Air checks from Radio Station WNAC, 1940s
|Play All mp3|
Reproduced from Theatre Organ, June 1971
"unusual," " one of a kind" are words that describe not only Francis
Joseph Cronin as man and musician, but also many of the instruments he played and many of
the positions he held.
This master of the console was born in Cambridge, Mass. on July 22, 1894. He began piano study at the age of eight, was playing the organ at fourteen, and teaching music at seventeen.
Cronin attended Rindge Technical School in Cambridge, but it was evident that music was to be his consuming passion. The major influence in Cronin's musical development came from a blind church organist named Francis O'Brien.
For a time, Cronin served as a church organist at St. John the Evengelist's in Swampscott, Mass. Then the world of the theatre beckoned, and young Frank found his first job as organist for silent films at the Kimball of Boston's Globe Theatre (now known as the Center). In the same neighborhood, he also had engagements at the Wurlitzer of the Washington St. Olympia (Pilgrim) and at the Austin of the Park (State). For a time he also played the Moller of the Central Sq. Theatre in his native Cambridge.
In December of 1922, Cronin began his last and most memorable theatrical engagement when he opened the new Capitol Theatre in the Allston district of Boston. Although several miles from the downtown area, the Capitol was anything but an ordinary neighborhood movie house. This large and attractive theatre was the pride of the Gordon chain. It originally operated on a reserved seat policy and attracted a loyal audience from a forty mile radius.
At matinee performances, Cronin cued the films without assistance at his self-designed 4/35 Skinner advertised as the largest theatre organ in new England. At night he alternated with a pit orchestra conducted by Hy Fine. When Fine moved on to become eventually New England Regional Musical Director for Publix, Henry Kalis took over as Capitol conductor.
Fine states: "I learned more from Frank Cronin than from any other person in the music business." Fine also recalls that Cronin's blind teacher, Mr. O'Brien, was a regular Capitol patron, and that at the end of a performance, he invariably made his way down to the orchestra pit to tell Cronin and Fine how much he had "enjoyed the film." What he meant, of course, was that he had been impressed by their musical accompaniment.
Cronin was certainly a featured organist at the Capitol. His name appeared in all advertising matter and in lobby displays. Yet, Henry Kalis and Capitol pianist Walter Jacobson both report that Cronin was ill at ease in a spotlight. He hated to play spotlight solos, although he had more genuine talent than many of his contemporaries who thought they belonged in the spotlight.
Theodore N. Marier, the noted organist and choral director, tells of visiting the Capitol as a youth and of paying more attention to Cronin than to the action on the screen. Marier too was impressed by Cronin's modest and retiring nature.
Cronin actually enjoyed playing in the dark. He usually cured films without turning on even a console light. He relied on his memory and his improvisational skill to provide suitable accompaniment.
The Cronin personality tended to be shy, introverted, and reserved. Getting to know him was not easy, but beneath his outer shell was a lovable person.
Those who play the game of occupational type casting would probably never have thought "musician" as they looked at Cronin. His round face, piercing eyes, medium height, and stocky frame would more likely have suggested "lawyer," "banker," or "executive."
To describe the Cronin musical style in words is difficult. It was based on sincere musicianship, and completely devoid of phony razzle-dazzle. He was neither a typical theatre organist nor a typical concert organist. He fell somewhere between the two. Although he had much admiration for Jesse Crawford, Cronin refused to become another of the countless Crawford imitators. No one before or since has ever sounded exactly like "Francis J." Long before the expression entered the language, Cronin was "doing his own thing," and his own thing was beautiful.
The glissando was not a typical part of the Cronin idiom. His pop style usually consisted of a single note melody against an accompaniment that sometimes verged on the pianistic. Yet this does not mean that he sounded like a fugitive from a roller rink. He produced exquisite music.
His registration was clean, original, and tasteful; his technique incredible. He made occasional use of chimes and chrysoglott, but was not addicted to the toy counter. He was a pipe organist playing pipes.
Cronin thought orchestrally as he brought in the various ranks of his instrument. In fact, he had an unfulfilled ambition to conduct a symphony orchestra. His orchestral orientation served him well during his years at the Capitol. Kalis remembers how well Cronin's organ augmented the orchestra during overtures. Fine said it was remarkable to hear the way in which Cronin's perfect pitch enabled him to take over so smoothly from the orchestra while playing for films.
The facet of the Cronin talent most often mentioned by those who knew him was his gift for improvisation. Also memorable was the rich Cronin sense of humor which colored so much of what he played.
