Reader Reactions & Anecdotes

08 March 2008

Remembering Fred Ahlert

A friendly e-mail came in from a nice lady in New York a while back. She introduced herself as the granddaughter of Fred Ahlert, the famous composer of a large number of Tin Pan Alley's super hits back in the 30s and 40s, and she wanted to thank me for a column I'd written about Fred. I was glad to hear from her, because it reminded me of one of the weirdest days among the 600-some weird days I worked in the halls of Congress, and, as always when I remember that adventure, I had to chuckle and shake my head.

Since it explains everything, I'll just let the column tell you why:

I was leafing through some old files the other night and I came across the sheet music for “I Don't Know Why,” whose cover bore a warm little handwritten message to me and my wife from its composer, Fred Ahlert.

My mind rushed back to the early 1950s when I was among the Delawareans working in the office of Congressman Caleb Boggs in Washington. Ahlert was with a large contingent of musicians, performers, and composers who had come to Capitol Hill to register their opinions of a piece of legislation labeled, as I recall, “The Jukebox Bill.”

It was Ahlert, himself a friendly, immaculate gentleman of grace and beaming good will, who unwittingly made me a source of contempt and suspicion for one of the meanest, most cantankerous, and bigoted old men ever to occupy a Congressional seat.

Time has blurred my view of those days, of course, so I can't cite details of the Jukebox Bill. I think, though, it was designed to correct inequities in the matter of royalties paid — or unpaid — to artists whose compositions were being played for a dime a throw in luncheonettes and saloons across These Great Uniteds. Since Cale was a member of the committee holding hearings on the proposal, Ahlert and some of his fellow delegates from Tin Pan Alley had dropped in at the office to lobby the congressman in his lair, so to speak.

Those who toil in congressional offices become accustomed to the unusual. All kinds of people with all kinds of problems or causes (or both) are always showing up in the House and Senate office buildings to buttonhole legislators for support or favors. Most of the visitors, like Ahlert, are sensible, hardworking individuals who have bona fide bones to pick with the federal government. Yet it's not at all unusual to see the unusual milling about in the marble halls: people in cowboy outfits, band uniforms, sarongs, firemens' hats and such — each trying to dramatize for the political world the fact that he represents a special and important bloc of voters.

During a normal congressional workday in those olden times, people were always popping in and out of Cale's office — most of them committee attaches or other congressmen and in-types on House business. But when the visitors had come from Delaware (or even from other states) and had serious missions, Cale always made a real effort to meet with them for a time, often having to interrupt his attendance in the House chamber to do so.

After making sure he had the precise reason for the visit nailed down in his own mind, and after giving congenial assurances that the visitor’s problem would receive careful attention, Cale would voom off to resume his chores, trusting his office staff to handle the nuts-and-bolts procedures that would get the caller some results. Many times it was pure detective work to trace down, first, the agency or division of government having jurisdiction over the problem and then, leaping from clue to clue, the individual who might know the most about it. Most congressional offices spent a great deal of time on this kind of thing.

But when the visitors represented pressure groups or were lobbying hard for a point of view, the job was easier, because the office had only to listen to the pitch, thank the people politely, see them to the door, and then get back to the day's more urgent problems.

I was doing this with Ahlert, who had swept into the office, a picture of sartorial perfection, to give a big hello to everybody in sight. I don't remember exactly what he was wearing, but the overall recollection is one of expensive tailoring, a homburg, a boutonniere, and a Madison Avenue attache case. And I liked him instantly, and I think he knew it, because he sat down beside my desk and caught me up in a real fun kind of conversation.

My desk faced the door to the corridor so that I could keep an eye out for callers. Since I could see who was in the hall, people in the hall could see me, too. And, as Ahlert and I chatted, I'd kept up this surveillance over his shoulder, trading glances with mail girls, tourists, and passing congressmen alike.

Somewhere in all this I happened to ask Ahlert what he was working on at the present time. He smiled, gave me the name of the tune (which I can't remember now), and, in that wonderful spontaneity that's so much a part of showbiz folk, began to sing the chorus for me.

It was at that very moment when Congressman Zilch passed the door on his way to his own office down the hall. Zilch isn't his name, of course, because I want to repeat: he was a very dull thud, a dour old man with a snapping-turtle mouth and eyes like wet stones, and his favorite sport — next to telling vicious stories about minority groups — was to bully Capitol Hill's hired hands.

I'd never had much business with Congressman Zilch's office, but on those few occasions I did, his assistants had been very helpful. However, when Zilch himself was present, I'd simply kept my distance, remaining impassively polite. It was creepy, because he was one of those guys who make you feel as if he's always watching you, waiting to catch you at something for which he can have you drawn and quartered, or at least shot.

So it was then, at precisely the wrongest possible moment of the entire year, Congressman Zilch glanced in from the hall to see Fred Ahlert — arms wide, half whispering, half singing to me of love and moonlight and passionate yearning.

I know I must have blushed until I was the color of a furniture store grape.

Zilch, as a veteran of many terms in Congress, had seen his share of weird costumes and bizarre behavior. Nonetheless, he now stood for a full minute, slack-jawed and incredulous, to watch this grotesque, odd-couple version of a Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald bit.

I tried to signal Ahlert that I'd heard enough, but with his arms upraised, his eyes turned to the ceiling, probing for lyrics that were still new to him, he was unaware of my discomfiture or of the scrutiny from the hall behind him. And the more he sang, the wider the congressman’s eyes became.

Fortunately the phone rang and I was able to excuse myself. Ahlert stood up and motioned his cordial goodbyes. As he turned to leave, I took the call, and Zilch, I saw, had disappeared from the doorway.

Every time I bumped into Zilch after that I would, despite my absolute determination not to, blush as if my face were about to break into flames. And he'd give me a sidelong codfish stare, full of contempt and silent accusation, as if he were about to report to the security people that a lunatic was roaming the halls.

I thought about all this the other midnight when I came across the autographed sheet music for “I Don't Know Why,” one of Ahlert's biggest hits. I went to the piano and played the tune through a time or two, and I remembered Ahlert and what a nice guy he was.

And then I remembered Congressman Zilch's astonished eyes — like two fried eggs, they'd been — and I laughed and laughed.

Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.