Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen: The St. Louis Years — Part 3 • The James A. Drake Interviews

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The St. Louis Years — Part 3

 

In Part 2, Gus Haenschen recalled his early years in St. Louis — most notably, his piano lessons with Scott Joplin and music-publishing venture with Gene Rodemich.

In Part 3, Haenschen is now attending Washington University and first attracts national attention after a song he’s composed for a college musical is picked up for the 1914 edition of Ziegfeld’s Follies.

Read Previous Installments

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In “The Hatchet,” the official student publication [of Washington University], you’re listed as being in the School of Arts and Sciences, as well as in the School of Engineering and Architecture.

That was because I was taking music composition in Arts and Sciences while taking all my requirements for the Mechanical Engineering degree in the School of Engineering.

 

How were you able to write an operetta while meeting all the course requirements for the Mechanical Engineering degree?

I wrote it on my own — it was called “The Love Star,” and I had written it as a member of one of the popular clubs the University had. You see, I was taking music courses while I was studying engineering. I took two courses in composition and was a member of the Quadrangle Club. The University had a lot of student clubs, and many of them were performing-arts clubs.

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The Quadrangle was one of the two most popular clubs on campus. It was named after the design of part of the campus — the first series of buildings, the first four or five, were designed as Gothic quadrangles by the same architects who did similar buildings for the University of Pennsylvania. The first building, by the way, was named for Adolphus Busch, Busch Hall, which was completed in 1903, but it didn’t open until 1905 because of the 1904 Exposition.

 

Did you join the Quadrangle Club as a freshman, or were first-year students allowed to participate in student clubs?

Well, that club didn’t exist until I was a first-term junior [in 1910]. It was by invitation only, and because I was pretty well known in St. Louis due to my band and my partnership with Gene Rodemich, I was invited to join. I wrote “The Love Star” during the spring and summer of my junior year, and it was produced by the Quadrangle Club about two years, as I recall, after I had graduated. I was invited back to oversee it.

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The Washington University Quadrangle, c. early 1920s

 

Were there other student clubs that produced musicals and plays?

Oh, yes — the other popular one was the Thyrsus Club, which Fannie Hurst belonged to and I think was either president or vice-president of during her senior year. She was in the Class of 1909, and I got to know her then and, of course, much later in New York. She was cast in several of the plays during her senior year, and she wrote a very popular musical comedy [“The Official Chaperone”] that was produced by the Thyrsus Club during her senior year.

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Fannie Hurst

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From its history, I know that Washington University was co-educational after 1900, but was the undergraduate student body primarily male during your years there?

Not primarily, no. When I was a freshman, the male-student population was about 60% and the female population was 40%. When I came back in 1914 for the production of “The Love Star,” the female-student percentage had grown to almost 50%, so the enrollment of men and women students was just about equal by then.

 

Was the University integrated when you were a student?

No, unfortunately. I say “unfortunately” for two reasons. The first is that we’ll never know how many George Washington Carvers might have gone there or become researchers there. Washington University has been a research university for most of its history, especially since World War II, and we’ll never know how many more patents and how many more Nobel Prize winners we would have had if the University had not been segregated. And just imagine what the fine arts and the performing arts might have been like if we had had black students and white students in the same classes.

 

You said that segregation was unfortunate for two reasons. What is the second reason?

Well, the University was not only coeducational by policy, but also the staff that handled the admissions operations when I was a student really went after the brightest young women in high-school classes throughout the state. During my third year, the University started building a medical center. It wasn’t just a medical school, but a medical research center. It was finished just a couple years after I graduated, and within two or three years the medical school admitted its first women students. If the same push had been made for admitting black students — not just to the medical school and the law school but to all the schools and their programs — the University would have been a different place. But that didn’t happen till after World War II.

 

Your mention of the law school prompts me to mention that in your archives there are letters from another famous graduate of Washington University who credits you with getting him admitted: Clark Clifford. Was he also from St. Louis?

