Adapted from my liner notes for Van and Schenck: Pennant-Winning Battery of Songland, available from Archeophone Records.
In 1925 when readers first cracked open their brand new copies of The Great Gatsby and encountered the quoted lyrics to “Ain’t We Got Fun,” the voices they would have heard in their heads would most likely have been those of Van and Schenck. The duo had first popularized the song, which seemed to epitomize that era of fads and carefree abundance, in 1921. In the age of song pluggers they were tops in their field, not far behind Al Jolson or Eddie Cantor. Other numbers associated with the team included “For Me and My Gal”, “Carolina in the Morning” and “Mandy”.
Vaudeville historian Douglas Gilbert said they were “the best, in the opinion of many, of the two man piano acts.” If this sounds like damning the team with faint praise it must be kept in mind that were dozens, probably hundreds of such acts in vaudeville’s heyday, among them giants like Sissle and Blake, Buck and Bubbles, and Blossom Seeley and Benny Fields. Chico Marx was the ivory man for such an act before eventually joining up with his brothers. To be the standard-bearer for piano duos was the equivalent of being the top rock combo in the age of the British Invasion.
What set Van and Schenck apart was a potent mix of vocal ability, personality, and a shrewd ear for commercial hits. Schenck played piano and sang high harmonies. Van was a character singer who specialized in dialects, a prized skill in the early years of the twentieth century when songwriters like Irving Berlin were cranking out songs in mock Italian, Irish and “Hebe”, in addition to the popular and unfortunately named “coon” songs that had been around for decades. The team sang duets and filled out their act with a funny, effortless banter which must have come natural to them, given the fact that they had been pals since boyhood.
Gus Van (August Von Glahn) was born August 12, 1887; his partner Joe Schenck followed him four years later, although the exact birth date is not known. They were born and raised in Ridgewood, a mostly German enclave then considered a part of Brooklyn but which today falls within the border of Queens. In 19th century and early 20th century New York, the German immigrant community was second only to the Irish in numbers and influence on the culture at large, so much so that America’s birthday came to be associated with a wide range of German contributions: hot dogs, hamburgers, cold cuts, pickles, beer — and brass bands playing rousing marches. The German love for music was to affect every strata of American culture. Operetta would soon morph into musical comedy, and marches would be adapted by African-Americans into jazz and ragtime. Van and Schenk would be living embodiments of that evolution.
Schenk’s maternal grandfather Herman Graupner was one of the area’s pioneer bakers, having brought his lucrative talents to Brooklyn from Saxony in 1868. His mother, Margaret “Ma” Schenck was to become a famous local character on account of the boy she raised. A stage-struck girl, she kept a scrapbook of her favorite stars, Lottie Gilson, Maggie Cline, Weber and Fields. It appears that she egged Joe on from a young age. Her later reports about the origins of his talent smack something of hagiography. The boy attended Catholic school at Most Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Bushwick, where music and art were included in the enlightened curriculum. According to Ma, Joe combined the two subjects and built himself a toy piano, proclaiming “When I grow big, I’ll play a real one.” Perhaps more substantively, the boy sang at monthly entertainments at school assemblies. On one notable occasion, he created his own high harmony part in a choir presentation and was singled out for his God-given talent by the Monseigneur himself. To Schenck’s stagestruck mother, this was like a direct instruction from on high to cultivate the boy’s talent.
Van attended the same school, but while they boys knew each other, they weren’t to perform together for several years. In those days before tv, radio and talkies, there were many opportunities to perform live, and initially each boy made his way through this world separately, singing at social clubs, saloons, beer gardens, and dance halls, gradually professionalizing and graduating to theatres.
In around 1905, Van split off of the act Edwards, Ryan and Keeney and went solo. Dissatisfied with his original accompanist, he hired Schenck.
For years, the teenage Schenck was only Van’s accompanist, and besides, he had his own irons in the fire. By around 1908, he had formed his own band, the Schenk and McKee Orchestra, with a repertoire that included Scott Joplin rags and Irving Berlin’s first song “Marie, from Sunny Italy”. The “orchestra” was actually a quartet, which featured his partner Gus McKee on violin, a drummer, and a trumpet player. Occasionally, others would sit in to augment the line-up. A period clipping features a photo of the aspiring bunch, dubbing Schenck “The Boy Sousa”.
