Thursday, July 08, 2010

Mae West: Coney Island Kootch

Let's reflect on an American songwriter whose amusing way with a song intrigued a very perky Brooklynite long before she became MAE WEST.
• • Born in July, Harry Von Tilzer [8 July 1872 10 January 1946] was known for his popular slightly naughty novelty songs such as "Mariutch Make-a the Hootch a-ma-Cooch in Coney Island" [published in 1907 but probably written earlier] — — about the savvy Italian girl who became a side-show sensation when she realized you didn't need feet in order to dance.
• • "Mariutch" was performed by an aspiring vaudevillian "Baby May, Song and Dance" when her parents would enter their daughter in amateur contests in Brooklyn. Her rendition of this Italian dialect number often won a prize and no doubt the seductive wiggling helped generate applause.
• • "Even as a child," Beverly told a reporter, "my sister's songs were risque."
• • What we are not told is who taught a little girl how to shimmy and be sultry onstage. Nor is there a West family recollection in print about which parent chose the sheet music, helped "Baby May" rehearse it, or coached her on the Italian dialect pronunciation. Could it have been Matilda, raised in Bavaria, with her heavy German accent? Or was it John West, raised near the docks on Avenue D in Manhattan, who sparred and boxed with Italian immigrants and other ethnics and, therefore, could imitate them?
• • Focused also on the bright lights and the marquee was Harry Von Tilzer, who was born in Detroit under the name Harry Gummbinsky (which he shortened to Harry Gumm before later taking the "Von Tilzer" monicker under which he became famous). At age 14 he had joined a traveling circus, where he took his new name. He began playing piano and calliope while creating new tunes and incidental music for shows. After writing many songs (often in partnership with Andrew B. Sterling), hits that were performed by well-known vocalists, Harry Von Tilzer achieved his share of good fortune.
• • Harry's niece Frances Gumm went on to fame as the renamed Judy Garland.
• • Mae, eternally inspired by her childhood visits to Coney Island, began her famous motion picture "I'm No Angel" [1933] with a kootch dancer in a side-show. She named the character Tira but it's clear how this got started years before.
• • If you like frisky songs, come up and see Mae on her annual birthday celebration in New York City on 14 August 2010. Tickets are now on sale — — — — and you'll enjoy their bawdy, gaudy, naughty way with a song.
• • Come up and see Mae every day online:
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• • Photo: • • Mae West • • 1907 song sheet • •
• • Feed — —
Mae West.

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