Monday, December 12, 2011


(Photo taken from Google Images from an old Victor record catalog)

by "Jerome"

Harry E Humphrey was the main voice of the Photodrama of Creation, as well as the voice of the reissued Angelophone recordings found in IBSA catalogs from 1916. As such, he deserves a footnote in Watch Tower history.

Humphrey was born in 1873. In his long career, he was variously described as a monologist, an elocutionist, an actor and recording artist. His heyday was in the years prior to 1925 when audio recordings were acoustic. In those days, raw sound with its limited frequency range was literally collected by a horn and sent to equipment that vibrated a cutting stylus. Recording artistes sometimes had to virtually put their head into the recording horn and shout to get an acceptable result.

Even so, to get sufficient “bite” for this kind of recording a certain voice quality was needed. This determined who became “names” and who fell by the wayside in the early days of sound recording.

Humphrey worked with Thomas Alva Edison, one of whose inventions was the phonograph – originally intended as an office Dictaphone system, before the entertainment world took over. According to the International Movie Database, around the time that Edison produced a system for linking recordings with film to create a sound system called the Kinetophone, Humphrey worked with him in his South Orange laboratories.

The earliest known recording of Humphrey dates from 1912, and from then on into the first half of the 1920s he was very busy. As well as a plethora of Blue Amberol cylinders and Diamond Discs for Edison, Humphrey also recorded discs for other labels like Victor. His output included speeches, poems, explanatory dialog to go with music, and finally – language learning recordings.

If you want a flavor of his style – apart from Watch Tower related recordings – there are quite a few on YouTube. They include famous poems such as Gunga Din (a lovely over the top performance) and famous speeches like Lincoln’s Speech at Gettysburg. Perhaps one of the most entertaining dates from 1922 – Santa Claus Hides in Your Phonograph – Humphrey’s maniacal laugh would be enough to scare the living daylights out of most children of the day.

So when the timbre of CTR’s voice was judged unsuitable for the Photodrama’s main recordings, the Watch Tower Society went to the top man of the day to fill the gap. There appears no evidence that Humphrey took any personal interest in the Bible Student movement; this was simply another job for which he was paid in what were very busy years for him.

He was hired again to help salvage the Angelophone debacle, which has been earlier described on this blog. There were fifty small records issued on which Henry Burr sang hymns on one side, and CTR recorded a short descriptive sermon on the reverse. The recordings were poor due to CTR’s voice quality, exacerbated by his poor health in 1916. After complaints were received, the sermons were re-recorded by Humphrey. The project was probably not helped by the use of the “hill and dale” method of recording – as with cylinders, the needle travelled up and down in the groove rather than from side to side. It meant the discs could be a smaller 7 inch size, but it also meant they could all too easily be damaged by the wrong type of equipment. You were supposed to buy an Acme, Superba or Cabinet Angelophone to play them.

The idea of having music on one side of a disc and a descriptive lecture on the other was quite common at this time, and Humphrey later did a series explaining short operatic pieces on the Edison Diamond label.

The death-knell for his main employment came around 1925, when electrical recording was introduced across the board. Recording deficiencies in a wide range of voices could now be overcome. Also one suspects that Humphrey’s stentorian style – redolent of Victorian recitations – went rapidly out of style in the roaring twenties.

His subsequent career was as an actor. A few appearances in small parts on Broadway are listed, and he is credited with co-writing a play called The Skull c. 1928. It was reviewed as “an old fashioned melodrama” and published in book form in 1937.

Then in the sound era he had a few minor roles in movies. They ranged from the prestigious - Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, to the less than prestigious - Dick Tracey’s G Men.

Perhaps the nicest gesture was a bit part in the 1940 film, Edison the Man – where the story of his old mentor was given the Hollywood treatment starring Spencer Tracey. Humphrey did not play himself, but had an uncredited bit part as a broker.

Humphrey died in 1947 (aged 73) in Los Angeles County, California.


jerome said...

The dates (which I obtained from International Movie Database) are spot on. The only problem is - did they get the dates from Find a Grave, or the other way around? Without seeing cemetery records, or even better a photo of a headstone, there is always a slight doubt that someone in the past has made a mistake, and we are just passing it on. You need an American researcher with Ancestry (or similar) to check Death Indexes. Depends how important it is really. Thanks for kind words!

jerome said...

My knowledge of America military matters is virtually non-existent, but I would assume that if this is our Harry, he would have been too old (and too busy recording!) to serve during World War I. So when would he have been a private – to be noted at his death in 1947? The Spanish-American war? The US-Philippine war?

jerome said...

Although the regs allowed for it, would they have conscripted someone of 44? Were they that hard up for men then? Or did Harry serve in the military as a younger man in earlier years and campaigns?

With the middle name Ervin to go on, found another play by him in the Library of Congress
catalog. "The Curse of Tamerlane" was copyrighted in 1929 by Bernard J McOwen and Harry Ervin Humphrey. It gives Humphrey's address is as 60 S. 20th Street, Flushing, L.I. N.Y.

However, suspect we are straying further and further from Truth History...

jerome said...

Although no-one is ever likely to see this comment, in the interests of completeness, when revising this article for another blog, I discovered Harry's military history. He enlisted on May 24, 1898 and was discharged on May 11, 1899 at the time of the Spanish-American war. He was a private in the 4th U.S. Cav. The information comes from a request for a veteran's headstone after he died in 1947, which was granted.