Dietz, Howard

views updated

Dietz, Howard

Dietz, Howard, charming American lyricist, librettist, and film-company executive; b. N.Y., Sept. 8, 1896;d. there, July 30, 1983. Like such contemporaries as E. Y. Harburg and Ira Gershwin, Dietz wrote lyrics to hundreds of songs used in Broadway shows and Hollywood films during the middle decades of the 20th century; unlike them, he did so while maintaining a full-time job in a different if related field. While handling advertising and publicity for a major film studio, he found time, especially in the late 1920s and 1930s, to write for a series of successful Broadway revues, usually working with Arthur Schwartz, though his other collaborators included Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Walter Donaldson, Jimmy McHugh, Vernon Duke, and Sammy Fain. Because his successes came exclusively with revues, he is best remembered for individual songs; among his most popular: “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan/’ “Dancing in the Dark/’ and “That’s Entertainment.”

Dietz’s father, a Russian immigrant, was a jeweler. Dietz attended the Columbia Univ. School of Journalism starting in the fall of 1913, and while a student worked as a newspaper stringer, also contributing light verse to such columns as Franklin P. Adams’s The Conning Tower. In his junior year he won $500 in a contest to provide advertising copy for a cigarette manufacturer, which led him to a copywriting job for an advertising agency. One of the agency’s clients was the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, for which Dietz created the corporate logo, a roaring lion dubbed ”Leo,” and the company slogan, in mangled Latin, “Ars Gratia Artis.” (It means “Art for art’s sake,” but the correct form would be “Ars Artis Gratia.”)

In 1917, Dietz married Elizabeth Bigelow Hall (they later divorced). With the American entry into World War I, he enlisted in the navy. After the war he was hired by Goldwyn as a publicist. When the company was merged into Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer in 1924, Dietz became director of publicity and advertising.

Meanwhile, Dietz was beginning to find outlets for his lyrics. His first song to be used in a revue came with “Power of Light” (music by Morrie Ryskind) from The ’49ers (N.Y. Nov. 7,1922), for which he also contributed sketch material alongside many of the famous Algonquin Roundtable group of writers such as Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Ring Lardner, and Dorothy Parker. Dietz’s first song to be published was “Alibi Baby” (music by Arthur Samuels), which was used in the musical Poppy (N.Y., Sept. 3,1923), which starred W.C. Fields. Dietz then teamed with Kern and they wrote the songs for the unsuccessful 1924 musical Dear Sir. Dietz was brought in to assist the ailing Ira Gershwin on Oh, Kay! (N.Y., Nov. 8, 1926), collaborating with the Gershwin brothers on several songs.

Dietz’s next attempt to write lyrics for a musical was an embarrassing failure. Hoop-La!, with music by Jay Gorney, closed during a tryout in Stamford, Conn., oh April 25, 1927, after only one act had been performed. Dietz was back only a month later with Merry-Go-Round, for which he co-wrote the lyrics and the libretto with Ryskind; it ran 135 performances. Later that year Dietz had his first song to be associated with a motion picture, “That Melody of Love” (music by Donaldson), written to promote the silent film Love. It was also his first hit, in a recording by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, in June.

Dietz’s first real stage success came with the revue The Little Show, for which he wrote the sketches as well as the lyrics to songs mostly by Arthur Schwartz. It ran 321 performances and generated a hit for Libby Hoiman, who appeared onstage, with “Moanin’ Low” (music by Ralph Rainger) in September 1929. Ultimately, however, the biggest hit from the score turned out to be “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” (music by Schwartz), which finally took off when it was recorded by Rudy Vallee in August 1932. “(When I Am) Housekeeping for You” (music by Gorney) was not a hit, but it is notable as the first Dietz lyric to be heard in a sound film, Paramount’s The Battle of Paris (1929), and it is the first song Dietz wrote under the pseudonym Dick Howard, a name he apparently used to hide his identity when working for studios other than MGM.

Dietz and Schwartz were retained for The Second Little Show, but the principal performers from the earlier edition—Holman, Fred Allen, and Clifton Webb—were not, and the new revue ran only 63 performers. A month later, however, the songwriters were reunited with the trio of actors in the aptly named revue Three’s a Crowd, resulting in a 271-performance run and another record hit by Holman, “Something to Remember You By,” at the end of 1930. (Dietz also contributed sketch material to the show.)

The Band Wagon (1931) did not have Holman, Allen, and Webb in its cast, but it did boast the dancing team of Fred and Adele Astaire in their final stage appearance before Adele married and retired and her brother headed to Hollywood. The show ran 260 performances and produced four hits for Dietz and Schwartz. Fred Waring had a popular record combining “Dancing in the Dark” (with which Bing Crosby had equal success) and “High and Low” (lyrics also by Desmond Carter), while Leo Reisman and His Orch. combined “I Love Louisa” and “New Sun in the Sky” on one disc, both songs sung by Fred Astaire. Dietz shared credit for the sketches with George S. Kaufman.

Dietz directed Flying Colors in addition to writing some of the sketches and penning the lyrics to Schwartz’s melodies. Opening at a low point of the Depression, the revue ran a barely successful 188 performances, but it contained three songs that became hits in the fall of 1932: “Alone Together” and “Louisiana Hayride,” both recorded by Leo Reisman, the latter with Schwartz as vocalist; and “A Shine on Your Shoes,” recorded by Roger Wolfe Kahn and His Orch.

