Samstag, 1. Juli 2023

Paris and New York and Fresedo - Chapter 14: José Bohr's first trip to New York (1925)

by José Manuel Araque 

José Bohr (Yosep Böhr) was born in Germany in 1901, and grew up in Punta Arenas, Chile. He moved to Argentina in mid-1921, with the intention to make a name in cinema, and when Federico Valle made the movie Patagonia, Bohr came up with the idea to write a shimmy to promote it. He wrote it under the pseudonym Francois Poil. The orchestra of Roberto Firpo recorded it for Odeon in early 1923, propelling Bohr into a music career. Fortune was on Bohr's side, or rather on side A of this record, which carried the very popular Tango Buenos Aires.

Bohr played the piano a little, he sang even less. Reading his memoirs, "From the Balcony of My Life", it's evident that what he lacked in talent, he made up with ambition, enthusiasm, and self-confidence. He was also preternaturally media-savvy. In 1923 he got a job as a piano salesman for Casa Castiglioni, where he discovered by accident the possibilities of the saw as a musical instrument, and this brought him to the attention of yet another Odeon act, Francisco Canaro. Canaro lead the orchestra while Bohr played the saw in a somewhat bizarre composition by Bohr entitled Tut-Ankh-Amon. Bohr subtitled the piece "Paso del Camello" (Camel Step), a throwback to the days when animals inspired new dance steps, and also a hint that Bohr was much aware of what was going on in North America, where a similar dance was a fad for a very short time that year. 

The stunt was very successful, and Bohr became famous overnight. In 1924 and 1925 he was, in his words, "Buenos Aires's pampered kid", to the chagrin of musicians like Julio de Caro and Agustín Magaldi, who openly expressed reservations about his talent. Bohr composed a handful of Tangos, and also some fox-trots and shimmies for the Canaro Jazz Band (many adapted from American composers). With a young Lucio Demare he co-authored Melodía de amor. Demare, in turn, dedicated the shimmy Mister Bohr.

 


One day, while playing his Tango Cascabelito on the piano and on live radio, Bohr anxiously waited for Juan Andrés Caruso to bring the new lyrics. When Caruso finally showed up, Bohr read the lyrics while still playing the piano, and this launched his new fame in the "spoken singing" style. Bohr's vocal range surely was limited, nevertheless he landed a singing career of sorts. Canaro and Odeon labeled his records as interpreted by a “Cómico a dicción” (talking comedian). In 1924 Odeon segregated Bohr’s records into a separate series 16xxx. Many of these recordings were issued as instrumentals by the Canaro Jazz Band first, and Bohr and others wrote the lyrics later. Some these numbers became very popular in their own right, like the fox trot Oh Paris!, composed by Bohr and also recorded by Carlos Gardel. In 1924 Gardel also recorded Cascabelito, arguably Bohr's most memorable composition. 

Soon after Bohr starred in a revue at the Teatro Porteño entitled Del Puente Alsina a Montmartre. But Bohr never let go his passion for the camera, he really wanted to make movies. Since April 1925 Canaro was making headlines in Paris, and Bohr decided to go to New York to try his luck. Before he traveled he took care of some business: first he became an Argentine citizen; and second, he won a lawsuit against one Antonio Panigali for a violation of his trademark name, though the sentence did not cover his use of "Mister Bohr", as this was too generic. "Che Bohr" arrived in New York on the American Legion on October 12. He stayed at the Hotel Astor in Times Square.


On October 29, merely two weeks into his visit, Bohr met Argentine classical pianist Eva Limiñana at her recital in Town Hall, one block from Times Square. Eva hailed from Gualeguaychú, in the province of Entre Ríos, and was in the United States since 1914. She had previously played at New York's Aeolian Hall, but she chose to announce her recital at the Town Hall "debut". Eva was nothing short of a formidable pianist, the program that night bears witness. She played the Toccata-Fugue in D minor by Bach-Tausig; Beethoven's Appassionata (Sonata Op. 57); a handful of Debussy's Preludes (La cathédrale engloutie, Jardins sous la pluie, Minstrels); a Polonaise by Chopin; and the Hungarian Raphsody No. 6 by Franz Liszt. Eva and Bohr were soon married, but in his telling of their courtship he wrote that it was his second wife, Berta, that "finally brought him to the virtuous path".

 

Eva got a glowing review in The New York Times, which praised her Debussy in particular, but there was nothing on the Spanish-language newspaper La Prensa. Ironically Bohr did get a front page headline on La Prensa on October 31. According to Bohr, Francisco Ortega, his friend and the editor of the magazine Cine Mundial, published a headline announcing the arrival of "The King of Tango". Maybe his memory was failing when he wrote this, the fact is Cine Mundial did feature Bohr on the January 1926 issue (page 16).


