Lawrence Mervil Tibbett was a great American opera singer and recording artist who also performed as a film actor and radio personality. A baritone, he sang with the New York Metropolitan Opera company more than 600 times from 1923 to 1950. He performed diverse musical theatre roles, ranging from Iago in Met productions of Otello to Captain Hook in Peter Pan in a touring show.
Lawrence Tibbett was born Lawrence Mervil Tibbet, on November 16, 1896 in Bakersfield, California. His father was a part-time deputy sheriff, killed in a shootout with desperado Jim McKinney in 1903. Tibbett grew up in Los Angeles, earning money by singing in church choirs and at funerals. He graduated from Manual Arts High School in 1915. A year later he met his future wife, Grace Mackay Smith, who rented a room in his mother’s house. During World War I he served in the Merchant Marine, after which he found employment singing as prologue to silent movies at the Grauman “Million Dollar” Theater in downtown Los Angeles.
Tibbett studied in New York City with Frank La Forge and in 1923 at the age of 26, he signed his first contract, for $60 per week, with the New York Metropolitan Opera, using the name “Tibbett”. Over the ensuing years, with the Met, he built a hugely successful career, displaying an outstanding voice and a strong stage presence. His roles included Valentin in Charles Gounod’s Faust, Silvio, and later, Tonio, in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and the King’s Herald in Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. He first achieved national recognition playing Ford in Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff. Tibbett traveled to California in 1927 to sing the lead role in the Grove Play St. Francis of Assisi, and it was during that trip to San Francisco when he met ex-New Yorker Jennie Marston Burgard, whom he married in 1932. During the 1930s, Tibbett toured Europe and Australia, performing on stage or giving recitals in London, Paris, Prague and Vienna as well as in Sydney and Melbourne.
In the early 1930s, Tibbett also appeared in movies. His Hollywood sojourn proved brief, although he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his first film, The Rogue Song, which was a 1930 MGM production with Laurel & Hardy, shot in two-color Technicolor. Soon afterwards, he starred in another MGM musical film, New Moon, opposite Grace Moore. In 1935, he made Metropolitan for 20th Century Fox. This film is notable for its extensive segments of Tibbett performing operatic arias in a stage setting. His final film was Under Your Spell in 1936. Also during the 1930s, Tibbett had a domestic radio program on which he sang formal music, his sponsor being the Packard Motor Car Company of America. The company chose him to announce the Packard 120 to the world on air; he drove one. When the firm wanted to sell less expensive cars, they persuaded him to add popular tunes to his repertoire in order to boost sales. He also appeared on Your Hit Parade.