1910: Prodigy Who Rejected Family's Highbrow Music to Become Hitmaker Is Born

'Aggressively lowbrow': Frank Loesser was the mind behind 'Guys and Dolls' and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying'

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Frank Loesser: An aggressively lowbrow creative talent who was behind the smash hits "Guys and Dolls," and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying", among others: Shown here with impeccably combed hair, smiling, wearing white shirt, dark tie, darker suit, and a folded white kerchief in his jacket pocket.
Frank LoesserCredit: Wikimedia Commons

June 29, 1910, is the birthdate of Frank Loesser, one of the greatest creative talents the American musical theater has known. An autodidact, Loesser went from providing lyrics to individual songs and then to entire plays (“Guys and Dolls,” in 1950), to writing both words and music (the 1952 movie “Hans Christian Andersen”). Eventually, he expanded to taking responsibility for the script as well, as he did with “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, in 1962.

Loesser came from a family of learned and accomplished classical musicians, but theirs was a path he refused to follow. In the words of theater historian John D. Shout, “even as a child, Frank was aggressively lowbrow.”

Born to fail

Born Francis Henry Loesser, in New York City, he was the son of two German-born Jews, Henry Loesser and the former Julia Ehrlich. Henry had left his native Prussia in the 1880s to avoid both military service and a career in the family bank. In the U.S. he was a pianist and a music teacher.

When his first wife, Bertha, died, during childbirth in 1907, Henry married her younger sister, Julia Ehrlich, who would be Frank’s mother.

At age 7, Frank was making up words to fit the rhythm of the elevated train, as it click-clacked past his bedroom window. When he was 14, his father wrote to Frank’s older half-brother, Arthur, himself a noted concert pianist and educator, how his younger son was “developing more and more into a musical genius. He plays any tune he’s heard”

Frank, however, was unwilling to undergo formal musical training – his instrument was the harmonica -- and altogether he kept his time in school to a minimum. He was expelled shortly after he began Townsend Harris High School, for gifted children, in 1924, and he also had to withdraw from City College of New York during his first year (he had been admitted despite lacking a high school diploma), after failing everything but English and gym.

When his father died, in 1926, Frank worked in a string of different jobs, most of them journalism-related, although he also was employed briefly screwing the tops onto insecticide containers. It was in this period that he began writing song lyrics.

Brrr, Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Loesser was employed briefly as a lyricist for a Tin Pan Alley music publisher, and spent his evenings singing at the nearby Back Drop nightclub, until, in 1936, he and composer Irving Actman wrote a musical revue called “The Illustrators’ Show,” which opened on Broadway – before closing four nights later.

Nonetheless, by 1936, Loesser was well-regarded enough that he was in Hollywood, on contract first with Universal Studios and then Paramount Pictures. That was also the year he married singer Lynn Garland, nee Mary Alice Blankenbaker.

It was with her that he originally performed “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which he wrote for a housewarming party in 1944, but which won him an Oscar after it appeared in the MGM film “Neptune’s Daughter,” in 1948.  (There is even a Hebrew version of the song.)

During World War II, Loesser wrote and produced musical revues for the Army Air Force, turning out such well-known songs as “What Do You Do in the Infantry? (You March, You March, You March),” and “Praise the Lord”

Baby, Its Cold OutsideCredit: YouTube

It was around this time that composer Jerome Kern urged Loesser to start writing his own music, telling him, “Your lyrics make the writing of melody a cinch.”

But writing both words and music, as he did for the first time in “Where’s Charley?” (1948), was just the beginning. In 1956, Loesser created “The Most Happy Fella,” writing the book as well as more than 40 musical numbers. In that, according to New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson, “He has told everything of vital importance in terms of dramatic music.” He did something similar with the satirical “How to Succeed in Business.,” which was more commercial, running for four years on Broadway, and with less box-office success in “Greenwillow,” though that play did earn seven Tony nominations.

Loesser was a three-pack-a-day smoker, so it is probably little surprise that he died of lung cancer, cruelly, at the age of 59, on July 28, 1969.

Guys and Dolls - Tony Awards Credit: YouTube