 

The New York Spanish entertainment scene that Bohr encountered that October was relatively slow, the busy Fall season was barely revving up. In July Vaudeville impresario Edward F. Albee had brought soprano Margarita Cueto and baritone Rodolfo Hoyos, from the Mexican National Theater, to tour on the Keith-Albee circuit. Though neither Hoyos nor Cueto sang Tangos, they ended up in New York where they became an integral part of the Spanish theater scene for the rest of the decade. Both sang at the Hippodrome in October, and signed contracts to record for Victor

 

 

Juan Pulido was in town too, active in various stages, including a concert at the Unión Benéfica to celebrate Columbus Day (Día de la Raza). Meanwhile, O'Hanlon and Zambuni were back from Europe with their Argentine players sans Alberto Infantas, performing at B. F. Keith's Palace theater in Times Square. And on October 25, the Daly's Theater presented Esteban Palos' production of José Zorrilla's Don Juan Tenorio, as it was customary for Spaniards to stage this classic play every year around All Saints' Day.

 


Since moving to Cuba in Summer 1924, Pilar Arcos had played at the Teatro Campoamor in Havana and others. In April 1925 she joined the zarzuela company of Amadeo Vives, and fell in love with Spanish baritone Fortunio Bonanova. Bonanova was born in Mallorca in 1895, and rose to notoriety in 1922 as the star of the silent movie Don Juan Tenorio. In March 1924 he traveled to Buenos Aires with Vives' company to premiere Doña Francisquita, which was a huge success there and played for months at the Teatro Victoria. Bonanova was smitten, and sang Tango in many of his appearances since. 


Arcos and Bonanova arrived in New York in late October. Pilar told La Prensa that she was now busy preparing for a new series of recordings for Columbia. Two weeks later, on November 15, she returned to the stage at the Casino Theater on Broadway at 39th Street. Columbia was behind this show, they were promoting their new joint venture. The list of guest-appearances that night is telling of who were the artists in favor in the New York Hispanic community. Bonanova was there of course, as was Rosita Fontanar, yet another Spanish dancer that came from Mexico with Arcos. Maestro José María Lacalle directed the orchestra. Conchita Piquer was there too, as were the recently-married Roberto Medrano and Donna Landwehr.

 

In his memoirs Bohr claimed that around this time he met Rudolph Valentino, and played his Tango Medias de seda for the star. Incidentally, Canaro's orchestra had recently recorded this Tango. Bohr said that Valentino did not dance "the real Argentine Tango", and that he lamented not having real Argentine musicians around, a similar anecdote to the one Enrique Cadícamo told about Juan Carlos Cobián. Regardless of the veracity of this story, the meeting must have occurred between November 7, when Valentino arrived in New York from Los Angeles, and November 14 when Valentino sailed for Europe in the company of his friend Manuel Reachi. Valentino had just finished filming The Eagle, his new movie for United Artists, and was not filming in New York as Bohr claimed. Valentino went to France, among others, to finalize his divorce from Natacha Rambova. 

 

The mercurial Mister Bohr surely was looking for opportunities, he even tried dancing. On November 17 he sang on WMCA though it's hard to imagine what his singing was like at this point. His turn on radio came right after the South American Troubadours, a band of dubious origin that traveled the Vaudeville circuits with dancers Fowler and Tamara. The WMCA studios were located in the Hotel McAlpin on 34th Street, and Juan Carlos Cobián played the piano there in 1924, but there is no evidence of any contact between Cobián and Bohr, or any relation between Cobián and the Troubadours. Bohr played on WMCA through December 16.

 

We speculate that Bohr met Spanish tenor and actor Martín Garralaga in New York in this trip. Garralaga's last name was sometimes misspelled in print ads as "Galarraga". In his memoir Bohr also mentioned seeing Al Jolson's show Big Boy several times, he loved it and improved his English by watching it and singing the lyrics. Big Boy played at the Shubert's 44th Street Theater, across the street from the Hotel Astor, and closed on December 6. 



On December 6 Pilar Arcos and Fortunio Bonanova premiered the zarzuela La Canción del Olvido at the Daly's Theater. The Arcos-Bonanova company would soon emerge as the top New York-based Spanish theater act for the busy Fall-Winter season. José Moriche was in the cast that night. The next week they presented Amadeo Vives' Maruxa at the Daly's too.

 
Bohr's time in New York coincides with the transition in the Columbia studios from acoustic to electric recording technology. In December 1925 the Columbia matrix numbers went from 93999 to 95000 (skipping 94xxx) with two recordings by Juan Pulido. However the jump is not an indicator of the change to electric, they simply had used the 94xxx series already for recordings in Buenos Aires. What's more of an indicator is the increased use of strings to the detriment of the brass (more violins, less tubas), though this transition was also gradual, plenty of recordings still carried brass in 1926, specially Spanish pasodobles. It was surely a busy Christmas and New Year season at the studios.
 

