George MacFarlane: “America’s Favorite Baritone”

Self-trained Canadian singer George MacFarlane (1878-1932) started out as a soap salesman, took to the stage as a soloist, then got cast in musicals in Montreal. Success there took him to Broadway, where he was in two dozen productions 1903-1928, starting with Harry Von Tilzer’s The Fisher Maiden (1903) with Al Shean. Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were a particular specialty; he had roles in Broadway revivals of H.M.S. Pinafore, Patience, The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado, and Iolanthe. Other shows included a revival of Trilby (1915), Miss Springtime (1916), and the Sidney HowardCharles MacArthur play Salvation (1928) with Marjorie Main, Pauline Lord, etc., his last. Several of these productions, starting with The Beauty Spot (1909) also featured his wife, Viola Gillette.

MacFarlane’s greatest national fame came through recordings he made for Columbia, Victor and other labels. There are nearly 50 of them listed on the American Historical Recording Database. His hits included “Look in Her Eyes”. “Can You Hear Me Calling, Caroline?”, and “Your Eyes” (all 1914), “A Little Bit of Heaven” (1915), and “My Castles in the Air” (1917).

In down time between shows, MacFarlane sang in big time vaudeville, often with a repertoire of Irish songs, some of which he recorded. The years years 1918-22 were a period when he especially worked the vaudeville circuits.

From 1926 to 1927, MacFarlane tried his hand at producing shows for Broadway. The three productions he presented were Rainbow Rose (1926) with his wife Viola Gillete and Jack Whiting, Honest Liars (1926) with Robert Woolsey, and We All Do (1927).

When talkies came in, MacFarlane moved to Hollywood to begin a new career though he was now in his 50s. He had supporting roles in 17 films from 1929 through 1932 including Half Shot at Sunrise (1930) with Wheeler and Woolsey, The Heart of New York (1932) with Smith & Dale and George Sidney, and Fireman Save My Child (1932) with Joe E. Brown, his last. Sadly, MacFarlane’s life and career were cut short in 1932 when he was run over by a car, else he might have appeared in many subsequent films and he’d be better remembered today.

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.