Though Labor Day has passed, we still have till September 22nd to relish in the warmth, precipitation, and memories of summer. At The Jonathan Channel, we continue to share the memories of songwriters’ summers at camp in the early part of the 20th century. So far we have ventured to the Weingart Institute, to Camp Wigwam, and to Camp Paradox; hearing many stories about Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart before they were even acquaintances. Though their time at camp did not overlap, they shared formative experiences that enhanced their partnership and work. Even after they began collaborating both returned to camp; Rodgers to Paradox and Hart to Brant Lake Camp.
Brant Lake is a thin, long, recreational lake surrounded by glacial mountains. The camp which shares its name was conceived and founded by three physical education teachers, Bob Gerstenzang, Jack Malloy and Joseph “Unc” Eberly. The young men were from New York City and had been counselors at Camp Paradox. They decided to break away and start a camp of their own, and invited some of their camp pals along, including Larry Hart.
From the first year in 1917, Hart was in charge of weekend entertainment, and organizing summer shows. Larry would write skits for campers and occasionally adapted longer shows. He would do whatever he needed to do to have the show succeed; including stealing props from the infirmary and kitchen, never returning a thing. Among Larry’s fellow counselors at Brant Lake were his Paradox pals Mel Shauer and Eugene Zucker. Mel was Larry’s songwriting partner during the first summer, and lifelong friend.
Even when his close pals did not return to camp the following summers, Larry kept on coming back. Camp was a refuge from reality and a vessel for creativity and success. While he was trying to become something in the real world there is no doubt he was already something at Brant Lake. The camp newspaper, the Bee Ell See, from July 7, 1918 reported on Hart’s talents after the first show of the summer; “all praise is due to him for the way he ‘pulled it through’ If the first show is to be taken as a standard, the shows this year should rank favorably with the amateur performances of the city.”
In the summer of 1919 Hart found himself a new writing partner. Milton Thomashefsky, son of the great Yiddish actors Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky. Mickey Thomas, as he was more popularly known, wrote numerous songs with Hart including the music for a musical comedy B-R-A. This included the song “Green and Gray” celebrating the camp’s colors:
We are the boys who always win Any fight that we begin; That’s why we’re proud to say We’re from Brant Lake Camp today.
We will fight today For the Green and Gray And our hearts are loyal and true, When we meet the foe We will let them know What old Brant Lake Camp can do. YEA! BO! With a battle roar, We will ask for more, Ever hungry for the fight. The good old Green and Gray will fix you, And it always fixes right!
Larry’s camp spirit was not just seen in his songs. He continued to return to Brant Lake even when he was no longer on the camp payroll. Staying in nearby lodging, he continued to write for and help with camp productions.
When Arthur Schwartz was working at Camp Kiowa in Pennsylvania as a counselor, a close friend of Larry Hart, Doc Bender, played him some early Rodgers and Hart songs. Schwartz was enthralled by the music and Bender recommended he switch camps to meet Hart, who vacationed near Brant Lake. So the next year, Schwartz switched, and he wasn’t disappointed, “It was a much better camp. I got much better money, much better food. And I got to work with Larry.” Together they wrote many camp related songs like “Down at the Lake,” “Up at B-L-C,” “Last Night,” and the Brant Lake favorite “I Love to Lie Awake in Bed.”
I love to lie awake in bed Right after taps I pull the flaps above my head I let the moon shine on my pillow O, what a light those moonbeams shed. I feel so happy I could cry And tears are born within the corner of my eye. To be at home with Ma was never like this. I could live forever like this. I love to lie awake awhile And go to sleep with a smile. Years later, Schwartz would repurpose this Melody for a musical The Little Show of 1929, with Lyrics by Howard Dietz. The song became “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan.”
Here is Mel Torme with the one and only Jonathan Schwartz presenting both sets of lyrics to an audience at Marty’s
As demonstrated throughout this series the experience of camp was incredibly important for these songwriters. Camp provided an outlet for their creative minds. They were unafraid to be inventive, smart and goofy when writing these songs. The only risk they had was a bad review in the camp newspaper. So they wrote, and wrote and wrote. Improving upon their skills and gaining confidence in their abilities. For a counselor like Arthur Schwartz, clothes weren’t the only thing he packed in his trunk home that summer; stowed away at the bottom was a melody.