Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings

When the Great Caruso Came to Norfolk, Virginia,
October 26th 1920

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Caruso circa 1907

When I first heard Enrico Caruso (1873-1920), the great Italian tenor in the Music Room at the home of Mrs. W. G. Swartz, I was captivated by his voice and his style. I had never heard anything quite like this. It was beautiful!

Mrs. Swartz lived on Edgewater Drive, later changed to Studeley Avenue. She had a large Victrola in her Music Room that was once a library. Her nieces did not know what this piece of furniture was until I opened it up and placed a record on the machine. The first record I chose was called, Solenne in quest ora – La Forza del Destino, by Giuseppe Verdi with Enrico Caruso and Antonio Scotti (1866-1936). Not knowing what I had selected, I was mesmerized by their two voices. They sang perfectly, two voices complimenting each other, flowing so perfectly. I had never heard anything quite like it, and I was hooked on Mr. Caruso. These old records were in her Victrola cabinet, with maroon color albums and the sleeves were a light green. I remember this quite well. This was my introduction to Mr. Caruso, the greatest opera singer of all time. The other record I pulled that day was the Minute in G by Beethoven, produced by Columbia records.

When I got home that Friday, Grandmother Hitchings was there for dinner. I told her of my new adventure and discovery in Mrs. W. G. Swartz’s Music Room. I said, “Grandma, she had all these old records by Caruso.” Grandma, shook her head and said, “Yes, I know all about Mr. Caruso. I too have old records in my attic. I was there with your grandfather and my father, Papa Knight, to hear the great Mr. Caruso. Yes, I saw him in concert and I also saw him on Granby Street and he nodded at me.” Yes, Robert, “I remember Mr. Caruso coming to Norfolk and singing at the Tabernacle.”

Norfolk erected a huge building called the Tabernacle Building for the evangelist Billy Sunday, a revival preacher, and his baritone singer Homer Rodeheaver. This was a huge revival for all faiths. No floors, just saw dust and wood chips. The old tabernacle was located on 20th & Granby Street. Today it is where the Wells Fargo Bank Building is right across from Dumar’s. This was where Billy Sunday had his revivals and where Caruso sang. It had a capacity of 6,000 seats to accommodate the opera goers. Many opera singers and a famous violinist would follow Caruso performing at the Tabernacle. Norfolk did not have a Musical Hall big enough to accommodate these gifted artists in those days.

The Tabernacle, Granby cor of 20th Street

As Grandmother said, “All Norfolk went wild when they heard Caruso was coming to town. He was pretty good, being an Italian.” She added, “That night I had to put my coat under the seat and the floor was covered in saw dust and wood-chips."

Caruso was brought to Norfolk by the Norfolk Music Club. He arrived from Charlotte, North Carolina, with his troop of supporting artists two days before the concert. They made their headquarters at the Monticello Hotel. Mr. Caruso won the hearts of the locals immediately, especially the press. One such individual, a Miss Frieda Meredith Dietz, was a reporter from the Virginian-Pilot newspaper who charmed him in such a witty way that he drew a caricature of himself and presented it to her.

One day Grandma saw Mr. Caruso walking downtown on Granby Street being escorted by a few society ladies of Norfolk. Grandma said, “There he was in his gray suit, homburg hat, silk vest, spats, and a snappy gold cane. He was a snappy dresser. When Mr. Caruso saw Norfolk lights in the horse-shoe shape, he asked, “Is that for me?” “No,” said the socialites, “they are our lights.” Grandma said, “Caruso really thought Norfolk had made those horseshoe-shape lights just for him. What an ego.”

My next door neighbor Joseph A. Leslie, a reporter, got to interview Mr. Caruso. He would later become the editor of the Ledger-Star. Mr. Leslie’s review the next morning carried in bold headlines, “Caruso Sweeps Huge Audience off Its Feet.”

My other neighbor, Katherine Brinkley Hamilton, a remote cousin said to me, “My Uncle Earl Williams owned the York Hotel in New York City and he had him thrown out due to his drinking parties, loudness, and stinking up the rooms with all those Italian dishes. It disturbed the other guests. Katherine would say, her uncle told Mr. Caruso, “Out, Out, Out, I do not care if you’re the King of the opera, out.”

And the neighbor in the back, Clarence S. Barrett, was a photographer and usher at the Tabernacle as a young teen when Caruso came to town. Mr. Barrett said, “It was just the honor and privileged to see the great singer in person. I was a lucky young man.”

When most of my teenager friends were at the music shops collecting modern music, like the Beatles, I was at the Goodwill Store on Brambleton Avenue shopping and looking for Caruso records. And I still have my collection today with my grandmother’s Victrola.

Mrs. Swartz’s Music Room opened up a window of great music for me. But I would like to end my article with a few words from my friend and old neighbor Joseph Leslie who reported the next day after Mr. Caruso’s concert, saying, “He crowned his fame again, and left it in the memory of those who heard him as a very beautiful thing. Caruso is still Caruso. There were no trimmings last night, and for that reason he gave them himself in all his great glory.”


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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com