Columbia History: Columbia Executives

Columbia Master Book, Volume I, Tim Brooks, ed.

The leadership of Edison and Victor is fairly well-known, due to their illustrious inventor-presidents (Thomas A. Edison and Eldridge R. Johnson, respectively). It might be useful to sketch the men who guided Columbia and American Graphophone through the turbulent years of the 1890s and early 1900s.

Edward D. Easton (1856-1915) was the founder, president and guiding spirit of the company from its incorporation in 1889. Early in his career he had been a stenographer, a respected and well-paid profession in the years before recording technology. He made on-the-spot transcriptions of national events for newspapers and others, and had made a small fortune by selling his transcript of the trial of Guiteau, the assassin of President Garfield, in 1881. He used the money to pursue a law degree from Georgetown University (awarded in 1889), and to invest in what seemed at the time a very risky enterprise—the phonograph.

Pictures of Easton, mostly taken later in life, make him appear stern and remote, but by all accounts he was a man of boundless energy who had a very “hands-on” management style. From the beginning he made regular trips around the country to personally visit dealers and the company’s branch offices. By the early 1900s this had evolved into a regular pattern: during the winter he would make a month-long circuit of U.S. offices in the North, South, Midwest and West Coast, and during the summer he would sail for Europe to visit the branches there. Sometimes he was accompanied by one of the company’s other executives, and often by members of his own family, combining business and pleasure. However there is no doubt that these regular visits by the head of the company kept far-flung branch managers on their toes, as well as keeping Easton himself intimately aware of problems, opportunities and potential talent throughout the company.

Easton’s original executive “brain trust” included William Herbert Smith, Vice President and Treasurer, who remained active in company affairs until about 1901;110 and Roland F. Cromelin (1857-1902), the company’s Secretary from late 1889 until his sudden death in 1902.111 His son, Aaron Cromelin, was assistant manager of the Berlin store. The elder Cromelin was well-liked and sorely missed. An article in the July 1905 Columbia Record referred to him as “so long and prominently identified with the enterprise and whose death in the prime of life is still one of those sad memories whose poignancy time softens but cannot obliterate.”

Andrew Devine (1832-1909), an older man who was one of the original founders of the American Graphophone Co. in 1887 (with James O. Clephane and John H. White), remained active as a Vice President of Columbia and Board member of American Graphophone until his death in 1909 at the age of 77. Devine, like Easton, was originally a stenographer.112

Others who were key to Columbia’s success in the early disc era rose through the ranks, or joined somewhat later. Paul H. Cromelin (1870-1929) joined the company in the mid-1890s, managed several local stores (a common career path for those advancing in the company), and by 1903 had been named one of Columbia’s three Vice Presidents. He was responsible for some of Columbia’s greatest achievements during the next eight years. In 1904 he managed the Columbia exhibit and awards competition at the St. Louis World’s Fair; in 1907 negotiated the deal with Fonotipia that allowed Columbia to re-enter the field of operatic recording in a serious way; and in 1908 led the fight in Washington to protect recording interests under the new copyright law. He resigned to join British Edison in 1911. It is not known whether he was related to company pioneer R. F. Cromelin.

The man primarily responsible for establishing Columbia’s European operation was Frank Dorian (1869-1940), who joined the company as Edward Easton’s personal secretary in 1889, and rose to General Manager in the mid-1890s. He was sent to Europe in 1897, and for the next 12 years built up the operation there with the assistance of his brother Marion Dorian. (Another brother, John H. Dorian, was Columbia’s representative in Cuba and China in 1907-1908.) Frank returned to the U.S. to run the Dictaphone division from 1909-1920, and in later years was one of the chief informants of historian Jim Walsh about the early history of the phonograph industry.

Columbia’s chief recording engineer in Europe during the early 1900s, responsible for the company’s historic Russian and Italian recordings, was inventor Frank L. Capps (1868-1943). He left Columbia in 1915 to work for Pathe.

Like most companies of the period, Columbia was constantly in litigation to protect and expand its interests. Critical to Columbia’s survival during this turbulent period was a brilliant patent attorney named Philip Mauro (1859-1952).113 Though not a full time employee, he was one of the company’s chief stockholders—perhaps he was paid in stock?—and eventually a member of the Board of Directors. Mauro was well versed in the Byzantine rules of the Patent Office, and it was he who shepherded through to approval the shaky Jones patent for disc recording in 1901. This patent was critical to Columbia; without it the company might not have survived. Mauro was a very persuasive man. In 1890 he even convinced the Patent Office to change the official designation of the talking machine from “phonograph” to “graphophone,” a move which must have infuriated its inventor, Thomas Edison!

