Retired baritone reflects…on Nelson Eddy

Bobby Brittain performed for FDR and shared stages with Lucille Ball and Ethel Barrymore.

February 29, 2008
A 12-year-old Bobby Brittain entered Tin Pan Alley in the 1930s, dressed in his knickers and naively peddling words to a song he wrote.

Brittain loved to sing. The song “March of Dimes” put him in front of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, performing at a benefit of the same name, at the Waldorf Astoria. That performance resulted in a contact from the well-known William Morris Agency in Manhattan, N.Y.

Brittain had a lot going for him — everything except for his name. The agency already had someone by that name, so Bobby Brittain had to adopt a new persona, and it was the beginning of a successful career for a man known as Tommy Dix.

Today this 84-year-old, silver-haired baritone can still croon anyone back into yesteryear. The songs still sound in his heart, and he can still remember their impact on him as a youth.

The Williamsburg resident reflected back to 1935, when his mother took him to see “Naughty Marietta,” a play with Nelson Eddy.

“I heard Nelson Eddy sing, ‘Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life,’ and I began to cry,” he said.

When his mother asked him why he was crying, he told her, “That was beautiful.”

“I knew then, that’s what I wanted to do.” After winning a four-year scholarship to Manhattan’s High School of Music & Art, he became president of the science club, where the other half of his heart lies. He claims that someone entered his name into a drawing, and he was able to attend the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University for a day, where he was privileged to hear Albert Einstein speak.

“I only understood a fraction of what he was talking about,” he says.

He was tempted toward a career in science, but singing also tugged at him and he found early success employing his voice.

“I got sidetracked,” Brittain said of his singing career. “We were poor, it was during the Depression and this was a great way to make plenty money.”

Show business gave him the chance to be the voice of Henry in the radio production of “The Aldridge Family,” among other shows. From those small beginnings, he catapulted into film; starring in “Best Foot Forward” with Lucille Ball. He lived on the West Coast for a couple of years after that, but quickly returned home. One of his songs from “Best Foot Forward” enjoyed widespread popularity, “Buckle Down Winsocki.” And, for anyone around in the 1960s, he was also the voice behind the television commercial tune “Buckle up for Safety, Buckle up.”

At the age of 15, he performed in the original stage version of “The Corn is Green,” with Ethel Barrymore.

“Don’t quote me, but I may be the only person still living from that show,” Brittain said.

As much as he enjoyed entertaining, he left the business at the age of 23.

“I didn’t like all the things that were going on, so I left,” Brittain said. “I didn’t want to be under the observation of audiences any longer. Being on tour was hard, and there was no privacy. I began to like music less, because it became a job.”

But he still loved to sing. Brittain can still sit and serenade you with his songs of long ago. He also can reminisce about his Army service during World War II, his two marriages, his son and life stories. He will reveal his love of science and the arts, and he will share tears about his beloved wife, Elizabeth, who he married in 1992 but who died two years ago.

Around his home are busts of Aristotle, Hypnos, Euripides, Beethoven and Thomas Jefferson; photos of Albert Einstein, who he holds in high esteem; and the complete collection of “Great Books of the Western World.”

“I aspire to be an appreciator of beautiful things — one should develop that sense early on. We need to stand on the shoulders of the ones that went before us. When an old man dies, a great library burns down,” he said.

He sums up his life by quoting a famous line that he lives by, from philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.”