Peerce, Jan

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Jan Peerce (1904-1984) was a noted American tenor. He was born on Jun. 3, 1904 and died on Dec. 15, 1984 in New York. He was engaged as a singer at Radio City Music Hall in 1932, and made his operatic debut in Philadelphia as the Duke in Rigoletto on May 14, 1938. His Metropolitan Opera debut was on Nov. 29, 1941, as Alfredo in La traviata . In addition to opera, he also sang musical theater, most notably in Fiddler on the Roof, and Jewish religious and secular music. His final appearance at the Met was in 1968, and he retired in 1982.

From the guide to the Jan Peerce collection of sound recordings, 1932-1983, (The New York Public Library. Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound.)

Jan Peerce was born Jacob Pincus Perelmuth on June 3, 1904. His parents, Louis Perelmuth and Anna Posner Perelmuth, were Russian immigrants who settled on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Jacob’s mother wanted him to play the piano, but the family could not afford one for him, so she settled on the violin. Occasionally during this period, Jacob would sing at his local synagogue, winning praise for his high, pre-adolescent voice. Singing was far from the top of Jacob’s priorities, however. His mother envisioned a medical career for him, and Jacob had no objection. As he finished high school and began college, however, he began to have other ideas.

Jacob put together a small dance band, featuring his violin, and made some extra money by playing at social events. The band started by playing at weddings held in the Perelmuth’s catering hall, but soon found other work. Jacob enjoyed his musical work more than his schoolwork and saw that it could be far more remunerative than studying. When he failed out of Columbia University for neglecting his studies, he decided to try making a living as a full-time musician.

While struggling with his band, Jacob eloped with his long-time girlfriend, Alice Kalmanowitz. Although Jacob and Alice had first met as children in 1912, they did not begin dating until the mid-1920s. The Perelmuths did not approve of the relationship because they were afraid a serious girlfriend or wife might lure Jacob away from his studies and the Kalmanowitzes disapproved because, although they liked Jacob personally, they did not foresee a financially successful future for him. Jacob and Alice had actually married in secret in October, 1928, several months before their elopement, but they each went back to live with their parents and told no one of the marriage. Finally, in June 1929, Jacob and Alice ran off to Chicago and had their religious ceremony. Their parents were dismayed, but ultimately accepted the marriage and Jacob and Alice returned to New York. In 1930, Alice gave birth to a son named Lawrence, who, as Larry Peerce, would grow up to become a successful television and motion picture director.

The band had found some success by this time, especially once Jacob began singing the vocal choruses himself with his impressive tenor voice. Under the names Jack Pearl and Pinky Pearl, Jacob and his band worked more and more until 1932 when a job at a hotel brought Jacob together with impresario Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel. Rothafel was in the process of creating entertainment programs for the newly-completed Radio City Music Hall and he approached Jacob after hearing him play and sing. Jacob was surprised that Rothafel was interested at all, but particularly that he was interested in Jacob as a singer, rather than a violinist. Rothafel changed his name to “John Pierce” and hired him as a singer. Jacob had little confidence in his chances for success, largely because he thought his short stature, ethnic features and wide body type would preclude him from winning over audiences. Rothafel told him he was “the handsomest man in the world” if he would only believe it and Jan Peerce would credit Rothafel for giving him the confidence that would last the rest of his life.

While singing classical and popular music at Radio City Music Hall, Jacob convinced Rothafel to compromise and call him “Jan Peerce”. The new name had the sound that Rothafel wanted, but made Jacob feel more comfortable and closer to his own identity. As Jan Peerce, he also worked in radio, sometimes anonymously and sometimes under his new name. In 1935, the Peerces had their second child, Joy. His repertoire grew wider and began to include operatic arias as the 1930s wore on. In 1938, Peerce was called upon to audition for Arturo Toscanini, the most famous conductor of the century. Toscanini needed a tenor for a concert performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Peerce had been recommended. After a successful audition in Toscanini’s hotel suite, Peerce got the job and his appearance with Toscanini expanded his reputation greatly. Toscanini frequently referred to Peerce as his “favorite tenor” and they maintained a friendship and occasional professional collaboration for fifteen years, until Toscanini’s retirement.

Peerce had still never performed a full opera, although some critics and many fans were discussing his future as a tenor at The Metropolitan Opera. Though Peerce was still unsure of his suitability for grand opera, Alice Peerce had no doubts and, while serving as her husband’s agent, she booked him, without his knowledge, to appear in Rigoletto in Baltimore with star Robert Weede. Peerce learned the part, honored his wife’s commitment and received great acclaim for his operatic debut. He began studying other operas and appearing in various touring companies throughout the United States, in addition to his concert tours. In 1939, the Peerces had their third child, Susan.

