FRANK LOESSER was a short, pugnacious tough guy who peppered his speech with New York street slang and carried himself like one of the lovable hoodlums from his own musical Guys and Dolls. Meeting him, you might assume he was a lower-class denizen of the outer boroughs, someone who had worked his way up the show-biz ladder driven by hunger and chutzpah.
But if Frank took you home to meet the folks, you would enter a cultured Manhattan residence and shake hands with his father, a well-known professor of music; his mother, who gave lectures on modern literature; and his older stepbrother, a renowned concert pianist. Frank was the outlier of the family—not exactly a black sheep, but the son who chose a different path and created a persona to match.
That path was popular music. At first, he wrote only lyrics, working for $100 a week—a job he later described as “a rendezvous with failure.” In 1936, he placed a song in a Broadway revue. The show folded quickly but the song caught the attention of Paramount Pictures, who put him under contract. He was 25 years old and working in Hollywood!
He still wrote only lyrics, but now he was collaborating with top composers like Jule Styne, Burton Lane, and Hoagy Carmichael. The hits started coming: “Two Sleepy People,” “Moon of Manakoora,” “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have,” and “Heart and Soul.”
Loesser joined the Air Force in World War II, and wrote morale-boosting songs like “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”—one of the first hits for which he wrote both words and music. Others would follow, including “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a song he had written to perform with his wife at Hollywood parties.
Loesser’s movie success led to an offer to score his first Broadway musical, Where’s Charley?, a 1948 farce which featured Ray Bolger singing the irresistible “Once In Love with Amy.”
1950 saw the debut of his long-running Guys and Dolls, one of Broadway’s undisputed classics. After a return to Hollywood to write the charming songs for the movie musical Hans Christian Andersen, Loesser wrote the score and the book for The Most Happy Fella, a deeply-felt drama of near-operatic scope, followed by a delicate and now nearly-forgotten fantasy, Greenwillow. In 1961, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying would round out his Broadway career with another long-running smash. Loesser wrote one more musical, Pleasures and Palaces, which closed during out-of-town tryouts, and an unfinished show, Señor Discretion Himself.
By ALBERT EVANS, Artistic Associate