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A Brief-ish History of Tin Pan Alley

Designated: December 10, 2019

On March 12, 2019 the Landmarks Preservation Commission Calendared five buildings on Tin Pan Alley, 47, 49, 51, 53 and 55 West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Ave.

Since the news story about the threat to Tin Pan Alley broke, the world’s attention has been captured by the area. Unfortunately, there has been equal parts of myth as well as history in the coverage. In an attempt to set the record straight to the extent that we can do so,  below is a very brief narrative history of what we definitely know about Tin Pan Alley. HDC is indebted to Leland Bobbe, Michael Martone, Anthony W. Robins, David Freeland and Tracy Messer for all their research and information.  Everything that is correct is theirs, all errors are ours. Special thanks to Brooks of Sheffield from Lost City for getting this whole thing rolling.

If you want to get more involved, or have a correction or more information, leave a comment or email [email protected]

Residential Origins

The buildings that still exist on the North Side of the Street, nos. 41-51, were built c. 1852-1853, a very early date for Italianate style rowhouses in New York (Litchfield Villa which helped popularize the Italianate style in New York was completed in 1854).

One early resident of the block  is believed to be William Gardiner Jones (1784-1870) and his wife Cornelia (Herring) Jones (1785-1866).  The Jones were from prominent  18th-century New York families (Jones Street in Greenwich Village is named after their immediate family). They are believed to have lived at 49-51 West 28th street with their son, William W. Jones, MD (1813-1891) until their deaths.

The Music and Entertainment Industry Takes Over

The first music publisher to move to the block was M. Witmark and Sons, who moved uptown from 14th Street to 49-51 West 28th Street in 1893, becoming the first publisher to set up shop in the block.

For a time during the 1890’s, Thomas Edison’s New York office for moving pictures was located at number 43.  It has been reported that Edison shot early films on the roof.  In addition to the American Mutoscope studio on 13th and Broadway, this would have been one of the first places in New York City used for the shooting of motion pictures.

By 1900, Twenty-eighth Street knew the largest concentration of popular-music publishers any single street had known up to that time, 14th Street not excluded.

Music publishers occupied buildings on both sides of West 28th Street, and some could be found in offices around the corner on Broadway, or just west of Sixth Avenue.  At one time or another, between 1893 and 1910, the following publishers were located on the Alley (note that several moved from one address to another). The source for these addresses is David A. Jasen’s  Tin Pan Alley: An Encyclopedia of the Golden Age of American Song (Taylor & Francis, 2003) as well as copies of covers of sheet music on file at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, in the “Brill Building” research file.  A search through Manhattan phone books confirms most of these listings.

South side

(demolished) No. 36:            Leo Feist (of Feist & Frankenthaler)

(refaced in 1927 ) No. 42:            Leo E. Berliner & Co.

Enterprise Music Supply Co.

Chas. B. Ward Music Publishing Co.

Harry Von Tilzer Music Publishing Company

(demolished) No. 46:            Wandersloot Music Company

(demolished) No. 48:            Myll Bros.

Willis Woodward

(demolished) No. 50:            York Music Company.

North side

(demolished) No. 37:            Harry Von Tilzer Music Publishing Company

(demolished) No. 39:            Gotham Music Publishing Co.

Hugo V. Schlam

No. 41:            P.J. Howley (of Howley, Haviland & Co.)

No. 45:            Shapiro, Bernstein & Von Tilzer

Jerome H. Remick & Co.

Harry Von Tilzer (after leaving Maurice Shapiro)

No. 49-51:            M. Witmark and Sons

William C. Dunn & Co.

No. 51:            Paul Dresser Publishing Company

No. 53:            Ed Rogers Music Publishing Co.

According to phone records and some facsimiles of sheet music covers, it would seem that most, if not all, of the music publishers left the block by 1909.

45 w 28 REMICK Music foto

A photo from this period (please note the caption is incorrect) shows “The New York Clipper” newspaper located at No. 47 West 28th Street. The Clipper (1853-1924) was the first American newspaper devoted entirely to entertainment. The paper was one of the earliest publications in the United States to regularly cover sports, and it played an important role in popularizing baseball in the country. In addition to more popular sporting events, the New York Clipper also wrote about billiards, bowling, even chess. It began covering American football in 1880. In 1894, however, The Clipper dropped its sports coverage and devoted itself entirely to theater. It was absorbed into Variety in 1924.

