Sign up for Meridian’s Free Newsletter, please CLICK HERE
Oscar “Andy” Hammerstein III was at the RootsTech 2017 conference.
Every time Stephen Rockwood, president and CEO of FamilySearch, drinks a root beer he thinks of his grandma and grandpa. That’s because when he was a child and they came to visit, the first thing they did was load the grand kids into the car, go straight to A&W drive in and get a frosty mug of root beer and then bring another gallon home for later.
It wasn’t Christmas for him until his mom made her famous rocky road fudge. Even when he was a missionary in Argentina, his mother sent the rocky road—but unfortunately by slow boat. Though his mouth was watering at Christmas for the familiar treat, it finally came at Easter. And when he opened it, there was what he called “a protective layer” of mold across the top.
Undeterred, he scraped off the mold and chowed down. He couldn’t miss this message of love from home.
Last Christmas when Steve’s mother was making rocky road fudge with his wife, she said, “Please make sure this tradition continues.” Steve’s wife promised.
Families are tied together by the sweet feelings and emotions they share around traditions. The culture they create is bigger than they are and ties each person to the family. This can be as simple as food or as pervasive as a shared interest or talent that marks the time that family spends together.
Family traditions give us a sense of connection and they are worth consciously choosing to build into your family. These recurring traditions become grounding points. A grand tradition marks the Hammerstein family.
Grandson of the Legendary Composer
Oscar “Andy” Hammerstein III is the grandson of the legendary composer, who with Richard Rodgers, brought us musicals that have stood the test of time and inspired generations. Through their work we have all sought to “climb every mountain”, sing “oh what a beautiful morning” when the sun shines and when we walk through a storm “hold your head up high.”
Among his repertoire is The King and I, South Pacific, Oklahoma, Carousel, Sound of Music and many more. We simply love this music that is so familiar, you hear one and others begin to dance in your mind. Like looking in the window of a church, and being able to see all the other windows at once, when you hear one song, you remember all the others.
Yet Andy’s grandfather, Oscar Hammerstein II, our beloved composer wasn’t the first of the theater people in the family. This is a heritage that has spanned six generations, a thread of music and creation that has not only lived in the genes, it’s been in the air the family breathed.
Andy said, “People keep saying that music runs in the family, but I’m not convinced. I believe if you had grown up in my family you would have been in theater whether you had an ounce of talent or not. It’s about passion really. It’s about how you are encouraged.”
Andy became intrigued with his family history because of an old photo of his grandfather surrounded by other composers that hung over his crib. “That always intrigued me,” he said. Then in 1984 he became a genealogist in earnest. He hunted down the living members of the family, “stuck recorders under their noses and asked as many questions as I could.”
Finally, he went to see his Aunt Dorothy, “one of those theater widows who stayed at home.” At the end of the conversation, she remembered that she had a box in the attic, filled with memorabilia. He asked if he could borrow it to make copies of everything inside and she said, “Oh, keep it.”
Then, she died a week later. This box had been snatched from being lost or thrown away by that timely meeting.
Andy said, “That changed the course of my life because I had to make sense of what I had, including 35 photos from the turn of the century, maps, floor plans, bound books with programs from the Harlem Opera House. It taught me how to study.”
The First Theater Hammerstein
German-born Oscar Hammerstein I, sold his violin to run away to America when he was a teenager, finding work in a cigar factory. He would eventually gain 80 patents on machines he invented and turned that money to his first love—composing and theater.
He opened the Harlem Opera House, the Columbus Theatre, the Manhattan Opera House and the Olympia Theatre in what became Times Square as well as others. Many of these failed and when he died he was no longer a wealthy man, but he had through his efforts created the thriving theater district in New York City and rekindled opera’s popularity in America.
Oscar Hammerstein II, his grandson wrote of his death, “For four possibly five minutes I watched him and listened to his tired breathing. Then I left the room. This was the longest time I ever spent with him. I walked down Park Avenue feeling lost and unclassified.”
Andy said of the first Oscar, “Had he been sane, I would own half of all of Times Square right now. Because he was a maniac, he threw everything at the theater until he had nothing. My legacy is of a different order. My grandfather Oscar II, the famous composer, didn’t have an emotional connection to his grandfather, but more of a creative one.”
The American Composer
Still, being in theater is never easy. It is demanding and often heart breaking. Andy quipped, “The theater eats its young.”
Yet, he said, Oscar II was an optimist—as you can hear in his music. His mother died when he was about 17, and he received some sort of insight into life and death at that point. He was never afraid of death again, “so that I think not being afraid of death is a very optimistic place to be coming from. Our family has a lot of men who grew up without mothers” but that didn’t daunt Oscar’s outlook.
