Snapshot in Prose: Kate Smith

Most folks today who have any notion at all of Kate Smith think of her as a big gal with a big voice belting patriotic tunes in bombastic fashion. It’s hard to imagine her taking a pratfall, performing a soft shoe routine, or even offering a gentle rendition of a love song.

Kate Smith — “Maybe It’s Love”

But as is confirmed by this week’s edition of Snapshot in Prose, in her prime, Smith was a much more versatile performer than is recalled by most today. She was hugely popular, recording many hit renditions of the popular tunes of the day. And earlier in her career, she appeared in stage musicals, where she was respected as a comedienne and even a dancer (and no, she was not petite in those days).

This profile of Smith, from 1935, captures her at a point in her career when she has experenced great success and popularity but before she had become the sort of singing national monument she is now so widely thought to be.

KATE SMITH believes that if you want a thing hard enough and long enough, you’re bound to get it. She ought to know, for she wanted to be an actress from as far back as she can remember, but she had a hard time getting started on her chosen career because her family wanted her to be a nurse.
Her family thought her acting ambitions were just kid stuff and Kate couldn’t seem to convince them otherwise, so she romped through school in Washington, D. C., and when she graduated from high school she obediently packed her things and went off to Georgetown to begin her nurse’s training in a hospital there.
Although her heart wasn’t in her work, for the call of the footlights had grown stronger with each year, Kate stuck it out for 12 months and then announced emphatically that she was through—that she and nursing did not belong together. At last her family gave in and she set off for a life on the stage.
She started in vaudeville and worked her way into musical comedies, appearing in “Honeymoon Lane,” “Flying High” and “Hit the Deck,” where her vocal talents were considered secondary to her antics as a comedienne.
Behind the footlights, executing stomp and tap routines which brought down the house, Kate learned to take wisecracks about her avoirdupois. This never bothered her, however, for she is as nimble and light-footed as only a professional dancer can be.
After several years in show business she had attained the rating of a good performer—but nothing more—when she was rescued from her comparative obscurity and her voice brought to the fore by Ted Collins, her present manager, who discovered her for radio.
This was in May, 1931, and the past four years have been eventful ones for Kate. She broke an all-time record at New York’s vaudeville mecca, the Palace theatre, and with equal ease “wowed” the sophisticated crowds in the Central Park Casino with her simple ballads. To further prove her versatility, she sang the area My Heart At Thy Sweet Voice to the accompaniment of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Leopold Stokowski.
She made her movie debut in “Hello Everybody,” which was produced by Paramount, and attended her first and only big theatrical party when the film colony staged a special reception for her. She never goes to parties. She doesn’t drink, she doesn’t smoke, and she doesn’t like to talk about life. She believes that everything that occurs upon the earth is God’s doing and that’s that.

Read More »

In Your Hat, pt. 12

In Chapter 12 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars Renee Carroll, she reveals what various celebrities wrote in her collection of autograph books, and she follows that with tales of what the stars of the day liked to eat when they patronized Sardi’s.

If you took a rabbit out of those suckers’ hats
They would squawk just the same:
They all have two strikes on them
When they are born.


THAT’S an autograph left in my book by Tex. I’m not quite clear as to its meaning, and I don’t think she is either. But vaguely, it’s Broadway’s philosophy. If somebody pats you on the back, he’s only locating a spot for the knife thrust. If you give a sucker a break, he’s liable to shove his hand in and rip it apart.
Of course, all this is only sentimental hooey, and the boys and girls on Broadway are just as maudlin about one another as boys in an English boarding school. They all want to appear like awful, terrible “bad mans” with no hearts at all. The visage is stern, but the head and heart are made of mush, and it oozes through your fingers when you squeeze it.
I’ve got three books full of autographs. Perhaps a glance at some of them might throw an interesting light on the writers. I particularly like that of Frances Williams, whose cheeriness and glibness is not limited to her appeareances on the stage.

“May every hat check bring you a fat check—and may no meanie neglect my Renee—who never wrecks hats each time she checks hats—Frances Williams.”

Most of the celebrities pore over the book, seeking inspiration in the lines already written. Very few show any originality at all. Al Jolson, in one of his brighter moments, scribbled:

“Oh, look, I am in your book—thanks for letting me.”

And Louis Sobol, the Journal‘s columnist, wrote:

“To Renee, who expects something clever from me but won’t get it.”

Russell Patterson, the artist, who very rarely wears a hat, said as much, regretfully, with:

“To Renee, from her worst customer.”

