"When My Baby Smiled At Me"
by Christopher Popa January 2006
Should he be considered a bandleader, entertainer, or comedian?
"All of them. Truly, all of them," his only child, Dawn Williams, told me. "He was a master at being a master showman. He really had a terrific sense of what it was all about, and what it took . . . He just exuded an aura of joy and happiness, and
good entertainment. He loved his audience."
"This one time was the only time she hadn't gone with him," Dawn pointed out. "Fred Whipple had heard that Ted Lewis was going to be in L.A. and suggested that she go have dinner with him and his wife."
Ruth and Lewis wound up, just the two of them, at a Los Angeles hotel.
After Whipple finally returned home, Ruth had to admit what had happened.
"He had been gone four months or so," Dawn said. "So she was beginning to show. She had to tell him. She told him right away, and she said he was furious."
Ruth refused to have an abortion.
According to Dawn, "In the morning, he thought some, he said, 'No, it's going to be ok. We'll raise him as our child.' Well, what Fred Whipple did was write to Ted Lewis and tell him about the pregnancy. What they did was they offered them $10,000, which was a lot of money back in 1929, to just be quiet about the whole thing. His wife was his manager. I wonder sometimes if he ever would have been what he was without her. Because she really... she did everything."
Did the wife, Ada Lewis, realize the truth about the baby?
"Oh, sure she did. I know she knew," Dawn responded. "What they did, they sent a lawyer to the apartment . . . They called my uncle there, because they wanted him to be a witness to this. The lawyer brought $5,000, and was going to bring the other [ remaining amount ], after I was born . . . which they did."
It took some time for Dawn to come to terms with the fact that Lewis was her father.
"In the book, I state . . . that he is my biological father," she said, "and Fred Whipple is my legal father. He's on my birth certificate."
Because Lewis had been active as a performer so many years ago, how difficult was it for Dawn to investigate his life?
"Almost impossible," she chuckled. "There are just a few little things that have been written about him or told to me, and I've used these."
She had wanted to write the book for quite some time, but had to put it off for, actually, years because of other obligations.
"And there were a few more people alive then, who would have remembered things about him," she observed.
Still, she approached the book slowly, at first.
"I thought everybody was dead who remembered Ted Lewis," she confided. "I did! I thought, 'Who's going to read this book?'"
Writing about her biological father gives it a unique perspective.
"I wanted to write this book from my viewpoint, because I saw him, first-hand," Dawn said. "I think, on the whole, he was a pretty good man . . . He was a showman who was devoted, and his goal was to give people exactly what they wanted in entertainment, in a good, clean fashion, that anybody could see his shows or come to them."
Without vaudeville, stage shows, or big, live productions, there isn't anyone nowadays who is doing what he did.
"No, because the contemporaries today are much different," Dawn stated.
But she thinks that Lewis' act potentially could still find an audience, if he were alive now.
"Yes, if it were presented, not as new music, but if it were presented in a [ certain ] way," she theorized. "Let me tell you an experience I had, oh, I'd say, it's about three years ago. I was having a plumbing problem in the kitchen, and I happened to have a CD with Ted Lewis' music on it, in the background. And this young guy -- he was probably... maybe 20, 22 -- comes in, looks and says 'Where's that music coming from? What is that? It's wonderful!' He probably never heard any decent music in his life."
Bits of culture do come back into fashion from time to time; even King Kong, a fictitious giant gorilla, was resurrected in a late 2005 feature film.
"Do you know, I saw the original King Kong," Dawn laughed. "I can remember seeing it at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre [ in Hollywood ] when I was... I had to be 3 or 4. I was just enthralled."
Has she seen the new one?
"Not yet, but I'm taking my step-grandchildren to see it," she said.
To me, there is an underlying sadness that, although Lewis and his wife were married nearly 50 years, they never had children together.
"Yes, because he adored children," she answered. "He loved children, and he always had part of his show... he'd roll out a popcorn cart, his shadow. This would be at the end of his show, his stage show. And he would throw peanuts, and it seemed to me, I remembered some popcorn, but I don't... I'm a little vague about that part. But I know he threw out... just 'cause I saw him... every time we went, threw his popcorn out, and the children would run up and get it. And it was just a lot of fun. But he just exuded this... it's something that no one else had."