The first Mrs. Francis J. Cronin (Rose Kelly) died after a few years of marriage, leaving him with one daughter, Edith.
A regular Capitol patron was a young church organist named Catherine Curtin. Impressed with Cronin's artistry, she finally found the courage to introduce herself to him, and to ask him if he would accept her as a pupil. Cronin's elaborate system of defenses proved ineffective when confronted with Miss Curtin's charm. Although he had little enthusiasm for teaching, he agreed to give the lady lessons on the Capitol instrument every Saturday morning. Lessons began in 1923. Four year later, teacher and pupil became man and wife.
The marriage was happy and fruitful. Frank and Catherine had five children: Catherine, Francis Jr., George, Patricia, and Rosemary. Edith, who barely remembered her own mother, was now part of a closely-knit family.
When the Capitol management decided to discontinue live music, Kalis reports that the patrons circulated a petition begging that orchestra and organist be retained. However, it was to no avail. The orchestra was first to go. Kalis eventually became conductor at Boston's Metropolitan. Then Cronin finished his nine year Capitol engagement around Labor Day of 1931.
When it became know that Cronin was at liberty, Boston radio station WNAC immediately signed him as studio organist. The more one thinks of it, the more it seems that radio was the perfect medium for Cronin. He was now liberated from the glare of the spotlight and the gaze of the public.
Another fringe benefit of radio work was that Cronin, whose only vice consisted of smoking long, black cigars, could now puff while he played. This was sometimes rough on announcers who had to do programs with Cronin amid billowing clouds of smoke.
Cronin's audience, although unseen, was now bigger than ever. Organ programs which originated at WNAC were regularly heard regionally over the Yankee Network and often nationally over the Mutual Network.
Linus Travers, former Vice President of the Yankee Network states that member stations of that web were free to carry or reject shows which originated at WNAC. It was a tribute to Cronin's greatness that all affiliated stations were happy to carry his programs.
The instrument at WNAC had been installed about a year before Cronin's advent. (Cronin, incidentally, had played as guest organist the night the instrument was inaugurated.) It was a Wurlitzer made up of parts of two organs that had once stood in the Empire and Windsor Theatre in Brooklyn, N.Y. Cronin added both pipes and accessories before taking over his duties. This instrument is now in the Town Hall Auditorium in Stoneham, Mass., and is substantially as Cronin left it. Wurli stock models went to three manuals at eleven ranks. In Stoneham, we find fourteen ranks on two manuals. The ten general pistons and seven couplers on the Stoneham instrument show evidence of the Cronin touch. In all, it was a highly special Wurli for a highly special organist.
The method of broadcasting organ music at WNAC was also out of the ordinary. The console was isolated in a soundproof room of its own, and the organist could hear his instrument only through a monitor speaker. This supposedly improved the quality of transmission since the organist heard exactly what was going out over the air.
Strange as it may seem, Cronin's most fondly remembered program was one that went on at 6:30 a.m. It was called "Sunrise Melodies," and Cronin announced it himself in his slow and dignified manner. The opening theme was a rousing pop tune called "Here Comes the Sun." After a few introductory words, Cronin then played a hymn, and was thoroughly ecumenical in his choice of sacred tunes. Overtures, operatic selections, popular classics, Broadway scores, novelties, and pop tunes rounded out the show which originally lasted an hour. He also gave frequent time checks, and once said in self-disparagement that people listened to him only to get the correct time.
"The Noonday Musicale," "The Yankee House Party," and many other programs also featured Cronin as soloist. It would be sadly remiss, however, not to mention Cronin the accompanist. Few musicians are equally proficient as both soloists and accompanists, and Cronin was part of this select company. He gave sensitive accompaniment to violinist Bobby Norris, saxophonist Andrew Jacobson, baritone Walter Kidder, and vocal teams such as Alice O'Leary and Adrian O'Brien or Ruth Owens and George Wheeler. Cronin's work with the large choral group known as the Metropolitan Singers was also admirable.
The late Hugh Wilcox, a pupil and close associates of Cronin's, cited Frank's work with coloratura soprano Clothilde Zappala as something truly impressive. Those coloratura arias were difficult enough to accompany even in their original keys. But there were times when Miss Zappala required that they be transposed into tonalities which would have made most accompanists turn in their union cards. To Cronin, such transpositions were a welcome challenge.
