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Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz

Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz

Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, the creators (lyricist and composer respectively) of the durable standards “Dancing in the Dark,” “That’s Entertainment,” “You and the Night and the Music,” and “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan,” collaborated on 11 Broadway shows, most of them revues and most of them successful, over the course of 34 years. Theirs was not an exclusive partnership; Dietz also set lyrics to the tunes, sometimes entire musical scores, of Jerome Kern, Kurt Weill, Vernon Duke, Jimmy McHugh, Ralph Rainger, and Sammy Fain, while Schwartz occasionally wrote music for wordsmiths Ira Gershwin, Leo Robin, Frank Loesser, Dorothy Fields, Johnny Mercer, “Yip” Harburg, and Al Stillman. Both of them had other major careers as well, separate from songwriting: Dietz served as a publicist and director of advertising for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Schwartz, an attorney, was a composer and producer for Columbia Pictures. Yet together they shaped, in large measure, the spirit and flavor of Broadway musicals – and the films based on them – throughout the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.

Howard Dietz (b. New York, NY, 8 September 1896; d. New York, NY, 30 July 1983) grew up in a multiplicity of Manhattan neighborhoods in a family of meager means. For high school he attended Townsend Harris Hall, a three-year prep for City College, but started work at fifteen as a copy boy on the New York American, mainly to earn money so he could go to the theatre. On the advice of his employer he got himself (with no help from his father) into Columbia University (class of 1917) to study journalism.

In his junior year he won $500 in a competition for the best advertisement for Fatima cigarettes and blew it on a big party for his friends, who included Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart, Morrie Ryskind, Bennett Cerf, and other notable Columbia undergraduates. Suddenly conspicuous, he received several job offers and seized the opportunity to quit college and go to work in the ad agency of Philip Goodman. Goodman turned out to be just the mentor Dietz needed, introducing him to H.L. Mencken, George Jean Nathan, Don Marquis, and many other artists and writers with clout.

One of Goodman’s clients was Samuel Goldwyn, who ran a film production studio in Fort Lee, NJ, and needed a trademark for his company. For him Dietz devised the lion, ringed with a banner bearing the Latin slogan “Ars Gratia Artis,” that now roars at the beginning of every Metro-Goldwyn picture. Leo was drawn from the icon of Columbia University.

When the U.S. entered World War I (1917–1918), Dietz joined the Navy (pausing only a moment to marry his sweetheart from Barnard College, Elizabeth Hall) and served for the duration as editor of the magazine Navy Life. Upon his discharge he did advertising and publicity for movie companies, joining Goldwyn Pictures Corporation as publicity director in 1919 (but still working for Goodman as well). By 1924 he was director of advertising and publicity for MGM. (The company now was the result of a merger, and actually headed by Nicholas Schenck, Louis B. Mayer, and Irving Thalberg.) Dietz would hold this position for the next 30-plus years.

Simultaneously, Dietz plunged into the theatre world: in 1922 he contributed a sketch to the Broadway revue The ’49ers, the next year wrote the lyrics to “Alibi Baby” in W.C. Fields’s hit revue Poppy, and in 1924 collaborated with Jerome Kern on the eleven songs of Dear Sir which, at fifteen performances, made a poor showing. Nonetheless, Dietz’s lyrics won critical praise, plus a fan letter from lawyer and composer Arthur Schwartz, begging him to collaborate on four songs for a Broadway revue. Dietz, gracefully but somewhat superciliously, turned him down.

Meanwhile he and Betty had moved to Greenwich Village, where on Saturday nights they frequented a neighbor’s living room to listen to George Gershwin and Oscar Levant entertain at the piano. After writing a few “ideas” and lyrics for the Gershwins’ Oh, Kay! and a few sketches for The Merry-Go-Round (1927), Dietz decided to give verse a rest for a while and concentrate on cooking up publicity stunts for the movies, which he did so well.

In 1929, almost against his own will, Dietz consented to write lyrics for a new revue, The Little Show. Producers Tom Weatherly and Dwight Deere Wiman proposed that it should be “a revue, but not in any respect like the rhinestone creations with huge staircases of Flo Ziegfeld or Earl Carroll … It was to be topical and artistic, a witty travesty in the leitmotif, if possible.” It was to star Libby Holman, Fred Allen, and Clifton Webb, and composer Arthur Schwartz was writing some of the music.

Schwartz (b. Brooklyn, NY, 25 November 1900; d. Kintnersville, PA, 3 September 1984) had been pressed to study law by his father, an attorney. But he had shown remarkable musical talent as a child, teaching himself the harmonica and the piano, and by the age of fourteen he was earning pocket money accompanying silent films at the Brooklyn Cortelyou Theater. One summer he worked as a counselor at a boys’ camp in the Adirondacks; he and fellow-counselor Lorenz Hart wrote the camp show together – one of the tunes in it later served for “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan.”

