Ted Lewis Biography (1955)

Well, I was born in a little town called Circleville, Ohio, that’s about 28 miles from Columbus, Ohio. And when I was Nine years old, naturally I went to School and there was an old German who came to town by the name of Oscar Arminger and he organized a boys band and I persuaded my Father, my Brother Edgar and I to let us join the band. In these days lessons were twenty five cents an hour. Twenty-five cents apiece, so we had a Band practice once a week and we all brought our Quarters. And we had private lessons with that to and it didn’t cast anymore. This little town of mine, it was a Town of about Five thousand people, where everyone knows each other, you know and we had a wonderful little band we got together and I started out on piccolo, because my fingers were so small I couldn’t reach a clarinet yet. After a couple of years I started playing an Eb clarinet which you very seldom see today, be—cause they are very shrill you know, and they are only used in Brass Bands. I jogged along, for I’d always been crazy about show business. My Folks were the Marshall Fields of Circleville, Ohio or the May Company of Circleville Ohio, I still have the building and I rent it to the J.C. Penny Company. When the circus came to town I would be the first to help them unload and when the Minstrels came to town I was the first one to help them carry the banner down the street in the parade. When Uncle Tom’s Cabin came to town I was the first one to lead the Bloodhounds down the main street. My Folks would be very much embarrassed when all the clerks and everyone from the store would come out and they would see their boy Theodore Leopold Friedman, I was known as in those days, and naturally I would be reprimanded for those things, but, I just couldn’t help it for it was in my blood. 

Finally a Medicine Show came along, you know the old time Medicine Show, and this fellows name was Dr. Cooper, he had a medicine that would cure anything. He had tape worms in bottles, he had all kinds of different things in these little bottles you know with alcohol, he had an appendix, he had everything. The way we would get the crowd together, I’d take this little Eb clarinet and I’d play all these shrill notes same as Jazz today and I’d bring the crowd together and tell them a few jokes. I was just a kid 13 or 14 years old. But before we got on the street corner we would have a sort of a parade with the handsome cabs with a team of horses. This Doctor would have a high hat on, a high silk hat, a swallow tail coat, five dollar gold pieces for buttons and little two and one-half dollar gold pieces for studs in the back of his coat he’d have two big ten dollar gold pieces and he would throw out change and we would have red flares going down the main street to get the crowds to come up to the corner and we would entertain the crowd for a littlewhile and then the Doctor would go to work and with his spiel about this wonderful medicine, you see, in fact we would tell them that he would be there three or four days and we’d go out that night and go to the next town. Then there was a home talent show that they got together in Circleville, Ohio and I was one of the main players in the show, I made quite a hit. Every time I would go away from town with this medicine show, my father would find out where I was and he would take me and bring me back home. The reason I didn’t want to stay around home in this store my father had, I had to sweep out the store every morning, I had to deliver packages every afternoon after school and there was no fun. There never was any real play time. In fact, all of us boys had to the same thing and when a customer came in the store I could never wait on them because they always wanted a lady clerk, if they wanted a pair of stockings it was very embarrassing to ask a man for a pair of stockings or anything like that. 

Then I went away with a Carnival, I spieled for what they called a Wild Rosie show, they, had a fellow from my home town all painted up and we put one of these wild wigs on him, we had raw bones down around there, get the crowd together at this carnival with my clarinet, and I’d spiel about this wild man who makes his wants known by grunts and groans, he can’t talk and he’d go grrrrrr-rr down in his pits and he’d have all these ladies and farmers and all these people wondering and scared to death you know. They would all be talking about the oddity. Cost was a dime to get in and I had to spiel for it, talk about Wild Rosie, then we would come out and get the crowd out of there, get another crowd to come in, Now in another corner I’d sell gas balloons and candy and then my Father would find out that I was there and came and got me and brought me back again. 

