Karle, Theo (1893-1972)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 8/07/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20822
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Theo Karle Johnston was the first musical talent to emerge from the Pacific Northwest and become an international star. While still a teenager, Johnston worked as a church soloist in Olympia before moving to Seattle, where he trained as an operatic tenor. In 1915 he headed to America's music capitol, New York City, where he made a big splash at his concert debut, wowing the city's elite musicians and arts critics alike. Using the stage name "Theo Karle," he passed an audition with the Victor label, cut his first discs in 1916, and produced many others for the Brunswick label throughout the 1920s. Dubbed "The Western Tenor," Karle became a concert headliner, often performing alongside many of the era's opera legends and singing in prestigious venues from London to Paris to Monte Carlo. He also served in World War I, and from 1930 to 1934 performed several shows weekly on the CBS radio network, later performing on a pioneering TV show. With his wife, Nora, a pianist, he often returned to the Northwest for concerts. The couple moved back to Seattle in 1941, where Karle taught music and continued to record before passing away on May 7, 1972.

Early Promise

Said to be a descendant of President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), Theo Karle Johnston was born on July 30, 1893, in Perry, Iowa. In 1903 his parents, Albert H. Johnston (1852-1903) and Eva L. Johnston (1858-1939), moved him and his siblings, Clarence and Blanche, to Pullman, Washington. Albert passed away suddenly that same year, and Eva relocated the family to Olympia, where they lived at 123 W 18th Avenue. He was evidently gifted from a young age -- his mother once said that when he was a little fellow he would stand at her knee and sing by the hour. The Johnstons attended a Presbyterian church, and at the age of about 16 Theo joined the church choir, where the organist was attracted by the quality of his voice.

That organist hired the young fellow "with the fresh and strong tenor" to sing in his church on Sundays for one dollar a week ("Theo Karle," record sleeve), and later gave Karle a letter of introduction to Edmund J. Myer (1846-1934), a prominent vocal instructor from New York. Myer and his wife, Ethel, had been offering formal musical instruction in Seattle since 1906, and were based in the Fischer Building at 1519 3rd Avenue, home to several music-oriented businesses.

Johnston moved to Seattle in 1909, perhaps because the town was then hosting its first world's fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, and his brother, Clarence, was already living there. He attended Lincoln High School, and in 1910 met up with Myer and auditioned for him. Myer later recalled that Theo had "a rather large and spread voice with very little compass" (The Musician, p. 396). But the trained ear of the experienced teacher heard something unusual in the tone, and he said to Theo, "Young man, go home and tell your mother that you have the kind of voice that Carusos are made of" (The Musician, p. 396).

Johnston impressed Seattle's elites with his first professional appearance, at the Sunset Club's meeting space in the Adrian Court Apartments, and made an even bigger splash when he appeared in concert with the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra ("The Sunset Club ..."). After graduating from Lincoln in 1914 -- where the brawny 6-foot, 2-inch student also turned out for the football squad -- Theo was ready for the big time.

Bright Lights, Big City

Convinced of Johnston's early skills and the promise of a great future, Edmund Myer took his student to New York City in late 1915 to launch the young man's career in earnest. In December that year The Seattle Times revealed provincial pride over his progress, noting that Johnston "is fulfilling so far the most sanguine expectations of his intimate friends, winning as opportunity presents the most enthusiastic recognition from authoritative musicians. Harrison Wilde, conductor of the Chicago Apollo Club, is quoted as saying to him: 'Young man, the world is yours for the taking'" ("Johnston Making Good").

Arrangements were made for the singer to make his Big Apple debut in January 1916 at the prestigious Rubenstein Club, where he wowed the audience and became an overnight sensation. No surprise then that he was soon hired as a soloist at the famed Fifth Avenue Brick Church (at 62 E 92nd Street), and also made high-profile appearances with various concert and opera stars, including Louise Homer (1871-1947), Geraldine Farrar (1882-1957), Frieda Hempel (1885-1955), and Alma Gluck (1884-1938). A fast-rising star -- now performing as "Theo Karle" -- he soon began touring as soloist with the New York Philharmonic, and the media began fawning over him as "The Western Tenor" ("Theo Karle Again ...").

