Local history: Gee whiz, Akron entertainer’s career is swell

By Mark J. Price
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Akron songwriter Mort Greene, 22, composes a song at the piano in 1935. He had his first big success that year with Thrilled, a song co-written by Harry Barris. (Beacon Journal file photo)

Akron songwriter Mort Greene scored a lot of hits during his long career, but none more memorable than The Toy Parade, a cheerful, rollicking tune that marched through American living rooms in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

What’s that? You don’t recognize the title?

Try these lyrics: “Hey! Here they come with a rum-tee-tum. They’re having a toy parade. A tin giraffe with a fife and drum is leading the kewpie brigade.”

Still not sure? Here is a little dialogue: “Gee, Wally, that’s swell.”

The Toy Parade served as the theme to Leave It to Beaver, the beloved TV sitcom that aired from 1957 to 1963, first on CBS, then on ABC. Each week, audiences followed the comedic, black-and-white adventures of Ward and June Cleaver and their sons Wally and Beaver.

Greene, who co-wrote the song with David Kahn and Melvyn Leonard, had an unusual career in show business, finding success in radio, film and television, not only as a composer and lyricist, but also as a comedy writer.

Morton S. Greenberger, the son of Ethel and Nicholas Greenberger, was born Oct. 3, 1912, in Cleveland but raised in Akron. His father, an attorney, was the Akron city solicitor.

The family resided at 82 Metlin Ave., then 539 Crosby St., then 71 Casterton Ave., all in West Akron. Little Morty and his brother, Bobby, attended Portage Path, King Elementary and West High School.

Irascible and energetic, Morty loved making people laugh. His January 1930 senior class voted him “The King of Wit,” and friends predicted he would find fame in vaudeville.

In the West High yearbook Rodeo, he listed his hobbies as “women and song-writing.” Besides cartooning for the Lariat student newspaper, Morty belonged to the dramatic club and served as chairman of the sweater committee, which presumably was a real group.

“Morty has a line you could hang clothes on,” the yearbook noted. “When he’s not making wise cracks, he’s usually found writing snappy music.”

The boy developed his musical talent by plunking away for hours on a piano in the family’s den. He composed little ditties at home and wrote the score for The Revue of Revues, a West High musical in which he had the lead role.

At 16, he penned a ballad titled I Fell in Love, and promoted it by singing it live on weekends in the music department at Akron Dry Goods and over the airwaves at WADC radio.

“I want to make a start in writing songs, and follow it up,” Morty told the Beacon Journal in 1929. “I’ve written several songs just for my own amusement, but never tried anything serious before.”

He was working on three other songs, and hoped to get one or two out “before so very much longer.” If that didn’t work out, he might enter the banking business, he said.

Upon graduation, Morty studied briefly at the University of Akron before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania to major in business. In his spare time, he wrote the song My Prom Girl, which won rousing encores when performed in East Coast ballrooms by Red Nichols and His Five Pennies.

After tasting success, the Akron boy threw caution to the wind in 1932 and moved to Holly­wood, where he shortened his name from Greenberger to Greene.

He landed a gig writing music and scenes for Metro-Golden-Mayer, then RKO Pictures. He met movie stars, attended glamorous parties and dated actress Anne Shirley, the star of 1934’s Anne of Green Gables.

Greene and songwriter Harry Barris teamed up on the 1935 song Thrilled, which was recorded by artists such as Abe Lyman, Ruth Etling and Tom Coakley, appearing for 14 weeks on Your Hit Parade.

He began a successful collaboration with English songwriter Harry Revel, cranking out more than 200 songs, including the soundtracks to nearly 30 movies.

Greene married starlet Ann Lawrence in 1938 and built a Hollywood ranch house with a swimming pool. He installed a slot machine in his recreation room that played the chorus from Thrilled during jackpots.

The marriage was not happy. Lawrence divorced Greene in 1946, alleging he was “abominable and extremely surly.”

“When he came home, if at all, he wouldn’t talk,” she told a judge. “For days at a time, he wouldn’t say a word to me.”

As a lyricist, Greene had plenty of words for other people. Ginger Rogers danced to Greene’s song Put Your Heart Into Your Feet and Dance in the 1937 movie Stage Door. The Andrews Sisters sang Sleepy Serenade in the 1941 Abbott and Costello movie Hold That Ghost. Lucille Ball sang Who Knows? in the 1942 movie The Big Street. Frances Langford belted out I’m Good for Nothing But Love in the 1946 movie The Bamboo Blonde.

Greene and Revel were nominated for an Academy Award for their song There’s a Breeze on Lake Louise in the 1942 film The Mayor of 44th Street, starring George Murphy and Anne Shirley, but it had no chance to win because it was up against Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, sung by Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn.

When asked about his inspiration for the song You’re Bad for Me, Greene joked that the title came naturally.

“I’d just downed six highballs and a Spanish dinner,” he told a Hollywood columnist.

In 1947, Greene married actress Jan Wiley, whose film credits included Secret Agent X-9 (1945), She-Wolf of London (1946) and The Brute Man (1946). The couple had two daughters, Nicki and Melissa, and visited Akron often to see Greene’s parents in their home at 206 Melbourne Ave.

In the late 1940s, Greene reinvented himself, turning his wisecracking humor into a source of income. He began to write jokes for national radio comedies, which led to work in the fledgling television industry. He wrote material for Bob Cummings, Perry Como and a young Johnny Carson, but returned to music to co-write the TV themes for Leave It to Beaver and Tales of Wells Fargo.

Greene worked his way up to lead writer for The Red Skelton Show, and was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1963. He specialized in sight gags for “The Silent Spot” of Skelton’s program, a pantomime skit near the end of each show.

As he explained to the Beacon Journal: “Skelton, say, is sitting in a doctor’s waiting room with other patients and fighting desperately to hold back a sneeze. Finally, he lets it go. Patients, furniture and old magazines end up in one big pile in a corner of the office.”

Greene was one of the highest-paid writers on television when the show ended in 1971, the same year that his second marriage ended in divorce.

On one of his final visits to Akron in May 1980, he attended the 50th reunion of his West High School class.

“I’ve climbed every mountain,” he told Kenny Nichols of the Beacon Journal.

Greene was inducted into the Akron Radio Hall of Fame in 1987. He was 80 years old when he passed away Dec. 28, 1992, in Palm Desert, Calif.

He left behind hundreds of memorable songs, including The Toy Parade, which still sounds awfully swell, Wally.

Just ask the Cleavers.

Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or mjprice@thebeaconjournal.com.

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