Finally, in 1911, there was a boy piano player by the name of Oscar Y. Young who had wandered into town and was playing piano in all the little movie houses. These little nickelodeons I use to sing along with too. My father talked me out of that. My father was a wonderful man, he was always high-class, he didn’t want anything to do with show business. He didn’t want any of his sons to go into show business, and after awhile he was sorry he let me play the clarinet. My father used to go to New York twice a year to buy goods and in 1911 he finally consented to take Oscar Young, this piano player and I and a singer and we got together there in Circleville and take us to New York. My Brother Edgar who went to Ohio State University, we got together and formed an act called “THE WARDEN” AND THE “JAILBIRD COON”. We played for Gus Sun who would be booking out of Springfield, Ohio, he is a wonderful man today, tho’ very old is still a very dear and wonderful friend. He booked us into towns like Catlettsburg, Kentucky, Huntington, Va. Wheeling, West Virginia. Barberton, Ohio, all these little towns around. Twenty-two fifty a week and we paid our own expenses, we’d get room and board for $1.75 a day, room and board. That is when a dollar was really something. Sometimes for 75¢ a day we would get room and board with three meals a day and a lunch after the show. In 1911 we went to New York with my Father and Mother to buy goods, we went to a place on 48th Street called “Ma Cook’s Boarding house, $7.00 a week, board and room. Then we went around to Music Publishers, that is the time Irving Berlin was writing numbers like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Mr. Brown Had a Violin” a lot of different numbers like that and he was with Masterson, Berlin, and Snyder Publishing Company. Then Harry Von Tilzer and Remick and all of them we would demonstrate our wares in these little booths. Harry Von Tilzer heard us and he sent for the manager of Hammerstein’s Victoria in New York City. We got two weeks booking at Hammerstein’s Victoria, which was one of the best places in the country. 

On that bill of Hammerstein’s that I was on was the late Will Rogers, who was a very dear friend of mine, Ada Overton Walker who was the wife of the famous Williams and Walker were together. Walker died and Williams went out by himself and achieved dame with those wonderful songs of his such as the “Poker Game” that is being imitated oday. I once wrote a song for him which he recorded called the “Unlucky Blues”. It was on the back of his “Ten Little Bottles”. I’m sure all the old timer’s remember. It was a very big seller. Well we went to Hammerstein’s Victoria Theater for two weeks and we got the Wilburn & Vincent time out of that. Those were towns like Youngstown, Ohio, Akron, Ohio and all very nice and wonderful theaters. The singer in our act became involved in romance and left the act which broke it up. I went back to New York with my saxophone in my velvet bag and got a job at a place called “THE ELDORADO CAFÉ”. That was in a cellar where every waiter was a murderer and a hop fiend. One of those places that they dragged them in and threw them out. I used to catch nickels, dimes and quarters in my saxophone while I was playing it. It was an old C Melody Saxophone that my Father had bought me in one of his trips to New York. On one of my Fathers trips to New York he brought an old friend of his, Mrs. McCoy who was a very good customer of his. And when I found out that they were in town, I spoke to my boss at the “ELDORADO CAFÉ” and told him that my folks were in town and that I wanted to give them a party but I didn’t much money, actually we didn’t make too much money at this place, just enough to live on. So they came down to see me work at “THE ELDORADO CAFE” and we fixed them up, they thought they were drinking champagne, cause they never had champagne before, actually what they were drinking was Celery Tonic, served by the waiters in a lovely champagne bottle just like a vintage champagne, and they thought that this was great, but they still didn’t want their boy working this p. place like this in New York. So my father went to the boss of the place, a man called Herman Moss, and told him how much he enjoyed his place and tried to get Mr. Moss to talk me into going back home. So the next night the boss called me into his office, and said “Saxey, (they called me Saxey) you’ve got to go home; you come from wonderful people and this place is no place for you, you’ve just got to go home, YOU ARE FIRED!!!!!!!!!!! Now get your stuff together and go back home. So I went home again, and in a few weeks I got that old itch again to get back into Show Business, so a week or so later I formed myself an act, but I got cancelled many times, those were the days when your act was cancelled when they didn’t like your act, so I was cancelled so many times that I used to wire Gus Sun back under assumed names to get different booking I had all kinds of names. 