Of his talents, The Musician magazine noted: "His voice is a very full lyric tenor with much dramatic power. He has unusual color quality and variety of tone, and the ease with which he sings and his control are the admiration of all. His compass is equal to the requirements of any role written for the tenor voice. The great charm, however, of Mr. Karle's singing, aside from his personality and his stage presence, is the fascinating beauty of the voice itself" ("Theo Karle, The American Tenor").

Early Recordings

Theo Karle's emergence coincided with the rise of the record industry. Recording pioneers like Thomas A. Edison (1847-1931) and his namesake record label in West Orange, New Jersey; the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. in New York City; and the Victor Talking Machine Co. in Camden, New Jersey, helped lead the way. Victor, in particular, scored commercially with the hundreds of discs they released by one of America's premier Irish tenors, the mega-successful recording star John McCormack (1884-1945).

Legend holds that Karle initially auditioned for Edison but was turned down, though one must wonder, given the singer's otherwise stellar reputation, exactly how and why that could have happened. Regardless, Karle was soon working with Victor, and on January 14, 1916, he made test recordings of "Mattinata" and "My Heart Shall Be Thy Garden" for that company. He returned to the Victor studio on March 17 and cut four songs with the backing of an orchestra -- "'Tis The Day (Mattinata)," "I Know of Two Bright Eyes," "My Heart Shall Be Thy Garden," and "Siciliana" -- which were released on 78-rpm discs.

In June 1916 word broke in Olympia that Karle's recordings had been released, and the Washington Standard reported that its hometown boy "has just been enrolled as a Victor artist and has two beautiful records just out. The clear enunciation and careful tone work of the young tenor are very marked in these records and his friends are sure to want his first achievement in the popular field of endeavor" ("Some News Notes…"). 

Wowing Crowds

In early 1916 the first of Karle's many nationwide concert tours began, and it was on the evening of February 16 that Seattleites turned out in droves to attend a homecoming concert for him at the Metropolitan Theatre at 4th Avenue and University Street. Indeed, ticket sales were so strong that a second show was added -- and then a third.

After that, Karle was off and away barnstorming the nation, and the critical raves flowed. In a story announcing his upcoming visit to Eastern Washington in September 1916, The Pullman Tribune cited newspaper reviews Karle had received in other cities. The Peoria, Illinois, Transcript had reported on April 12, "He is a handsome young singer of powerful physique. He hails from the West and is possessed of a powerful tenor voice. His selection, 'Onaway, Awake, Beloved,' by Coleridge-Taylor, called forth repeated applause." On May 1, in Dallas, Texas, the Times-Herald gushed that Karle had "made friends of the Dallas audience at once. [He] looked like a prosperous young business man at an afternoon tea and sang like a seraph gifted of the gods. His voice is a tenor of purest quality with a robust power that carried his pure tones to the furthermost reaches of the Coliseum." And The Chattanooga News from Tennessee said on May 18, "Probably the most distinctive success of the evening was scored by Theo Karle, tenor. Of distinctly pleasing youth and personality he won his audience from the start" ("Young Singer…").

In that spring of 1916, transcontinental telephone service was established between the East and West coasts, a technological breakthrough that was cause for celebration. It was on May 31 that Seattle's Chamber of Commerce made arrangements with the American Telephone & Telegraph Company and the local Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Company to entertain the attendees of a special dinner in the main dining room of the New Washington Hotel at 1902 2nd Avenue. It was reported that "A corps of experts had been at work five days installing the equipment of the telephone company in the dining room of the Washington with cables strung through the chandeliers and trunks running down to each table, connecting with a telephone receiver extending to every plate" ("New York Talks …"). Among the 300 who dined and marveled as they listened to long-distance speeches by a former senator and various media barons, and a song by Karle, were Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Burke (1849-1925), Seattle Post-Intelligencer editor C. T. Conover, and Karle's mother and brother.

