"America's Favourite Baritone"
George MacFarlane was a popular Canadian-born singer and leading man in the New York musical theatre scene in the early decades of the twentieth century. Born in Kingston, Ontario, George was the youngest of six children in a family recently emigrated from Scotland. George MacFarlane began his career in the prosaic business of selling soap. He gravitated early toward the stage; although he had no formal musical training, he had an abundance of talent and aspired toward grand opera. His employer encouraged his musical ambitions, and helped the young man obtain stage roles. He gained singing experience as a soloist in Montréal, and began his long association with the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan singing the role of Captain Corcoran in HMS Pinafore around 1902. Audiences of Montréal's Princess Theatre also remembered MacFarlane in the musical, Trilby.
MacFarlane, like Geoffrey O'Hara and numerous other Canadian musicians of the period, soon sought the brighter lights and greater show-business opportunities south of the border, and made his home permanently in the United States.
Broadway musical theatre had enjoyed a successful 1902-1903 season. The following year, managers capitalized on this by staging an increased number of musicals. More roles thus became available for actors seeking a break, and by 1904, MacFarlane was appearing in The Girl and the Bandit. The show not only presented him with his first success in The Big Apple, but also was the venue through which he met his second wife, actress Viola Gillette, from Salt Lake City, Utah.
MacFarlane is also known, around this period, to have performed with the recording pioneer Billy Murray. They billed themselves as the "eccentric singing and talking comedians" (Variety 1906, in Hoffman et al.). Those who knew MacFarlane observed that he had a good sense of comic timing. From April 1909, at Broadway's Herald Square Theatre, MacFarlane played the romantic lead Jacques Baccarel in The Beauty Spot, for which the music was composed by Reginald de Koven. The company was led by actor Jefferson De Angelis. This romantic musical comedy ran for a respectable 137 performances in a season in which but one-third of the shows ran longer than 100 performances.
The following years saw MacFarlane's baritone voice become very well known both in musicals and recordings. He gained further exposure in revivals of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, which drew on the interest stirred by W. S. Gilbert's death in May 1911. In 1913, he performed in Miss Caprice (a remake of a German operetta originally entitled Der Lieber Augustin). It was common practice in American musicals to insert guaranteed hit songs by American songwriters to "Americanize" the libretto. Jerome Kern's "Look in Her Eyes" thus became George MacFarlane's biggest hit from this musical. (In 1923, Kern's music also helped lead another Canadian, Éva Gauthier, to fame.)
February 1914 found George MacFarlane opening in the romantic operetta The Midnight Girl at New York's 44th Street Theatre. Set in Paris, the show originated in France. Again, MacFarlane played a principal role, and again the show ran for over 100 performances. It provided the singer with two hits: "Your Eyes", and "Can't You Hear Me Calling, Caroline?". MacFarlane's recording of the latter, written by Caro Roma, was one of the hits of 1914. Victor Records' July 1915 catalogue described MacFarlane as having a "resonant voice and excellent delivery."
MacFarlane's period of success on Broadway came during an exciting renaissance for American musical theatre, between 1914 and 1921. During this period, more plays of lasting merit were produced, and shows were increasingly written and set in North America rather than Europe. As well, American melodies and rhythms such as ragtime began to take over from the European musical styles that the Old World's light-opera composers had favoured. Interestingly, however, it seems that MacFarlane's most commercially successful performances occurred in musicals that followed the old patterns: musical comedies set in Europe or revivals of European hits. One 1915 operetta set in "the old country" was Trilby, in which MacFarlane played the Laird (nobleman), as he had done years earlier in Montréal. The libretto was set in Scotland, and the score employed popular ballads about that country. Of these, MacFarlane recorded both "To the Lass We Love, A Toast" and "A Breath O' Bloomin' Heather". MacFarlane also appeared in another Scottish-themed musical, Heart O' th' Heather, this one in Boston.
