Oliver J. Dragon, baritone
If serendipity is a useful thing when browsing through the holdings of The New York Public Library, it's all the more true for The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, whose extensive collection contain an enormous amount of ephemera (most of which does not appear in the catalog). Some years ago, in going through some of our extensive program files, a coworker found an intriguing flyer for the Town Hall (and possibly New York City) recital debut of Oliver J. Dragon, baritone.
The soloist was none other than Ollie, from the famed 1950s television show Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. The rear of the flyer offers many informative comments, and a warm picture with "a friend" -- Licia Albanese, soprano of the Metropolitan Opera.
(You may be thinking this is some kind of joke, but bear with me -- I do have a point to make below.) The reviews were singular. Writing in the New York Herald-Tribune of November 27, 1953, Jay S. Harrison wrote: "Oliver J. Dragon, a distinguished baritone member of the Kuklapolitan Players, gave a recital last night in Town Hall. It was his debut. It was also mine. Never before had the present writer reviewed a singing dragon, and, if the fates oblige, he never will again." From the same date in the New York Times, chief music critic and author Harold C. Schonberg wrote: "He is a rather remarkable performer. The way he moves around the stage you'd think he was made out of cloth, or something. He is completely uninhibited. He even departed from the printed list, choosing what suited his fancy. Very unorthodox, very. It is difficult to appraise his voice, a cross between a whiskey baritone and a basso chevalier. Part of this difficulty stems from the program he selected. Was Bach present? No. Hugo Wolf? No. And how can one assess a singer's musicality without any excerpts from the "Quellennachweissamlungantiphonariumromanusbuchstaben?" The Music Division has an extensive run of programs from Town Hall, where I was able to find one for November 26, 1953:
The note on page one of the program is particularly interesting: "Since it is undetermined, at the time of this printing, whether or not Mr. Dragon is going to be in the proper artistic frame of mind to cope with the program as listed, his managers have persuaded him to render his selections in any order he pleases. Consequently, we have numbered each individual song and Mr. Dragon will announce from the stage, by number, the actual order of appearance. Intermission will, in a like manner, be determined by the artist." Page four of the program offers a unique view of the range of compositions, including composers such as the French Dragoneau through the Italian Dragoni to the "native songs" of Chicago:
A look through the finding aid of the Town Hall Archives (held in the Music Division, call number: JPB 88-26) did not reveal any documentation of this special recital. So you may be wondering why highlight a children's tv character from the 1950s in a blog devoted to rarities from the Music Division? Out of necessity (for example, whether by limitations of space, or preservation) most libraries need to make a distinction between materials that can and should be acquired, and those which should not be. For many years, the Music Division has been known for its excellent collections of classical music, but less so in the popular or non-classical areas. Observing current interests and trends in research, it's obvious that we should try to avoid such distinctions, and leave it to our patrons to make that determination for themselves. The value that accrues to objects and information is based on how it is used by the public and the meaning and significance they attach to it. This recital of a then-leading television program character is certainly humorous, but it can also be seen as a gentle parody of other recitalists who eschew a strict program in favor of a selection and order that is determined on the spot. (Is that not suggestive of later trends in contemporary music, where the unplanned nature of a recital was akin to the creation of music? Think of John Cage.) From the point of view of Town Hall, it shows the democratizing influence of their management (which still continues a tradition of diverse programming). Much can be learned from an examination of flyers and ephemera. And it's a pleasing thing when the materials are so entertaining.