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Childhood
Broadway
Hollywood
Military Service
Performing on the Road
Life After Show Business

CHILDHOOD

Macte Virtute, sic itur ad Astra
(Those who excel, thus reach the stars)

– Motto of the Manhattan School of Music

Birth:
On December 6, 1923, Thomas Paine Brittain Navard (aka: Bobby Brittain; aka: Tommy Dix) was born to Anna Navard and Henry Leon Brittain in New York City. Anna (age 35) and Henry (age 50) were very much in love, but due to circumstances beyond their control they were not able to marry. Although Henry visited his son often he was not a daily presence, and the child was raised by his single mother in a poor area of New York City near Harlem. She supported her son by running a thrift store out of the front of their basement apartment.

Anna was a great admirer of both Thomas Paine, one of America’s Founding Fathers, and of the 19th century orator and advocate of free thought, humanism, and agnosticism, Robert G. Ingersoll. Because of her admiration of Ingersoll she called her son “Bob” or “Bobby”, and it was by the name Bob Navard that the future Tommy Dix would be known during much of his childhood.

Trivia:
– Tommy’s maternal grandfather was a Polish cantor.
– Tommy’s paternal grandfather was a Methodist Minister in Birmingham, Alabama.
– Tommy was related to Chief Justice John Marshall, the longest serving Supreme Court Chief Justice in U.S. history.
– While running a concession stand at the 1898 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Tommy’s father invented the ice cream cone.

Celiac Disease:
Beginning around the age of three, little Bobby began having a number of medical problems and exhibiting many of the symptoms of starvation – swelling of the abdomen, stunted growth, fatigue, diarrhea, cramps, and anemia. It would not be until Bobby was seven that he was correctly diagnosed as having Celiac disease, an autoimmune digestive disease that interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food. People who suffer from Celiac disease are unable to properly digest fats and wheat protein (gluten), and they have to adhere to a very strict diet.

Once his medical problem was properly diagnosed and treated Bobby began to grow normally, but time had been lost and he would grow no taller than 5 feet 4 inches. It is possible that the Celiac disease may have allowed his diaphragm to enlarge which, in turn, allowed him to develop an unusually powerful singing voice. True or not, singing would quickly become an important part of Bobby’s life. When his voice dropped from an alto to a baritone while singing in the Trinity Church choir, Bobby began to amaze people with the unexpected maturity of his singing voice.

Trivia:
– According to the University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center, Celiac disease affects 1% of healthy, average Americans. But 97% of them are undiagnosed.

Epiphany:
Bobby’s epiphany may have come when his mother brought him to see Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in the 1935 movie “Naughty Marietta”. When Bobby heard them sing Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life, tears began rolling down his cheek and he knew that he wanted to sing like that for the rest of his life. His mother, however, didn’t support his decision until one day when Bobby asked to participate in a local Thanksgiving tradition where children raised money by performing on the sidewalks in their neighborhood.

Bobby’s idea was to sing for the patrons in a nearby saloon. Reluctant at first, Bobby’s mother eventually gave in and, while she waited outside, little Bobby went in and sang a popular Fred Astaire number, Cheek to Cheek. He was an immediate hit with the patrons, and he followed–up by singing a number of requests beginning with When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. When he finished he walked out and handed his mother almost $5, close to a week’s income. Bobby’s mother couldn’t believe her eyes and she suggested that he try singing in another saloon.

It was now apparent to Bobby’s mother that he was going to sing whenever and wherever he could. She decided he needed a “professional” name and, using the first name by which he was known and his father’s last name, she gave him the name Bobby Brittain. Now, whenever Bobby sang for people he was no longer Bobby Navard, he was Bobby Brittain.

The High School of Music and Art:
The mayor of New York, Florello H. LaGuardia, had recently authorized the establishment of a high school designed to provide training in the performing arts for promising students. New students were chosen through auditions, and Bobby received a four–year scholarship to the school. In addition to taking the standard classes in history, science, literature, etc., he majored in “Voice Culture” taking additional classes in theory, harmony, and chorus. He became president of his class and president of the Science Club. Although Bobby would eventually drop out of this high school to pursue his singing career, the study of science and philosophy would continue to captivate Bobby for the rest of his life.

Trivia:
– After winning a drawing at his high school Tommy got to visit Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Studies for a day. During this visit he heard Albert Einstein give a speech.
– Because of his interest in physics, Tommy was made an honorary member of the American Institute of Science while he was still a teenager.

Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour (1936):
Click to Enlarge The former manager of the radio station that hosted The Bowery Mission Service was Edward “Major” Bowes. In 1934 Major Bowes had created a show called “The Amateur Hour” that gave a prize to the best amateur performer each week. Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour quickly became a national sensation receiving over 10,000 applications a week and becoming the most popular show on radio. Of the thousands of applications, only 20 performers or acts were chosen for each show.