Guitarist Eddie Condon once wrote, "Ted Lewis played very bad clarinet; he made the clarinet talk and it usually said please put me back in my case."
But Condon was not the only one making such cracks about Lewis.
"Oh yes, a lot of the musicians felt that he was corny," Dawn admitted. "Actually, he played all the wind instruments."
So does she think what others thought was very fair?
"Yes, absolutely, because that was their opinion, but, you see, that was his style," she responded. "His comment was, 'Well, that style of corn has been my 'bread-and-butter.' He knew exactly what he was doing."
She grew up as one of his many fans, and, now, her biography about him, titled Me and My Father's Shadow, has just been published.
"He was always my favorite, from the time I was a little girl," Dawn said. "I just loved everything he did."
Part of his appeal was the routine he had developed.
"The clarinet, his top hat, the saying 'Is everybody happy?'," she named. "He could juggle his hat terrifically. He'd tilt his head down and let it fall on his arm. And with his extended arm, have it roll down there and catch it. He was very good at that!"
Initially, Dawn had no idea that there was a deeper connection between Lewis and her, one that she didn't learn until many years afterwards. (More on that later.)
As a young boy, Lewis was drawn to anything related with show biz, and was seen strutting along at the head of any circus or minstrel parade which came to his hometown.
Soon, he joined the Circleville Boys Band, directed by Oscar Armringer, on piccolo. Armringer taught him how to play clarinet, and Lewis eventually went on to learn soprano saxophone, C-melody saxophone, piano, and trumpet.
Lewis was also fascinated by the singing and banjo playing of the local barber, "Cricket" Smith, whose son, Leroy "Stuff" Smith, later became a famous jazz violinist.
"He used to get together with them, and they'd play jazz when he was really a young man," Dawn confirmed.
Around 1911 on, Lewis attempted to make a living playing in various burlesque, vaudeville, tent shows, and Coney Island bands. For example, he was one-third of the act of Rose, Young & Friedman for awhile.
When he worked with a singer - actor named Jack Lewis, they were billed erroneously as "Lewis & Lewis," and that's where his stage name came from.
His first ensemble, the comical Ted Lewis' Nut Band, was organized in 1916.
The following year, a group called The Original Dixieland Jazz Band opened at a restaurant in New York City, and made the first jazz records (as such) for Victor. They, in fact, started a jazz craze, and prompted another eatery to feature pianist Earl Fuller's so-called Famous Jazz Band, which hired Lewis on clarinet and vocals.
According to Dawn, Lewis had one leg up on the ODJB.
"They didn't have everything that Ted Lewis had to become a real showman," she claimed. "He just did so much, in so many avenues. I don't think there was an avenue of showmanship or entertainment that he didn't enter into."
He added to his persona the battered silk top hat, which he won in a dice game from a cabbie named "Mississippi." (The hat became such a familiar symbol that, reportedly, Saks Fifth Avenue borrowed it to create a display around it in one of their windows.)
given name: Theodore Leopold
birth: Jun. 6, 1890, Circleville, OH
death: Aug. 25, 1971, New York City,
father: Benjamin Friedman, owner
of a clothing store
mother: Pauline Friedman
brother: Edgar Friedman
brother: Leo Friedman
brother: Max Friedman
education: Everett High School,
Circleville, OH; Bliss College
[ business school ], Columbus, OH
physical: 5'6", 143 lbs.
wife: Adah Becker Lewis, m. Oct. 7
1915, d. May 31, 1987, a toe
dancer who became his manager
daughter: [ with Ruth Olive Dean
Whipple ] Dawn Whipple Williams,
b. Mar. 7, 1929
residences: Majestic Apartments,
115 Central Park West, New York
City (1932- )
Lewis decided to form another small band in 1918, and, during the next dozen or so years, it grew in size and helped to make jazz more accessible and accepted.
"Oh, absolutely," Dawn agreed.
In her book, she wrote about the music's origins.
"I tried to show where jazz came from, from when the slaves arrived here in our country. You know, the ones that arrived, the slave traders took to South America? They came up with a completely different sense of music than we have. And it's because of the . . . differences of religious beliefs in both countries," she asserted. "In our country, it was the Protestants, the stern Protestants that just... you know, all these instruments and this singing and all this stuff. They didn't encourage that at all. In fact, they wouldn't allow them to do a lot of things - the slaves. Whereas, in South America, where it was a Catholic nation, the priests and people of the church really didn't care what they did. Just so they came to church and became good Catholics. That's why we have the tangos... the different beat of the music that came out of these countries."
