Discovered in Chicago

Margery Mayer grew up in Chicago with her parents and older sister Ethel during the depression. Her father, Gottlieb ,was a pianist who performed in movie houses for silent films and on Lake Michigan cruise boats and her mother, Lillian, was a seamstress who served affluent clients on Chicago’s North Side. Her parents attempt to stimulate Margie’s innate musicality with piano lessons resulted in increased resistance, but then chance encounter with her high school music teacher revealed an inner personal desire to perform when she asked: ‘Do you think you could teach me to sing!”

Thus began vocal studies with the famed Viennese-born voice teacher and children’s opera director Zerlina Muhlman Metzger.  Mme Metzger found that Margie had a large sound that was constrained in range, but within two years of vocalises designed to unfold and expand range, the potential of the voice’s quality began to emerge.

Margie had advanced sufficiently in technique and study of art songs and language to be able to win the very first singing contest she entered. This enabled continued vocal training with Metzger who further elongated and refined her range while coaching her in more advanced operatic and art song literature.  Additional contest wins and performances subsidized attendance at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, where she studied sight-reading, harmony and music theory with composer Leo Sowerby.

As word spread of this uncommonly deep and mature voiced talent, the young Miss Mayer caught the attention of renowned operatic soprano Mary Garden, then a talent scout for Metro-Goldwin-Mayer. First summoned for a private audition, Mme Garden then arranged for Miss Mayer to audition with Louis B. Mayer (no relation) in Chicago, who offered her a four-month contract with the MGM studios in the spring of 1937.

Margery with Mary Garden at time of contract signing with MGM.

Margery with Mary Garden at time of contract signing with MGM.

Given assurances that she would be properly cared for, her parents acquiesced  so Miss Mayer boarded the train bound for Hollywood and was met by Mme Garden’s chauffeur at the train station.Taken under the personal attention of Mme Garden Miss Mayer received coaching by several top MGM coaches. On several occasions she sang at sponsored functions with Judy Garland and other MGM entertainers and attended the 9th Academy Awards luncheon.

Following screen tests, which revealed her refined singing talent but also some undesirable screen shyness and exaggerated weight, the studio offered her off-screen voice-over singing parts. As she recalled later, this was a defining moment when she realized that singing in a studio booth was not enough. She really wanted to sing and act live on stage.  Her studies with Mme Metzger had kindled an appreciation for how she could connect with a live audience through her voice and musicianship.  With that realization, Margie set her sights on becoming an opera singer.

Following her instincts, Miss Mayer returned to Chicago, resumed intensive study with Mme Metzger and within less than a year she had the opportunity to appear on radio singing with a studio orchestra.  Within a short time she was asked to join more experienced singers from Chicago Opera in a series of one hour broadcasts of operas performed in English with radio actors moving the plot forward. Margie’s big break was in being heard coast to coast over radio singing title roles in Carmen and Samson and Delila and as Ortrud in Lohengrin.

The sensation created by the radio appearances prompted the Chicago Opera Artistic Director Paul Longone to offer the 20-year old Mayer a contract for the following 1938-39 season.  Prepared and accompanied by Mme Metzger, in the spring of 1938 she also presented an enthusiastically received début recital (see program below) and was then hired as featured soloist with WGN Radio singing opera and classical programs with orchestra.

At age 20, Miss Mayer débuted with the Chicago Opera Company as Niclaus in Tales of Hoffman with Lawrence Tibbett famously playing three male roles, and over the next two months appeared in Lakme (Lily Pons), Romeo and Juliet, Die Walküre (Manski, Kipnis), Hänsel and Gretel” and L’Amore Del Tre Re, and early in 1939 was signed to perform in the popular radio program, Hymns of All Churches.

At age 21, Miss Mayer continued performing on radio programs; as soloist with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in Grant Park; and with the Chicago Opera Company, during which period she was sometimes affectionately called “the baby of the Chicago Opera”.  From her debut in 1938 to 1945, by which time she was singing leading roles (Carmen, Il Trovatore and Aida), Miss Mayer had the  opportunities to appear with and learn the operatic craft from many of the renowned leading singers of the period. These included Grace Moore (Louise, Faust, Tosca), Lily Pons (Lakme) Kirsten Flagstad (Die Walküre) Dorothy Kirsten (Carmen), Giovanni Martinelli (Otello, Tosca), Leonard Warren (Il Trovatore), Lawrence Tibbett (Tales of Hoffmann, Rigoletto), Igor Kipnis (Faust) and Ezio Pinza (Faust).

By age 23, she auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera and the next year toured the east and mid-west with the San Carlo Opera singing many roles including Aida, Carmen, Faust, and Il Trovatore.

image sources

  • Margery Mayer with Dennis Morgan and Judy Garland at 1936 Oscars (3-4-1937): Weaver L.A. (Los Angeles, CA) photographer.