It was a coin toss that determined whether John Charles Thomas would study music or medicine. And because the coin came up heads he chose the former.
Thomas went on to become one of the nation's most beloved popular and classical singers. His celebrated career, which began in 1914 and ended in the mid-1950s, ranged from musical comedy, opera and concerts to radio and the movies.
Gifted with a voice that was both deep and rich, Thomas for many years was a star with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and also appeared with opera companies in Europe, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco.
From 1942 to 1947, Baltimoreans anxiously tuned their Electrola Radiola and Atwater Kent radios weekly to WBAL to hear Thomas sing over the National Broadcasting Co.'s Blue Network.
Born in Meyersdale, Pa., the son of a Methodist minister and a mother who was an accomplished singer and led the choir in her husband's church, Thomas was educated in schools in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
"Mr. Thomas has said he got his musical start in 1904 while a student at a school in Cumberland, Maryland," reported The Sun.
"He recalled that he and other boys used to visit the school's boiler room to stage impromptu concerts," said the newspaper.
After his musical abilities were discovered, Thomas was asked to sing the school song, "Dear Old High School," and his career was launched.
He graduated from Dickinson College and after enrolling at the Peabody in 1909 was awarded the Eaton Memorial scholarship the next year. In the summer of 1912, he withdrew from the conservatory and went to New York.
"An audition brought him a part in 'Everywoman,' which was playing in Canada. Thus he was started on a stage career, and by the time Baltimore saw him again he had sung also in "The Passing Show" at the New York Winter Garden, in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with DeWolf Hopper, and on Broadway with Emma Trentini in Friml's 'The Peasant Girl,' " reported The Sun.
"With the announcement that Emma Trentini will be seen at Ford's during the week of January 11 in the new Friml and Nedhal operetta called 'The Peasant Girl,' comes the further interesting information that her leading man this season is John C. Thomas, the popular Baltimore barytone who is so well known here through his singing at Memorial Church and also at Associate Congregational and who has figured prominently in the various musical activities at the Peabody Conservatory," reported The Sun in 1914.
In 1920, he entered the recital field when he presented a joint concert at the Lyric with Bart Wirtz, a local cellist.
A reviewer in The Sun wrote, "But the dignity and authority of Mr. Thomas' performance and the sheer beauty of so much of the singing that he did last evening made an immediate impression on the very large audience that had assembled to welcome this young artist, a great deal of whose work, on this occasion was characterized by real musical distinction. Mr. Thomas has, in the first place, a voice of very unusual beauty, which he uses with no little skill."
He later signed with the Shuberts, New York theatrical impresarios, and traveled the country performing in such operettas as "Apple Blossoms," "Maytime" and "The Love Letter."
In 1925, he made his operatic debut in a production of "Aida" that was attended by President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge.
Thomas made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1934 in "La Traviata," a production that also featured Baltimore diva Rosa Ponselle.
Newspaper reports said that on the morning of his Metropolitan debut, rather than coping with a case of stage jitters and "bending over a score, mopping his brow and humming his part through his teeth," Thomas was actually shooting golf balls in his New York hotel suite.
"This was done to the considerable alarm of maids and waiters. A golf club, swung as huskily as Mr. Thomas swings it, could ruin the most substantial table lamp," reported The Sun.
In 1938, he sang at the Peabody's thousandth recital. He continued singing at the Met until 1943.
Whenever Thomas appeared in Baltimore, his concerts were sold out, and often audiences refused to allow him to leave the stage until he performed several encores.
"Some 3,000 listeners refused to go home at the end of the concert until he had sung half a dozen songs not on the printed list," reported The Evening Sun of a 1935 appearance at the Lyric Theater.
After retiring from the Met, he continued performing his mixed repertoire of classical and popular songs. He appeared with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Civic Opera, sang on the radio and made recordings.
In 1948, he grabbed the attention of press agents and the public when he chartered a private railroad car, which he used to tour the nation that season.
Most performers had long-abandoned the rails for airplanes or buses -- but not Thomas, who willingly obliged waiting press photographers by standing on the car's open rear observation platform for publicity photographs.
Thomas and his wife lived for many years on a 270-acre farm on the Miles River near Easton. He enjoyed yacht racing on the Chesapeake Bay and golfing at Hillendale Country Club in Towson.
Generous with both his time and talent, Thomas often gave benefit concerts for hospitals, including Maryland General in Baltimore and Memorial Hospital in Easton, which named its medical record room after him.
"His annual concerts over the last nineteen years raised in excess of $48,000 for county institutions," said the Easton Star-Democrat in 1955.
Furthermore, his concerts were much more than fund-raising events. "They were highlights of the fall social season, attended more often than not by the Governor of Maryland and outstanding personages from all parts of the State," said the newspaper.
In 1954, he and his wife sold their farm and retired to Apple Valley, Calif., where Thomas died in 1960.
In 1968, Thomas' costumes, papers, photographs and other memorabilia were given to the Peabody Conservatory by his wife.
Included in the bequest was his massive steamer trunk with expanding iron rods on which he hung his numerous opera costumes, which were handmade in Paris and featured Brussels and Venetian point lace, elaborate hand embroidery and costly silks and velvets. So large was the trunk that it required the combined efforts of four men to move it.
"It is a souvenir of the more leisured age when opera stars traveled royally and slowly across the Atlantic," reported The Sun.
Pub Date: 3/08/98