Van and Schenck (Gus Van and Joe Schenck)
- by Tim Gracyk
Excerpt from POPULAR AMERICAN RECORDING PIONEERS: 1895-1925, by Tim Gracyk. The book was published in late 2000.
This duo was popular in vaudeville beginning in the early 1910s, in Broadway shows, and on radio. The team made records from 1916 to 1929, enjoying their greatest success as recording artists from 1917 to 1924.
Van's real name was August Von Glahn. According to his obituary in the March 13, 1968 issue of the New York Times, he was born in Brooklyn's Ridgewood section. Another obituary in the Star Journal (March 14, 1968) states that he was raised on a farm near Hillside Avenue and 168th Street in Queens' Jamaica section, which is several miles from Ridgewood. Articles in the Ridgewood Times indicate both Van and Schenck had strong times to Ridgewood. A fan club met regularly at a house at 70-12 Cypress Hills Street in Ridgewood, Gus Van often providing entertainment.
His parents were Charles and Lois (Lotz) Von Glahn, both of whom had been born in Germany. The Twelfth Census of the United States reports that August was born in 1886 but several later documents, including his marriage certificate and death certificate, state 1887. The Twelfth Census identifies him as a "printer's errand boy."
Joseph Thuma Schenck was born in the same neighborhood and the future partners attended the same school though given the age difference it is unlikely they were close as schoolmates. His name was pronounced "Skenk" by his contemporaries. Billie Burke, wife of Flo Ziegfeld, pronounced it this way while paying tribute to the memory of the tenor on the April 3, 1932 broadcast of Ziegfeld Follies of the Air, a recording of which has survived.
For years Van was a Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company employee, and his marriage certificate dated August 12, 1909 gives "motorman" as Van's occupation. He married Margaret Baumgarten, also from Brooklyn, at St. Leonard's of Port Maurice Church. She died in 1949, and Van then married a woman known as Vi.
According to an obituary in the March 13, 1968 edition of the New York Times, Van "worked for the trolley company, but his singing ability led him into places where people paid to hear him...[H]e began singing in the back rooms of some saloons on the Brooklyn and New York waterfronts. Mr. Van related that he was having difficulty with his pianist, so he dismissed him..." Around 1905 Schenck was hired as Van's accompanist. The obituary states, "At first, Mr. Schenck functioned solely as a pianist because his voice was changing. But later, as it settled into a tenor, it blended well with Mr. Van's, and in 1910 they became a vocal team." Page 86 of the October 1927 issue of Talking Machine World reports that the two were presented with a silver loving cup by Brooklyn citizens on the "eighteenth anniversary of the first vaudeville engagement of the team," which suggests they performed in vaudeville for the first time in 1909.
In 1912 their composition "Teach Me That Beautiful Love" was published by Will Rossiter. The cover includes a photograph of the two with the caption, "Originally introduced by Van and Schenck in vaudeville." Song credit is given to "Joe Schenck and Gus Van"--that is, the names are reversed.
In 1916 they had a break when asked to substitute for a trained but temperamental chimpanzee scheduled to entertain at a dinner party hosted by Florenz Ziegfeld and Charles B. Dillingham. Van and Schenck evidently did well at the dinner party since they were soon featured in Ziegfeld shows, beginning with The Century Girl.
Invitations to make records evidently followed their successful appearance in The Century Girl. Their first recordings were made for Emerson in late 1916: "It's a Long, Long Time Since I've Been Home" (7107) and "Hawaiian Sunshine" (7198). Their first Victor recordings were made on December 29, 1916: "Yaddie Kaddie Kiddie Kaddie Koo" and "That's How You Can Tell They're Irish" (18220). Their next Victor disc was very popular: "For Me And My Gal" coupled with "Dance And Grow Thin" (Victor 18258).
The comic duo may be regarded as successors to Collins and Harlan, who were losing popularity around the time the younger and more jazz-oriented Van and Schenck began recording. Baritone Gus Van often sang the main melody, and Schenck's high tenor voice harmonized and sang phrases that echoed Van's leading vocal (on a few record Schenck sings the main melody). A representative Victor recording is "For Me And My Gal" (18258, 1917), a performance similar to a Collins and Harlan performance. Another parallel with Collins and Harlan is that Van and Schenck often performed songs in dialect--Italian, Yiddish, Southern, Chinese. The dialogue they exchange in "Ragtime Moses Oldtime Bomboshay" (Columbia A2630, 1918) would fit in a typical Collins and Harlan performance.