Between 1924 and 1931, especially, Lewis stocked his band with a number of excellent jazzmen, including, at various times, Muggsy Spanier (cornet), Jack Teagarden (trombone), Jimmy Dorsey (clarinet / saxophone), and Fats Waller (piano and vocals).
"Some of his band members really... it's not that they didn't like him, but they, in a way, didn't care for him because he was a 'slave driver,'" Dawn commented. "He was a perfectionist in his work."
Another sideman, Benny Goodman (clarinet and, at the time, alto sax), had, in the early stages of his own career, successfully imitated Lewis at an amateur night in 1921 at the Central Park Theatre, the original Balaban and Katz house in Chicago.
Later, when Goodman led his own big band, he also had a reputation for being exacting.
"He learned from Ted Lewis," she stated, "and that's the way he
[ Lewis ] was. He was extremely demanding of everybody who worked for him and with him."
and His Band
When My Baby Smiles At Me
Lewis, vocal Columbia, 1920
Wet Yo' Thumb Lewis, soprano sax
Some of These Days Sophie Tucker,
vocal Columbia, 1926
Is Everybody Happy Now?
Lewis, vocal Columbia, 1927
Clarinet Marmalade Columbia, 1928
I'm the Medicine Man for the Blues
Lewis, vocal Columbia, 1929
Maybe - Who Knows? Lewis, vocal
In the Land of Jazz Lewis, vocal
Lewisada Blues Columbia, 1929
Dip Your Brush in the Sunshine
Lewis, vocal Columbia, 1931
Wear a Hat with a Silver
Lining Lewis, vocal Decca, 1938
She's Funny That Way
Lewis, vocal Decca, 1938
medley: Cop On the Beat / Me and My Shadow Lewis, vocal RKO Unique, 1957
As the 1930s got underway, Lewis' performances helped the public forget their troubles, at least for a little bit.
"Well, I think he helped them come out of the Depression," Dawn said. "He was very uplifting."
Even in her own home, he was often mentioned.
"Ted Lewis was a household word in our family, which was quite small," she reminisced. "And so we used to see everything that he did, when he'd come here. My mother and grandmother and I, we lived together. My mother and grandmother had been widows. We just used to go to movies a lot. We were actually kind of poor during the
Depression. My mother got free passes to the movie theaters, because she was in the district attorney's office, and they did that sort of... so we used to go to movies all the time."
Hollywood capitalized on Lewis' talents, by using him and his band in no fewer than 7
full-length motion pictures, from 1929 to 1945, including "Show of Shows," "Is Everybody Happy?," "Here Comes the Bride," and "Manhattan Merry-Go-Round."
"We probably went to movies like people watch television now," Dawn reminisced. "And I grew up around all this. I loved movies, I loved the stage shows that were somewhat of a remnant of vaudeville. Used to be, movies had a stage show with them, for years. But that, finally, stopped. That was finally the end of vaudeville, I think. And I just loved it, and I just loved everything he did. I always did."
Among Lewis' other features was "Hold That Ghost," made in 1941 at Universal, and featuring Abbott and Costello, the comedy team, more than him.
"Frankly, I didn't think his films were particularly great," Dawn admitted. "He didn't shine in that type of a setting. Where he shone was where he had a live audience."
Lewis enjoyed the interaction with the audience's feedback.
Three candids: [ l. ] Lewis outdoors with a dancer, 1936;
[ r. ] singing, 1939; and [ below ] featuring members of his band at a theatre, 1945.
In the 1950s, Lewis continued his career, appearing on television programs like "Toast of the Town," later re-titled, after its host, "The Ed Sullivan Show."
Dawn, meanwhile, was wed in 1950, and, with her husband, Brent, began their own family.
"There came a time after I was married and already had four children that I started to see him
[ Lewis ] on tv," she recalled. "He was coming on tv and he just, kind of, became part of our family, my own family that I was raising."
Lewis also made more records, and did shows at various venues including the Hotel Chase in St. Louis, the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, and the Surf Club in Cincinatti.
