Friday, December 3, 2010

Whiskey and Opera: Wooing the Fat Cats

While much of the lore of whiskey in the U.S. involves log cabins and pioneers hacking down trees and plowing the land while cooking up a brew of bourbon in the back yard, the truth is more complicated. As early as the immediate post-Civil War era the money men of Wall Street had a deep interest in investing in distilling. For example, Edson Bradley, a Connecticut blue blood, was the driving force behind the success of Old Crow, a product of Frankfort, Kentucky. He became one of the wealthiest men in the country.

These financial “Fat Cats” often were patrons of the arts, including the opera. They were anxious to take whiskey out of the back woods and into high society. What better way than to identify their money interests with their cultural proclivities. As a result, a whiskey ads and artifacts from 1950 to 1980 not infrequently reflected opera themes.

Take for example the Seagram’s VO ad shown here. The headline reads: ”Roundly applauded by the Met’s first nighters.” In other words, the”creme de la creme” who could afford those steep ticket prices. The opera they appear to be watching is may actually be a operetta about the Canadian mounties called “Rosemarie.” The setting belies the reputation of Seagram’s famous owner, Samuel Bronfman, as crude whiskey robber baron.

A 1959 ad from Fortune magazine for Martin’s whiskey depicts the after-the-curtain-falls party in which the tuxedos and gowns mix happily with the cast members still dressed for the stage. Here the opera appears to be Pagliacci with the principals in their clown costumes. The tag line suggests: “When the grand gesture is expected...Martin’s 12-year-old.”

Schenley Canadian Whiskey, a best seller in the U.S. since Prohibition, featured Opera Star Ezio Pinza in a 1950 advertisement. Pinza had become well known to the American public by appearing in the smash Broadway musical “South Pacific.” Apparently a bit nervous about seeming too high brow, the Schenley ad pictures Pinza in a cowboy hat -- obviously trying to straddle the line between high culture and the high plains.

The “Men of Distinction” series by Lord Calvert, another Seagram’s product emphasized that their whiskey was “intended expressly for those who appreciate the finest.” Among the cognoscenti apparently was John Donald Mackenzie Brownlee (1900-1969), an Australian who was principal baritone at New York’s Metropolitan Opera from 1937 to 1958. He was famous for his performance as the Count in the “Marriage of Figaro,” playing opposite Ezio Pinza in the title role.

Although one has to look hard to find the mention amid plugs for Columbia Records, an ad for Imperial Whiskey, another Canadian product, featured Bidu Sayao (1902-1999). She was a Brazilian born lyric soprano who sang at the Met -- sometimes opposite Pinza and Brownlee -- from 1937 until her retirement from the stage in 1952.

Jim Beam, a true Kentucky product, may have gone the furthest in its effort to connect whiskey with opera. Over a period of several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s it issued a series of decanters containing Beam whiskey for the benefit of several opera companies. Among them was the Australian Opera. It received some proceeds from the sale of a replica of the Sydney Opera House.

The Chicago Opera was the beneficiary of a series of decanters in the shape of leading opera figures including Don Giovanni, Mephistopheles (from “Faust”) and Figaro from “Marriage of Figaro.” Each of these included a gold stand in held a music box that played a song from the opera. The whiskey-filled decanters also came with a “mini-me” -- a smaller solid ceramic figurine that mimicked the decanter. Shown here is the small Mephistopheles. It could be used as a paperweight. Although many Beam bottles are virtually worthless (see my blogs for September and November 2009) these items sell for upwards of $175.

There you have it: The odd couple --whiskey and opera -- a marriage born of the moneyed classes desire to link booze with culture.

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