The Recordings

The Recordings


T hough the technology existed to record Ruth Draper's monologues in the 1920s and ’30s, at the height of her popularity, she was reluctant for a while to allow her work to be experienced as anything other than live performance. Certain that an audience contributed as much to an evening with Ruth Draper as she did, she hesitated to act without it. Draper took cues from an audience's response, and each time she performed a particular piece, it differed slightly from the time before. Definitive versions of her monologues did not exist. The published version of 35 of her sketches, for example—which Doubleday released in 1960 as The Art of Ruth Draper—contains lines and even entire incidents that do not appear in the recorded versions, as do earlier written versions. A severely self-critical artist, Draper also recoiled from the notion of listening to a recorded version of her own work. She did not even enjoy seeing other solo performers because their work hit too close to home.

But in the years following World War II, as Draper entered her 60s, she became more interested in following up on offers to record her work. Alexander Korda made a screen test of her, a copy of which still exists, though the sound has been lost. Films of Draper made around the same time by British director Hugh Beaumont have disappeared. In the 1950s, she made three U.S. television appearances. No copy exists of her 1954 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, but a kinescope of her 1956 performance of "A Children's Party in Philadelphia" on Omnibus, the acclaimed magazine program of television's early age, is housed at the Library of Congress. And a copy of Draper’s performance of “The Scottish Immigrant” on The A.N.T.A. Album of 1955, a fundraising special on the DuMont TV network, is preserved in the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Draper had conversations with Decca in England in 1950, but the company ultimately decided not to go ahead with recording audio of Draper's sketches. His Master's Voice, the British wing of the Victor company, also approached her in 1950. Had that conversation born fruit, Draper would have made the recordings at the the HMV studio on Abbey Road in London. As Draper approached her 70th birthday, Charles Bowden, a prominent theatrical producer who worked with the actress in New York during the final years of her career, feared her work might be lost entirely, and stepped up efforts to bring her into the recording studio. Arthur Rubinstein, a longtime friend of Draper, assisted in the persuasion process, and Arturo Toscanini, an admirer of Draper, offered the services of his chief engineer, Richard Mohr, to supervise the process.

The first sessions took place in 1954, as Draper completed her "farewell" season at Broadway's Vanderbilt Theater. It turned out to be a Frank Sinatra-like departure, and Draper was back on Broadway late that year, this time with her nephew, the tap dancer Paul Draper, for a run that extended into 1955. (She appeared again in 1956, a season that was truly her last; Draper died at home in bed after a Saturday night performance at the Playhouse Theater in New York on December 30, 1956.) Additional sessions took place in 1955 at RCA's Studio 1 on W. 24th Street. Draper traveled a good deal, but was based in New York, where she owned on apartment on E. 79th Street. The sessions were scheduled when Draper knew she would be in New York and would have time for them. She also scheduled some sessions in early 1956, just months before she died.

Though some accounts of the sessions have Draper so nervous about the process that the mike was turned on without her knowledge, when she thought she was rehearsing, the recorded "bloopers" belie that notion. She interrupted takes numerous times to ask if they were alright, or to declare them inadequate and suggest they start again. She knew exactly what was going on. It is remarkable how many of her most memorable recordings, including "The Italian Lesson," were made in just one take.

RCA's Red Seal label released only a single album. It contained "The Italian Lesson," "Three Generations in a Court of Domestic Relations" and "A Scottish Immigrant at Ellis Island." With the exception of a private pressing of several albums made mostly for Draper's family after her death, no other recordings were available until until several years later when Spoken Arts, a company founded by Arthur Luce Klein that specialized in literary and theatrical spoken word, released five albums containing eleven of the monologues. Spoken Arts later released cassette versions of the same sketches. Spoken Arts was taken over by new owners in the late 1980s, however, and the company's focus shifted to educational material. Under its new owners Spoken Arts continued for several years to carry the Draper cassettes, but in early 1999 the company eliminated entirely its catalog of literary and theatrical spoken word.

While researching an article about Ruth Draper that appeared in the November 1999 issue of Vanity Fair, I learned that the recordings had gone out of print. After trying unsuccessfully to find another spoken word label to pick up the recordings, I decided to produce CD versions myself. Ruth Draper and Her Company of Characters: Selected Monologues was released in 2000, and More Selected Monologues, my second CD compilation of Draper's recordings, first became available in 2001.

---Susan Mulcahy