Finally I went home on my own, and I tried to stick around again but this just couldn’t be done, so I got into a little disagreement with my folks and I went up to Columbus and I got into a little Music store. “HENRY GOLDSMITH’S MUSIC STORE” I cleaned instruments. I collected, I sold, I demonstrated just about every instrument in the store, and in those days we sold records and when I sold a record I had to run down to the Wholesale House and get a duplicate, in those days we didn’t keep stock. I stayed with this job a short while and shortly after finally got back to New York again, and I met a little fellow by the name of “Lewis” we got an act together and started off. My folks still hadn’t heard from me, and I knew I just had to make my own way. Jack Lewis my partner sang songs and was a very good character actor and we worked up a very nice little act, and we got what they called the “Muckenfu Time” that’s a peculiar name but it was all throughout the South, now the name of the act was “LEWIS AND FRIEDMAN” and we were getting along just fine, not m making much money, but getting along fine and in “Show Business” and that’s all that counted, finally we got into a little town in the Carolinas, and I’m looking for our billing out in front of the theatre before we go into rehearsal and I see a name there “LEWIS AND LEWIS”, so I went into see the manager and said “What’s the big idea, your just billing my partner”, so the manager said “Well you see Friedman, our Marquee is very small, and so I thought I’d change your name to ‘LEWIS AND LEWIS”, what’s the difference, it doesn’t make such a difference,” so I said “OK”, and from then on I had the name of “TED LEWIS” that little incident caused me to take the name “TED LEWIS” instead of “TED FRIEDMAN”. 

So we were getting along fine with our act, and out agent was a fellow by the name of “HARRY RAPP” in New York, Harry Rapp later on in life became a very big man with the “MGM” people out here. He was a very big high official, in fact he was a big stockholder and everything, he became a very dear friend of mine, but he’s past away since then. He booked us on a new vaudeville circuit way up in Canada, it started from Saskatoon, Canada all the way up into Alberta, around up Moose Jaw even further that that, and this took place during the months of November, December, and January, in 1913 and every little town and house were miles and miles apart, and it so happened we got no money and we were stranded in a place called Alber a couple of months later. And during our trip down south I was lucky enough to join the “MOOSE” in Birmingham, Alabama, we were both broke and both stranded in this Alberta, Canada, I met a Chinaman and he gave us a dime and we went into a store and bought a big bowl of beans and some bread in facet we had all we could eat for this dime. Later I said how are we going to get back to Winnipeg, and in those days it took three days to get from Alberta to Winnipeg, on the Canadian Pacific Train, so I started talking to some of the fellows around and he one said “If you were only a Moose all these trainman belong to the Moose,” and I said “I am a Moose, then he said “That’s great I’ll tell you what you do, there’s an Eight o’clock train in the morning so you take your trunk and see the man at the station and show him your card tell him your troubles and you’ll get to Winnipeg,” So we sat up all that night and the train comes in, in the morning, I got in touch with the conductor, I showed him my Moose card, Told him my troubles, gave him the whole story and he said “Well I’ll tell you, I’m only going as far as so and so I’ll talk to the other Conductor and maybe he’ll take you on further, in other words we went in relays, and we finally got to Winnipeg, we had to sleep in the smoker, we got our meals by entertaining the waiters, when they were finished waiting on their regular customers, everybody in the dining car, all the waiters belong to the Moose, and we entertained them while they were eating and then we got our food. When we finally got to Winnipeg, I went up to the manager’s office who had the new circuit we were on, and in the meantime I wired Harry Rapp collect, but I received no answer, and I didn’t want to let my folks know that I was stranded, in fact they didn’t even know where I was, or that I was going under the name of “LEWIS” so we got to this managers office, a big beautiful office, with a receptionist and everything, so I said “ Is Mr. so and so in?” and she said “Who is it” and I said “This is LEWIS AND LEWIS and we were just stranded up in Moose Jaw Alberta and we happen to beat our way down here and we happen to get as far as Winnipeg, and we want to get out of town, we want to get to Chicago,” and she said “I’m sorry the manager’s out of town Mr. Lewis, I’m sorry I can’t do anything for you.” Then I said “Well what are we going to do we’ve got money coming, but my agent in New York won’t answer my wire, and I just don’t know what we’re going to do here. She then said “well I’m sorry I can’t do anything for you.” well in the meantime on the way going out there was one of these hall trees with a big Raccoon Coat on it. so on the way out this Raccoon Coat happen to slip around my arm and it came right off the Hall tree, and I went on down with this Raccoon Coat on my arm, we had to do some-thing, and I went to a pawnshop and I pawed this coat and we got enough money to get to Chicago. In Chicago, my partner left me, he met a girl, and I didn’t want to let my folks know where I was yet, and we stopped in an old hotel in Chicago called the Revere House, lots of the oldtimers will remember that, they still have my old candleback trunk, and I finally got a job in Chicago with my little Saxophone under my arm on Twenty Second Street, where the girls would hang around for drinks, and they’d get a percentage of the drinks that they sold and I’d entertain and I was there Two nights when I got fired. 

