Shuffle Off To Buffalo and Other Parts Unknown

Sometimes we recognize old songs without realizing they were originally songs from a musical before they became radio hits.  I love songs by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics), and 42nd Street is a musical that spawned a number of Warren and Dubin radio hits (who also had cameo roles in the movie version of the musical).

In a nutshell, 42nd Street is about small-town Pennsylvania Peggy Sawyer (played by Ruby Keeler in the movie) who hits out by moving to New York City in the hopes that she’ll make her mark in Broadway.

Peggy Sawyer finds herself as a member of the chorus much to the dismay of Broadway diva Dorothy Brock (played by Bebe Daniels in the movie) who is romantically involved with the financial backer of the production, the very wealthy Abner Dillon (played by Guy Kibbee in the movie) who, unlike the director Julian Marsh (played by Warner Baxter in the movie), didn’t lose all his money in the stock market crash of 1929.  But behind Abner’s back, Dorothy is seeing her Pat Denning (played by George Brent in the movie) and thus the stage is set (pardon the pun).

The 42nd Street Special was a train that left Los Angeles on 20 February 1933, headed to President  Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration on 4 March 1933 – the day after the movie version of the musical premiered in New York.  On board the train were stars such as Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Loretta Young, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.  It was an amazing way to draw attention to the film and captured the attention of the country in the middle of a bleak period in American history.

 

The train trip extravaganza began as an idea courtesy of Warner Brothers studios publicity chief, Charlie Einfeld.  The Depression had seen the number of moviegoers drop by more than fifty percent in the three years since the Crash, and Warner Brothers studios was dealing with huge losses to the tune of $14 MILLION USD.  This publicity stunt was going to set the studio back another $400,000 USD.

During the election campaign, the Warner brothers had backed Franklin Delano Roosevelt while MGM studios’ Louis B. Mayer had backed Herbert Hoover.  The spectacle was promoted in the media as “the greatest train ride since Paul Revere.”

General Electric, seeing an opportunity to get in on the publicity, co-sponsored and fully equipped the six-coach express train with outdoor lights, speakers, and an all-electric kitchen with what was then considered to be a state-of-the-art electric oven, refrigerator, and dishwasher.  At every stop (which totaled 30 in the space of 17 days), the public was invited to tour the kitchen car and see for themselves what these amazing appliances looked like.

With so many wonderful songs to choose from to include in this entry, I’ve gone with these for this article.  “Come and Meet Those Dancing Feet” sung by Ruby Keeler is mesmerizing.

 

You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me” sung by Bebe Daniels is fun and cheeky.

I’m Young And Healthy” sung by a very young Dick Powell (who in later years was known for his role as Nick Charles in the Thin Man movie series).

 

The song that first introduced me to 42nd Street was one I heard courtesy of the Bugs Bunny cartoons.  As a child, I had no idea where Buffalo was exactly, but the song was something I recognized and sang along to before I was old enough to attend kindergarten.    “Shuffle Off To Buffalo” was the kind of song that resonated with children as much as it did with adults.  The scene with this song in the movie version of 42nd Street makes the song even more fun than the Bugs Bunny segment (which was absolutely memorable and completely amusing).

The golden age of musicals may have been decades ago but the songs from that era still stand up to inspection in this generation, don’t you agree?

Elyse Bruce

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Birthdays Can Be Expensive

Two days ago, the Canadian Press ran a story about a production company that decided to sue Warner/Chappell over the use of “Happy Birthday” in a documentary they were filming.  For those who aren’t in the know, Warner/Chappell owns the copyrights to the song.

The production company paid Warner/Chappell $1,500 for a licensing fee as well as sign an agreement to use the song in a scene or face a penalty of $150,000.

