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History's Headlines: Opera singer saves the day

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Jun 20 2014 08:52:05 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 23 2014 05:58:30 PM CDT

History's Headlines: Opera singer saves the day

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

It was a warm, summer day in 1916, but something more than the weather was making Allentown Mayor Al Reichenbach sweat.

President Woodrow Wilson had ordered National Guard troops to Mexico to chase “bandits” that were causing trouble on the border. Allentown men were among those who would be going.

But while they were away, their families would have no means of support. The mayor had organized a campaign to help them but now he was several thousand dollars short. That was a lot of money back then, and he could not see how he would raise it. Finally he hit on an idea and hurried to 735 Hamilton Street, the home of Dr. Sanford T. Lyne, his wife Franky and their daughter, opera singer Felice Lyne.

Reichenbach explained his plight to the Lynes and then made a request: would Felice, by then an internationally known opera star, sing at a fundraising concert event to be held at the then-brand new Allentown High School, now William Allen? Apparently if the newspapers of the time are correct, she quickly agreed.

From what is known of her, Lyne’s reaction was typical of the kind of person she was. While many opera singers have reputations as temperamental divas, that was not her style. Whether appearing before the crowned heads of Europe or at a high school auditorium, Lyne kept the common touch.

Lyne was born in the town of Slater, Missouri. Her father, an osteopathic physician, moved the family to Allentown in 1898 when she was a child. Later they moved back to the Midwest, settling in Kansas City, Missouri, where Lyne began her musical training. A few years later she went to Paris to study with Mathilde Marchesi de Castrone, the leading voice teacher of the day.

It was in London in 1909 that Lyne was heard by opera impresario Oscar Hammerstein, grandfather of the great Broadway musical lyricist of the 1940s and 50’s, Oscar Hammerstein II. He opened an opera house in London in 1910 where Lyne made her debut in “Rigoletto.”  She returned to America and to Allentown, where her parents had once more relocated, in 1911.

Lyne was welcomed by the many fans of opera in the city. That year she gave a concert at the Lyric Theater (now Miller Symphony Hall) that filled every seat. The press noted at the time of her death that Lyne’s 1911 performance “set a new high mark for receipts for that time.”

Using Allentown as her home base, Lyne began to tour the world with the Quinlin Opera Company. From 1912 to 1915 she traveled all over the British Empire, England, Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Perhaps her favorite stop was in Hawaii where she appeared before ex Queen Liliuokalani. The two became friends and the queen, who composed and sang music herself, sang several songs with Lyne.

By 1916 World War I was boiling around the world and, with the advent of unrestricted submarine warfare, ocean travel had grown more dangerous. Perhaps it was for that reason that Lyne happened to be in Allentown with her parents that summer when Mayor Reichenbach came calling.           

August 22, 1916 was the date chosen for the fundraising concert. Allentown was very proud of its new high school, which was regularly touted in the press, because of its cost as the “half a million dollar high school.” Presumably the other theaters in town had their own scheduled shows and could not be used for the event. Also, the auditorium was air conditioned, something that was almost unheard of that time.

Days before, local decorators had been draping red white and blue bunting in the auditorium. The Allentown Band had agreed to accompany Lyne. As they entered, the audience of over 1,500 was handed small American flags, which they were told to wave at appropriate moments.

When Lyne walked out on to the stage, there were cheers and the little flags were waved with vigor, turning the auditorium into a sea of red, white and blue. The musical selections chosen for the event were from Verdi, Wagner and Puccini. Proof of its popularity was shown by the enthusiastic nature of the applause that greeted Lyne after each selection. “With two such star attractions as Miss Lyne and the Allentown Band,” the press noted the next day, “the reader may well appreciate the treat enjoyed by the audience.”

As her final selection Lyne chose “Aloha Oe” (Farewell to Thee) that had been written by Queen Liliuokalani. This was selected to honor the National Guardsmen that would soon be heading to Mexico. The concert more than filled the fund-raising gap, pleasing Mayor Reichenbach and helping the families of the local guardsmen.

Lyne had little time to rest following the concert. Within days of appearing in Allentown she and her mother were on an ocean liner crossing the U-boat infested waters of the North Atlantic to give a fundraising concert, at the request of friends she had made in the British nobility, for soldiers who were wounded in the war. In April, 1917 the U.S. entered World War I.      

Following the war, Lyne was once more off on her travels, singing in Europe and America. But it came to a stop in 1932 in Paris when her appearance at the opera was canceled due to the assassination of the French president.

Returning home ill, Lyne never really recovered. She died on September 1, 1935 and was buried in Allentown. But on November 30, 1935 her parents had her body removed to a plot in Kansas City. They died in California in the 1940s and are buried near her, far from the place she always called “home”.