I finally had to call up one of the ladies in the store at home a lady named Fanny Ward who took care of me when I was a little kid and I told her “Fanny, get some money together, cause I’m coming home. So she sent me the money and I came home again, then I went to New York by myself and I had money in my pocket, and I formed a band and we got out to Coney Island, “TED LEWIS AND HIS NUT BAND” those were the days when the drummer would stand on someone’s shoulders and we’d hit tin pans and it was called a real nut band. Then in 1915 I went with a Burlesque Show called “CHARLIE ROBERSTON’S PARISIAN FLIRTS” I joined an act called Duffy-Heister AND LEWIS” from the Burlesque Show. I went with Bessie Clayton, she was a very wonderful toe dancer, and she was on the Keith Circuit during the Orpheum time, from Bessie Clayton, I came back to New York, I was married then to Mrs. Lewis, we got married in 1915. I finally got my own band together, and I was playing for Joan Sawyer, the very wonderful dancer, at the Au Caprice in the Domino Room on 59th Street and Broadway. Then the Dixieland Jazz Band came to town at Reisenwebers and Rectors had to have a Jazz Band, so they came up to here me in Joan Sawyers place, and they wanted me to form a Jazz Band and come over to Rectors, I did and that’s where I first started to make my big hit, and I acquired my hat from down there from a cab driver by the name of Mississippi, you know those Hansom Cabs they drive through the parks, Mississippi had an old hat cause they used to wear the High Hats, and I shot him a quarter against his hat during Intermissionduring one of the dances, and I won the hat and I went upstairs and I have had the hat ever since. Then from Rectors, the late Murray Anderson who produced all the wonderful shows and musicals got a show together called “THE GREENWICH VILLAGE FOLLIES” and they needed some-body in a little spot while they changed the scenery, and my band and I went down there and we originated the laughing horns on the number called “THERE ARE SMILES THAT MAKE YOU HAPPY” and we had the trombone player laughing, and then the Cornet would laugh and then the Clarinet would laugh and got this little spot in the down in the Village, and we stopped the show so cold that from the next day on we were the Stars of the show, “TED LEWIS AND HIS JAZZ BAND.”  

I continued playing with the “GREENWICH VILLAGE FOLLIES” and Rectors and then I went over to the Bal Tabarin and I was interested in the Bal Tabarin, and from Rectors on I got the phrase - - - - “IS EVERYBODY HAPPY?” during the War, after a dance set one night I just happened to say “IS EVERYBODY HAPPY?” and everyone in the house started to applaud, and that phrase has stuck with me ever since, and that’s the way I acquired the Hat, and I was with the GREEWICH VILLAGE FOLLIES, of 1920 and 1922, then I went with the “PASSING SHOW”, I played all the Orpheum Circuit, I made records since 1916 for Columbia, who sold over a million copies a month, then I went with “ARTISTS AND MODELS”, with “LeMaire’s Affairs” and I made pictures for MGM, Warner Brothers, and Columbia and this place that we’re playing now we hold the record still at the Coconut Grove, the attendance since 1929, we got 1300 and some off people in this place we had them in little balconies all around we had them jammed in every night and this was for Mr. Abe Frank. Who was the manager here then. Then we came back here in 1936, and here we are again for a stay from 4 to 6 weeks, and we’ve been going ever since and I feel that my life hasn’t been wasted that I have done some good, that I’ve tried to make “EVERYBODY HAPPY” and that’s the finish I can’t say no more. Incidentally this is my 45th anniversary in Show Business, in Real Show Business, of course I’ve had quite a few little previews before I got into show business and also my 40th Wedding Anniversary, to the same lovely lady, Lots of guys cant’s say that in this business, of course that’s Mrs. Lewis’s fault she’s so wonderful, she’s my manager, she does everything for me, and my wonderful secretary Mrs. Goodman who has been with us 19 or 20 years and it’s a very high compliment for me to be on Monitor and I know the folks won’t know what they’re going to hear until they hear it and I hope that it’ll be interesting enough that they’ll - - - - - - - - - - - - -