At last, in 1941, The Metropolitan Opera offered Peerce a contract and on November 29, Jan Peerce made his Metropolitan Opera debut in La Traviata . Critics were nearly unanimous in their praise and he made numerous subsequent appearances that season. Peerce remained a fixture at The Metropolitan Opera for twenty-five straight seasons. He was one of the institution’s most famous and commercially popular tenors, continuing to perform the roles he considered within the scope of his voice and personality. Despite urging by Toscanini and others, Peerce insisted that not every opera was for every singer and he kept to his repertoire of approximately twenty operatic roles. Peerce remained with The Metropolitan Opera, while also touring the country with various other companies, until 1966, when he retired from operatic performance because his vision had deteriorated and he could not navigate the complex sets anymore.

Peerce was in constant demand as a concert performer from the 1930s through the 1980s. He traveled the country every year and made several international tours, including trips to Japan, South Africa, Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In 1956, he became the first American singer to visit the Soviet Union on a concert tour. Although throughout his life, people mistakenly claimed he had been a cantor, Peerce did incorporate Passover services at various hotels into his appearance schedule. Each year from the 1960s through the early 1980s, Peerce presided over religious services for hotel guests, usually in Miami, Florida.

Peerce was a frequent and successful recording artist and pioneered a trail between classical or operatic singing and popular music. Frequently commenting that the only two kinds of music are “good” and “bad”, Peerce would record entire operas, albums of arias and classical songs, as well as popular singles and albums of Broadway show tunes. His recording of The Bluebird of Happiness was immensely popular, eventually becoming one of the best-selling records by a concert artist. It also became Peerce’s most requested number, to the shock and dismay of some classical critics.

After retiring from grand opera, Peerce embarked on a new phase of performance: the musical theater. Feeling a very personal connection to the story of Fiddler on the Roof, Peerce made it clear he was interested in appearing in the play. After a summer tour of the show in Ohio, Peerce took the lead role in the Broadway production for several months in 1971 and 1972. He would continue to tour with the show on and off through 1982. He never again appeared on Broadway, but did tour in The Rothschilds and an original musical intended for Broadway, Laugh a Little, Cry a Little .

Peerce was very concerned with maintaining the quality of his voice and rehearsed constantly. His longevity was rare, if not unique, and he continued to impress critics and audiences until 1982, when he became ill and fell into a coma from which he never recovered. Jan Peerce died on December 15, 1984.