Bobby Brittain wrote a letter to Major Bowes applying for the show and comparing himself to a cross between Nelson Eddy and Lawrence Tibbett. After an audition and an interview he was chosen to be on the show, and when his voice boomed out over the airways the studio’s switchboard lit up with calls for more. The show’s producer quickly came over to Bobby and told him they were cancelling the final act so he could sing an encore. So it was that this 13–year–old boy with the amazing voice sang an encore for a national audience and returned the following week to sing again.

“The Bowery Mission Service” Radio Show:
Changing from skeptic to promoter, Bobby’s mother heard that the leader of a nearby Harlem mission, Dr. Charles St. John, had a weekly religious radio show that featured singers and musicians. Although the performers were not paid, The Bowery Mission Service Sunday radio show provided valuable local exposure, and Bobby was not only accepted for the show, he became a regular who was sometimes referred to (perhaps jokingly) by the euphonious appellation “Bobby Brittain, the Boy Baritone of the Bowery.”

The William Morris Agency and the Creation of “Tommy Dix”:
In the mid–1930s the William Morris Talent Agency developed a program that attempted to discover the “Stars of Tomorrow”. Young Bobby Brittain was one of their discoveries and they gave him a great deal of valuable advice, including the suggestion that he change his professional name from Bobby Brittain. At that time there was a popular boy soprano named Bobby Breen, and the Morris Agency felt that the public might confuse the names of the two young singers. The Morris Agency gave Bobby and his mother a few suggestions for the new name, and his mother chose the name Tommy Dix. From that day onward Bobby Navard (aka: Bobby Brittain) would be known in Show Business as Tommy Dix.

Entering Show Business (1938):
Click to EnlargeSometime during the summer of 1938 Tommy’s mother fell ill. With her unable to support them as she had done in the past, Tommy decided to quit school and “commercialize on whatever talent I had.” He began by playing young people on radio shows like The Aldrich Family, Superman, and Renfrew of the Mounted.

The “March of Dimes”:
Tommy and his mother were great admirers of the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Each January 30th, on the President’s birthday, Birthday Balls would be held across the country to raise money for the fight against Infantile Paralysis. In 1938 The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was officially incorporated, and the radio appeal that occurred during the week preceding the Birthday Ball events was named “The March of Dimes”.

Sometime during 1938 Tommy told his mother that he wanted to do something special for FDR and the newly named “March of Dimes” campaign, and his mother suggested that he write a song. Having never written a song before Tommy began to compose the words (he had already written a number of poems) and eventually plucked out a tune on a piano. The following year, with song in hand, Tommy went to the Brill Building in the heart of Tin Pan Alley and, with the guilelessness of youth, found a music publisher who said he would publish the song if Tommy could get invited to sing it during the next President’s Ball at the Waldorf–Astoria Hotel.

Wasting no time, Tommy immediately went to the headquarters of George V. Riley, the chairman of the Greater New York Committee in charge of organizing the 1940 President’s Ball. Without an appointment Tommy went up to the receptionist, burst into song, and caught the attention of everyone in the suite of offices including Mr. Riley. Mr. Riley immediately recognized the potential of this diminutive young boy with the amazing voice, and he invited Tommy to perform his song at the next President’s Ball.

Click to Enlarge On January 30, 1940, 16–year–old Tommy Dix attended the President’s Ball at the Waldorf–Astoria dressed in his Boy Scout uniform. The President’s mother, Sara Roosevelt, and thousands of guests watched as a legion of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts marched into the room lead by a drum and bugle corps. Then, according to The New York Times, “The climax was effectively reached when Tommy Dix, 14–year–old [sic] Boy Scout baritone, sang his own composition, ‘The March of Dimes’, a copy of which he presented to the President’s mother.”

Tommy then lead the entire audience in a rendition of “Happy Birthday” while the birthday cake was being cut. After the show Sara Roosevelt came backstage and spoke with Tommy for a few minutes and indicated he would be invited to the White House the following year to sing his song. For a number of reasons his appearance at the White House never took place, but Tommy would sing his song again at the 1942 New York President’s Birthday Ball where the newly published sheet music for his song was sold to raise money for the campaign.

Milton Cross:
Click to EnlargeThe week following Tommy’s triumphant appearance at the Waldorf–Astoria’s Birthday Ball, he was invited to be on the popular radio show Coast–to–Coast on a Bus. Its host, Milton Cross, was also the announcer for the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts every Saturday, and he used his Coast–to–Coast show to introduce many promising young singers and radio actors to a national audience. Tommy sang I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ from Porgy & Bess.

The Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air (November 1940)
Shortly before Tommy opened in his first Broadway play he was walking through the NBC studio in Manhattan when he heard a group of baritones warming up to audition for The Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air. Each week aspiring operatic performers would be chosen to sing on the show and earn audience support. At the end of each year two of the singers would be given small parts in one of the Met’s operas. Tommy asked if he could “horn in” on the auditions, and when he sang Old Man River for Conductor Wilfred Pelletier and the other judges he was immediately chosen for the show. But because he was too young to compete, he was chosen to be a guest rather than a contestant. The Met’s manager Edward Johnson introduced Tommy to the radio audience as “a promising young baritone”, and Tommy sang Song of the Open Road by Albert Hay Malotte.

 

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