Having written five revues in three-and-a-half years, Dietz and Schwartz branched out after 1932. Schwartz wrote music (with lyrics by Dietz) for the 1934 radio series The Gibson Family, while Dietz co-produced and co-wrote the screenplay for the MGM movie musical Hollywood Party (1934), also cowriting the song “Feelin’ High” with Walter Donaldson for the film. Dietz and Schwartz teamed up to write “Born to Be Kissed” for the Jean Harlow film The Girl from Missouri (1934), which became a hit in July 1934 in a recording by Freddy Martin and His Orch. But Dietz and Schwartz’s main project for 1934 was their first book musical, Revenge with Music, for which Dietz co-wrote the libretto and which he co-directed. At 158 performances, the show missed making a profit, but it contained two songs that became hits in early 1935: “You and the Night and the Music,” recorded by Libby Holman, and “If There Is Someone Lovelier Than You,” recorded by Enric Madriguera and His Orch.

Dietz and Schwartz returned to the revue format in 1935 for At Home Abroad, for which Dietz again wrote some of the sketches; it ran 198 performances. The 1936 British revue Follow the Sun, for which Dietz wrote lyrics with Desmond Carter to Schwartz’s music, was drawn largely from earlier American efforts; it had a run of 204 performances. Later in 1936, Dietz and Schwartz contributed songs to the 20th Century-Fox feature Under Your Spell and the Broadway revue The Show Is On (N.Y., Dec. 25, 1936). In 1937, after his first marriage ended, Dietz married British heiress Tanis Guinness. They had a daughter.

Between the Devil (1937), for which Dietz wrote the libretto as well as the lyrics, was his and Schwartz’s second attempt at a book musical. It flopped, running only 93 performances, but produced a song hit in “I See Your Face before Me,” which was in the hit parade in March 1938 in a recording by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. Dietz and Schwartz had several songs in the British revue Happy Returns (London, April 19, 1938), but the failure of Between the Devil marked the end of their partnership for the time being.

When Al Dubin became ill, Dietz contributed lyrics to several songs with music by Jimmy McHugh for the musical Keep off the Grass (N.Y., May 23, 1940). Artie Shaw and His Orch. reached the Top Ten in March 1941 with an instrumental revival of “Dancing in the Dark.” “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place” (music and lyrics by “Dick Howard,” Bob Ellsworth, and Russ Morgan) was featured in the Universal film Strictly in the Groove (1942) and generated hit recordings by Morgan and His Orch. and Benny Goodman and His Orch. Dietz also had songs in the MGM films Crossroads and Cairo in 1942, both with music by Schwartz. By this time he had become a vice president of the movie company.

Dietz teamed with Vernon Duke in 1943. Their initial musical effort, Dancing in the Streets (Boston, March 23, 1943), closed during tryouts without reaching Broadway. Jackpot, their second show, made it to N.Y. for a run of 69 performances; Sadie Thompson, their third, managed only 60. During this period, Dietz was serving in the Coast Guard, and he and Duke also wrote Tars and Spars, a musical service revue that ran on Broadway and toured naval bases. With Schwartz, Dietz wrote the USO camp show At Ease.

Dietz’s next songwriting credit came in 1948 with “The Dickey-Bird Song” (music by Sammy Fain), written for the MGM film Three Daring Daughters, which became a Top Ten hit for Freddy Martin in the spring. Dietz reunited with Schwartz for their most successful revue, Inside U.S.A., which ran 399 performances and provided a chart record to Perry Como in June with “Haunted Heart.”

In the early 1950s, Dietz did two new English translations for the Metropolitan opéra, Die Fledermaus and La Boheme. He married for the third time, to costume designer Lucinda Ballard. He and Schwartz had songs in two 1953 MGM films. The Band Wagon came to the screen 21 years after its Broadway production as a backstage movie musical starring Fred Astaire. The score was a virtual Dietz-Schwartz anthology, featuring songs from The Little Show, Three’s a Crowd, Flying Colors, Revenge with Music, At Home Abroad, and Between the Devil as well as the original production of The Band Wagon. Dietz and Schwartz also wrote a new song, “That’s Entertainment,” an anthem to show business that later became the title song for a series of MGM compilation films. They also wrote “Two-Faced Woman” for The Band Wagon, though it was used in the Joan Crawford film Torch Song.

Dietz began to suffer from Parkinson’s disease in 1954 and retired from MGM in 1957. He and Schwartz mounted two musicals in the early 1960s, The Gay Life and Jennie, but neither was successful. Dietz was largely inactive for the last 20 years of his life, though he did complete an entertaining autobiography, Dancing in the Dark, Words by Howard Dietz (N.Y., 1974).


(only works for which Dietz was a primary, credited lyricist are listed): MUSICALS/REVUE S (dates refer to N.Y. opening unless otherwise noted): Dear Sir (Sept. 23,1924); Merry-Go-Round (May 31,1927); The Little Show (April 30,1929); The Second Little Show (Sept. 2, 1930); Three’s a Crowd (Oct. 15, 1930); The Band Wagon (June 3, 1931); Flying Colors (Sept. 15, 1932); Revenge with Music (Nov. 28,1934); At Home Abroad (Sept. 19,1935); Follow the Sun (London, Feb. 4,1936); Between the Devil (Dec. 22, 1937); Jackpot (Jan. 13, 1944); Tars and Spars (May 5, 1944); Sadie Thompson (Nov. 16, 1944); Inside U.S.A. (April 30, 1948); The Gay Life (Nov. 18, 1961); Jennie (Oct. 17, 1963).

FILMS: Under Your Spell (1936); The Band Wagon (1953). OPERAS: Die Fledermaus (1950); La Boheme (1952). RADIO : The Gibson Family (1934). TELEVISION : A Bell for Adano (June 2, 1956).

—William Ruhlmann

About this article

Dietz, Howard

Updated About content Print Article Share Article