No, he was from Kansas but his ambition was to become a lawyer in St. Louis, so when it came time for him to go to college, he wanted to go to Washington University. He was a top student in high school and probably would have gotten into Washington University anyway, but he needed an alumni sponsor so he wrote to me and asked if I would meet with him. I did and was very impressed with him, so I made some calls on his behalf and also wrote a formal letter of recommendation for him. He got his bachelor’s degree there, and also graduated from the Washington University Law School.

 

You and he are probably the last ones to see it, but the two of you could almost pass for brothers.

Both of us have been told that, but I think it’s because we’re almost the same height and weight, we have the same hairline, and the same crop of wavy hair. But I have a bigger nose and he has a smaller one, so maybe that’s why I don’t see the similarity that others say they see.

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Look-alikes: Haenschen (left) and Clark Clifford

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You have another thing in common: Both of you are Navy veterans.

Yes, but in different wars. Clark is about fifteen years younger than I, and he was an officer during the last year of World War II. But it was because of his connection with Missouri, the home state of President Truman, that he became an advisor to Truman after he [Clifford] got out of the Navy. He planned Truman’s campaign for the presidency [in 1948] and I think was the one who convinced Truman that an old-style “whistle-stop campaign” would give him the edge over [candidate Thomas E.] Dewey.

 

In one of his letters to you, Clifford urges you to “make up something outrageous” when talking to reporters. What “reporters” is he referring to?

When I would take one of my radio shows to Washington, D.C., on tour, if I was in a restaurant or sometimes just walking down a street, some reporter would mistake me for Clark Clifford and would ask me a question about a policy or some pending legislation or whatever. I didn’t do it very often, but Clark was always goading me to give some outrageous statement just so that the reporter would have to tell his editor, and the editor would have to call Clark’s office to confirm or deny what he said. Then Clark would tell the editor that he had never talked to any such reporter. I wasn’t a good enough actor to pull that off more than once or maybe twice.

 

Returning to the Ziegfeld Follies, one song from “The Love Star” not only became popular but became the gateway to your career.

Yes, it did. My original title for it was “The Moorish Glide,” and somehow it got to New York where Max Dreyfus, the head of the T. B. Harms Company, wired me to come to New York to talk with him about turning it into a production number in the Ziegfeld Follies.

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Haenschen’s original self-published edition of “The Moorish Glide” (top); and the better-known T. B. Harms version, with addition of the new title

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Max liked the melody, so he bought it. At first he gave the tune to a very popular dance team on the Keith [vaudeville] Circuit called “Maurice and Walton.” Walton was the name of the female partner, Florence Walton, and most people thought her partner, Maurice, was also named Walton, but his real name was Maurice Mouvet. They used the tune in part of their act, so at first it was called “The Maurice Glide.” The tango was really popular at that time, so the title was changed from “The Maurice Glide” to “The Maurice Tango.” [1]

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Maurice Mouvet and Florence Walton

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When did the song become “Underneath the Japanese Moon” in the Follies?

 That happened when Max decided that it would be a good tune to use as a filler between scenes in the Follies. Because the tune itself was so short, he told me that it would need a good verse and, of course, good lyrics for the verse and the refrain. Max assigned Gene Buck to give it a title, write the lyrics, and work with me on a verse. Gene told me that the tune would be interpolated — in other words, not part of a production number — and that it would be sung by a boy and girl whose characters wouldn’t have names per se. One would be called “The Lone Boy,” and he would sing it to “The Lone Girl.”

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Song portfolio from the Ziegfeld’s 1914 Follies, including “Underneath the Japanese Moon”

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Because of the popularity of Madame Butterfly, the trend at that time was to use Japanese themes, so Gene [Buck] gave it the title “Underneath the Japanese Moon,” although it appeared in the first program as “Underneath a Japanese Moon.” When the “a” was changed to “the” I don’t really know, but the sheet music version that T. B. Harms published had the title “Underneath the Japanese Moon.”

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Victor’s versions of  “The Moorish (Maurice) Glide” and “Underneath the Japanese Moon” were both issued in August 1914.

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To have a song whose music you wrote in the Ziegfeld Follies must have been one of the highlights of your career. What do you remember about the opening night?

