Famous Celtic visitors to Saranac Lake
SARANAC LAKE – This year’s Celtic Winter Carnival theme brings to mind the early Irish settlers to the area.
Many of today’s well-known local families can trace their roots back to those early settlers. One interesting story is that of Father Richard O’Donnell and the settlement at Alder Brook. Thanks to Howard Riley, that fascinating history has been documented in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.
Another, perhaps less-known story is that of two famous Celtic visitors brought to Saranac Lake by William Morris, theatrical agent and manager. Morris founded the William Morris Agency, which is still in business today representing actors in show business. Morris came to the village for the fresh-air cure in 1902 and took an interest in community life. Through the 1920s, he brought some of the top talent to Saranac Lake to perform for fundraisers for various community groups.
In 1919 Morris and his wife founded the Saranac Day Nursery to provide day care for young children of working parents. He supported the nursery (now the site of the Adirondack Carousel) by arranging benefit shows each July 4 from 1924 to 1930.
Morris was also a founder of the National Variety Artists Lodge, later renamed Will Rogers Hospital.
One of Morris’ most notable guests was a Scotsman, Sir Henry Lauder. Known professionally as Harry Lauder, he was a singer, songwriter, comedian, author and film actor. Lauder was at one time the highest-paid entertainer in the world. He visited Saranac Lake numerous times for benefit performances. It is said that he stayed for a time at the Moir Camp as a TB patient.
In 1915, Morris brought Lauder to perform at the Pontiac Theater, raising funds for the building of the First Methodist Church. In 1918, the Adirondack Record reported that Lauder “is to visit Saranac Lake next month, to start the first scenes in a multi-reel picture which will require him to traverse the continent to produce.” In 1922 he made Saranac Lake a stop on his world tour, appearing for a benefit for the Day Nursery and Girls Community Center. In attendance were Governor Miller, ex-Governor Whitman and Col. Walter Scott, head of the Caledonian Societies of the United States and Canada,
Another Celtic performer who came to Saranac Lake during the 1920s was Thomas Aspinall Burke, known as the “Irish Tenor.” Born in 1890, the oldest of nine children, Tom left school as a young boy to help support his family. But his raw talent and hard work earned him a spot at the Royal Academy in London. In 1913 he sang before Enrico Caruso, who urged him to go to Italy to find his voice. Tom took his advice, and when he was 29, he sang for the first time at Covent Garden. He became known as “The Lancashire Caruso.”
On Sept. 24, 1920, the New York Times reported that “Tom Burke, Irish Tenor of Covent Garden Opera” made his American Debut at the Pontiac Theatre in Saranac Lake under the direction of William Morris. Burke’s program featured opera arias and Irish folk songs. Nearly 800 people attended his performance, and the community was able to raise close to $80,000 (equivalent to more than $900,000 today) to pay off the debts of the St. Bernard’s Catholic Church and the Lady of the Lake Hospital. One of the contributors was our other famous Celtic visitor, Harry Lauder.
During Carnival this year, we can remember these artists who once brought a Celtic flair to Saranac Lake. Do a search on YouTube, and you can watch both performers come to life.
“Irish Tenor’s Concert at Saranac Yields $80,000 for Charity,” The New York Times, Sept. 25, 1920.
John D. Vose, “The Lancashire Caruso” (1982), cited at www.leighlife.com/index.php?page=wiki&id=leighlife:tomburke