The duo left Victor for Columbia in early 1918, recorded exclusively for Columbia for over ten years, then returned to Victor in 1929. Popular Columbia recordings include "Ain't We Got Fun?" (A3412, 1921) and "Carolina in the Morning" (A3712, 1923).
Joe Schenck played accompanying piano when the team performed on stage for audiences but the duo is generally accompanied by orchestra on recordings. Van and Schenck wrote or co-wrote some numbers they recorded, including "Mulberry Rose" (Victor 18318), "I Miss The Old Folks Now" (Victor 18429), "Open Up The Golden Gates to Dixieland" (Columbia A2820), "All The Boys Love Mary" (Columbia A2942), "All She'd Say Was Umh Hum" (Columbia A3319), "That Red Headed Gal" (Columbia A3905), "That Bran' New Gal O'Mine" (Columbia 6-D), and "Promise Me Everything, Never Get Anything Blues" (Columbia 78-D).
In the 1920 they wrote the music of "Green River" to lyrics supplied by fellow Ziegfeld Follies performer Eddie Cantor, and sheet music shows Van and Schenck (at 25 East Jackson Blvd, Chicago) as the song's publisher. In the 1920s various artists recorded Van and Schenck compositions (most were written with at least one other composer). "Who Did You Fool After All?" was recorded by the Virginians (Victor 19001) and Cal Smith's American Orchestra (Gennett 5011). "That Red Headed Gal," written in 1923 by the two with Henry Lodge, was recorded by Marion Harris on Brunswick 2434 and Isham Jones Orchestra on Brunswick 2412. Two of their compositions were recorded in late 1923 by the team of Aileen Stanley and Billy Murray: "Big Hearted Bennie" (Victor 19221) and "Promise Me Everything, Never Get Anything Blues" (Victor 19231).
Each singer made a handful of solo recordings. For Victor, Gus Van recorded "I Don't Think I Need A Job That Bad" and "If I Was As Strong as Samson" (Victor 18363), issued in November 1917. Joe Schenck recorded "Sally, Won't You Come Back?" (Columbia A3478), a song by Dave Stamper and Gene Buck that pays tribute to musical comedy star Marilyn Miller, who starred in Sally. Another "Sally" song they recorded was "I Wonder What's Become of Sally" (Columbia 148-D), issued in 1924.
They made their radio debut in 1923. In the late 1920s they made M-G-M Movietone shorts (opening credits bill the team as the "Pennant Winning Battery of Songland") and Vitaphone shorts, and in 1930 they starred in a M-G-M feature film, They Learned About Women, about major league baseball players who toured in vaudeville in the off-season. While in Hollywood they made their last Victor recordings to be issued: "Dougherty Is The Name" backed by "Does My Baby Love" (22352). Both songs were featured in the film.
Schenck was married twice. His first wife was named Amelia and around 1914 a daughter, Peggy, was born. The second wife was named Lillian (weeks after Schenck's death, Amelia filed a lawsuit alleging that the marriage to Lillian was not legal). He died of a heart attack in the Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit, where Van and Schenck had an engagement at the Fischer Theatre.
The Ridgewood Times on August 15, 1930 includes an article about legal disputes that arose after Joe died, stating, "Mrs. Amelia Schenck, first wife of the late Joe Schenck....is planning an action in the Surrogate's Court, Jamaica, to have Mrs. Lillian Broderick Schenck, the comedian's widow, dismissed as ex-ecutrix of his estate, charging they were never married. Despite the one-time Lillian Broderick's contention that she married Schenck three times to make sure all was legal, the first Mrs. Schenck said Schenck never married Miss Broderick at all, and only a few weeks before he died sought a reconciliation with her."
Mrs. Lillian Broderick Schenck also filed a suit against Gus Van. The singer told the newspaper, "She declared I collected $25,000 insurance and owed Joe $27,000. She's right about the first part. We had a $50,000 joint policy to protect our contract and I collected my half when Joe died, naturally. I was entitled to it. As for the $27,000--I never heard about it before."
Gus Van then worked as a solo artist, appearing in vaudeville and performing on radio. In January 1931 he joined the cast of Ballyhoo, a musical comedy starring W.C. Fields. In 1931 he made a few recordings that were issued on Perfect and Banner. Performances were issued on Bluebird in 1933 but did not sell well. Starting in 1935 he made Universal motion picture shorts. He starred in "Gus Van's Garden Party," a ten minute comic film released in September 1936 by Mentone Productions, Inc. In 1948 he was elected president of the American Guild of Variety Artists. According to his obituary in the New York Times, he moved to Miami Beach in 1949 and played in nightclubs and hotels there. He was struck by a car on March 5, 1968 and died in Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach a week later.