I became aware of songwriter and performer Fred Hillebrand (1893-1963) via his inclusion in the Sobel’s Illustrated History of Vaudeville.
Born in Brooklyn, Hillebrand had a relatively posh background for a show biz guy in his generation: he attended St. Joseph’s Academy and Juilliard. On stage he was known for his clever musical parodies and for writing songs in the minstrel vein.
In 1919, he appeared in the Broadway show Take it From Me with book and lyrics by Will B. Johnstone. Also in the show was the older and more established star Vera Michelena, soon to become his vaudeville partner as well as his wife (they were married in 1922). Hillebrand also appeared in the Broadway shows The Rose Girl (1921), Cinders (1923), The Optimists (1928), and Pleasure Bound (1929)
In his book Vaudeville: From Honky Tonks to the Palace, Joe Laurie Jr. wrote about Hillebrand as a friend and fellow member of the Lambs Club. He also mentions that Hillebrand was a friend of Gentleman Jim Corbett, and that he introduced the phrase “Give the little girl a hand!” which doesn’t sound particularly brilliant ,but it was later tweaked by Texas Guinan into “Give the little [girl] a great big hand!” which seems somewhat wittier.
Hillebrand’s popular 1934 song “Home, James, and Don’t Spare the Horses” is the origin of that catchphrase.
In the ’30s he broke into movies. You can see him in the shorts Hizzoner (1933) with Bert Lahr; Strange Case of Hennesy (1933) with Cliff Edwards (in which he sang his composition “I Thought I Heard a Noise”); Moon Over Manhattan (1935) with Sylvia Froos; The City’s Slicker (1936) with Rufe Davis; Rhythmitis (1936) with Hal Le Roy and Toby Wing; Say It With Candy (1936) with Virginia Verrill; and Ups and Downs (1937), with Hal Le Roy and June Allyson.
Hillebrand joined ASCAP in 1942. Some of his other songs include “Shake the Hand of the Man”, “How Many Dreams Ago?”, “Please Return My Heart”, “I’ll Meet You at Duffy Square”, “I Worry ‘Bout You”, and “Will There Be Room for All of Us in Heaven?”.
In 1943 he acted in Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson’s musical, Rio Rita at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. He has bit parts in the films The House of 92nd Street (1945) and House of Strangers (1949). He had a recurring role on the TV show Martin Kane (1949-53) and also appeared on programs Armstrong Circle Theatre and Man Against Crime in the early 50s.
Sadly, what he appears to be best known for today is a book he published in 1953, Burnt Cork and Melody: A New Minstrel Folio (comprising a full show with complete dialogue, words and music). It is no doubt a valuable document transmitting knowledge that dates back to the 19th century, but the idea that it would be for “performance” as late as 1953 is frankly irksome. Amateur groups, schools, and the like, would use a book like this to put on shows. The schools of Little Rock would be integrated by Federal order four years after this. Times would change irrevocably from that point on.
In 1954 Hillebrand went into the Broadway production of The Pajama Game in a small role as a replacement; it seems to be his last professional credit. Hillebrand and Michelena lived their last years in Queens. Michelena died in 1961; Hillebrand followed her two years later.
To find out more about vaudeville and vaudeville veterans like Fred Hillebrand, please consult my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,
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