Tony Canzoneri, the prize fighter, dragged his trade in by the teeth when he inscribed:

“To a real and sweet girl, with loads of knockouts.
                                           Tony Canzoneri,
                   Lightweight Champion of the World.”

The professional gate crasher, Tammany Young, waxed philosophical and wrote:

“To Renee—
   “Who takes what you give graciously. All life is a game of give and take. For what she takes she gives in a return a smile, a cheerful greeting and your belongings. May you go a long ways and prosper. Keep smiling Renee, it’s what we all go for.”

I think George Jessel‘s autograph amusing:

“To Renee—
            Duchess of Sardi,
               Baron George Jessel,
               Colonel of the Bronx Grenadiers
               And Vis-count of Brownsville.”

Sidney Skolsky, the paragrapher, gave me away with:

“You’ll always be Miss Shapiro to me—one of my best yarns. Sidney Skolsky
               P.S. She sleeps in the raw!”

If you can remember Herbert Rawlinson, you’ll remember his signature, too:

“My hat’s off to you. (Get it?) Je parle français aussi. (I hope that’s right).”

And Jesse Crawford noted:

“My autograph I here inscribe,
A member of the organ tribe
               Jesse Crawford,
               Poet (?) of the Organ.”

The little movie star, Marian Marsh, gave me a a straight tip with:

“Keep your face towards the sun and the shadows will fall behind you.”

And Reri who starred in F.W. Murnau‘s Tabu and was brought to American by Ziegfeld, wrote in the only language she knew:

“A mon amie Renee en souvenir des Ziegfeld Follies 1931.”

I offer the inscription of Sam Shipman, the playwright, because it is more or less typical of Broadway sentiment and ways of thinking:

“A hat girl who has more in her head than all the brains those hats cover. A little princess on a door mat—An oriental pearl in a suffocating shell—a ruby in a musty purse, but watch her.”

And Everett Marshall, the lusty-voiced baritone, dropped this:

“To Renee. In memory of my first daughter of four kilos.”

While Faith Baldwin, the author of Self Made Woman, wrote simply:

“Because I like red-heads.”

I’ve got lots of drawings, too, by famous artists, all of them too risqué for reproduction, and in some cases too combustible for safekeeping. Some of our best known illustrators have garnished the pages of my little books with drawings that would make those paintings on the bathroom walls of old Pompeii quiver with shame.
But not all the good things happen in autograph books or at penthouse parties. I have a lot of laughs right in the restaurant.

Read More »

Snapshot in Prose: the popular song

This week’s Snapshot in Prose doesn’t capture a particular performer at certain time in his or her career, as is usual. Instead, it captures a perennial keystone of popular culture—the hit song—and examines, via the insights and opinions of performers and other entertainment professionals of the day, what set one song apart from another—in short, what makes a song popular. We thought it’d be interesting to see what the likes of Ethel Merman and Bing Crosby had to say on the topic back in 1935, and how salient their insights might be today. Read on, and see what you think.

HAVE you ever tried to write a song? Are you one of the millions of amateur tunesmiths who haven’t been able to get anywhere in Tin Pan Alley? If you are (and who isn’t?) here are some hot tips from the boys and girls who write ’em, sing ’em, play ’em publish ’em.
I think the answer to ‘What Makes a Popular Song Popular?’ can be found in my own astonishment and pleasure over the success of one of my first tunes, Body and Soul,” said Johnny Green, youthful pianist-composer-maestro of the Columbia Broadcasting System.
Johnny told us: “Nobody was ever as surprised as myself when it caught on fire in Tin-Pan Alley. Now, I had written that tune because I wanted to write it. It had been haunting me, it was as near an inspiration as any tune could be, but I had secretly thought the melody was much too complicated and involved to find favor with the general public.
“After that song was put over in a big way I fought for my style of composing tooth and nail, insisting that not even a measure should be changed but it took the enthusiasm of the public to convince me that I was on the right track. The moral, boys and girls, is this: The real hit tunes are probably the ones that the composers couldn’t help writing.”
On the other hand, Kate Smith, who has popularized many ditties (including When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain, remember?) believes that trying to figure out the exact ingredients of a successful song is like trying to answer the question, “how high is up?”
“The moods and tendencies of the public changes like a chameleon,” Kate believes. “Sometimes they feel ironic about romance; sometimes sentimental; sometimes wistful. Incidentally, the tune which catches the prevalent sentiment is likely to start a new trend in popular songs. There will be lots of others like it, once it has caught fire but probably none of them will find favor with the public like the first one. Remember how The Last Round-Up started an avalanche of hill-billy tunes?”
Conrad Thibault, baritone singing star of the Showboat and many other big air programs feels that the thing that makes a song popular is a good message, both in lyrics and music, played and delivered in such a manner that even a person who has no musical training at all can understand it.
As master of ceremonies of one of the biggest Amateur Night broadcasts in all radio, we were sure that Ray Perkins would have reached some interesting conclusions. Ray, you know, is one of those old gong ringers who goes into action whenever the amateur talent and their renditions get too painful.
“A hit tune,” Ray informs us, “is a song that no one can murder . . . not even an amateur! It has nine lives . . . like a cat!” And with this astute observation Ray went off in search of bigger and louder gongs.
Jack Mills, head of Mills Music, has published hundreds of big song hits during the past fifteen years. Among the songs which he rightly predicted would become popular, are Dinah, Star Dust, Moonglow, Haunting Me and I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby.
From the publisher’s point of view there are four requisites for songs hoping to find a welcome at Mills Music. Jack enumerates them, as follows:

Read More »

Snapshot in Prose: Annette Hanshaw

This week’s Snapshot in Prose captures Cladrite Radio sweetheart Annette Hanshaw at the height of her fame. The year is 1935, and she’s already sold more than 4,000,000 records, has declined stage and screen offers, and claims to be mulling over the marketing of her personal method for reading music without any training. Alas, just two or three years later, she’ll give up recording and performing altogether, opting instead for a sedate married life with her husband, Pathé Records executive Herman “Wally” Rose.

And just FYI, Hanshaw’s nephew, one Frank W. Hanshaw III, says that her birth certificate says she was entered the world not in 1910, as the story below claims, but in 1901. Oh Annette, you deceitful minx!

It's an Art

DO YOU KNOW that the best known and highest paid artists on the air never studied music in their lives and wouldn’t know a cadenza from a condenser? ‘S a fact! If you studied the lives of Bing Crosby, Kate Smith and Annette Hanshaw with a microscope, you’d find that their music educations have been sadly neglected.

Do you think they worry over the fact that their technical knowledge of music is so limited? No, and you wouldn’t either if you had their incomes. Their stories only go to prove that you don’t have to have special privileges to get places in radio, singing, music. And the same thing is probably true in every other field of endeavor.
Let’s take the career of Annette Hanshaw, for instance. She was born in New York City in 1910. Her father instilled in her a natural love of music and she believes she could sing before she could speak. Anyhow, she was able to sing the choruses of 16 popular ditties of the day before she was 16 months old, and she’s added at least a song a month to her repertoire ever since.
Annette liked to sing always. Most of us are the same way. She surely had a natural flair for singing but since it was so effortless for her she never dreamed that some day it would pay substantial dividends.
She thought a career necessarily meant hard work, so she ploughed through school and took various courses, specializing in portrait painting. She aspired to be a commercial artist. She entered the National Academy of Design in New York and showed remarkable promise.
She went to parties often during the days when she was a popular young debutante and it was at one of these gatherings that an executive for a record company heard her warbling in her own, carefree way. He listened while she sang song after song to rounds of applause and many encores. At the end of the evening he handed her his card and suggested that she call at his office.
More as a lark than anything else she made a voice test at the recording executive’s request. She was having loads of fun and enjoyed it immensely when they put her in front of an orchestra while the wax disc whirled. She had had such a good time that she was almost ashamed to accept the check they handed her.
All of this took place less than seven years ago and since then her phonograph recordings have sold more than 4,000,000 copies, and she has managed to lose all hesitancy about accepting checks.
Throughout this entire procedure—and even today—she never read a note of music. She couldn’t. What she could and did do, though, was thoroughly memorize and cue every song she sang.
Although she has had many stage and screen offers, Annette has consistently refused to accept any of them because she wants to concentrate on her radio broadcasting and phonograph recording. She once even refused an offer from the great Florenz Ziegfeld, himself.
She rehearses in the evening, drinks lots of water before and during broadcasts, dictates all replies to her fan mail herself and scrupulously autographs all pictures herself.
Someday she may patent her method of reading music. Annette says it is really very simple and anyone ought to be able to learn the system in ten easy lessons.

*  *  *  *  *

Here’s a bonus treat for our fellow Hanshaw fans, one of our very favorites of her recordings:

Annette Hanshaw — Fit as a Fiddle