Most of us have grown up hearing countless renditions of “Happy Birthday” at birthday parties and in restaurants and other public  locations where someone is lucky enough to be celebrating another successful spin around the sun.  In restaurants, singing “Happy Birthday” is covered by a performing rights license (if they have one) or sung surreptitiously in the hopes that a notice of copyright infringement won’t be served on management or the restaurant’s owners.  In parks, “Happy Birthday” singers are taking greater risks of being caught and served with a notice (after all, aren’t gifts some sort of financial compensation as a result of the singing of “Happy Birthday?”).

Now, it’s one thing to have to pay a licensing fee (which is the fair thing to do when you use someone’s copyrighted material), but to have to sign an agreement to use the song or else risk being forced to pay 100 times the original licensing fee strikes me as adversarial.

Here’s how I see it, in catering terms (if I ran a catering business).

If John Doe hires me to cater a special event and pays me $1,500 in advance, the date is booked and the money is deposited to the bank.

If John Doe subsequently cancels his special event and doesn’t ask for a refund of the $1,500 (either partial or in full), then I’ve been the lucky recipient of a $1,500 donation to the success of my business.

That’s pretty straight forward if you ask me.

Now, let’s say I also had John Doe sign an agreement that stated he would have to pay a penalty of 100 times the contracted amount if he didn’t use my company to cater that affair, regardless of the reason for canceling.  Most reasonable people would say that reasonable person would refuse to sign such an agreement and they’d throw open the yellow pages in search of a new caterer.  And you know what?  They’d be right for doing just that!

So how is it that Warner/Chappell can get away with this?

Let’s take a look at the copyright issue.

Once upon a time there were two sisters from Kentucky named Mildred and Patty.  Mildred grew up to be a musical scholar of note and Patty became an influential educator who developed a method of teaching that was used in schools across America.

One fine day back in 1893, Mildred came up with the melody for the song that was originally known as “Good Morning To All.”  That same year, it was published in a songbook entitled, “Song Stories For The Kindergarten.”

Somewhere along the line, someone added a second verse to the sisters’ song, and when Robert H. Coleman published a songbook that included the song, right there with the original first verse was the “Happy Birthday” verse!  Well, one thing led to another, and before long, all sorts of Broadway musicals and businesses (Western Union being the first to use it as part of their singing telegrams in 1933) started using the song without paying the Hill sisters any money, and so a court case in 1934 became the final say on the matter.  Copyright was secured on behalf of the Hill sisters.

The Clayton F. Summy Company (a Chicago-based music publisher) published and copyrighted the song in 1935.  The copyright laws of the time allowed for an initial 28 year term with a second renewal term of another 28 years, which meant that the song should have fallen into the public domain in 1991.

But you know, laws never stay the same, and so when the Copyright Act of 1976 came into effect, the copyright protection was rewritten to cover 75 years from the date of publication (which, as you remember was 1935).  That put the copyright up to 2010.

But then, there was the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, and that added another 20 years to the copyright, so when all is said and done, copyright on “Happy Birthday” is going to keep on plugging along until 2030 … unless another amendment to some copyright act pops up along the way.

“But how did Warner/Chappell get a hold of the copyright?” you might ask.  As oftentimes happens in big business, companies acquire other companies over the years.

In the 1930s, Jack Sengstack bought the Clayton F. Summy Company, relocated the company to New Jersey and rebranded it as Birch Tree Ltd.

In another timeline, Chappell & Company was a music publishing company and instrument shop that was founded in 1811.  In 1987, Warner Brothers bought Chappell & Company.

In 1988, Warner/Chappell bought Birch Tree Ltd. and with the purchase of Birch Tree Ltd., came the copyrights to “Happy Birthday To You.”

And that’s where Warner/Chappell gets the chutzpah to expect people to pay big bucks to use “Happy Birthday.”  They have a legal right.

But you know, sometimes it’s important to ask another question: After all this time, is it really right to demand that people pay to use a song that’s been around for well over 100 years?

I mean, this is a song that almost fell into the public domain twice now (once in 1991 and again in 2010) were it not for changes in two copyright acts in the U.S.

Or are people missing another key part of the argument here?

Elyse Bruce

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