Music Festivals

In July 1916 Olympia's Washington Standard newspaper announced that "the former local boy who has made such a success as a singer in New York returned from the East" last week, would be visiting his sister in Olympia, and would then sing in a performance of George Frederic Handel's oratorio from Messiah "which is to be presented in Seattle by a chorus of 300 voices" ("Some News Notes ...," July 21, 1916). That event, held on July 23, was promoted as Seattle's "First Annual Music Festival," and the orchestra's conductor was none other than Claude Madden, a prominent Seattle musician who also served the arts community in several other capacities, including as musical director for the Amphion Society and president of both the Seattle Clef Club and the Seattle Composer's Society. The soloists that day included some of the finest singing talents on the local scene, including contralto Mary Louise Clary, soprano Alma Simpson, baritone George Hastings -- and Theo Karle.

From October 5 through 7, 1916, Karle performed at the 20th annual Maine Music Festival. Appearing as Don José in scenes from Carmen, Karle, "whose voice is of most sympathetic quality" was praised for singing "the difficult solo part in a most satisfying way" ("Maine Music Festivals"). One week later, on October 14, the Worchester Musical Association held its 59th annual festival in New York. Among the participants was Karle, who the day following his performance was described in the Sunday Oregonian as a "Western find" who "establishes himself in high Rank." The review went on to say:

"Mr. Karle has one of the most beautiful voices of the present day and granted all the growth that will naturally come to one who will easily become a reigning favorite, he will be one of the greatest tenors in the country. Already now, in what may be called extreme youth, both in years and experiences, he made an electrifying effect and well-earned the tremendous applause which was lavished upon him" ("Worchester's Annual Music ...").

Meanwhile, World War I was spreading across much of Europe.

The War Years

World War I had been raging since 1914, but the United States did not become a combatant until April 6, 1917, when it declared war against Germany and its allies. Among the legions of patriotic boys who rushed to register for enlistment was Theo Karle, who was assigned Registration No. 786. Like countless others, he had to wait to learn whether the draft drew his number, and while waiting he had a medical emergency and was hospitalized. The Washington Standard kept its readers informed about Karle, and later reported that he "was drafted when the 104th number was drawn. He is just recovering from an operation for appendicitis, however, and probably will not be able to pass the examination" ("Some News Notes ...," July 27, 1917).The medical exam left him classified for partial service, due to the physical disability caused by the operation. About two weeks later it was announced that Karle was among numerous young local men whom the military rejected for reasons of "physical disability" (Untitled, August 10, 1917). The news was not all bad; on August 15 the parents of Seattle pianist Lenora "Nora" Christof  announced that she and Karle were engaged.

Despite his physical ailments, Karle kept busy that summer of 1917. A rather ambitious music event was scheduled in Tacoma, previewed in the Washington Standard: "Local music lovers are taking considerable interest in the music festival to be given at the Stadium in Tacoma [on] August 15, the performers at which will be Theo Karle, Madame Jomelli and the Seattle symphony orchestra" ("Music Festival At Tacoma"). The event was to be a big one -- director, F. W. Wallis had trained a chorus of 200 voices for two months, and Mme. Jeanne Jomelli (1879-1932) -- the famed Dutch opera soprano -- would be making her only appearance in the Northwest.

On September 5 Karle sang at Seattle's First Presbyterian Church, and the following morning he and Nora were married. The couple planned on "going to New York where Theo Karle will start an extensive concert tour, including recitals at all the large army cantonments" ("Theo Karle Is Married").

In the Army

In April 1918 the local draft board reclassified Karle as 1-A, and by May he had to cancel the remaining dates of a two-year concert tour. He reported for duty to the 91st Division at Camp Lewis (today's Joint Base Lewis-McChord) in Pierce County, where he became an assistant in army's Depot Brigade Library. But Karle's skills as a singer were not unutilized -- as one history of Camp Lewis noted: "He had sung with Farrar, Homer, Hemp[el], Gluck and others, now he sings for his countrymen …" (Palmer-Henderson).

