Saturday, 13 April 2019

James Dietrich

If you’re going to make sound cartoons, as animation studios realised in 1929, you’re going to have to have music. If you’re going to have music, you’ve got to have a composer. So the studios set out to find one. Walt Disney settled on Carl Stalling, Harman-Ising picked Frank Marsales, Paul Terry hired Phil Scheib, and Walter Lantz used Jimmie Dietrich.

Bert Fiske and then David Broekman worked on the Lantz cartoons in 1929. Dietrich’s first short was Hells Heels, released on June 2, 1930. His last cartoon was The Air Express, released September 20, 1937.

We know a little something about Dietrich, thanks to the fall 1983 edition of The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress. William H. Rosar’s article states:
Dietrich was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on October 30, 1894, and received his musical education at the University of Missouri (from which he obtained a B.A. in music) and at the Schola Cantorum in France, where he studied composition with Vincent D’Indy. Dietrich was a composer, arranger and music director in New York, where he worked for famous theatrical producer John Murray Anderson. When Anderson came to Universal in 1929 to direct King of Jazz, he brought Dietrich with him to be the film’s musical arranger. All concerned liked Dietrich’s scoring of the cartoon sequence in King of Jazz so much that he was soon appointed Universal’s cartoon composer (for Walter Lantz Productions). One of Dietrich’s innovations was the “bouncing ball” in cartoon songs. He had wanted to score feature films and was given his first chance to do so in 1932 on They Just Had to Get Married. Everyone at Universal was so pleased with his work that he was given the job of scoring The Mummy.
I suspect the Fleischer studio would take issue with the “bouncing ball” claim. And Dietrich was a graduate of a different university.

Dietrich was another composer who changed his name. He was born Claire Lilburn Dietrich. He always seems to have been musical; at Central High School he played the flute in the orchestra. In 1913, he was living in Ottawa, Kansas, helping his uncle in his drug store, and providing piano accompaniment at local recitals while attending the University of Kansas, graduating in late May 1918. Less than a month later, on June 22nd, he enlisted and served with the 3rd Field Artillery Band in France, returning to Kansas in 1919 before going to New York. There, he married Helen Jenks in September 1920 and the following year, the two were employed by the New York Public Library while pursuing music careers. He also formed a choir at the Richmond Hill Baptist Church, where he spent three years as organist, ending in 1926, and had appeared on radio as early as June 1922 on WJZ. Other secular activities included the musical directorship of the Rialto Theatre in New York in 1926, and the formation of the Jimmie Dietrich Jayhawk Band (not forgetting his alma mater) the following year.

Why Dietrich and Lantz parted company is unknown. His music career took several turns. In 1940, he was employed by Select Attractions, Inc. to provide music behind a 61-minute feature called The Leopard Men of Africa. The 1940 Census states he only worked 12 weeks in 1939, pulling in $1,200. In the February 5, 1941 edition of Variety, we see that “James Dietrich, orchestra leader, filed a $4,500 damage suit against Clifton E. Barber, musician, as a result of an auto accident.”

His World War Two draft registration card signed April 1942 reveals his employer is the Los Angeles Police Department. A June 16, 1944 story in Variety tells of the 10th annual Los Angeles Police Relief Association show at the Shrine Auditorium with music “directed by Stan Myers and his assistant, James Dietrich.”

Dietrich was the orchestra director for Hollywood on Ice, a stage show (yes, there was ice on the stage), that toured the U.S. in 1947-48. He appears for a final time in Variety on October 27, 1948, arranging a stage musical revue called “Music Sends Me” at the Highland Playhouse in Hollywood. “The music, while at times passable, seems hauntingly familiar” is the trade paper’s hardly-enthusiastic opinion of Dietrich’s work. What Dietrich was doing after this has yet to be discovered. His wife Helen was extremely active in the Daughters of the American Revolution, and Dietrich composed the music for a song called “In the Hearts of True Americans” in 1958 (it was about the American flag and the lyrics were written by a DAR state officer). Apparently, Helen Dietrich was a descendant of President John Adams.

In 1971, Dietrich provided original music for “Ghost,” an otherwise silent production put on by the South Coast Repertory Company in Costa Mesa, California. The last clipping I can find about him comes the Los Angeles Sentinel of February 21, 1980. The play about Fats Waller, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was performed for disabled vets. One of them was Jimmy Dietrich, confined to a wheelchair, who told a reporter he had played with Fats’ orchestra in New York in 1926. He was 90 when he died on November 7, 1984.

Below is Dietrich, age 15, in the Central High School orchestra.


  1. I thought that James Dietrich was working for Paul Whiteman in New York City in the late 1920s, and that's how he got to work on "King Of Jazz". He used quite a few melodies from the score of KOJ, including "A Bench In The Park" and "Happy Feet". I don't know if he wrote any songs for KOJ, but I'd like to think so. Did you find any direct connections between Dietrich and Paul Whiteman in your research for this article, Yowp? I enjoyed reading it, thank you.

  2. Hi, Mark. I wrote this several months ago and a couple of other composer pieces around the same time so I can't recall.
    In doing a quick check, I can't find any contemporary record that he and Whiteman were together prior to "The King of Jazz." I've found several that mention a connection with Anderson.
    The newspaper in Van Nuys did a story about Dietrich's 50th wedding anniversary and it says he and his wife worked for Paramount in New York in the '20s, and only mentions Whiteman in connection with "King of Jazz."
    A column in Variety of Feb. 5, 1930 reported Dietrich and Jack Yellen co-wrote "My Lover" for the movie. He also wrote "Two Blue Eyes" for the movie "Eyes of the World" (sung by Donald Novis in his pre-Fibber days).

  3. I doubt if he played with Fats Waller's Orchestra in the 1926 as the orchestras were segregated at that time and for many years after...