How a young New York society matron named Alice Shaw dazzled English royalty with her extraordinary embouchure
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
Nevertheless, it was not until 1906, almost twenty years later, that phonograph people on this side of the Atlantic got around to recording her. Perhaps the Whistling Prima Donna had been too proud or too expensive: in the early days of the phonograph a performer was often paid a dollar a round to make wax cylinders. A “round” called for a two-minute performance facing into a battery of horns while from five to fifteen cylinders were being cut. To fill an order for a hundred cylinders the performance had to be repeated up to ten times, noisily, in a cramped studio. It was not unusual to go forty times for a best seller, thereby earning forty dollars for the artist, with no royalties. Very few successful artists would subject themselves to this. Later the phonograph industry learned to make master records from which many copies could be molded or pressed, and the pay increased somewhat.
It was on one of these masters—a molded Celluloid cylinder—that Mrs. Shaw finally whistled for a larger audience. The Edison Phonograph Monthly for December 1906 announced to Edison dealers that one of the “New Edison Gold Moulded Records” to be released the following January would be “Spring-Tide Revels … a whistling trio novelty.”
Mrs. Shaw, remember, had four daughters to support. During her triumphant English tour she constantly wore pinned over that healthy bosom a brooch that opened to reveal the angelic portraits of her two youngest, the twins. “I never call my children by name,” she had told an interviewer in London, “but I have a distinct whistle for each of them which they know perfectly. Strangely enough all four of them have my gift and whistle beautifully.” By 1906 the twins had joined their mother in a whistling trio characterized by the Edison Phonograph Monthly as “perhaps the best known artists in their line now on the vaudeville and lyceum stage.
Agnes Woodward took up the serious study of whistling and eventually perfected a unique system for teaching called the Bird Method, which is still in use today.
“There is scarcely a theater-goer in the entire country who has not heard them one or more times. Therefore, a Record giving a reproduction of their remarkable talent will undoubtedly find a large sale.”
No doubt it did, for the Victor Talking Machine Company suddenly took an interest in Mrs. Shaw. We find her visiting their New York recording studio on May 29, 1907, five months after the release of the Edison cylinder. On that day she recorded three solo numbers, accompanied by the Victor Orchestra. The first and most important was “In Venice” by Rubens, which Victor released three months later as a single-sided disc. When Victor began to make double-faced records a year later, Alice Shaw’s “In Venice” was among the first releases. Ten years later, in 1917, “In Venice” was still selling.
In that particular 1917 catalog, Mrs. Shaw’s solo was listed among eighteen “Whistling Records” then available. These were followed by twenty-two “Records with Whistling Effects.” Elsewhere in the catalog appeared twenty-four “Records with Bird Effects.” It was the golden age of whistling. Anyone who had an Edison, a mahogany Victrola, or a Columbia Graphanola in the parlor invariably owned several whistling records among the cylinders or discs stored in the cabinet beneath. By contrast the 1936 Victor catalog lists only three “Whistling Records,” no “Records with Whistling Effects” and a mere eight with “Bird Effects”: the taste for fancy whistling had waned with the passing of vaudeville.
Those who bought Mrs. Shaw’s one successful Victor record as late as 1917 must have remembered the thrill of hearing her swell the air with her music; they may have been chiefly motivated by a desire to pay homage. For while it is true that “In Venice” affords an opportunity for Mrs. Shaw’s particular type of bravura performance—lots of trills, staccatos, and quick turns—and though she stays right on the note and her timing is excellent, there is no fire, no feeling. It is tempting to blame her lackluster performance on the limitations of acoustical recording, but the bitter truth is that on the flip side of the record Joe Belmont’s warblings in “The Bird and the Brook” played by the Victor Orchestra “with whistling effects” are sprightly, liquid, moving. It was simply that the phonograph people got around to Mrs. Shaw too late.
Even if the Victor record caught only a hint of her glory, those who heard her whistle in her prime never forgot. As late as 1931 “F.P.A.,” the New York Herald Tribune columnist, recalled having heard “the greatest of professional whistlers, Alice Shaw, who used to be on the big time in vaudeville.”
She even rated a scholarly reference in The Oxford Companion of Music: “The technique of whistling has sometimes been developed to the point of virtuosity. In the late nineteenth century the American Mrs. Alice Shaw was a famous whistler, known as ‘La Belle Siffleuse.’” Indeed, Mrs. Shaw is the only artist named in a somewhat lengthy treatment of “whistling” in that well-known reference book.