Indeed, in addition to entertaining his fellow troops, Karle's general popularity was employed by the military for the greater good of the cause. In May 1918 the Washington Standard reported that "Karle was granted a furlough shortly after his arrival at the Camp, in order to give a farewell concert in Seattle Monday evening, for the benefit of the Red Cross" ("Theo Karle Heads Quota"). On August 3, 1918, Karle was back in Seattle headlining a war fundraising event at the Moore Theatre. "No admission was charged; thrift stamps sold at the door entitled one to a seat, and a war savings stamp to a reserved seat." Karle's fans "filled the auditorium and $8,000 was realized" ("W.S.S. Admit To Concert ..."). By the next month, Theo and Nora Karle were traveling and performing together at military outposts all across the nation.

After The War

The "war to end all wars" finally ended with the surrender of Germany on November 11, 1918, and while victorious nations celebrated, their troops, including Theo Karle, began returning to civilian life. By May 1819 Karle was back out touring, performing in Ohio, Missouri, Georgia, and on and on. Indeed, the ever-popular singer was now doing hundreds of concerts a year -- shows that "left the ladies swooning in the aisles" ("'Moaners' Sadden ...").

On April 3, 1920, his performance at New York's Aeolian Hall received a typically positive review: "Mr. Karle revealed an ease and confidence which were justified by his performance" ("Theo Karle Again …"). Other critics would agree: "Karle, who has come to the front in leaps and bounds during the past few years, has a voice of wide range and beautiful quality. As a concert singer he deserved the success he has achieved. In addition to his vocal accomplishments, he has a fine physique and stage presence, which add much to the popularity of an artist" ("Theo Karle, Tenor").

In July 1920 Karle saved the day when the German American contralto opera star Madame Schumann-Heink (1861-1936) was slated to perform at a concert in Tacoma. After suffering an injury, she was forced to cancel, but rather than disappoint the expectant crowd, Karle jumped in and replaced her.

A 'Remarkably Gifted Recorder'

Karle had cut one last song, "Her Heart," for the Victor label way back on December 14, 1916, but after just more than three years of inactivity in the recording studio, he switched to Brunswick in January 1920. It was with Brunswick that he would hit his commercial stride, with songs representing many styles and genres, including operatic classics, Irish favorites, sacred hymns, love ballads, patriotic anthems -- and plenty of recordings to help satisfy the Hawaiian-exotica fad of the Roaring '20s.

Brunswick's promotions certainly hyped their new star in a robust manner: "Theo Karle is as virile as versatile, he sings from his heart right to the people, and they love him and his message of beauty. He is, as proved every day, a remarkably gifted recorder, and his choice of Brunswick records as his exclusive recording medium gives him and the Brunswick Company much pleasure" ("Theo Karle," Brunswick).

Over the following four years Karle's fans would likewise be pleased. He produced more recordings for Brunswick -- at least 140 songs -- than any other artist ever would. The high quality and sheer quantity of these releases saw Karle being compared to the famed Irish tenor John McCormack. His activities and accomplishments were tracked by major music publications, including Musical Courier and Musical America magazines.

An International Rising Star

By the mid-1920s Karle had already completed 22 coast-to-coast tours, doing as many as 90 concerts per season. On October 3, 1921, at Portland's Public Auditorium, Karle did a show with the legendary Cuban pianist, Enrique Ros, who was making his American debut. The tour also included a stop on October 17 at Seattle's Metropolitan Theatre -- a show promoted with Karle's image featured on the cover of The Town Crier magazine. Later came the June 18, 1923, concert at the University of Washington's football stadium, where he was billed as "America's Foremost Tenor." That September Karle returned to the First Presbyterian Church for a performance that again brought him to the cover of The Town Crier.

