Researching Yiddish penny songs (tenement song broadsides of theater and variety show songs, 1895-1925)
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Monday, June 15, 2020

Harry Von Tilzer - the real story?

Many of the songs on this blog have tunes by Harry von Tilzer so I did a little poking around at to find out more about him. Such an aristocratic Goyish German name, right? I think he was actually born Arie Gumbinsky to Jacob and Rachel Gumbinsky in 1891.

His father was born around 1857 in Russian Poland and emigrated to Detroit Michigan in 1874; in the 1880 census he is listed as a peddler in his older brother Joel's household (Joel was a rag merchant). He and wife Rachel J. Simon were married in 1883 by Detroit Rabbi Louis Bloomgarden. I'm guessing this was his second wife, as his eldest son Albert was born in 1878. Perhaps Albert's mother was the Sarah Tilzer of the legend.

In the 1900 census Jacob is a junk dealer living with wife, daughter Celia, and four sons: Oscar 14, Arie 9, Nathan 6, and Moses 4 (the eldest son, Albert, had already moved out). By 1910 he was proprietor of a paper mill, living with his wife and four sons (Oscar 1886, Harry 1891, Nathan 1894, Herman 1896), all of them listing parents' birthplace as "Russ. Pol. German" At some point it is said he changed his last name to Gumm but I found no evidence of that. (It's said that eventually all five of his sons were going by the "Van Tilzer" last name). He died in 1915 and is buried with his wife in the Beth Olem cemetery in Hamtramck, Michigan.

Now on to Harry, or Arie as he was listed in 1900, or Aaron (as Wikipedia suggests). He was born in 1891 according to the census. According to Wikipedia in 1905 he left home to join the Cole Brothers as an acrobat and singer and in 1906 went to Chicago "where he became an actor, pianist and composer in a small local theatrical troupe."

A biography on his "Find a Grave" site says he published his first song in 1892 and that he moved to New York "with only $1.65 in his pocket and earned his train fare by working as a groom, tending to and cleaning up after a carload of horses on the trip. For the next several years, he found work playing piano and singing in saloons, eventually finding roles in vaudeville and burlesque shows... in 1898 he and his roommate, lyricist Andrew Sterling, took the eviction notice and on the back, wrote what was to become "My Old New Hampshire Home". They sold the song to a publishing house for $10 and it went on to sell over a million copies... He said his stage name, Von Tilzer, was "an artistic embellishment of his mother’s maiden name Tilzer" - but unless she was a widow or divorcee when she married his father (or he's referring to the mother of his eldest brother Albert), that isn't true.

He was made a partner of the Shapiro Bernstein Publishing Company. His 1900 song "A Bird in a Gilded Cage" became one of the biggest hits of the time. In 1902 he formed his own publishing company, The Harry Von Tilzer Music Company, which would become one of the most respected in the business, publishing thousands of songs and discovering new talent such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin.

He married around 1906 - I found him with his wife Ida (her third marriage?) in a boarding house in Manhattan in 1910. They now say their parentage is "German." He is a composer. Subsequent inconsistencies were common among immigrants trying to whiten up their ancestry. He died in 1946 and is buried with his wife Ida (d. 1930) in the Mt Carmel cemetery in Queens.

His older half-brother Albert worked in a shoe store but, having musical ambitions of his own and inspired by his brother's success, left to become musical director of a vaudeville troupe. He wrote "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" in 1908. His song "Teasing" is on this blog. Harry gave him a job with the Chicago, Illinois field office of his music publishing company. (There's a listing in the Chicago city directory of 1912.)

In 1970, Albert and Harry were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.


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