell her why.

Naturally, this causes no small confusion in Jane and her father (who actually thinks the guy's a good kid), but John is adamant: he cant tell Jane why it's over. And as Mrs. Goodspeed looks on with no small amount of smugness at her victory, we end Act One.

Act Two is at Snow's mansion, for an inauguration party. Momma has been working not only the party lines and setting up photo opportunities but she's also been laying the groundwork with the media to announce Jane's engagement — even though of course she hasnt bothered to tell Jane about it, but that little detail can be dealt with later. Governor Goodspeed shares Jane's confusion about John and had asked to meet him at the party. John initially tries to say it's over a money issue, but when Goodspeed happily writes him a cheque for ten thousand to cover whatever the debt might be, Joh has to backtrack and say that it's because a history of family insanity, particularly an aunt who lives in Oshkosh. Insanity might be hereditary, you know, so John just had to stop things with Jane in their tracks... for her own protection.

Meanwhile, Snow hasnt been letting any moss grow under him: he's hitting on all of Jane's girlfriends, which doesnt go over well at all with Momma. Now realizing that maybe she erred a bit, she asks where John is — and it turns out she's not the only one looking for him: so is the head of the publishing firm that's considering John's novel (How did this gentleman come to arrive at the party, you ask? Well, you see.... oh, never mind: this is high school operetta we're talking about, remember?). He's come all this way to tell John he's not really interested in the book, when one of the reporters runs in and says there's a crazy man up in one of the trees.

Feigning madness, John sweeps in, pretending to be a count. Or perhaps a duke. Or maybe a king. Nevertheless, he's royalty — and he's carrying a gun, so of course everyone is going to do what he says. The publisher is thrilled by this turn of events — a mad genius! the headlines! what could be better! Mrs. Goodspeed, now seeing John as the lesser of two evils, negotiates a far better contract for John. Everything is going exactly to plan — sorta —

... when Aunt Mary shows up. Governor Goodspeed is somewhat surprised to discover that she's actually not insane and then furious with John for pulling such a trick on his daughter. Momma however smoothly moves in, fesses all, and tells John that, for the fifty thousand he's getting from the publisher, he's free to act as crazy as he wants. And with a hymn of praise to the governor's wife, we end.

Well. As you can see, it's a bit of... well, everything. Preceding the Gershwin's Of Thee I Sing by a couple of years, it still tries to cover the same ground: dirty politics, sleazy senators, the overly infatuated news media... with a few twists all its own. The songs, all of which are far too short, efficiently set up a premise and then never quite deliver on the manic possibilities; for example, the reporters' first interview with the new governor:

REPORTERS.
Sir, we would like to know
Your opinion on so and so
Should we muffle engine toots
Or change the length of bathing suits

GOODSPEED.
This is secret, please dont quote
Or it would get the Statehouse goat
There is no doubt democracy
Demands we make the movies free

REPORTERS.
A scoop that news would be
We tell you confidentially
But problem black as ace of spades
Is what to do with razor blades

... and then it sort of meanders into a more or less concluding chorus. It's a pity, because the premise could have been given a few more pages to really play out. So also with "The Governor's Complaint", in which he tells us the job's not what it's cracked up to be.

The frontline soldier in a war
Is not unlike a governor
Who's always target for a shot
From politicians or what not
He dare not veto any bill
Or show how much he'd like to kill
When office seekers looking wise
Come swarming round as thick as flies
He has to give, he has to get
To please the proletariat
Or make a speech, no matter what
The subject or the cold he's caught.

It's not my nature to complain
But office is a ball and chain
I'd gladly leave it to my wife
And lead a lowly hermit's life

You get to the end of it wishing Wakeman had gone just a bit further, especially since it's to be sung allegretto. Everyone gets the same frustrating star turn, by the way, in a series of under-developed songs that do capture their individual characters.... just not enough so.

Musically? This is the first Wilson score I've encountered that wasnt adapted from another source, and it's not bad. He's not like Don Wilson (nothing I've found suggests they were related), but Ira does have a nice ear for characterization, and some of the parts work for Jane's girlfriends is quite nice. But that's about all.

The pity of this work is that it doesnt go far enough with its screwball storyline. If the rest of the script had been treated like John's mad scene with the gun (which now of course would see him under a pile of secret service men but in the world of high school operetta is just another device), a scene that truly milks the potential of the moment, it would have been a much different — and perhaps far better — work. It crams too much into sixty pages (granted, of small set type) that you wish it had gone on to flesh it out over 90.

Wakeman and Wilson wrote a number of songs together, mostly for barbershop quartets as far as I can see. This was apparently their sole collaboration for the stage.