For a time, the outfit practiced at the Greenpoint home of Schenck’s girlfriend, 15 year old Mae West. (The two had met when Schenck’s mother, a nurse, had to gone to tend Mae’s brother John when he was down with pneumonia.) Mae, by then already a seasoned child-performer, would sit in, singing along at rehearsals and at some of their informal early dates at private parties. According to the reminiscences of an area neighbor, Mae would do “her imitations of Pat Rooney, Eva Tanguay and George M. Cohan” and Schenk “would stand on his head and play a few bars of ‘Pony Boy’”.
Around 1910, Schenck’s voice changed and settled into a tenor and he became a full partner in Van’s vaudeville act. The story usually given out by publicists was that they worked together as a conductor and a motorman on a Brooklyn trolley. While there may be some truth in it (Van’s stint with the transit company is documented), the more accurate rendering is that they had known each other for years, and their paths had crossed many times before they formally became Van and Schenck.
Success came early. By 1912 they had published a song “Teach Me That Beautiful Love”, and Variety called them “one of the best teams of its kind in vaudeville.” In early years they were often compared with Collins and Harlan (Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan), the “Half Ton Duo”, a pair of plus-sized songsters who specialized in rags and coon songs, but also occasionally essayed other stereotypical dialects such as Irishmen and Yankee Farmers. Van and Schenck’s act was similar, but with a fresher, more “Jazz Age” appeal.
There is something breezy and “social” about the cheerful, energetic way Van and Schenck sing and play, reminiscent of a couple of guys getting up and entertaining at a party – which is pretty much how they got their start. Joe Schenk’s high harmonies were a real selling point, often playfully dancing over and around Van’s lead melody like a sheepdog around his herd. He often played the piano with only one hand so that he could gesture with the other, as though he were excited, he couldn’t keep two hands on the piano.
Van, despite his Brooklyn upbringing, followed Jolson and so many others in aping the rhythms and vocal mannerisms of the Southern black, not just on coon songs, but in the way he talked in general. Schenck, despite his obvious German patrimony seemed Irish (to this commentator he bears a certain resemblance to Jack Haley). That neither of them made “Germanness” a part of their act, in an era of self-reflexive Irishmen, Blacks, Asians and Jews, is an outcome of the First World War, which transformed the formerly proud and out-spoken German-American community into what Theodore Roosevelt called “non-hyphenated Americans” almost overnight. Like many vaudevillians, Van and Schenck did their patriotic duty during the war, by entertaining the troops in Europe, with the result that they were becoming as popular in England as in the U.S.
By 1915 they had played the Palace, assuring them a permanent place in the big time. Within months, they were in the recording studio recording their first disc “Hawaiian Sunshine” (included here). Their recorded repertoire would grow to be a Who’s Who of Tin Pan Alley, including such hitmakers of the day as Irving Berlin, Jack Yellen, Harry Carroll and Lew Brown. They also turned in a relatively large percentage of their own compositions.
By November 1916 they were Broadway stars. In that month, they appeared in The Century Girl, the hit musical devised by producers Charles Dillingham and Florenz Ziegfeld to inaugurate their new Century Theatre. The show, with a score by Irving Berlin, and Victor Herbert, cast them alongside such distinguished contemporaries as along with Hazel Dawn, Frank Tinney, Elsie Janis, Sam Bernard, Marie Dressler, and Leon Errol. This big budget revue was significant for many reasons, not the least of which was the debut of Ziegfeld’s Celestial Staircase, down which his beautiful (and beautifully draped) paragons would traipse, an image forever inseparable in the public’s mind from the concept of a Ziegfeld show. Among other turns, Van and Schenck sang the song “For Me and My Gal”, which became a smash, marking a turning point in their careers.
For the next five years, the names Van and Schenck would remain linked with Ziegfeld’s. In 1918, they appeared (and “went over”) in his Midnight Frolic, a sort of proving ground for acts potentially bound for his big time Follies. The following year, they moved up to the Follies, for what many considered to be its most memorable edition. The 1919 Follies featured Van and Schenck, Eddie Cantor, Bert Williams, Ann Pennington, Marilyn Miller and Eddie Dowling. Cantor called it “the greatest musical comedy cast ever assembled in a single show”. The team debuted the Irving Berlin song “Mandy” in a plantation sequence that was one of the hits of the show.