The following year, MacFarlane had another Jerome Kern hit song, this time "My Castle in the Air" from Miss Springtime. This show opened in September 1916 at the New Amsterdam Theatre and ran until spring of 1917. Another import from Europe, it included three songs by Kern, and introduced the lyricist P. G. Wodehouse, who is perhaps best known as the creator of the character "Jeeves."
MacFarlane had begun making 78-rpm recordings of popular songs for the Victor label in 1914, although his first records were not released until 1915. He continued recording for this label until 1917, and then made a few recordings for Columbia. His recording repertoire comprised various popular hits, patriotic songs, Irish ballads, and especially hits from his own stage performances, such as "Look in Her Eyes." MacFarlane's Columbia recording of "When You Come Back (And You Will Come Back)" is an excellent example of the patriotic marches that were popular in North America during the First World War.
Among MacFarlane's recordings for Victor were "That's An Irish Lullaby (Too-ra-loo-ral)", and "Fair Moon" from HMS Pinafore. He had a notable hit with "A Little Bit of Heaven (Shure They Call It Ireland)", by J. Keirn Brennan and Ernest R. Ball. Billboard's listings show that this recording spent five weeks as the top seller in 1915, and eleven weeks among the top three. Around 1916 MacFarlane also recorded his own lyrics for "Don't Believe All You Hear," and "My Old Rose," but, it appears, with less commercial success.
MacFarlane appeared in 1917 in what was, for him, a completely new medium: a motion picture. His name appears in Webb Singing Pictures, a novelty "silent" film in which MacFarlane, Enrico Caruso and other singers performed behind the screen while actors on screen mimed their parts. (Although "silent" films did not at that time have dialogue tracks, they often did have recorded music.) However, MacFarlane continued to centre his career in New York, as far as is known. He is believed to have produced or directed plays, and appeared in at least one more operetta, Springtime of Youth. This piece, which opened October 26, 1922, revived the Enoch Arden legend; MacFarlane starred as Roger Hathaway (the Arden character). This operetta, adapted from a European original, was not a big success, perhaps because it failed to adapt to the trend toward American content in musicals.
Little is known about MacFarlane's activities during the next few years. According to an obituary that appeared in the Montreal Star, MacFarlane returned to Montréal on occasion in his later years to sing. He also sang Irish ballads in concerts in New York, accompanied by a female family member on piano. An undated concert program shows that in concert he sang much the same type of repertoire as he recorded, and that he included three songs by fellow Canadian Geoffrey O'Hara: "Give a Man a Horse He Can Ride," "There Is No Death," and "Wreck of the Julie Plante". The concert promoter stated, "With the appearance of Mr. MacFarlane, we can always rest assured he will give us the very best in songs- the kind we love to hear; the kind we, ourselves, love to sing.…"
During the 1920s, in addition to directing and producing, MacFarlane is also believed to have owned a sheet music publishing company. MacFarlane's name reappears in Los Angeles, California, in movie credits, by 1929. He returned to motion picture acting after the introduction of recorded dialogue, appearing in such pictures as Frozen Justice, 1929, in which he played a singer. He acted in a total of 15 feature films between 1929 and 1932, his last being the crime drama, The Famous Ferguson Case. He divided his engagements between Hollywood and New York, remaining active in both cities.
The career of the popular baritone and actor was cut short when he died in February 1932, at age 55, after being accidentally struck by a car in Los Angeles. MacFarlane was buried in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Selected recordings available
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- Gracyk, Tim. The encyclopedia of popular American recording pioneers : 1895-1925. Granite Bay, CA : Victrola and 78 Journal Press, 1999.
Also available in an abridged version entitled: Popular American recording pioneers, 1895-1925. New York : Haworth Press, c2000. vii, 444 p. AMICUS 23165107
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Also published in French under the title: En remontant les années : l'histoire et l'héritage de l'enregistrement sonore au Canada, des débuts à 1930.
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- "United States of America." Encyclopedia of music in Canada. 2nd ed. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, c1992. xxii, 1524 p. AMICUS 12048560
- Victor Records catalogues for January 1915 (2525-RIOTA-11-25-14) and July 1917 (3679-IJJXA-5-22-17)