He could also bounce back from discouragement. Andy said, “By 1940 the phone had stopped ringing for Oscar. Also by 1940, Paris had fallen to the Nazis. Oscar was heartbroken by this. He had visited Paris many times as a child with his father, a vaudeville manager who used to scout circus talent in the summer times. He couldn’t believe that Paris had fallen. He refused to believe it. He penned a poem that goes like this:
The last time I saw Paris
Her heart was warm and gay
I heard the laughter of her heart in every street cafe
The last time I saw Paris
Her trees were dressed for spring
And lovers walked beneath those trees
And birds found songs to sing
I dodged the same old taxicabs
That I had dodged for years
The chorus of their squeaky horns
Was music to my ears
Oh the last time I saw Paris
Her heart was warm and gay
No matter how they changed her
I’ll remember her ah that way
“He had written forty shows by this point and this was the first time Oscar Hammerstein the second had ever written in the first person. This is the first time he had actually found his own voice. He was not speaking through a character,
“This was him unadorned, and who was he, what was he? He was a cock-eyed optimist to his core, eschewing the darkest of clouds for the thinnest of silver linings. He was whole inside.
“A great song writer named Johnny Mercer once said that when asked what comes first the words or the music, he responded by saying, the check because that’s what professionals are. They get paid for what they do and I want to turn that truism on its head.
“A professional will stop working if you stop paying him, but an amateur will continue the work because he or she is not doing it for the money. They are doing it for the love of the art. And I’m very proud to say that my grandfather never stopped working in the face of all this.
When an Oscar Looked Like a Retirement Gift
Oscar sent his lyrics “The Last Time I Saw Paris” to his friend Jerome Kern who put a tune to it and it was thrown into the movie “Lady be Good” and the song won an Academy Award for the best song of the year.
“For Oscar, staring at his Oscar,” said Andy, “it was like a retirement pocket watch. Thanks for everything. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. And then the phone rang. It was Richard Rogers.”
Rodgers was interested in doing a cowboy musical based on the book “Green Grow the Lilacs”, but his collaborator Lorenz Hart had destroyed himself with drinking and wasn’t in any shape to do it, so he was willing to toss the idea their way. Yet, Oscar’s collaborator Jerome Kern, also had no interest in the idea.
Andy said, “So there’s Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein each with their own collaborator and they both want to do this and in an amazing way each had something the other needed because Oscar was whole in side. He was a failure for 11 years, but he knew who he was. And Richard Rogers had been an outstanding success for 15 years, but his relationship with his only collaborator was imploding. They decided to get together and work on this and it was like alchemy. It was like an explosion.
“The one thing Oscar demanded right away is that he wanted to make great musicals.” He wanted the words to flow from the story, so the story and words had to come first.
Thus, instead of a musical opening with a high-kicking chorus number to allow the late-comers to get to their seats, their cowboy musical that became Oklahoma started with an old woman churning butter silently on her porch.
When he wrote his lyrics, said Andy, “it was like he was stuck in a field full of birds and bees and skies and mountains and grass. Stephen Sondheim complains that he spent too much time lyrically in the fields, but I think that sometimes using moons, stars, skies and mountains is a very great way to get to your heart, using the elements of the natural environment to describe how you feel. I think that’s amazing, because when you hear his songs, it conjures up what he’s talking about visually. In a sense his lyrics are cinematic, you see them, because he’s filling the lyrics up with things to see, buzzing and flying, larks in the meadow. He uses the animal world like nobody I ever met.
“What’s more, he believed in romantic love, and that’s not common any more. Oscar knew romance. He wrote songs like ‘If I Loved You,” or “People will say We’re in Love” for the first act of a play. He always wanted to be sure the audience knew the two would get together long before they did.”
Rebounding in the 50’s
Andy said “the 50’s were not that kind to Rodgers and Hammerstein. The competition had got the memo–shows like Kiss Me Kate, My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls –shows I like to refer as Rodgers and Hammerstein not written by Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
Yet, Rodgers and Hammerstein “had a comeback like nobody I’ve ever seen. It started when CBS called them up and asked them to do a TV musical adapting Cinderella. Such was the drawing power of Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1957, when CBS television ran Cinderella, competing networks all ran test patterns. They couldn’t sell any advertising.” Of the 172 million people living in America at that time, upward of 109 million of them tuned in for the show.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last work together was Sound of Music and the last lyrics Oscar wrote were the words to Edelweiss. Oscar died in 1960 at the age of 65, not having seen this last musical made into the beloved film with Julie Andrews.
He remains the most influential lyricist and librettist in American theater, and he and Richard Rodgers completely transformed the genre of the theatrical landscape. Still, the theater and music that ignites the family legacy is yet another powerful influence.
The Hammersteins have been bold in their love of theater and music. They have been undaunted to bring this gift to wide audiences, even sometimes in the face of discouragement.
Now Andy has a son named Dashel Hammerstein who is making his way with his own kind of music. Andy tells him, “If you want a career in music, you should move toward writing for the theater because a) your name couldn’t hurt and b) the only way to make a living nowadays in music is to group a bunch of songs around a plot and sell it that way.”
The Hammersteins have a pronounced family culture that has lasted these many generations. It was not built on talent alone, but also on passion. In our families we also create a culture, small and big ways each of us become connected. The stories we write and the music we share may just be in each other’s hearts, but that is enough.