The prestigious North Shore Music Festival was held annually on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, from 1909 through 1939. It regularly featured many of biggest names in opera, and Karle performed there in 1922, 1923, and 1925. And on March 12, 1925, The Seattle Times reported that "Mrs. Eva L. Johnston of Olympia received one of the greatest thrills of her life one evening last week when she heard over the radio the voice of her son, Theo Karle, famous concert and grand opera singer, singing in concert in New York City. The concert was relayed through station KDKA, East Pittsburgh, and picked up in the home of Dr. W. W. Miller, son-in-law of Mrs. Johnston. Dr. Miller was doing a little long distance tuning when he picked up the voice, which was immediately recognized as Theo Karle's ("Mother of Theo Karle …").

It was at about this point that Theo and Nora Karle "turned to the international concert circuit, traveling as much as 30,000 miles a year" ("Theo Karle, Retired ..."). In 1926 they embarked for Europe, where Karle studied singing in Paris, and in 1927 he made his debut at the Opéra-Comique as Almaviva in Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Soon after, he also sang there as Cavaradossi in Puccini's Tosca, and later performed at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo in Monaco.

Back To America

In 1930 the Karles returned to America, and Theo signed on as a staff radio artist for the Columbia Broadcasting System. Up through 1938 he made appearances on the Light Opera program on Tuesdays, the Cathedral Hour on Sundays, and on his own weekly Thursday evening show. In addition, Karle performed on a pioneering television show while in New York, and in 1933 was hired as a vocal teacher at the New York School of Vocal Art. Meanwhile, he and Nora continued touring and performing at concert halls and theaters.

In the summer of 1936 the Karles returned home to visit Seattle, and The Times reported, "When his season ended several weeks ago, he felt an urge to see the green hills and the lakes and salt water of the Northwest again. With his wife he is spending the summer at the Lake Washington home of T. F. Barsby. 'I guess this country gets into your blood … I've seen Italy and Monte Carlo, and I've sung in a lot of places all over the world, but I still want to come back'" ("Olympia Boy …").

Home Again to Seattle

In 1941 Theo and Nora Karle settled into a new downtown residence in Seattle at 1400 Hubbell Place and joined the First Church of Christ, Scientist on E Denny Way, where he would serve as a soloist for the remainder of his days. He also began providing vocal instruction to many area students, including the noted concert soprano, Rebecca Radcliffe. But his prize student was Duvall native Martha Wright (1923-2016), who later gained fame on New York's RKO-WOR Radio, on Broadway, and through recordings with RCA-Victor Records.

One major change that had occurred in Seattle in the decades since Karle had begun his career was that there were now a few locally based record companies. The most active was Adolph Linden's (1889-1969) Linden Records, in the Northern Life Tower at 1220 3rd Avenue. With a native-son music star available, Linden was excited to pair Karle with a few of his top talents. The resulting recordings featured Karle backed by Bob Harvey's Orchestra and the Gay Jones Trio, and several with him as a soloist.

Though he had stopped touring and recording by 1952, Karle continued to offer many local performances and served as a judge in various talent competitions. As an artist whose heyday preceded the careers of subsequent iconic singers -- including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley -- it comes as no surprise that Karle had little interest in pop, jazz, or rock 'n' roll. In 1965 an aging Karle complained to The Seattle Times:

"I hear lots of young people with wonderful voices, but after six months of instruction they see somebody yelling his lungs out or twisting his pelvis and making $100,000-a-year and they ask, 'Can I get rich in opera or concerts?' 'No,' I reply, 'you probably can't get rich,' so they go off after money in some other way. It makes me sad when a great voice goes into the pop field, or when some opera star begins doing red-hot-mama songs when she doesn't have the flair for it" ("Moaners Sadden ...").

Karle would know -- at one point well into his career he was pushed into singing on the radio with a "flossy dance band. 'Well, … I lost those listeners who liked my concert voice and I didn't gain any of those who liked pop music. I simply wasn't a pop singer'" ("Moaners Sadden ...").

