Stars of Vaudeville #190: Harry Von Tilzer (and family)
Harry Von Tilzer was one of the most successful of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters, not just because he wrote songs that defined the era (e.g., “A Bird in a Gilded Cage”, “I Want a Girl Just like the Girl Who Married Dear Old Dad”, “Wait til the Sun Shines, Nellie”, and “I Love My Wife, But Oh You Kid”) but he was also second to none as a songplugger. Ya gotta be selling, baby, selling!
Born on this day in 1872, young Harry Gummblinsky ran away at age 14 to join the Cole Brothers Circus. For professional reasons, he switched to his mother’s maiden name Tilzer, adding an aristocratic “Von”. He credited an encounter with Lottie Gilsonduring his burlesque days with convincing him to concentrate on his gift for songwriting. Along the way he played piano in saloons, medicine shows and burlesque and vaudeville theatres. His clever modus operandi was to make sure local music stores stocked the sheet music of his songs, which he would hawk from the stage…once he got there. He generally like to make an impression by starting out in the audience, and causing a disturbance by singing from his seat before taking the stage. (This became a commonplace stunt for songpluggers). Gradually he began to sell songs to the likes of Tony Pastor and others until success overtook him in the early years of the last century.
By 1902, he had his own publishing company, which handled not only his own songs but those of his many budding apprentices, the most famous of which was to be Irving Berlin. Tilzer’s star burned brightest from 1900 through the World War I era, but he was still churning out popular songs into the 1920s.
Meanwhile, his siblings all followed him into show business one way or another. His brother Francis Gumm had an act with his wife, but is best remembered today as the father of the Gumm Sisters, one of whom became Judy Garland. His brother Will founded the Broadway Music Corporation. And his brother Albert’s reach exceeded even Harry’s in the long run. While he had fewer hits than Harry, one of Albert’s original songs (co-written with Jack Norworth) was “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”. Albert performed in vaudeville through the 1920s and was even penning tunes for Abbott and Costello pictures as late as the 1940s. Harry passed away in 1946; Albert a decade later. Between them, they wrote hundreds of popular American songs.
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.