"You see, the other bandleaders were not, on the whole, entertainers, except people like Spike Jones, and I'm trying to think of some others," Dawn reasoned. "They were, mainly, strictly musicians and that's one of the reasons that they, just absolutely, were eliminated, more or less, when rock'n'roll and all this came about. Music . . . became more of sight, rather than sound. People started wanting the entertainment that went with it."
Some of the pop performers, without a doubt, had quite high energy levels.
"Like Jerry Lee Lewis. I mean, he was just great," she remarked.
Jerry Lee Lewis -- no relation to Ted -- pounded the piano keys and sang with abandon.
"You really went to see him, not necessarily to hear his music, but I mean they combined as one, really," she explained.
Ted Lewis' shows, meanwhile, stayed fresh with little changes, such as the specialty acts which were part of the bill.
"He would probably do something that was a take-off on modern-day music, because he liked some of the rock'n'roll," Dawn claimed. "He didn't oppose some of this music that was coming on, but the thing was, people wanted to hear his songs."
So nearly every performance, even into the 1960s, had to include the old favorites, like Me and My Shadow and When My Baby Smiles At Me, with Lewis still dressed in his top hat and tuxedo.
"And as he said, if he left one thing out of one of his shows, he got complaints," Dawn reported. "He was pretty well up on what people wanted, and he was very attuned to that. He wasn't going to put on a show that wasn't going to be profitable."
Some of his last public performances were in nightclubs such as the Latin Quarter in New York City in 1965 and the Desert Inn in Las Vegas during 1967. (He also had been readying a show for Broadway in 1966, but one of his intended co-stars, Sophie Tucker, died before it opened.)
"That was his life. Entertaining, or being a showman, a 'show business' as he said, was his life," Dawn said. "He said, 'Show business is in my blood, and when it's in your blood, you don't retire.'"
In 1970, at his 80th birthday party, he was persuaded to play clarinet with a local Circleville jazz band, and one report indicated that, after all those years, he played more fluid and tasteful than ever.
"There was just something absolutely unique about Ted Lewis," Dawn reiterated.
In 1983, roughly a dozen years after Lewis passed away, Dawn was about to graduate from the University of Southern California (USC) with a Master's Degree in Journalism.
"I had wanted to write, when we got to the point where we were going to retire," she recalled. "And I always thought, well there is no biography about him [ Lewis ] and someday I'd like to write one."
It was then when Dawn got a phone call from a woman who identified herself as her cousin, Samantha.
"I said, 'I don't have a cousin. I don't have any cousins at all. I'm the only child in the family, so you must have the wrong number,'" she related. "So she explained that I hadn't seen her for years. She was my uncle's stepdaughter, and then I remembered who she was. But we had only seen each other, I'd say, three times at the most during my whole life. So I had really, sort of, forgotten about it. And she said, 'I'd like for us to get together for lunch. There's something I need to tell you.' And I assumed she was talking about my uncles, because they were up... one of them was about 93, at the time, and they were both in good health. But I thought that maybe she knows something that I don't."
They met for lunch the following week.
"She said, 'Well, it's about your father.' And I said, 'What about my father?' 'Cause she never knew my father," Dawn reflected.
Her father, Fred Whipple, set up studies in colleges on the East Coast, and had become fairly wealthy from it, though he eventually lost his money when the stock market crashed.
"After a long, drawn-out conversation, she said, 'Fred Whipple was not your father.' And I just came somewhat unglued at that," Dawn recalled. "Now, he had passed away when I was 3, by the way."
Finally, her cousin told her that her real father was Ted Lewis. Did Dawn understand that she was talking about the famous bandleader?
"Oh yes," she said. "I mean, it's the only one she could have been."
But there might have been someone else with that same name.
"I would never have thought of that," she said. "That would never have entered my mind, at all. To me, there was only one Ted Lewis . . . I will tell you what went through my mind when she said these things: at first, when she said Fred Whipple is
not your father, the first thing I thought of was -- it's funny, the things that come to your mind -- you mean, William Whipple, my great-great-great-great uncle, who signed the Declaration of Independence, from New Hampshire, is not my uncle?' That's the first thing that went through my mind. And then, when she said Ted Lewis, I was... two feelings: I was absolutely horrorstruck that anyone would tell such a terrible lie, and followed by this wonderful sense of euphoria, to think that Ted Lewis might possibly be my father! It was... it was just strange!"