Theo Karle -- Seattle's world famous concert soloist, pioneering recording star, and mentor and teacher to many -- died of a sudden illness on May 7, 1972, while relaxing at his and Nora's retreat out on the Olympic Peninsula.


"Johnston Making Good," The Seattle Times, Music and Fine Arts Section, December 5, 1915, p. 5; "Johnston Lands," The Seattle Times, December 19, 1915, p. 6; "Seattle Tenor Stirs Gotham," Ibid., February 6, 1916, p. 6; "Theo Karle In Concert," Ibid., display ad, June 15, 1923, p. 10; "Mother of Theo Karle Hears Him Over Radio," Ibid., March 12, 1925, p. 14; "Olympia Boy Goes Songbird; Now He's Famous Theo Karle," Ibid., July 21, 1936, p. 12; C. T. Conover, "When Long Distance Phone Service Came To Seattle," Ibid., May 26, 1949, p. 50; C. T. Conover, "The Sunset Club, Center Of Hospitality, Cultural Activities," Ibid., Sunday Magazine, February 22, 1951, p. 6; Don Duncan "'Moaners' Sadden Great Tenor," Ibid., February 16, 1965, p. 4; "Theo Karle, Retired Teacher, Singer, Dies," Ibid., May 9, 1972, p. C-15; "Eva Johnston Rites Tuesday Afternoon," The Morning Olympian, September 3, 1939, p. 2; "New York Talks To Seattle," New Seattle Chamber of Commerce Record, Vol. 4, no. 6 (June 1916), p. 10; "Young Singer Coming To Pullman Wed'Day -- Former Pullman Boy To Greet Audience from Stage of College Auditorium," The Pullman Tribune, September 8, 1916, p. 1; "Maine Music Festivals Pass 20th Mile-Stone," Musical America, Vol. 24, no. 24 (October 14, 1916), p. 193; "Worchester's Annual Music Treat Reveals Some Wonderful Artists," Sunday Oregonian, October 15, 1916, p. 4; "Theo Karle, The American Tenor," The Musician, Vol. 22, no. 1 (January 1917), p. 396; "Some News Notes of the City," Washington Standard (Olympia), June 2, 1916, p. 8; "Music Festival at Tacoma," Ibid., August 10, 1917, p. 1; Untitled, Ibid., July 21, 1916, p. 1; "Some News Notes of the City," Ibid., July 27, 1917, p. 8; Untitled, Ibid., August 10, 1917, p. 5; Untitled, Ibid., August 17, 1917, p. 5; "Theo Karle Is Married," Ibid., September 7, 1917, p. 1; "Theo Karle To Be Called," Ibid., April 26, 1918, p. 1; "Theo Karle Heads Quota," Ibid., May 31, 1918, p. 7; "W.S.S. Admit To Concert -- Theo Karle Soloist at Seattle Event," Musical America, August 24, 1918, p. 30; "Theo Karle Again Shows His Mettle," Ibid., April 10, 1920, p. 31; Alice Palmer-Henderson, The Ninety-First, The First At Camp Lewis (Tacoma: John C. Barr, 1918), 138; "Theo Karle, Tenor," Musical Courier, Vol. 80, no. 15 (April 8, 1920), p. 38; "Theo Karle Opens Portland's Season," Ibid., Vol. 83, no. 17 (October 27, 1921), p. 51; "Theo Karle," The Town Crier, October 15, 1921, p. 1; "Theo Karle Concert," Ibid., Sep 6, 1924, pp. 1, 14; "Theo Karle," Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. record sleeve, circa 1922, in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle; "Theo Karle (Theo Karle Johnston) (Tenor) (Perry, Iowa July 30, 1895 or 1893 - ? 1972), Forgotten Opera Singers website accessed on June 12, 2019 (https://forgottenoperasingers.blogspot.com/2016/07/theo-karle-theo-karle-johnston-tenor.html).






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