He received his BA from New York University and went on to Columbia for a Masters degree. While studying law, he supported himself teaching English in the New York public school system and continued to write popular songs for his own amusement. His first published song was “Baltimore, MD, You’re the Only Doctor for Me” in 1923.

Schwartz was admitted to the Bar in 1924, but his legal career would be short-lived. Tunes kept coming into his head, which he would jot down and keep in a secret drawer in his office. His letter to Dietz after Dear Sir reveals that he was intending to quit law at the earliest promising opportunity. He contributed three songs to The Grand Street Follies on Broadway in 1926, more to The New Yorkers in 1927, and gave up law for good in 1928 to devote himself entirely to songwriting.

Schwartz and Dietz, according to Dietz’s memoir Dancing in the Dark (1974), got along well from the beginning. Their first completed work was a radio satire, “Hammacher Schlemmer, I Love You,” one of the seven songs they jointly contributed to the total of seventeen in The Little Show. Two more songs had lyrics by Dietz; two more had music by Schwartz. The big hits were “Moanin’ Low” (music by Ralph Rainger), memorably moaned by Libby Holman (it became the signature tune of this notorious torch singer), and “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan,” sung and tap-danced by the elegant Clifton Webb. The revue enjoyed 321 performances, enhanced, no doubt, by Fred Allen’s famous monologue about the little boy who shot both his parents so he could go to the orphans’ picnic.

The Second Little Show followed in 1930 – with all songs by Dietz and Schwartz – but did not do well at the box office; producers Weatherly and Wiman had miscalculated, thinking that none of the expensive stars of The First would be necessary. (It was never decided, incidentally, whether the team should be known as “Schwartz and Dietz” or “Dietz and Schwartz.” Dietz’s memoir suggests that it depended upon who got to the printer first.)

In their third musical collaboration, Three’s a Crowd (October 1930, with book by Dietz and production by Max Gordon), all the elements came together to conjure up another big success (271 performances): Fred Allen, Libby Holman, Clifton Webb, and Tamara Geva, (with 22-year-old Fred MacMurray in the ensemble), stage-directed and lit by the ingenious Hassard Short. Once again, the production was simple and fresh – and made money. Three’s a Crowd was the first Broadway musical to replace footlights with spots and floodlights hung from the balcony, an efficient practice that quickly caught on. The big hit songs were “Something To Remember You By” and “The Moment I Saw You.”

By the time seven more years had passed, Schwartz and Dietz had produced five more shows together. None was more successful than The Band Wagon (1931), starring Fred and Adele Astaire, introducing the songwriters’ greatest song, “Dancing in the Dark.” (Dietz initially felt it was dull.) The Astaires, in their last appearance together before Adele’s marriage and retirement, also offered up the favorites “Hoops” and “I Love Louisa.” George S. Kaufman assisted Dietz in writing the sketches; again Hassard Short did the staging and lighting. Helen Broderick, Frank Morgan, and Tilly Losch joined the cast; Max Gordon was the producer, and the show ran for 260 performances.

The four remaining Dietz/Schwartz shows, before their partnership was put on hold in 1938, did not do quite as well. Flying Colors (1932), directed by Dietz and again produced by Max Gordon, retained Geva and Webb and added Patsy Kelly and Imogene Coca to the cast. Prominent songs were “Alone Together” and “Louisiana Hayride”; “A Shine on Your Shoes” was introduced by by Buddy and Vilma Ebsen.

Revenge with Music (1934) was more or less a “book” musical or operetta, with libretto by Dietz based on the 19th-century novel El sombrero de tres picos by Pedro Antonio Alarcón. Libby Holman smoked out “You and the Night and the Music.” A confidant of Dietz described the show as “dire.”

Another revue, At Home Abroad (1935), was a bit brighter, with Beatrice Lillie, Eddie Foy, Jr., Eleanor Parker, and Ethel Waters who sang “Hottentot Potentate.” Vincente Minnelli directed. Schwartz then took a short sabbatical to write “a musical romance,” Virginia (1937), with Al Stillman. The last Schwartz/Dietz musical to appear on Broadway for another decade was Between the Devil (1937), an original comedy by Dietz with a risqué but shallow plot, starring the recently imported Jack Buchanan. The songs, however, were robust: “I See Your Face Before Me,” and “By Myself” and “Triplets,” both of which were absorbed into MGM’s 1953 film The Band Wagon.

By this time, Schwartz was contributing songs to motion pictures: five of his tunes (with lyrics by Edward Heyman) were introduced by Lily Pons in That Girl From Paris (1936), including “Seal It With a Kiss” and “Love and Learn.” Over the next ten years, he would enjoy collaborating with some of the top lyric writers in Hollywood. In Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) Bette Davis introduced “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old,” a song with lyrics by Frank Loesser that earned an Oscar nomination. A second Academy Award nomination came Schwartz’s way with “A Gal in Calico” (with Leo Robin) in The Time, the Place and the Girl (1946). Other movies with Schwartz songs were Under Your Spell, Navy Blues, Excuse My Dust, Dangerous When Wet, and You’re Never Too Young. It seemed a short step for Schwartz into the role of producer for the signal successes Cover Girl (1944, music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Ira Gershwin) and Night and Day (1946, a musical biography of Cole Porter).