Arcos started recording for Columbia as planned, and she brought Bonanova along. Bonanova's Tango repertoire in the studios seemed more current than that of Arcos, Pulido, or Moriche, he called himself King of Tango too. And he sang in a very strange style considering his baritone and operatic upbringing, maybe he was trying to "sound Argentine". He also composed songs and Tangos.

 

Arcos and Bonanova started recording for Okeh too. Tango was now featured prominently in their repertoire, and they sang duos. Bonanova's recordings for Okeh credit a mysterious Orquesta Típica Argentina, though there is no indication that any Argentine musicians were in town at the time other than Cobián and Bohr. Pulido also recorded for Victor, including another version of Lecuona's Es un golfo, which was a very popular tune that season, with recordings by Bonanova on Okeh, and the Alonzo Orchestra and Mariano Meléndez (with the Castillians) on Brunswick. Yet another mysterious outfit, the Justiniano Typical Argentine Orchestra, recorded Es un golfo (The fool) for Okeh that fall, but we have no information at all about that band other than the listings on the American Discography of Historical Recordings. 


Finally, the International Novelty Orchestra (Orquesta Internacional), one of the many Victor studio ensembles, recorded the fox trot Oh Paris!, yet another indication that Bohr was trying to land a contract somewhere. The performance was directed from the celesta by Leroy Shield, and the evidence suggests that he became Bohr's main contact in the Victor company.

 



Cuban pianist Nilo Menéndez Barnet was in the Columbia studios that season too, he also recorded Bohr's compositions, as well as a handful of Canaro's hits from the previous year, evidence that Bohr traveled with sheets and became close with Menéndez. Menéndez was in New York since 1924, and had played on radio with Pulido. He recorded for Columbia since September 1925 and helped popularize Cuban rhythms like the Son and the Danzón. 



The genesis of Eva Bohr's Típica is apparent in the recordings of the Orquesta Típica "Nilo", specially in the matrices of the series 950xx. When Columbia's subsidiary in Spain, Regal, re-issued these matrices, they credited Eva on some labels. It's unlikely that the Bohrs had any direct involvement with these recordings, they did not have an orchestra of their own at the time. Alas, we think the Regal labels are not just mistaken, they are signs of "the Bohrs in the studio". The presence of winds in the orchestra, and a look at the Columbia matrix listings confirm that this was Menéndez's ensemble. These matrices include Castillo's Organito de la tarde (95041), Pettorossi's Galleguita (95055), Filiberto's Amigaso (95056) and Bohr's own Medias de seda (95066). Researcher Dick Spottswood dates these recordings on March 1926, but we think they may have been recorded a tad earlier in January 1926.


Eva and José Bohr left for Buenos Aires on the Southern Cross on January 30, 1926, and arrived there on February 14. They had a complicated relationship, in his memoirs Bohr wrote that he was panned by his friends for visiting New York and coming back home with "yet another Argentine broad". Nevertheless Cine Mundial reported on their marriage and return to Buenos Aires in glowing terms. Juan Miguel Velich and Aurelio Rovelli dedicated a shimmy to him.




Notes

1. Here's the Regal issues for Amigaso and Medias de seda by Nilo.

2. Bohr was also boastful, and prodigious at name-dropping. There are many anecdotes in his memoirs that are impossible to verify (e.g. meeting Mistinguett in Buenos Aires in 1923), however the Valentino story is almost certainly fiction. And he forgot to mention that the great Russian pianist Alexander Brailowsky was on the American Legion too. Brailowsky toured the world in 1925 in a legendary series of concerts where he played all the compositions by Frederic Chopin. On October 18 he played in Carnegie Hall.

 
3. Cine Mundial magazine was published since 1916, an offshoot of an American publication that took a life of its own. Before Wold War I movie fandom was not known, Cine Mundial played a huge role in this mass phenomenon. They had reporters in the largest Latin-american and Spanish cities that wrote columns about happenings abroad. Reading old issues one gets a sense that Bohr must have been a close reader of the zine, and he was inspired by it.

 
4. Disclosure: I didn't believe that Bonanova sang Talan Talan in that record, I thought it was Bohr.
 
5. A discography of José and Eva Bohr can be found here.



 

Acknowledgements

1. Leonardo Palludi for the extraordinary Regal records

2. Dick Spottswood
 
3. Tom Wirtshafter of The Town Hall 
 
4. Don Naides for Medias de seda.

5. Verónica González of Florida International University

6. Enrique Binda as always

7. Antonio Gaspari for his Cascabelito and others
 
8. Lola ❤️



Bibliography

1. José Bohr's Desde el balcón de mi vida
    Sudamericana/Planeta S.A., Buenos Aires, 1987
 
2. Eduardo de la Vega Alfaro's Pioneros del Cine Sonoro III: José Bohr
    Universidad de Guadalajara, México, 1992