- Historic Sites
Lullaby Of Tin Pan Alley
The ceaseless clatter of cheap pianos from a mid-Manhattan side street was once music to all America
October/november 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 6
There had already been a few numbers about the conflict in Europe, including Al Piantadosi’s mildly pacifistic “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.” But when the United States entered the war in 1917, song writers immediately adopted an extreme patriotism. George M. Cohan’s response suggests the atmosphere of martial glee: “I read those war headlines and I got to thinking and humming to myself—and for a moment I thought I was going to dance.” That same morning he wrote “Over There.” Within a week, “Good-by Broadway, Hello France,” was on the department stores’ sheet-music counters, and it was followed in short order by “I’m Glad I Raised My Boy to Be a Soldier,” “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Slacker,” “We Don’t Want the Bacon, All We Want Is a Piece of the Rhine,” and scores of others. The war also made its way into love songs—including such hallmarks of good taste as “Your Lips Are No Man’s Land but Mine” and “If He Fights Like He Makes Love, Goodbye Germany.”
As usual Max Dreyfus rose far above the Tin Pan Alley standard. If there was a single reason for his success, besides his talent-spotting ability, it was probably the respect—almost veneration—he had for his writers. Irving Brown, who was vice-president of Chappell in the fifties, says that at the daily four o’clock meetings he had with his boss, one theme would be sounded again and again: “The writers. The writers. Always take care of your writers. Without them you’re nothing.” When Richard Rodgers was finally taken into the Harms fold, Dreyfus asked him to promise one thing: “If you ever need money, I don’t want you to go to anyone else but me. From now on, don’t ever forget that I’m your friend.” Dreyfus was as good as his word. The stock market crash hit most of his “boys” hard, and they came to him for help. All were obliged. Afterward he called Russell Bennett into his office and said: “This morning I cleaned out that desk. I’m no longer a millionaire.”
DREYFUS’S DEDICATION to his writers may have stemmed from his own frustrated ambition to be one. Born in Kuppenheim, Germany, in 1874, the son of a cattle dealer, he came to America at the age of fourteen. After peddling picture frames through the South, he decided he wanted to write songs. He did turn out one hit—“Cupid’s Garden”—an instrumental published under the pseudonym “Max Eugene” that achieved a certain success as background music in the early years of silent films. But his talents lay elsewhere. Unlike most Alley denizens, he could read music, and while Witmark’s rejected some of his tunes in 1895, they did accept him as a staff pianist and arranger. He moved on to the firm of Howley, Haviland and Dresser, where he also plugged songs and made the acquaintance of the then-unknown Theodore Dreiser, who edited the house organ, Every Month . Soon afterward Dreyfus moved to Harms, where he started as staff arranger, advanced to professional manager and 25 percent partner, and in 1904 became full owner.
The tear-jerker “After the Ball” was the Alley’s first best seller.
Dreyfus turned the floundering firm around. Where it had previously been an Alley song mill like any other, under Dreyfus it became closely associated with the stage—and thus with a higher-quality product. Victor Herbert, the king of operetta, left Witmark’s for Harms shortly after Dreyfus took over. And then there was Kern, the first of a new generation of songwriters. Eventually, according to Irving Caesar, “to get into the orbit of Harms was every composer’s dream.”
Dreyfus managed to make the Harms offices on West Forty-fifth Street the Tin Pan Alley equivalent of the Algonquin Round Table that convened one block to the south. The music historian David Ewen described the “professional parlor” that developed some years after Dreyfus’s accession this way:
“Important composers and lyricists of that day made it a habit to drop in at Harms during the noonday hours for some music, shoptalk, social palaver. George Gershwin could be found there several times a week. Harry Ruby, Bert Kalmar, Joe Meyer, Buddy De Sylva, Vincent Youmans, Irving Caesar, Paul Charig—later on, Arthur Schwartz, Vernon Duke and Harold Arlen— hovered around Gershwin like satellites… . Caesar was something of the court jester, delighting the group with impromptu parodies and improvised opera arias. …”
Dreyfus held similar soirees, for a more select group, at the country homes he acquired in Bronxville and Brewster, New York. Caesar (who says, “I loved Max, and I think he sort of approved of me”) remembers going to a ball game with Dreyfus every Friday afternoon and then on to the country, where the guest list would include the most favored boys, plus such interested observers as Behrman and Oscar Levant. There was softball, bowling in a barn that had been converted into an alley, fishing in a private stream, horseback riding on a private half-mile track. At night there would be fine wine, cigars, and superb German food— Levant reported almost being thrown out of his first Bronxville dinner after he asked for ketchup. And music—with the boys trying out their latest compositions, and Dreyfus and Levant playing Brahms or Schubert four-handed on two of the four grand pianos. And jokes. During a birthday party for Victor Herbert, things got so rowdy that Tin Pan Alley’s finest composers ended up throwing raw steaks at each other.