The same photo shows an office of the William Morris (talent) Agency in #43 West 28th Street. The agency, founded in New York in 1898, is the largest and most diversified literary and talent agency in the world. This reinforces the context of Tin Pan Alley as part of a larger early 20th-century entertainment district, which included bars, cafes, theaters and the like.

After the Music Industry

Sam Mostel

Sam Mostel

When the music business moved from the street, the buildings stayed in commercial use and in some instances, were eventually used as artists’ studios. Zero Mostel painted and took painting classes in these buildings, and probably lived there in the 1960’s as well (his son Toby Mostel lived in an apartment in 49-51 West 28th Street, and Zero may have kept a studio in 42 West 28th Street). Along with Mostel, members of his clique which included Hollywood screenwriters Waldo Salt and Ian Hunter also painted in that studio.

The area also still remained a center for music and art in other ways. Don Young’s famous “Sixth Avenue Loft” around the corner at 821 Avenue of the Americas, was a gathering place for jazz greats, including Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie and an epicenter of the “loft jazz” movement. The all-night jam sessions (it was considered bad form to show up before 11pm) were often frequented by celebrities as Salvador Dali, Norman Mailer and Williem de Kooning and “there always seemed to be many pretty young women present, and ample bourbon and marijuana”.

The Lasting Significance of Tin Pan Alley on Popular Culture

Without exaggeration, it can be asserted that this is the block where the popular music industry as we now know it began.  The business practices initiated here are still in use, in modified form, today.  This was where, for the first time, music companies learned to go out to the public, rather than let the public come to them.  The whole concept of song promotion had its roots in the “plugging” methods devised by Tin Pan Alley publishers and writers.  Plugging functioned much like today’s marketing – the object was to get a song heard by as many people as possible.  Songwriters on 28th Street made the rounds of dozens of cafes, music halls, saloons, and theaters nightly, pitching songs, getting them sung by performers, and devising creative methods to get the songs recognized (what we would today refer to as promotion).  Singalongs, free sheet music distribution, staged events (whereby a songwriter pretended to be part of an onstage act) – these were a few of the plugging/marketing techniques initiated in the Alley.  Irving Berlin went to work for Harry Von Tilzer when he was 16 as a plugger, around 1904.

There are a number of still-known songs which were published while Tin Pan Alley was located on 28th Street.  Albert Von Tilzer’s “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is one of the most famous of them.  It was published from 40 West 28th Street, in a building that today looks largely the same as it did in 1908, when “Ballgame” appeared.  Other songs published from 28th Street include “In the Good Old Summer Time,” “My Gal Sal” (by Paul Dresser, brother of Theodore Dreiser), and “Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie.”  There were also pioneering works of ragtime and African-American music published here, including what historians often consider to be one of the first ragtime compositions, Ben Harney’s “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon, But You’ve Done Broke Down” (1896).  It was published by the Witmarks at number 49-51, and is now a blues standard.

Here are some other well-known classics of the era:

  • “The Sidewalks of New York” (Lawlor & Blake, 1894)
  • “The Band Played On” (Charles B. Ward & John F. Palmer, 1895)
  • “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” (Joe Hayden & Theodore Mertz, 1896)
  • “Hello! Ma Baby (Hello Ma Ragtime Gal)” (Emerson, Howard, & Sterling, 1899)
  • “Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage” (Harry Von Tilzer, 1900)
  • “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home” (Huey Cannon, 1902)
  • “In the Good Old Summertime” (Ren Shields & George Evans, 1902)
  • “Give My Regards To Broadway” (George M. Cohan, 1904)
  • “Shine Little Glow Worm” (Paul Lincke & Lilla Cayley Robinson, 1907)
  • “Shine on Harvest Moon” (Nora Bayes & Jack Norworth, 1908)
  • “”By The Light of the Silvery Moon” (Gus Edwards & Edward Madden, 1909)

28th Street is where the whole idea of the song/sheet music as marketable product was created.  Songs were divided into categories and styles, much like today’s genre divisions of “country,” “hip-hop,” “soft rock,” etc.  Also, it is where publishers and writers really learned to advertise, via newspaper ads that made grandiose statements and claims.  The offering of payment or other amenities in exchange for performances, also began here, decades before rock DJs like Alan Freed met their downfall as a result of this practice.  As such, 28th Street represents the beginning of the pop music hit machine.

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