The sheet music for “I’m Just Wild About Animal Crackers,” courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Popular culture, be it music, the written word, or mass entertainment, so often unintentionally defines a time and place in history, revealing so much about a society’s values, beliefs, and actions. Just seeing or hearing something produced for wide enjoyment can conjure up a vision of the world in which it was created, something often never consciously intended by its makers.
Such was the case in the 1920s, a decade of jazz-mad, devil-may-care flappers and sheiks enjoying life to the fullest after the devastation and despair caused by the Great War and its aftermath. Leaving behind a more stolid and serious world view, carefree young people threw themselves wholeheartedly into life, enjoying everything from feverish dancing to petting parties, booze-filled festivities to flagpole sitting. Fads like playing miniature golf, bridge, mah jongg, etc. boomed.
“Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays” by Karie Bible and Mary Mallory is available at Amazon and at local bookstores.
“Animal Crackers” in Daily Variety, July 21, 1926.
Comic songs echoed the frivolity of the times, with such nonsense tunes as “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” “Where’d You Get Those Eyes?,” and “Tain’t No Sin to Dance Around In Your Bones” popular hits. Not to be outdone, the Henry Waterson Company joined the fray in 1926 to create its own novelty song, something with a hot jazz beat, called “I’m Just Wild About Animal CrackersI’m Just Wild About Animal Crackers.”
With little documentation, it appears that Waterson song demonstrator and writer Harry Link decided to cook up a hit and pulled in two successful performers, Fred Rich and Sam Coslow, to help concoct a fun little tune. The July 11, 1956 Variety called Link “one of the top song demonstrators of his era,” who played by ear and “black-key only,” a stage and radio performer of parody songs. Rich was a popular bandleader, conductor of New York’s well-regarded Hotel Astor Orchestra, which recorded for Columbia and played on WJZ Radio. Coslow composed comic and hot tempo songs.
The team pulled together a song with a fast tempo and a jaunty beat in May, one based around a popular snack item repeated over and over. The first chorus goes:
“I’m Just Wild About Animal Crackers, Animal Crackers,
I Can’t Live Without Animal Crackers, Animal Crackers,
Bears and Tigers Haunt Me All Day,
And Whenever I am At a Cafe, Say,
All – I Order Is Animal Crackers, Animal Crackers,
….Animal Crackers I Love You!”
Not written specifically for any one company’s animal crackers’ cookies, like National Biscuit Co. (Nabisco) or Loose Wiles, the song highlighted a food popular with both adults and children, making it easy to create promotions around.
The 1948 American Weekly magazine claimed, perhaps apocryphally, that Link achieved the first mass recognition of the song through a little subterfuge. While hanging out at Washington, D. C.’s Mayflower Hotel, Link noticed a large banquet underway with the orchestra playing gentle waltzes. He approached the band leader to ask if he could sing his latest number, but was informed that the band’s mission was to provide background music since President Calvin Coolidge was guest of honor.
After much cajoling, Link convinced the band leader and emcee to his proposal. Lying flat on the ground of the balcony floor to sing the tune unnoticed by the crowd, Link warbled the song after the radio announcer stated, “Live with the President of the United States,” gaining immediate attention and leading to large sales of all types.
The June 11, 1926 Lockport, New York Union Sunday Journal called it “somewhat a catchy tune with a nonsensical line,” popular with bands and entertainers like the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The Buffalo Evening News on the same date stated that while the song was popular with orchestras, it would quickly see a drop off in sales.
To keep the name in the ether, the Waterson Co. quickly turned to promotions to help in grow in popularity. Variety reported on July 21, 1926 that they had arranged a tie-up with A & P stores which they called “one of the most unusual ever concocted,” in which the song would be included in a sale with the cookies, – a box of cookies plus one piece of sheet music would cost twenty five cents. Trades announced another deal which Link negotiated with the Loose-Wiles Co. to exploit the song with their brand of animal crackers.
Sheet music and record companies created elaborate displays to advance sales. The Darrow Music Co. of Denver, Colorado creatively decorated their shop window to drum up sales, which Variety called “putting something in there which is snappy, right up to the minute, a suggestion of something late in the musical line.”
Talking Machine World reported on September 15, 1926 that the company developed a successful campaign with a lavishly decorated window display, in which a truckload of small cottonwood limbs were arranged in a jungle layout, with large jungle animals (much larger than stuffed toys) placed within them while the recording played over and over near the front door, drawing large crowds to see and hear the spectacle. “This display, because it is ingenious, because it connects up graphically with a popular song, interests many persons daily and has resulted in many sales.”
Waterson even arranged a promotional deal with a circus film, in which a game connected the picture and the crackers as giveaways. Link and company teamed up with the National Biscuit Company to cross-promote each other, with ten dozen boxes available for hand out in connection with special support of the song and music.
As the Buffalo Evening News reported, the song sped to the top of the charts to drop off just as fast. By 1927, more pop songs with catchy beats took its place. Forgotten today, the lovely sheet music and recordings reveal a toe-tapping, high-energy piece good for a laugh and quick dance. Just like today, catchy titles, bouncy numbers, and high end supporters often create fast momentum and sales for songs, the name of the game in popular culture.