The Edison Files: Thomas Chalmers

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. No one knows for sure who the very first recording artist was. Here is a look at the early recording artists I have in my collection.


Thomas Chalmers was born on October 20, 1884 in NewYork City, the son of Thomas Hardie and Sophia Amanda (De Bann) Chalmers. In 1909, he went to Florence to study singing with Vincenzo Lombardi and made his operatic debut in May 1911 in Fossombrone as Marcello in La boheme. His first appearance in the United States was as Jack Rance in The Girl of the Golden West with Henry Wilson Savage's English Grand Opera Company. Chalmers toured the United States with the company from 1911 to 12. He then sang as the leading baritone with the Boston National Opera Company and the Century Opera Company before making his Metropolitan Opera debut on November 17, 1917 as Valentin in Faust. He went on to appear regularly at the Met until 1922 and sang in the world premiere of Shanewis, the US premiere of Marouf, and the first Met performances of La forza del destino and Crispino e la Comare. His recordings were all made for Edison and covered a wide range of repertoire from folk songs to opera; he recorded both on cylinder and the Edison Disc Record formats. Following a throat operation, Chalmers withdrew from opera and became a stage and film actor. His many stage roles included several Broadway premieres such as Landolfo in Pirandello's The Living Mask (Henry IV), 1924; Doctor Schindler in Schnitzler's The Call of Life (Der Ruf des Lebens), 1925; Captain Adam Brant in O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, 1931; Ben Loman in Miller's Death of a Salesman, 1949; and Richard Bravo in Maxwell Anderson's The Bad Seed, 1954. One of Chalmers's earliest film roles was The Minister in the 1923 silent film Puritan Passions, based on Percy MacKaye's play The Scarecrow, which was in turn based on Feathertop, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. His last film role was The Judge in Martin Ritt's The Outrage, released in 1964. Chalmers also produced and directed several short comedy films. His voice can be heard as the narrator in two documentary films by Pare Lorentz, The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938), both with scores by Virgil Thomson. In the 1950s and 60s, Chalmers appeared on television as an actor in several drama anthology series including Westinghouse Studio One, CBS Television Workshop, Kraft Television Theatre, The DuPont Show of the Month and Play of the Week. He also appeared in single episodes of The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen, The Defenders, Mister Peepers, and several other weekly series. Thomas Hardie Chalmers died on June 11, 1966 at the Laurelton Nursing Home in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was survived by his wife and his daughter, Vilma Hayes.





To listen to recordings made by Thomas Chalmers, or other early recording artists, visit the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara.


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