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Harry Hermson

Biography: 

Harry Hermson [also Hermsen]

Musical Comedies made the singing comedian a fixture of the early twentieth century stage. A boisterous jokester who could lead a beer hall anthem or negotiate a sly courtship song was a necessary ingredient for a production's success, particularly if the musical tended more to farce than sentiment. Harry Hermson exemplified the type--brash enough to hold his own against the unbuttoned Texas Guinan in "The Kissing Bandit." His buffo bass voice made him the center of vocal gravity around which antics spun in musicals such as "The Burgomaster" (1908).

Born in St. Louis and trained as a marble cutter, Harry Hermson began avocational singing while chiselling tombstones. Overheard by the choirmaster of St. Bridget's Church, he was invited in to sing in the services. As his local reputation grew, his friends asked him to sing in social settings.  He found most success with comic songs, began working out a German dialect routine, and tried out in the city theaters.  Charles Pope of Pope's Theater trained him in stage craft. After several seasons of regional touring he debuted in New York in Edward Rice's "The Girl from Paris" in 1897.  Comedy and farce were his initial specialties,  and he regularly  performing dialect shtick as a "German Comedian" but the ethnic caricature became less broad in 1905's musical "The Royal Chef," the production that made Broadway producers realize that Hermson had potential as an operetta performer or a musical comedy comic authority figure. For a decade from 1905 to 1915 he was a regular presence on major American stages, playing in a succession of popular musicals, including Raymond Hitchcock's "The Beauty Shop" and the London import, "The Lilac Domino." During the 1910s Hermson wisely began intermixing repertory staples into his performing schedule--usually making Boston the base for these explorations of canonical works--from DeKoven's "Robin Hood" in 1910 to Victor Herbert's "The Fortune Teller" in 1930.

Because a comic bass voice is a sufficiently rare possession, Hermson enjoyed longevity on the American comic stage. While his headlining roles ceased with "The Lilac Domino," he played character parts until the 1930s, making notable contributions as Mr. Sharpe in 1919's "Miss Millions," in the 1920 extravaganza "The Temptations of Eve," the parody horror farce, "The Gorilla" (1926, a non-singing part), and even the role of Amos Ames in Eugene O'Neil's "Mourning Becomes Electra" (1931). Perhaps the greatest role of the latter part of his career was Nero in "Houseboat on the Styx" (1928). His last appearance on Broadway took place in autumn 1937 when veteran producer Arthur Hopkins had him play Capt. Terry in the unsuccessful nautical comedy "Blow Ye Winds." (The play featured the young Henry Fonda.) Versatility, vocal control, good timing and a sense of ensemble dynamics made Hermson a dependable choice when a producer needed an acoustic bottom to a comic verbal counterpoint.