From the guide to the Jan Peerce papers, 1918-1985, (The New York Public Library. Music Division.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Photographs of the Metropolitan Opera [graphic] / Harry G. Schumer, ca. 1945-1965 The New York Public Library. Music Division.
referencedIn Ambassador Auditorium Collection, 1974-1995 Archive of Recorded Sound, Stanford University Libraries
referencedIn Roberta Peters collection, 1881-1998, 1951-1998 The New York Public Library. Music Division.
referencedIn Nicolas Slonimsky Collection, 1873-1997, (bulk 1920-1990) Music Division Library of Congress
referencedIn The Toscanini Legacy collection of sound recordings [sound recording], 1926-1968, 1940-1957 The New York Public Library. Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound.
creatorOf Jan Peerce collection of sound recordings, 1932-1983 The New York Public Library. Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound.
referencedIn Robert Benney research materials, 1926-1978 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
referencedIn The Bell Telephone Hour collection of sound recordings [sound recording], 1940-1968 The New York Public Library. Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound.
referencedIn Stringfield, Lamar. Lamar Stringfield papers, 1917-1959. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
referencedIn Opera Air Check Recordings collection, 1937-1956 University of California, Santa Barbara. Library. Dept. of Special Collections.
referencedIn Peters, Roberta, 1930-. Roberta Peters collection, 1881-1998 (bulk 1951-1998). New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Ruby Mercer Collection. Transcripts of interviews conducted by Ruby Mercer concerning reminiscences of Edward Johnson, some for "Opera Time." University of Guelph
creatorOf Cooper, Betty Miller,. Betty Miller Cooper photograph collection, [1932-1986]. Museum of Performance & Design
creatorOf Rodgers, Richard, 1902-1979. Collection of musicals and interviews [sound recording], 1926-1980. New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Guelph Spring Festival Archives. Letters from People of Note - response to requests made by M.H.MacKinnon to become an honorary patron of the Guelph Spring Festival, 1968-1973. University of Guelph
referencedIn Chaim Gross Papers, 1937-1964 Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries
referencedIn Miscellaneous Jewish collection, 1875-1959. Milwaukee Jewish Historical Society
creatorOf Toscanini, Arturo, 1867-1957. The Toscanini Legacy collection of sound recordings [sound recording], 1926-1968, 1940-1957 (bulk). New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Guelph Spring Festival Archives. R.C.A. Victor reproductions of watercolour portraits of recording artists, 1977. University of Guelph
creatorOf Jan Peerce papers, 1918-1985 The New York Public Library. Music Division.
referencedIn Deems Taylor collection of broadcast recordings [sound recording], 1935-1954 The New York Public Library. Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound.
referencedIn Swet, Gerson, 1893-1968. Papers, [ca. 1916]-1966. Campbell University, Wiggins Memorial Library
creatorOf Potter, S. B. The Dybbuk : a music drama based on the play by S. Anski / music and lyrics by S.B. Potter ; book by Ethel Scholnick Potter. Jewish Theological Seminary of America
creatorOf Guelph Spring Festival Archives. Guelph Spring Festival, 1978 season - reviews and articles, (including tour of 1977 premiere production Seabird Island). University of Guelph
referencedIn Richard Rodgers collection of musicals and interviews [sound recording], 1926-1980 The New York Public Library. Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound.
referencedIn Glenn, Herbert. Herbert Glenn photographs, pamphlets, and minutes, 1921 and undated. Milwaukee Jewish Historical Society
creatorOf Guelph Spring Festival Archives. Jan Peerce (Tenor), May 7, 1971 - house program. University of Guelph
creatorOf Guelph Spring Festival Archives (University of Guelph). Portraits and slides of Edward Johnson with wife and family, school years, E. Johnson at the Met as general manager, etc., ca. 1880-1959. University of Guelph
creatorOf Guelph Spring Festival Archives. Correspondence, press releases, list of performers, program outlines, agreements program concerning performance for special tribute to Edward Johnson, 1978 - performance file. University of Guelph
creatorOf Peerce, Jan, 1904-1984. Correspondence with Marian Anderson, 1965. University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Van Pelt Library
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associatedWith Sullivan, Ed, 1902- person
associatedWith Sullivan, Joseph person
associatedWith Swet, Gerson, 1893-1968. person
associatedWith Syracuse Symphony Orchestra corporateBody
associatedWith Szell, George, 1897-1970 person
associatedWith Tajo, Italo person
associatedWith Talbot, Irvin, b. 1896 person
associatedWith Talve, Desodon person
associatedWith Taylor, Deems, 1885-1966 person
associatedWith Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich person
associatedWith Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich, 1840-1893 person
associatedWith Tedi Kolek person
associatedWith Temple, Irene person
associatedWith Tennyson, Jean person
associatedWith Thomas, Laura person
associatedWith Tibbett, Lawrence, 1896-1960 person
associatedWith Todd, Alexander person
associatedWith Torelli, Giuseppe, 1658-1709 person
associatedWith Toscanini, Arturo, 1867-1957. person
associatedWith Toselli, Enrico, 1883-1926 person
associatedWith Tozzi, Giorgio person
associatedWith Tucker, Richard, 1914-1975 person
associatedWith Turina, Joaquin, 1882-1949 person
associatedWith Turner, Claramae, 1920- person
associatedWith Turque, Mimi person
associatedWith University Circle Orchestra corporateBody
associatedWith University of California, Santa Barbara. Archive of Recorded Vocal Music corporateBody
associatedWith Uppman, Theodore, 1920- person
associatedWith Vaghi, Giacomo, 1901- person
associatedWith Valente person
associatedWith Valentino, Frank person
associatedWith Vanni, Helen person
associatedWith Vaughan-Williams, Ralph, 1872-1958 person
associatedWith Verdi, Giuseppe, 1813-1901 person
associatedWith Verdi, Guiseppe person
associatedWith Vinay, Ramon person
associatedWith Voketaitis, Arnold person
associatedWith Vorspan, Albert person
associatedWith Votipka, Thelma, 1906-1972 person
associatedWith Wagner, Richard person
associatedWith Wagner, Richard, 1813-1883 person
associatedWith Walevska, Christine person
associatedWith Wallach, Eli person
associatedWith Ward, Samuel A., 1847-1903 person
associatedWith Warner Bass Orchestra corporateBody
associatedWith Warren, Harry person
associatedWith Warren, Harry, 1893- person
associatedWith Warren, Leonard, 1911-1960 person
associatedWith Watts person
associatedWith Weede, Robert person
associatedWith Wendling person
associatedWith Wertheimer, Howard person
associatedWith Westbury Choral Society corporateBody
associatedWith Westendorf, Thomas person
associatedWith Whelan, Harold Paul person
associatedWith Willison, Walter person
associatedWith Wilousky, Peter person
associatedWith Wilson, Dolores person
associatedWith Winterhalter, Hugo person
associatedWith Wolf person
associatedWith Woodforde-Finden person
associatedWith Wood, Michael person
associatedWith Woodruff, Virginia person
associatedWith Wrightson, Earl person
associatedWith Wyman, Jane person
associatedWith Youmans, Vincent person
associatedWith Youngman, Henny person
associatedWith Zakariasen, William person
associatedWith Zaslow, Michael person
associatedWith Zlatowitz, Bernard person
associatedWith Zucca, Mana person
associatedWith Zuniga person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Subject
Musicals--Excerpts
Opera
Synagogue music
Television programs
Jews--Music
Radio programs, Musical--United States
Television talk shows
Variety shows (Television programs)
Jewish singers--United States
Tenors (Singers)--United States
Songs
Occupation
Performer
Tenors (Singers)
Function

Person

Birth 1904-06-03

Death 1984-12-15

Americans

Information

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Ark ID: w6252m7h

SNAC ID: 54454987