I was in an upper box as a guest of Gene Buck, and like every other edition of the Follies, this one was chock full of girls. Most were already famous from prior Follies — Ann [billed as “Anna”] Pennington and Kay Laurell were among the glamor girls that Ziegfeld was known for — and Leon Errol was not only in the cast but also produced that edition of the Follies. As for my little contribution, Cyril [Morton] Horne sang Gene Buck’s lyrics and my tune to Louise Meyers. That was a thrill for me, as you can imagine — but an even bigger thrill was that Bert Williams performed one of his songs right before my little tune was sung. Bert Williams was one of the biggest stars of the Follies — one of the biggest stars of that era, really, almost on a par with Jolson.

 

Did you get to meet Bert Williams?

I never got to meet him but wish I had because to me he was a comic genius. When you look at how many famous comedians Ziegfeld had in those years — Leon Errol, W. C. Fields, Ed Wynn, and then Will Rogers — it was Bert Williams who topped them all. Gene Buck, who worked with all of them, used to say that Bert Williams was the greatest comic who ever lived. Think about that: not the greatest comic the Follies ever had, or the greatest comic of that time, but the greatest comic who ever lived.

 

I’ve wondered whether you or Walter Rogers tried to persuade Bert Williams to record for Brunswick.

Around the time we started making recordings at Brunswick, he left the Follies so he could go on his own. [2] The shows he starred in got good reviews when they opened, but they didn’t have very long runs and his popularity started to slip. He was also having health problems, and he contracted either pneumonia or the Spanish flu and died from it [in 1922].

 

Returning to your Follies song, didn’t Max Dreyfus not only buy it from you but also put you on a retainer with T. B. Harms?

Yes, he put me on a retainer as an arranger. Max, you see, was an arranger himself. He had written some songs early in his career but none of them became popular, and he had much more success as an arranger. He and his brother Louis bought the T. B. Harms Company, which was an old publishing firm when he and Louis acquired it. What Max was the best — and I mean the best in the entire publishing business — at spotting raw talent. He had discovered Jerome Kern, and about ten years later he did the same with George Gershwin.

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Max Dreyfus as composer (top) and arranger

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You had a music-publishing company in St. Louis, am I correct?

Well, briefly, but it didn’t amount to much. The big publishing house in St. Louis was the Stark Music Company, which was founded by John Stark. He was the one who published Scott Joplin’s music. Mr. Stark had heard Joplin in Sedalia, where both of them were living, and from what his [Stark’s] son, E. J. [Stark] told me, Mr. Stark had persuaded Joplin to become a full-time songwriter. By the time both of them had moved to St. Louis, the Stark company was the biggest publisher of ragtime songs.

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“September Love,” from Haenschen’s music-publishing venture with Gene Rodemich, and a rare John Stark edition of an early Haenschen collaboration

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I demonstrated songs for Mr. Stark in and around St. Louis, and he published a couple of the songs I had written. They didn’t go anywhere — didn’t sell many copies — so I tried my hand and starting a little publishing company. I went to Mr. Stark and he offered to [print] copies of songs under my own imprint. I didn’t have enough money to make a go of starting a publishing company, so I talked to Gene Rodemich about it and he got his father put money in it. We put out a few songs we had written, but as I say, it didn’t amount to much.

 

Back to “Underneath the Japanese Moon,” when you received the retainer from Max Dreyfus did you move to New York City?

I couldn’t because I had my band in St. Louis, I had the orchestra exchange, and I also had my family to support, so I went back and forth to New York and would stay a week, sometimes two weeks if I could manage it. Even though I wasn’t full-time with T. B. Harms, I was a part of a stable of young arrangers and songwriters including [George] Gershwin, whose career had not really begun yet. I worked with George on his first Broadway musical, “La, La Lucille.” George had written songs before then, but this was his first full score for a musical. Max worked with him to make slight changes in the melodies of a few of the songs, and he had several of us — including Robert Russell Bennett, whom Max had just hired — work with George on the arrangements.

 

How much involvement did you as an arranger have in the lyrics of the songs in “La, La Lucille”?

