The Amazing Bertons, Part 2: Eugene

Eugene Berton

Unlike Ralph, who lived a long time and had many friends over the years, or even Vic, who had well-known jazz musician friends who remembered him, in the case of baritone-matin Eugene Berton (1903-1969) we only have Ralph’s recollections to go on. Vic died 18 years before Gene, and this middle Berton brother, though well-known at one time, left no footprints in the sand.

Eugene, like Vic, was musically precocious, being drawn to playing piano (by ear, with no formal training) and singing very early on. He played in vaudeville starting at age 6 with his cousin Lilly, later part of a slapstick comedy act with Vic. Gus Edwards teamed Gene up with six-year-old Lila Lee and they were a sensation. Eugene later earned up to $3,000 a week under Edwards’ management, playing piano, singing, and doing female impersonations. Gene drifted towards classical music by inclination. Two elderly spinsters, Marie and Esther Blanke, helped tutor him in classical piano and voice. Gene later went to Europe and studied voice with none other than the former great Polish tenor, Jean de Reszke.

In France after World War I, Gene was recommended by Nadia Boulanger to the group of composers known as “Les Six”: Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger and Francis Poulenc.

Back in the U.S. in the early 1920s, he continued his classical concert career for a while, but by 1930 he moved to Hollywood to join his older brother Vic and become part of the Hollywood film industry, writing scores and occasionally selling them to major studios.

Eugene BertonEvery time he came home from Europe, according to Ralph, he arrived “dead broke; if we hadn’t met him at the depot he owuldn’t have had enough American money on him for a taxi home.”[1] But when he got home, they understood why he was broke. He generally brought home a “trunkful of goodies for everyone, from London, from Paris, from Berlin, from Budapest, from Brussels—agorgeous Spanish shawl for Mummy…a handcarved chess set for me, a set of pronographic photos for Vic—and about fifty pounds of new musical scores and libretti from a dozen Continental opera houses.” And stories: stories of what unbelievable outfit Jean Cocteau was wearing, the bowl of pills on the library table in the home of the Comtesse de Noialles, of seeing Orpheus in der Unterwelt at the Kaiser Wilhelm Theater, of singing Debussy for the famous and well-connected.

So where did it all go? What happened to Eugene Berton? For one thing, he became more and more enamored with show music—first, the operettas of Lehár, Kalmán and Leo Fall, then the musicals of Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwin brothers, etc., and finally movie music and Broadway—and in the translation, his classical interests slowly fell by the wayside and his singing skills, which he didn’t keep up, deteriorated. Years went by, then decades. In the 1950s he and Ralph wrote a Beatnik adaptation of Puccini’s La Bohème, some 40-odd years before Rent, which only got two performances in a small off-Broadway theater. Then Gene and Ralph wrote what had to be one of the most preposterous musicals in the history of show business, titled Marie Antoinette in Pennsylvania. The premise of this was not only that the French Queen escaped France and the guillotine by fleeing to Philadelphia, but that she also somehow became embroiled in putting on a show. Of all the things I’ve heard about, and from, the show, the single most striking was one of Ralph’s most ingenious rhymes in Marie’s opening song:

France is gripped by a homicidal mania
Think I’ll travel to Pennsylvania

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard, or seen, the words “homicidal mania” and “Pennsylvania” made to rhyme (well, why should they?), but there you are.

It’s not quite clear what, if anything, Eugene lived on in his later years other than teaching voice and French song interpretation. Unlike his famous older brother Vic, who recorded prolifically between 1924 and 1935, Gene purportedly made but one 78-rpm record in the acoustic days (c. 1924), but Ralph could never remember what the selections were, the label, or whether or not any copies existed. I don’t think a single copy has ever been found. As a result, all we have of Eugene Berton id a private tape made at his studio of him practicing Debussy songs over and over and two segments where he tries to pound some musicianship into the head of a young soprano with neither musical skill nor much voice. It would be nice to say that these recordings perfectly support the high reputation that Gene had in the late 1910s and early ‘20s, but they don’t. In addition to his voice sounding rough and unpolished, he plays fast and loose with the note values of the songs. I think he wasn’t reading any scores, but rather playing and singing what was in his head, and decades of zip-a-dee-doo-dah show music had corrupted his memory somewhat. Parts of the tape include Berton accompanying a fairly bad soprano in Rachmaninov’s Lilacs and Lia’s aria from Debussy’s L’Enfant Prodigue.

Nonetheless, they are still fascinating to hear, representing a time when singers could and sometimes did play fast and loose with note values in the pursuit of the poetic meaning of a song or aria. Eugene was quite obviously a creature of deep feeling and emotion; despite the mistakes, you can hear it in his singing and playing; and it’s a bit of a shame that after his death in 1969, he was forgotten as if he never existed.

Since these are his only surviving recordings, I believe they deserve to be preserved for posterity. All of the songs are by Debussy except, of course, for the Marie Antoinette in Pennsylvania excerpts, which were taped around 1958 or ’59 with his brother Ralph. You can listen to them here:

Track details:
1) C’est l’extase (from Ariiettes oubliées)
2) Romance
3) L’Enfant Prodigue: Lia’s aria/unknown soprano; Eugene Berton, piano
4) La belle au bois dormant (from Trois Mélodies)
5) Paysage sentimental (from Trois Mélodies)
6) Voici que le printemps (from Trois Mélodies)
7) Paysage sentimental, alternate take
8) L’ombre des arbres (from Ariettes oubliées)
9) En sourdine (from Fêtes Galantes I)
10) Pour ce que Plaisance est morte (from Trois Chansons de France)
11) Colloque sentimental (from Fêtes Galantes II)
12) Excerpts from Marie Antoinette in Pennsylvania (1958 or ’59)

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book: From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed history of the intersection of classical music and jazz

[1] Berton, Ralph: Remembering Bix (Harper & Row, 1974), pp. 208-09.

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