Eddie Cantor seems to have become a particular friend throughout their Follies years. He writes about them repeatedly in his memoirs, how they played practical jokes on one another, how the three of them co-wrote a soft-drink jingle, and how Van and Schenk were among the first to join him and other cast members in striking Ziegfeld briefly in 1919. The strike, however, was only a brief interlude in a relationship with Ziegfeld that was to last five years. They stayed with the Follies through 1921, in which Schenck memorably sang the song “Sally” to Mary Eaton.
By that time, Van and Schenck were already making inroads in the infant medium of radio. In 1921, they hosted a 15-minute show on KDKA out of Pittsburg, one of the first variety shows ever broadcast. In 1923, they performed on the seminal show The EverReady Hour, on WEAF. One of the first (if not the first) regularly scheduled radio variety shows. (By way of historical perspective …Rudy Vallee started in radio in 1928; Jack Benny, Fred Allen and Burns and Allen got their own shows in 1932.)
By the 1920s, the team commanded one of the highest salaries in vaudeville and night clubs. Joe Laurie, Jr. in his book Vaudeville says that were one of the most frequently booked acts at the Palace, and towards the end of the decade, would shuttle back and forth between engagements there and at Loew’s State, a couple of blocks away.
In these years, Van and Schenck were a major influence on the young Bing Crosby, who claimed in a 1976 interview that he patterned his early ballad singing on the style of Joe Schenck, and that he and his then partner Al Rinker had “lifted a lot of comedy” from the team. Crosby and Rinker had seen the team live at their local Pantages theatre in Spokane; that was the beauty of vaudeville. But by the end of the decade, there would have been yet another option to see as well as hear the team: talkies.
Their first appearances were in Movietone and Vitaphone shorts, but by 1930 they had graduated to starring roles in their own feature. The picture, They Learned About Women, is about as brilliant as you would expect – no better, but certainly no worse than many other rapidly produced talkies in those early days of sound, when contemporaries like the Marx Brothers, Eddie Cantor, Wheeler and Woolsey, and Clark and McCullough were flooding cinemas with snappy, and anarchistic (if stagebound) comedies. The fact that one half of their team was occasionally tethered to a piano throughout the film was not the insuperable burden you might think. As in any musical of the period, the action (concerning a vaudeville team who moonlight as baseball players, incidentally learning something about women) stops cold so the principals can sing. It just happens to be the case that this particular team always needs to have a piano handy. Even so, it’s a wonderful chance to see “the Pennant Winning Battery of Songland” in action.
The film might have marked yet another phase in the boys’ previously blessed career (already nearing the twenty year mark) if not for the untimely death of Joe Schenck of a heart attack at age 39 while the team was in Detroit for a vaudeville date. In a way, it seems fitting (if cruel) that a voice so closely identified with the spirit of the twenties would be extinguished along with that decade. The 30s would be overshadowed by the Depression – what would those cheerful voices do with “Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?”
Gilbert Seldes’s 1924 assessment of the team in The Seven Lively Arts may seem unduly harsh, but is predictive of the rather superficial impact they would prove to have on the public’s mind (with the possible exception of their Ridgewood fan club, still going well into the 1960s): “Among the most popular of the big-time acts I am left cold by Van and Schenck, who are perpetually stopping short of perfection; their songs are funny, but not witty; their music is current, no more; their rendition is always near right enough to be passed.” No one ever said that about Fanny Brice singing “My Man”.
Gus Van was to soldier on, solo, for 38 more years, never again enjoying the kind of national popularity he’d known with his singing partner. After six months, he emerged from mourning, to premier as a single at Brooklyn’s Albee Theatre, announcing, “There is only one reason I am now able to walk on a stage without my lost partner…if I didn’t believe absolutely that Joe Schenck’s spirit was listening to my every note—that he is keeping me on pitch, so to speak, as he always did when we were partners—I would never make another stage appearance. I would go back to railroading.” He appeared at the Palace several times during the next couple of years until that too petered out. He appeared in W.C. Fields’ last Broadway show Ballyhoo (1930-31), along with several other shows and movies over the years. He was to constantly tour and perform in night clubs for over three decades. In 1949, he was still enough a presence in the industry to be elected President of AGVA (the American Guild of Variety Artists). He passed away in 1968, when he was run down by a car in Miami Beach, where he’d lived for his last several years. The obituaries were respectful but by then Van was a bit of a footnote, his halcyon days four decades behind him.
To order your copy of Van and Schenck: Pennant-Winning Battery of Songland, please go here.
* Special thanks to pal Gyda Arber, who helped with research!
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.