None at all. Max had a different group for the lyrics. Buddy DeSylva and Arthur Jackson wrote the lyrics for most of them, and Irving Caesar, whom Max had hired around the time he put me on a retainer, wrote the lyrics for one of the songs, “There’s More to the Kiss.” He and George collaborated on the biggest hit of their early partnership, “Swanee,” which I was fortunate to have Al Jolson record when I was hired at Brunswick. [3]

 

Do you recall recording a medley from “La, La Lucille” at Brunswick, under your “Carl Fenton” name?

A record that I made? Do you mean that I directed at Brunswick?

 

This was a recording session that you played in, a piano-duet medley of songs from “La, La Lucille.”

Yes, now that you mention it, I do remember that one. I did the arrangement, and Frank Banta and I played the duet. [4] By the way, that’s Frank Banta, Jr. [Frank E.], I’m talking about. His father [Frank P.] was also a pianist and had made early recordings. Frank, Jr., was an excellent pianist and worked not only for us at Brunswick but for Victor and Columbia, and probably Edison too.

 

So much has been written about George Gershwin’s composing, arranging, and piano style. Did you work with him enough to see how he wrote? And what did you think of him as a pianist, being a very fine one yourself?

It’s hard to compare him with any other pianist of that time because he had a style that was unique. He wasn’t a stride pianist, although he could play in that style. He didn’t have the biggest hands or the longest reach — he wasn’t in the same league as James P. Johnson or Luckey Roberts, who had the longest reach of any pianist I ever saw — but his ability with chords is what made him stand out. His melodies came from chords. You can hear it in his “Preludes.” If you listen to them closely, you’ll hear how he finds melodic lines from the chords he’s playing.

 

One more question about Max Dreyfus. The general public only knows his name from the film “Rhapsody in Blue,” in which he was played by Charles Coburn. Was there any resemblance between Coburn and the real Max Dreyfus?

 None at all. If Max look like anybody, it was Mister Magoo — as bald as a billiard ball, and short in stature. But what a great, great man he was! All of us learned more from Max Dreyfus than we could ever put into words. He had a gentle, patient way of getting not only more work but the highest quality work from everyone around him. You were inspired just being in his presence. He always made you feel as if you were the only person who had his attention when he was talking to you, even though he might be going from one small cubicle with, say, Gershwin plunking out of tune on an upright piano, to another cubicle with another young writer who was working on lyrics, and doing that twelve hours a day, six days a week.

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Max Dreyfus

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Max never criticized anything you brought to him. Instead, in his almost grandfatherly way he would compliment you by highlighting certain lines or measures that he thought were really good, and then very tactfully call attention to any weaknesses that he sensed in the song. Then he would offer you at least one suggestion as to how you might improve it. There was no one else like Max Dreyfus in the music-publishing industry. Even Irving Berlin, who had his own publishing company, respected him. To all of us who worked with him — and he was “Mr. Max” to us — Max Dreyfus was Tin Pan Alley.

 

— J. A.D. (12/7/2020)

 

Editor’s Notes 

[1] Actually, “The Maurice Tango” is a entirely different composition, by Silvio Hein. It was published by Harms in 1912, before “The Maurice Glide.”

[2] Although Williams never recorded for Brunswick, the company signed Ham Tree Harrington, a well-known imitator, after Williams’ death. Harrington recorded a number of titles for Brunswick in the Williams style between 1923 and 1925, none of which appear to have sold well.

[3]  Haenschen is mistaken here, unless perhaps he was recalling an undocumented Brunswick trial session, which is not possible to confirm. Jolson recorded “Swanee” for Columbia, to which he was under exclusive contract at the time. Brunswick’s cover version was by the team of Al Bernard and Frank Kamplain.

[4] Brunswick 2012, in medley with “Tee-Oodle-Um-Bum-Bo” and “Nobody But You” (Carl Fenton’s Orchestra, Piano Passages by Carl Fenton and Frank Banta). Recorded in late 1919, this was the second-earliest release under Haenschen’s “Carl Fenton”  pseudonym.

 

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