• U.S.

Music: Poor Man’s Impresario

3 minute read

The greatest producer of second-rate opera in the U.S. is Alfredo Salmaggi. He moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan last week, set up his scenery and props in 55th Street’s Turko-Egyptian Mecca Theater, led off with a roof-raising performance of Traviata. Competition from the Metropolitan Opera House bothered Impresario Salmaggi not a whit. “My singers,” he averred with a lordly shake of his shoulder-length hair, “are mucha better than the Metropolitan.”

For 99¢ Impresario Salmaggi gives his public its money’s worth. His 28-piece orchestra drones out Verdi’s melodies like possessed hurdy-gurdies. His tenors and sopranos bellow lustily. His triumphal scenes contain not only singers and ballet dancers but live donkeys and horses, sometimes elephants and camels. In a fit of showmanship a few years ago he signed up Jack Johnson, Negro heavyweight emeritus, chained him to an Egyptian chariot, plastered Manhattan with billboards advertising “Jack Johnson in Aïda.”

But Salmaggi also likes to brag that 24 of his singers have later landed at the Metropolitan. When plump Contralto Bruna Castagna made her U.S. debut with Salmaggi at Manhattan’s Hippodrome a few years ago, first-string critics acclaimed her as the foremost Carmen of her generation and the Met snapped her up.

Mandolin to Management. Salmaggi’s methods of financing are a mystery even to his closest associates. He has made enough money to own a huge 19-room villa in Brooklyn, where his wife cooks gargantuan spaghetti dinners for the 300 relatives of the Salmaggi family who visit in droves of 40 or 50 at a time. An imposing 6-ft. figure, Salmaggi stalks Manhattan’s streets in spats., a hat two feet in diameter, sporting a glittering diamond-studded lapel pin and a silver-headed cane that once belonged to Caruso. But in 1932 Impresarío Salmaggi left his company stranded in Chicago, having paid them off in unsigned checks.

Italian-born, Salmaggi began in the U.S. as a singing teacher with the claim of having taught Italy’s Queen Margherita how to play the mandolin. In 1915 he took his first plunge: a production of Pagliacci at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in which he sang the part of Canio himself. As a tenor, he was a spectacular bust. But he took in $7,000 at the box office.

Thereafter Salmaggi stuck to management. His big chance came in 1933 when

Managers Cecil Mayberry and William Carroll were stuck with an expensive lease, and no show, at Manhattan’s huge Hippodrome. Salmaggi proposed filling the place with opera. Managers Mayberry and Carroll asked for a $5,000 guarantee. Salmaggi did not have a cent but promised the money anyhow. Advertising a stupendous list of 53 operas (many of which were never performed) at 99¢ top, he raised the $5,000 before he had raised the curtain.

Thereafter Salmaggi presented opera at Manhattan’s Polo Grounds, Akron’s dirigible hangar, Chicago’s Soldier Field, Washington’s Griffith Stadium, the open-air stadium at Randall’s Island, N.Y. At one Polo Grounds Aïda, a Manhattan stable refused Salmaggi’s check for the use of its elephants, camels and horses, walked them out the center aisle during the performance. Salmaggi shrugged philosophically. He had advertised elephants and camels, and the audience had seen them.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com