Meanwhile he had not altogether abandoned the stage: he worked with Oscar Hammerstein II on American Jubilee (1939, for the New York World’s Fair) and with Dorothy Fields on Stars in Your Eyes (1939) and, much later, on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1951, “He had Refinement,” “Love Is the Reason”) and By the Beautiful Sea (1954, “Alone Too Long”), both starring Shirley Booth. Schwartz also joined forces with Ira Gershwin on Park Avenue (1946), but that show did not do well.

In 1948 Dietz and Schwartz got back together for “A New Musical Revue” inspired by John Gunther’s best-selling political travelogue Inside U.S.A. Produced on Broadway by Schwartz himself and starring Beatrice Lillie and Jack Haley, it was a great success at 399 performances. Song hits were “Haunted Heart” and “Rhode Island Is Famous for You.”

The 1953 film The Band Wagon in no way resembled the 1931 Broadway revue. It was now a book musical, with screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, a romance with Fred Astaire as an aging hoofer and Cyd Charisse an elegant (and tall!) classical ballerina. Jack Buchanan played an Orson-Wellesian producer-director-actor (only until Astaire’s character gets the upper hand), and Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant were thinly disguised replicas of Comden and Green themselves.

For the score, the writers dipped deep into the Schwartz/Dietz well: four songs came from The Band Wagon of 1931, two from Flying Colors, two from Between the Devil, and one each from The Little Show (“I Guess I’ll Have To Change”), Revenge with Music (“You and the Night and the Music”), and Three’s a Crowd (“Something To Remember You By”). The dancing numbers, “The Beggars’ Waltz” and “Girl Hunt Ballet,” contained passages from other Schwartz tunes. But undoubtedly the biggest hit of the film was the newly-minted “That’s Entertainment,” which has since been used in dozens of documentaries, series, and television specials, and which won an ASCAP Award in 1990 as Most Performed Feature Film Standard (rivaled only by Irving Berlin’s “No Business Like Show Business”). Oddly enough, “That’s Entertainment” was not nominated for an Oscar.

Although “Dancing in the Dark” plays a special role in the film as the music to which Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire dance and fall in love, the lyrics are not sung. It is likely that they were judged to be unnecessary, since the song had already been heard in five other films, one of which was titled Dancing in the Dark.

Dietz and Schwartz were to collaborate on four more major projects: the first was a musical adaptation for television of John Hersey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Bell for Adano (1961); the next was a Broadway musical based on Arthur Schnitzler’s unevenly episodic The Affairs of Anatol called The Gay Life (1961, later titled The High Life) starring Barbara Cook. Hobbled by a leading man who, in Dietz’s words, “couldn’t act, dance, or speak English,” the show ran for 113 performances. For Mary Martin the team created Jennie (1963), which despite its excellent score did not do well at 82 performances. Their last effort, yet another revue optimistically billed That’s Entertainment (1972), closed after four.

Both Schwartz and Dietz were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972, and into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981.

From 1969 for several years Schwartz worked in London, his second wife’s home, where he contributed to British television broadcasts and wrote a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby. He also revised A Tree Grows in Brooklyn with eight new songs as Look Who’s Dancing. He was awarded the second annual ASCAP/Richard Rodgers Award in 1984, just prior to his death from a stroke. His son Jonathan is a musician and radio personality; son Paul is a composer, conductor, pianist, and producer.

Much more is known of the life and adventures of Howard Dietz than those of Arthur Schwartz, for Dietz not only wrote a highly entertaining anecdotal memoir, Dancing in the Dark (1974), but he also saved every document that had any bearing on his publicity campaigns for MGM, or on his own songwriting career (including that 1924 letter from the still obscure Schwartz). After his death in 1983 from Parkinson’s Disease, this enormous collection of records found a home in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. It constitutes the NYPL’s single largest archive on any person or subject.

Worthy of mention are some of Dietz’s additional accomplishments: during World War II, while he was promoting and publicizing War Bonds for the U.S. Treasury Department, he worked with composer Vernon Duke to mount a stage show for the Coast Guard. In 1944 he wrote the lyrics for Duke’s Sadie Thompson (“The Love I Long For”) on Broadway. In 1950, with Garson Kanin (director of Born Yesterday, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Funny Girl), he provided an English libretto and lyrics for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Die Fledermaus. Two years later Dietz wrote an English translation of La Boheme for the Met, but it was not as well received and fell out of the repertory.

Dietz retired from MGM in 1957, and served as the director of ASCAP from 1959 to 1961. He was married three times: to Elizabeth Bigelow Hall in 1917, divorced in 1936; to Tanis Guinness Montagu in 1937 and had a daughter; they divorced in 1951, at which point Dietz married the costume designer Lucinda Ballard.

– Lucy E. Cross