The Story of How Gus Van Met Joe Schenck

Photo of the musical comedy duo Gus Van and Joe Schenck performing
The comedy due Gus Van and Joe Schenck in the movie They Learned About Women (1930)

Some men who sing direct their song to the girl they love. Some sing to a fancied ideal. Many carol out of sheer romance. A few sing solely for material reward. But different from any of these is the emotion which inspires the songs of Gus Van, interlocutor on the NBC Greater Minstrels.

Van sings to a shadow -- the wraith of his former partner, Joe Schenck, whom he loved with a robust, masculine affection bred by 21 years of association and by an arm-in-arm battle which led them from a sordid beginning to a height where they stood distinguished as the greatest two-man team in the theater.

"I am as uncertain as every mortal about what happens to the soul after death," Van confesses. "But if I didn't know absolutely that Joe Schenck's spirit was listening to my every note -- that he is keeping me in pitch, so to speak -- as he always did when we were partners, I would never make another public appearance. I would go back to railroading. That's the way I made my start in the world, and I could do it again if I had to."

There is an impressive sincerity about Van's loyalty to that ghostly ally. He made his great success with Schenck and truly believes that he couldn't progress a foot if he didn't feel that in some shadow-land Joe is harmonizing with him that amazing voice of his, just as he did in the days when they were making $185 a week, the weeks they could find work -- or when they were making $5,000 a week and couldn't find enough weeks in which to play.

Of course you've heard the old, old press story about how the boys were streetcar employees who used to get together in the car barn nights and practice their vocalizing. The story has been prevalent for years, and the famous team just let it go at that. And it is a good story except for two important details. Joe Schenck wasn't a singer when he met his future partner, and since he was only 16 years old when their paths crossed it is obvious that he couldn't have helped to man a streetcar.

The story of their meeting has a touch of humor in it -- although memories keep Van from smiling when he tells about it.

Gus, a Brooklyn boy, had worked for the traction company but his flair for singing sent him into places where people paid to hear their favorite tunes. He had no knowledge of vaudeville or the stage. Neither did he have the background for an immediate plunge into the theater. In his own words, he was a plain mugg; and like Irving Berlin and many other of our current stars, Gus began his singing career in the back rooms of some of the lowliest saloons on the Brooklyn, New York, waterfront. His pianist was a troublesome man with a greater penchant for getting himself into jams than for distinguishing himself as a musician. But his unorthodox chords furnished sufficient setting for the ballads with which Van mulcted occasional quarters from sentimental dockwallopers.

One night word was brought to Gus that his accompanist had tangled with his wife -- with the result that he was in a hospital ward minus one ear, a piece of his cheek and a couple of fingers. Automatically Van was out of work. Because of his precarious earnings, it was difficult to get another pianist readily. He was standing in the door of a saloon, his dejection written across his face, when a neighborhood friend paused to query him about his dolorous appearance. Gus detailed his predicament.

"Why, I know a kid who will be just the partner you need," the friend replied. "You ought to know him. He only lives a block or two away from you, and you railroaded with his old man. His name is Schenck. I'll send him down here to talk to you."

Van was thunderstruck that night when a boy of 16, slender and with wavy blond hair, walked into the questionable place and introduced himself as the neighborhood youngster who played the piano.

"And he could play," Van muses. "But I was afraid to have him around. He was such a punk -- and such a nice-looking kid -- that I was scared some one of those hard-boiled dames would make a sucker out of him and that would lead to trouble with some of the hoodlums they played around with. But he convinced me that he could take care of himself. And he could -- then. It was only later that trouble threw him off balance -- and just think, I never knew it. If I had just realized, maybe things would have turned out differently."

That was early in 1909 and Gus Van had just cast his first vote. Five years older than the boyish Schenck, he literally mothered him for the brief time they worked together during that first association. Joe functioned solely as pianist. His voice was changing and there was no way of knowing, even if he had wanted to sing, if he would turn out to be a tenor or a deep bass.

That early union was short-lived, as Van got his chance in vaudeville and Schenck went back to odd jobs playing for orchestras, dances and club entertainment. Eventually, more than a year later, the team of Edwards, Van and Tierney was booked into Arnold Rothstein's successful cafe in Coney Island. During the course of the engagement Tierney, the piano player, was dropped from the act and Van sent for Schenck.

Chester Matthews in Radio Guide, January 25, 1936

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