Today, Monday, October 30, 2017, is a national holiday in Ireland. October Bank Holiday, or Lá Saoire Bainc (Deireadh Fómhair), celebrates Irish culture, including music. In the 1950s, Dimitri Tiomkin tried to bring the story of Irish tenor John McCormack to the big screen. The film was to be based on a biography of McCormack by his widow.
John Count McCormack (1884–1945), born in Athlone, Republic of Ireland, was according to Wikipedia, “celebrated for his performances of the operatic and popular song repertoires, and renowned for his diction and breath control.”
A blogger in 2010 wrote, “I think it is fairly safe to say that John McCormack is the one great tenor who had a brilliant career singing almost exclusively in the English language. That simply does not happen.”
Billed as “Ireland’s greatest singer” by the John McCormack Society, his recordings of “I Hear You Calling Me” popularized the song.
The ballad, written in 1908 by Harold Harford and Charles Marshall, became associated with McCormack, who recorded it on six separate occasions.
Four years after McCormick’s death, his widow Lily penned a thoughtful memoir, I Hear You Calling Me: The Story of John McCormack. That same year, in 1949, the second edition of L.A.G. Strong’s 1941 biography John McCormack: The Story of a Singer was published in London.
In March 1953, Chester Miller became the sole and exclusive representative for a period of one year to negotiate the sale and exploitation of the rights to produce and distribute a motion picture based on the life of John McCormack.
The agreement between Lily McCormack and Chester Miller, residing at the now iconic Ritz Tower at 465 Park Avenue in New York City, was renewed in March 1954.
On May 21, 1954, Miller and Tiomkin entered into an agreement to act jointly in conducting the negotiations for the sale and exploitation of the rights held by Miller to McCormack’s biography.
Dimitri Tiomkln is expected in town today from the East, accompanied by Chester Miller representing the interests of the late John McCormack, famous Irish tenor. Tiomkin plans a picture of McCormack’s life and, I understand, will discuss with Frank Capra the directing. Mrs. McCormack had planned to come to the West Coast, but was unable to at the last moment.” (Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1954)
Tiomkin had a long professional and personal relationship with director Frank Capra.
From his office in the Bar Building at 36 West 44th Street in New York City, attorney Jacob Gerstein wrote to Tiomkin on May 24, 1954. In addition to securing the rights to the McCormack story, Tiomkin also sought RCA Victor’s consent to use McCormack recordings they owned in the film.
A letter from Howard L. Letts, assistant general manager of RCA Victor Record Department on June 10, 1954, consented to the use of their John McCormack recordings for the proposed film, with some stipulations. The film had to be produced by a major studio “in a manner consistent with the highest standards of motion picture production.”
Agent William R. Osteck wrote to Tiomkin on June 21, 1954, suggesting a young singer, John Ryan, for the role of John McCormack. Like McCormack, Ryan was Irish born and studied music in Italy. Osteck was an advocate for singers and is remembered in Los Angeles musical circles for his lectures on baritones Lawrence Tibbett and John Charles Thomas.
Veteran theatrical company manager Clarence Jacobson sent a telegram to Tiomkin on July 15, 1954, suggesting John Feeney, who was often compared to McCormack. Feeney was well known to New York audiences through his radio appearances sponsored by the Schaefer Brewing Company.
An 11-page agreement between Lily McCormack, Dimitri Tiomkin, and Chester Miller from 1954 for the motion picture rights to “I Hear You Calling Me” went unsigned.
A handwritten letter from Frank Whitley in August 1954 is the last item in Tiomkin’s file on the project. Whitley had heard that Tiomkin was having trouble procuring copies of McCormack’s recordings that weren’t too scratchy. Whitley had inherited McCormack records in their “original condition” from his uncle, Teus Oreon, who taught at the Sargent School of Physical Education in Cambridge, now part of Boston College. Oreon, a physical education teacher by profession and at one time a teacher of gymnastics in the Swedish army, only used cactus needles to play recordings in his collection.
The above exchanges during 1953 and 1954 were going on during the time Tiomkin was scoring Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty.
Tiomkin had a hand in motion picture production as early as 1949 when he entered into agreements with producer Joseph Kaufman and director Albert Lewin to secure financing for the film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. And he had an unsuccessful attempt at bringing Azef to the big screen.
Dimitri Tiomkin’s role as a film producer did culminate with the release of two films, he served as a producer on Mackenna’s Gold (1969) and executive producer for Tchaikovsky (1970).
John McCormack (tenor), Wikipedia, accessed October 29, 2017
John McCormack: The One and Only, by Edmund St. Austell, July 4, 2010
John McCormack Society
I Hear You Calling Me by Lili McCormack
Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1954.
“Ireland’s lost tenor,” [on John Feeney] by Staff Reporter, June, 11-17, 2003
Schaefer Beer, Wikipedia, accessed October 29, 2017
“Clarence Jacobson, Stage Manager, 84” Special to the New York Times, August 7, 1971
Correspondence courtesy of Olivia Tiomkin.