Convincing Dawn that her cousin's story was the truth didn't come easily.
"In her explanation she said, 'Your whole family knew this,'" Dawn recalled. "Everybody in the family knew it, but you. And I guess my mother had just told them, 'You are not to breathe a word of this.'"
Dawn was at the time age 53, so the secret had lasted all those years.
"Everybody had kept this from me," she said. "And the reason she had come to tell me was that our 'common' uncle (not the one who was her stepfather, but the brother, who was 93)... she had gone to visit him. He was in a retirement home of some kind, and had an apartment. And she said he had little pieces of paper pinned to curtains, on mirrors, sitting on the furniture, all these little pieces of paper and they'd all either say 'Dawn' or 'Dawn and Ted Lewis' or 'Ted Lewis' . . . And he said, 'We are all going to die and Dawn is never going to know this.' And, so, I guess she came to get me, before he told me."
The shock of learning the truth might have resulted in a number of emotions, perhaps anger.
"No, I've never felt any anger, about anything," she confided to me. "I wish my mother had told me while he was still living, 'cause he didn't pass away until '71, and this occured in '83."
Her mother was still alive, so, after some time to sort it all out, she eventually talked with her.
"That was the hardest part in the world for me to do," Dawn admitted. "I just never talked about things, personal... well, we did and we didn't. But this type of thing we would never have talked about."
But why divulge, in a book for sale to the public, what must have been a personal secret?
"You know, I never looked at it that way," Dawn explained. "I was brought up under the old school, where you made sure you made no typos, you didn't make any mistakes, and that you got to the truth. And . . . I had to know the truth about this."
However startling, it became part of her writing project, to remind everyone of Lewis' achievements.
"I'd like them to have a better sense of American music and American entertainers," Dawn stated. "I've tried to make that era live . . . Mainly, I didn't want his memory to fade out, and no one had written anything, and no one had written a biography, and he was going to, absolutely, die into oblivion, if somebody didn't do something."
Since a night of passion between Lewis and her mother resulted in Dawn's birth, if it had been revealed to the public at that time, it would have caused a scandal.
"It would have been horrible," Dawn acknowledged.
Her father, Fred Whipple, had known Lewis personally.
"Ted Lewis was a friend of his, a long-time friend," Dawn said. "He was something like 36 years older than my mother . . . He was 64 when I was born and she was, I think, 28, something like that."
Her mother would routinely accompany Whipple when he traveled on business, and, if they happened to be in the same town where Lewis was, they would meet him and his wife for dinner. But one time in 1929, Ruth did not go with her husband.
What might Lewis think of her book?
"I think he would love it. I really do," Dawn said.
If only she could talk to Lewis now, they would have a lot to catch up on.
"I think I would approach him as if I were his daughter, and love him," Dawn said. "I want him to be remembered for the reason I wrote the book: that they don't forget him or these other people . . . who were responsible for giving birth to the jazz which evolved into our modern music, our big band music. You know, the music that we term our 'American music.'"
"Bandleader Ted Lewis, 80, Dies in N.Y. After Heart Attack,"
Chicago Tribune, Aug. 26, 1971, p.C20.
Berresford, Mark. "The Gaspipe Clarinetists Part III: Ted Lewis-Friend
of Jazz," Jazz Journal International, Oct. 1997, pp.12-14.
Condon, Eddie and Hank O'Neal. Eddie Condon's Scrapbook of Jazz
(New York City: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1973).
Garrod, Charles. Ted Lewis and His Orchestra (Zephyrhills, FL:
Joyce Record Club, 1994).
Goodman, Benny and Irving Kolodin. The Kingdom of Swing (New York City:
Stackpole Sons, 1939), p.23.
Kinkle, Roger. "Lewis, Ted," in The Encyclopedia of Popular Music
and Jazz 1900-1950 (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House Publishers,
Lamparski, Richard. "Ted Lewis," in Whatever Became of ... ?:
Second Series (New York City: Crown Publishers, 1968), pp.18-19.
Tucker, Mark. "Lewis, Ted," in The Grove Dictionary of Jazz (New York City:
Grove Dictionaries of Music, 1988), p.588.
Williams, Dawn. Interview with author, Dec. 31, 2005.
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