Announcer Nelson Churchill recalled a time when the Cronin facility in transposition was used to put down a less talented soprano:
"We had a mixed quartet that sang hymns in the morning. The soprano was a nervous, talkative little girl who thought she knew all the answers. One morning, we had rehearsed the show they were about to do and were waiting to go on. She said: 'I spent five dollars last night to go and hear ---- (some prominent soprano), and it was terrible! What a waste of money! She reached for a Bb and she missed it just like that! Any woman who calls herself a soprano ought to be able to sing a high Bb!' Then they went on the air, singing some old revival song. She reached for the top one and muffed it completely. With blood in her eye, after the show was over, she came in to Frank yelling: 'You transposed that! That's not the key we rehearsed it in!' He grinned and said: 'After all, it was only an A!' "
Cronin's improvisational talent was properly displayed at WNAC. Often the "Noonday Musicale" consisted of fifteen minutes of extemporaneous improvisation. It was also typically Croninian to end a show like the Owens-Wheeler "Spotlight Revue" with a montage which quoted strains of every tune sung or played on the program. Much as a symphonic composer achieves his recapitulation, Cronin interwove those tunes into a blazing climax.
WNAC once presented many dramatic programs. Here, Cronin drew on his silent film experience to improvise mood music and bridges.
In the fall of 1968, the brilliant Al Bollington performed at Stoneham Town hall on the WNAC Wurli. When Bollington presented his tour de force of playing while wearing his airman's boots, some of us recalled that Cronin, out of sheer necessity, had once done something similar on that very organ. On a snowy winter's morning, Frank burst into the console room seconds before "Sunrise Melodies" time, and was forced to tear into "Here Comes the Sun" while wearing hat, overcoat, and galoshes.
Around 1940, John Shepard III, the owner of WNAC, became interested in Maj. Edwin H. Andersons's revolutionary means of broadcasting called Frequency Modulation. After Armstrong set up an FM transmitter for WNAC, Cronin became one of the first artists anywhere to be heard on FM. Not only was Armstrong greatly impressed by Cronin's work, but he was also convinced that the pipe organ, with its wide dynamic range and infinite variety of tone colors, was the perfect instrument to demonstrate the superiority of FM.
Although the 2/14 Wurli served WNAC well for ten years, Armstrong, Cronin, and Shepard now began thinking of an instrument with greater resources. Finally, Cronin was given the go-ahead to design a new organ for WNAC to be built by Aeolian-Skinner.
In June of 1941, Cronin proudly inaugurated his 4/36 Aeolian-Skinner. It was divided into three chambers and housed in a specially built studio three stories high. The studio had both live and dead ends and was designed with FM in mind. The organ contained 2626 pipes and 100 miles of wiring. It was the largest organ ever designed for radio use. Like Cronin himself, the instrument defied classification.
One Searched in vain for a draw knob labelled "Tibia." A gedeckt rank of 97 pipes unified at 16-8-4-2 was the nearest thing to a tibia that could be found. In addition, the organ included two diapasons, ten flutes, eight strings, four brass reeds, seven color reeds, three independent mutations, and a physharmonica of 61 reeds.
Most of the instrument was on six inch wind pressure, and some on ten. There was a complete toy counter, and percussion which included a Deagan Vibra-Harp and a large Chinese gong. There were eight pistons on each manual, eight toe studs, twelve general pistons, and 31 couplers.
One morning in October of 1946, Cronin complained of chest pains upon arising. Mrs. Cronin begged him to send in a substitute, but after a few minutes, Cronin said he felt better and drove off. Frank's early morning trip from Newton Center to Boston was usually performed in helter-skelter fashion. Since he generally travelled beyond urban speed limits, Cronin had learned where to keep an eye out for police. The town of Brookline, for example, always seemed to be especially well patrolled. That day, Frank passed through Brookline, the chest pains returned with greater intensity. He looked for a policeman, but now that he wanted one, none was around. Somehow, he managed to continue driving until he was directly in front of the Kenmore Sq. studios of WNAC. There, he found a policeman who drove him to St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Brighton. His condition was diagnosed as a heart seizure.
Cronin's doctors allowed him to resume his console duties two months later. However, he was never to drive an automobile again. Mrs. Cronin and the older son, Francis Jr., provided transportation.
In November of 1948, a second heart attack came while Cronin was at home. Once again he was rushed to St. Elizabeth's Hospital. This time, all efforts to save him failed. The unforgettable Francis J. Cronin passed from this life November 14, 1948. His Requiem was sung at the Sacred heart Church in Newton, and the organist was ATOS member Leo G. Brehm.
