Jesse Lasky on the cover of “We’ve Had a Lovely Time, So Long, Good Bye,” Courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Best known as one of Hollywood’s early motion picture moguls, native Californian Jesse L. Lasky also excelled at radio and theatrical production during his long career. A natural born performer and optimist, Lasky developed much of the material for the shows he produced, performed on stage by talented actors he discovered, thanks to his wide experience working in entertainment himself.
Lasky himself began performing at a young age, playing the cornet and dreaming of playing in the great John Phillip Sousa band. He points out in his biography, “I Blow My Own Horn,” that he served as solo cornetist in the San Jose Juvenile Band, later playing in tent shows. After his father’s death, he played in tent shows, the Bella Union Hotel, and music halls before landing a job playing in the orchestra at Keith’s Union Square Theatre, per Filmplay Journal in April 1922. The adventurous young man took off on tour to far away places like Hawaii playing his cornet, eventually returning to California to work as a newspaper reporter. Wanderlust captured him again, and he set off to Alaska to prospect for gold.
Pianophiends in the Los Angeles Herald, Oct. 18, 1908.
When Lasky struck out there, he returned to California and formed the Musical Laskys with his sister Blanche. The young pair found themselves playing musical interludes for the magician Hermann, who later began Hermann the Great. Young Jesse soon found himself manager of the act, putting together performances, hiring workers, and organizing productions. His long road as a producer lay ahead.
Ready to take the next step, ambitious Lasky joined with B. A. Rolfe to form Lasky, Rolfe & Co. in 1906 to put together acts and shows for vaudeville. Not only did the sharp-eyed young man discover impressive new talent, he composed songs and wrote sketches around their talents. In fact, Lasky employed whatever skills were necessary to grow his skills and reputation as a producer of vaudeville acts, including composing. Some time in 1907, though, Lasky and Rolfe parted ways, with Jesse forming the Jesse L. Lasky Company.
Besides parting with Rolfe, he also left his job managing the William Morris office in Chicago, striking out on his own as a vaudeville producer. Lasky quickly put together the show, “The Pianophiends,” a clever and imaginative act. Impresario Lasky hired four attractive young women and four attractive young men to star in a musical novelty show set in a piano store.
In his autobiography, “I Blow My Own Horn,” Lasky called it “a musical novelty featuring a concert pianist at a grand piano, flanked by two uprights to each side, on which four boys and four girls played duets and ensembles,” basically little mini musical comedy sketches combining singing, dancing, and piano playing, all set to a lively beat. To cap off the show, the lovely young women stood atop the pianos and sang and danced a number.
“Dear Old Broadway,” Courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Audiences loved the show, finding it incredibly high energy and entertaining, and one easily updated with either new songs or entertainers, allowing Lasky to tour it through at least 1912. He even stated to Variety on January 30, 1909 that he hoped to make it a “perpetual act.” In a May 25, 1907 review, Variety described it as “18 hands tearing off ragtime on five pianos is the latest contribution to the musical novelty act.” The reviewer found a few of the young women as attractive as those in the Floradora sextet, with all the performers exceedingly well piano players.
By August 3, 1907, Variety stated that “Pianophiends” had developed into “an exceedingly smooth running musical act, with a dash of “girl” and spectacular interest.” Only 27 minutes, it sped right along to a rousing conclusion. Many newspapers called it original and cover. The Bridgeport Evening Farmed called it “novel and original, spectacular and winning” in its April 6, 1909 review. “Pianophiends” hit Los Angeles in September 1911, with the Los Angeles Times on September 9 calling the performers clever and exceedingly talented.
A few of the show’s performers went on to great things after taking part in the production, including future composer Con Conrad and silent film director, Nell Shipman.
Lasky’s “Pianophiends” impressed several rising young composers, who satirized it for a Friars Frolic in 1911, creating an act called “Piano Bugs.” They also rounded up several pianos and composed parody songs that they then performed solo, in duets, or larger groups, commenting on songs and news of the day. Some of these witty young performers included composers Jean Schwartz, Ernest R. Ball, Ed Barron, and Irving Berlin.
In the spring of 1908, Lasky wrote the lyrics to which composer and public Fred Fischer set to music entitled “My Brudda Sylvest.” This followed in the tradition of what is now called “dialect” songs, in which the lyrics were written in what was supposed the idiom or folk language of an usually ethnic group of people, such as what is called African-American or “coon” songs, Italian, Dutch (actually German), and Jewish. Now somewhat dated and racist, these songs often featured stereotypes to help consumers at the time quickly understand them and mixed in humor.
“My Brudda Sylvest,” an Italian dialect song, about a man’s strong brother Sylvest, who worked a variety of jobs that required power, strength, and know how, a muscular man with a heart of compassion. The song seemed to strike a nerve with the public, as many performers added it to their repertoire, receiving good notices whenever performing the song. Variety noted in its August 19, 1908 issue that sales were high due to its funny lyric and good chorus. Billboard called it “that terrific Italian song hit” on August 1, 1908.
Edison Phonograph Monthly stated in its October 1908 issue: “My Brudda Sylvest” is “one of the best of the Italian dialect songs that vaudeville singers are featuring of present. The irrepressible Collins and Harlan sing it to a rag-Italian tune – something new and decidedly fetching.”
Pianophiends, Salt Lake Herald, Nov. 8, 1908.
Featuring multiple choruses, the lyrics focused on people and events of the day, mentioning boxers John Sullivan and Jim Jeffries, and baseball player Mike Donlin, along with such subjects as the Brooklyn Bridge, B & O Railroad, the Spanish War, the circus, and coal mines. The first verse goes,
“Oh you heard about the great a strong a man,
Oh the great a bag a John a Sullivan,
Oh you heard about the Jeffries a fight,
He’s a strong all right he whip a fifty
Men in one a night,
But I got a brudda got the bunch a beat,
Got a chest a measure forty sev’n a feet,
Got a peanut stand on Mulberry street,
he’s a tough a man to beat.”
Then as now, something popular led to copycats. Other composers wrote their own versions of Italian dialect songs or brudda titles, but none at the time that appeared to top “My Brudda Sylvest.” The song remained a hit through at least 1910, helping keep Lasky’s name in front of the public as well as demonstrating that he could create product that successfully sold shows.
By 1913, Lasky’s career stalled in vaudeville, flat on its back. Looking for new challenges and opportunities, his brother-in-law Samuel Goldfish, later Samuel Goldwyn, suggested they follow several of their friends and colleagues into the growing motion picture field. The two soon joined with actor Cecil B. De Mille to form the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Film Company, deciding to produce the former book and play, “The Squaw Man” as their first moving picture.
While Lasky’s composing and vaudeville career soon ended, little did he know that the adventure facing the three men would bring them enormous fame and fortune, and help launch a major film company that still operates today.