The Desert Song

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Originally telecast live and in color on 5/7/55, The Desert Song was produced and directed by the fabled Max Liebman. Sadly, only the few folks with color television sets at the time have ever seen it in color. The kinescope, a system to preserve live broadcasts on film for re-airing, could only register in black and white.

Music by Sigmund Romberg. Book & lyrics by Otto Harbach, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Frank Mandel. Adapted for television by William Frieberg, Neil Simon, and Bill Glickman. Book staged by Milton Lyon. Dances and musical numbers staged by Rod Alexander. Musical conductor, Charles Sanford. Musical adaptation by Clay Warnick and Mel Pahl. Arrangements by Irwin Kostal. Choral director, Clay Warnick. Settings and art direction, Frederick Fox. Costumes by Paul duPont. Lighting by Fred McKinnon.

Nelson Eddy – Pierre/The Red Shadow
Gale Sherwood – Margot
Otto Kruger – General Birabeau
John Conte – Paul Fontaine
Bambi Linn & Rod Alexander – Dancers
Salvatore Baccalone – Ali Ben Ali
Viola Essen – Azuri
Earl William – Hassi
Felisha Conde – Castanette Dancer
Lee Bowman – Announcer

Memories of The Desert Song
An interview, June 1999, with
Earl William
(who sang the rôle of Hassi)

When Sigmund Romberg’s 1926 operetta The Desert Song was televised by Max Liebman in 1955, the cast included Nelson Eddy, Gale Sherwood, Metropolitan Opera star Salvatore Baccalone, the innovate choreographer Rod Alexander and his wife, dancer Bambi Linn, and Broadway star Earl William as “Hassi.”

Now, 44 years later, William still has warm memories of the production and working with Nelson Eddy: “Nelson and Otto [Kruger] and I always arrived early for rehearsals, and we enjoyed each others’ company. All of us knew that the toughest thing about the rehearsal period was the producers’ option to fire a cast member, and it came up in our conversation.

“One morning, Nelson told us that producer Max Liebman had summoned him to his office. When Nelson came back, he looked upset. ‘I was sure he was going to tell me I was through,’ Nelson told us. ‘You guys know I’ve had a really embarrassing time here. People keep pushing powder puffs in my face and saying I have wrinkles, talking like I’m not here, like I’m a piece of ham. Well, when I got to Liebman’s office, he told me there was something he wanted me to hear. Then he put on a recording of “Rose Marie” performed by a country-western singer. He thought I’d find it very funny.’ Nelson was really cross that he had been put through so much anxiety.”

About the production itself, Earl William recalls, “It was a live broadcast, with no stops and retakes like motion pictures. Once it started, only brilliant teamwork would bring it to a close exactly 88 minutes later. The broadcast took place in a large warehouse with a runway down the middle and sets on both sides. It was tremendously exciting to be involved in it. Most of the cast had theater experience.

“Salvatore Baccalone [the Metropolitan Opera star] was a most charming performer and singer. At times he had problems with his dialogue, even though he had some command of four languages. In one scene he found it helpful for me to whisper his next line. He told us that the Russian Opera had invited him to be in their Russian-language production of Don Giovanni. He insisted on singing his part in Italian, and they approved. Baccalone laughed when he told us that story and said, ‘I don’t care what language they use, I know my part.’

“A good friend of mine, George Brown, often accompanied Nelson Eddy on his concert tours as the concert bureau representative. The bureau sent out a rep as an escort to represent the singers’ interests–to set up interviews, arrange rehearsal space, hand out photographs and bios to the press, supervise local promotion, and generally smooth the way. George Brown told me Nelson never wasted any time. He was always learning and memorizing new things, and he had a great memory. Nelson taught himself several languages, and was always practicing songs that he wanted to sing in concerts the following year. He was always planning ahead.

“My association with Nelson Eddy during The Desert Song was always very pleasant. Watching him adjust to a young director was educational. For example, in a love scene, the director told Nelson to grab his leading lady and kiss her. Nelson said, ‘May I show you how I prefer doing it. Step by step, touch, you bring her close, you tip her chin–and the audience goes with you. In the movies we call that definition.’ He was right, of course. All seasoned actors know this.”

Now a lively 79 years old, Earl William lives with his beloved wife, singer Lillian Murphy, in New Jersey. Of French-Swiss ancestors, he was born Earl William Sauvain. Someone persuaded him to Anglicize his professional name, claiming that a French name just wouldn’t do for a musical career!

As a young singer, three weeks out of the Navy, Earl landed a role in the original Annie Get Your Gun with Ethel Merman. When the show came to New York, he auditioned for a show opening “next door” and was hired to play the romantic lead, a part calling for high B-flats, in the revival of Victor Herbert’s The Red Mill. Earl was still in his 20’s, tall, good looking, operatically trained, and more than able to sing those high B-flats.

While performing in The Red Mill at night, Earl had a daily radio program. In the late 1940s, many of the New York radio stations had live music programs. So, between the Saturday afternoon and evening performances of The Red Mill, Earl took a cab to the radio station, sang, and raced back to the theater. He was not alone, for two men from The Red Mill orchestra also played at the radio station. Shades of Nelson in the movie Sweethearts.

Earl’s extensive credits include Make Mine Manhattan (with Sid Caesar, Bert Lahr, Bob Fosse, and Jack Albertson) and Alive and Kicking (with Carl Reiner and Jack Cassidy). Earl’s wife, Lillian Murphy, launched her musical career at age 18 when Met opera singer James Melton signed her as a regular on his radio program. Subsequently, she appeared on “The Chicago Theater of the Air.” She was in Music in the Air with an all star cast including Dennis King, Conrad Nagel, and Charles Winninger. The musical was financed by Billy Rose, produced by Reginald Hammerstein, and directed by Oscar Hammerstein.  The following season, Lillian was in the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival at the Broadway theater singing opposite her future husband, Earl William, in five operettas.

Summing up Nelson Eddy, Earl says, “He was always a gentleman. A classy guy. With all the wonderful things that Nelson did in opera, with his amazing good looks and voice — if he’d stayed in New York and appeared in Broadway shows, it would have been an entirely different career! However, I am glad that the Hollywood producers provided him with the opportunity to be heard by millions of people.”