Columbia’s factory manager and chief inventor was Thomas Hood Macdonald (1859-1911), of Scottish descent, who had been with American Graphophone since about 1889 and with the North American Phonograph Co. before that. A sailor in his rough-and­tumble youth, Macdonald was a favorite of the factory workers in Bridgeport and no doubt had much to do with the ability of Columbia to squeeze maximum production out of minimum resources during its early days. He was granted 56 phonograph-related patents during his lifetime, second only to Thomas A. Edison during the pre-1912 period.114 According to researcher Allen Koenigsberg, the top three inventors in terms of pre-1912 phonograph patents were Edison (134), Macdonald (56), and Eldridge R. Johnson (54). No one else was close. Among Macdonald’s most important inventions were the “Baby Grand” (1894) and “Eagle” (1897) spring-driven Graphophones, which helped open the home market for cylinders, and the "Toy" disc Graphophone, Columbia’s first disc machine.

Columbia’s recording studios were run by Victor H. Emerson (1866-1926), who joined the company from the rival U.S. Phonograph Co. of New Jersey in 1896. While Mauro was fighting the patent wars, Macdonald was tinkering in the laboratory, and Easton was out terrorizing the branch managers, it was Emerson who was responsible for the recorded “product,” engaging artists and approving repertoire. He had no musical training, but was a genial man who appears to have had lots of connections and was well liked. A report on a company banquet in 1904 described him as “delightfully informal, combining in his post-prandial talks the breeziness of the summer wind with the cheeriness of the sunbeams”; Thomas Macdonald, who followed him to the podium, called him “my 'gold­moulded’ friend.”115 Emerson left Columbia in 1915 under somewhat clouded circumstances (he appears to have authorized the use of Columbia’s patents to protect the upstart Little Wonder label, in which he had a personal interest). He then founded the Emerson label, which continued into the 1920s.

Assisting Emerson was orchestra leader Charles A. Prince (1869-1937), who had entered the industry as a piano accompanist in the early 1890s. The earliest reference to his recording activities located by this writer is in the ledger of the New York Phonograph Company, where he was paid for making “musical records” as early as June 19, 1891. He joined Columbia a few years later.116 After the departure of orchestra leader Edward Issler in 1897 Columbia organized its own orchestra and band, but the company did not identify the leader until 1904, so it is uncertain exactly when Prince took the baton. The first director of the Columbia Band/Orchestra appears to have been cornetist Tom Clark (ca. 1898), succeeded by Fred Hager. Hager later said that Prince took over when he left Columbia around 1900 to make Zon-0-Phone and Climax discs.117

Prince’s career was somewhat unusual in that it was spent almost entirely in the recording studio. Prince’s Band and Orchestra did not perform in public, as did the organizations led by Walter B. Rogers, Arthur Pryor and others at Victor. Columbia praised Prince as a genius, but his reputation among modem scholars is somewhat mixed. He was certainly versatile, as required by his job, conducting all manner of popular songs, marches, symphonic excerpts and folk tunes, and accompanying singers and comedians of all types. A lot of the material he was required to record was of the “potboiler” variety, and he conducted it suitably, with swooping trombones, twittering clarinets, and other musical sound effects. He wrote (often with Len Spencer) a number of “descriptive specialties” full of sound effects, such as “Cumming’s Indian Congress at Coney Island,” “Departure of a Hamburg-America Liner” and “In Cheyenne Joe’s Cowboy Tavern.” But when it came to more serious material his readings were by-the-book, showing little musical expressiveness. These stock performances paled in comparison with the more musically literate readings by Pryor and Rogers at Victor, not to mention those of the “name” bands who were sometimes induced to record. By the teens, when “syncopation ruled the nation,” Prince’s accompaniments sounded awfully dated; by the 1920s, the Jazz Age, they were positively antediluvian. Nevertheless Columbia stuck with him until 1922. After leaving the company he worked briefly for Victor and some smaller labels, then retired to the West Coast to become a music teacher.

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The Columbia Master Book Discography, 4 Volumes, Complied by Brian Rust and Tim Brooks. Reprinted by permission.