It probably goes without saying that I know a thousand people who will want this book on their shelves. It wasn’t likely that Oscar Andrew “Andy” Hammerstein IV would bungle this very important job. He’s not just the family historian, he’s an ACTUAL historian, as well as a terrific writer (as he’s demonstrated many a time in the years that I’ve known him). He’s plainly inherited the family gene for wit and self-expression. Furthermore, he’s a pistol. This means he’s honest. Such a book could easily have been a coffee-table book commercial for Hammerstein family interests, but Andy knows a good story when he hears it, and this sometimes means airing dirty laundry, as well as admitting that his ancestors weren’t always saints and geniuses. Of course, when the individuals in question are as distinguished as this, you can afford to show a few warts.
The book is most important for filling in the gaps in a public awareness that I imagine doesn’t exist far beyond OH2’s contributions to the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. I myself knew a little something about the dynasty’s founder Oscar Hammerstein I, and his son Willy, but only through my vaudeville tunnel vision, so I learned much from this book as well. The first Oscar had collaborated with Koster & Bial on a pivotal variety house, and built the Olympia and the Victoria theatres, the latter of which was considered by many to be the greatest vaudeville house of all time (with the possible exception of the Palace). These were the first theatres in what later became known as Times Square, thus making Oscar I the founding father of New York’s modern theatrical district. Beyond this, he built countless opera houses and theatres throughout New York, fighting a sort of ongoing economic and philosophical war with the Metropolitan Opera. If only Oscar had won! Oscar’s vision was a populist one; he believed in making opera attractive and accessible to the masses, not the rarified, elite product many people try to make it to this day. He also commissioned many notable contemporary opera and operettas, the most well known of which is probably Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta.
Of the next generation, Oscar’s son Willy was the booker at the Victoria from 1904 until his early death in 1914, thus one of the most important vaudeville impresarios of all time. What I hadn’t been aware of (or perhaps had read once and then forgotten) is that Willy’s brother Arthur was also a major theatrical figure, producer of some three dozen Broadway shows, including most of his famous nephew’s earliest efforts. Arthur also cowrote that awesome Tony Bennett tune “Because of You”, and is the father of Elaine Hammerstein, who was a major silent movie star for about a decade.
Oscar Hammerstein II had promised his father Willy on his deathbed that he wouldn’t go into the family business but (the author tell us) he got a special dispensation from his uncle Arthur to do so anyway. Much cool stuff in this book about those early pre-Rodgers shows, many of which were more like operattas than modern musicals. Almost all of those early shows starred performers who will be familiar to readers of these annals. Frank Tinney starred in Tickle Me (1920) and Daffy Dill (1922). Queen O’ Hearts (1922) featured Nora Bayes and Harry Richman. Gypsy Jim, a straight play penned by Hammerstein in 1924, starred Leo Carillo. 1925’s Sunny was a starring vehicle for Marilyn Miller and featured Jack Donahue and Pert Kelton. Show Boat (1927), in my view the greatest of all Hammerstein shows and one of my favorite musicals, had Helen Morgan and Tess Gardella, and the 1929 film version had Stepin Fetchit. Good Boy (1928), produced by Hammerstein, featured the hit Kalmar and Ruby song “I Want to Be Loved by You”, popularized by its singer Helen Kane. Sweet Adeline (1929) employed Irene Franklin and Helen Morgan. Ballyhoo of 1930, an Arthur Hammerstein produced show with some material by Oscar, was a flop but is notable for being the last Broadway show starring W.C. Fields. After this, there was also The Gang’s All Here with Ted Healy, Free for All with Jack Haley, and East Wind with Joe Penner (all in 1931). And he contributed some material to Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin (1938). Oh, there were dozens more stage and screen shows with Hammerstein’s name on them produced during these years — these are just the ones starring big vaudevillians who have bios on this blog. Neither does the author stint on the better known Rodgers and Hammerstein years, but that’s less my purview.
One criticism: the book ends with Oscar’s II’s death in 1960, but there’s plenty more theatre history to include about the family. Oscar II’s son James was a theatre director and producer, and though his inroads were not on the scale of the previous three generations, he is associated with some significant productions. For example, he directed the first production of Israel Horowitz’s The Indian Wants the Bronx, which introduced the world to Al Pacino and John Cazale. And James’s sons are carrying on the legacy. Simon is the impresario behind the notorious downtown saloon The Box, which carries with it more than a few echoes of Koster and Bials. And Andy’s own efforts and experiences as caretaker of the family history are far from irrelevant. Little teasing hints of the behind-the-scenes do bubble through, however. Some bona fide scandalous tidbits about marital infidelities are shared, as is the family embarrassment about a Hammerstein show called Golden Dawn, about a fair-haired white girl raised by an African tribe and poised to become a princess. The show includes such songs as “When I Crack My Whip” and “Jungle Shadows” and is described by Andy as a “colonialist fever dream”. Oh, if only I could see it!