The tragic coincidence was that the death of this great radio organist came at just about the same time as the disappearance of most live radio music. In December of 1948, this writer asked Gus Fischer, the late Secretary of the Boston Musicians' Association, if anyone had been signed to succeed Cronin as organist at WNAC. The sad reply was that no one had been signed and that no one would be. Cronin's passing provided WNAC with the ideal pretext for the termination or organ music.
The WNAC Aeolian-Skinner, #1025, saw little use until 1955 when it was relocated without changes in Christ Episcopal Church, Needham, Mass. Even the percussion remained in the instrument. (Shades of Robert Hope-Jones at Birkenhead!)
It was indeed gratifying to discover how many busy and important people were only too glad to take time out from their activities to reminisce about Cronin and to tell how much they loved and admired him.
Erle Renwick, Chairman of the Eastern Mass. Chapter, was the catalyst whose inquiry about Cronin in the chapter newsletter of June, 1969 set your reporter going on his labor of love.
Although Cronin seems to have made no commercial recordings, his widow has in her possession air check recordings of his programs. From these, Erle Renwick and Clayton Stone made excellent tapes.
The Cronin euphoria reached its peak Monday, October 13, 1969 with an evening of special tribute held at Christ Episcopal Church in Needham. Gathered there were Mrs. Cronin, all the Cronin children, Frank's two brothers, former WNAC announcer Nelson Churchill and Mrs. Churchill, Charles French who had served as engineer at WNAC, chapter members and guests. The playing of the tapes brought us to an agonizing moment of truth. Would Francis J. Cronin now turn out to be an idol of our younger days whose pedestal would crumble as we listened to him through more mature ears? On the contrary, we became convinced more than ever that the man was a genius. We noticed in his playing qualities that had previously eluded us. For instance, we discovered that Frank transposed to unusual keys not only to accommodate others, but also to impart a special sonority to his solo work. Especially impressive were two improvisations called "The Cathedral" and "Tone Poem." The first of these was mood music for a program Frank had done with B. A. Rolfe in which Rolfe described a visit to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The second was a spectacular free style outpouring which featured a little Wagnerian motif which Frank used to play to let his beloved Catherine know he was thinking of her.
Following the taped concert, Richard Roberts, the organist of Christ Church, gave us a demonstration of the instrument. After this, the console was thrown open to all comers.
With characteristic modestly, Cronin never bothered to set any of his musical ideas on paper. Mrs. Cronin has recently succeeded in making available copies of both the "Cathedral" and the "Tone Poem."
A kindly fate allowed us to hear and play the second WNAC instrument almost as Cronin had left it. We found one rank already changed and the tremulants slowed down to make the instrument more churchly. At this writing, other alterations have been made.
What of the 4/35 E. M. Skinner which Cronin designed for the Allston Capitol? After the demolition of the Capitol, the organ was acquired by Brandeis university in Waltham, Mass. where it lay in storage for years. It was fitting that EMCATOS member J. Arthur Goggin should come to the rescue of this instrument in distress. Art studied organ with Cronin and has remained close to the Cronin family. The happy announcement recently came that Art had obtained the Capitol organ for St. Mary's Church in West Quincy, Mass. where he is organist.
Unlike his counterpart at Christ Church in Needham, Art proposes to keep this fine orchestral organ in its original state.
Mrs. Cronin, a deeply religious person, feels that Frank is still with her in spirit. We of the Eastern Mass. Chapter can say the same. To us it seems as if he has never gone away, as if tomorrow morning we could once again awaken to the Sunrise Melodies of "your organist and announcer, Francis J. Cronin."
* * *
From the Newsletter of the Eastern Massachusetts Chapter,
American Theatre Organ Society,
|Viole Celeste (Division No. 1)||8-4||85|
|Flauto Dolce||8-5 1/3-4||85|
|Flauto Dolce Celeste (Ten. C)||8-4||73|
|Viole Celeste (Division No. 2)||8-4||85|
|Snare Drum (repeating action)|
|Tambourine (repeating action)|
|Crash Cymbal (single stroke)|
|Chinese Gong (large size, single stroke)|
|Tom Tom (played on snare drum, single stroke, snares off)|
|Chimes (25-note, Deagan Class A, graduated)|
|Deagan Vibra-Harp No. 3161 (61 bars, available as 8' Harp Celesta, 4' harp Celesta, and 8' Vibraphone|
|Xylophone (Deagan, 37 bars, repeating action)|
|Glockenspiel (Deagan, 25 bars, from Middle C up, single stroke|
|8 pistons on each manual, 8 toe studs, 12 general pistons, and 31 couplers|