A Gift of Music

So No One Forgets

 A Gift of Music

  Harvey Sheldon can tell stories for hours about  Harvey Sheldon, composer George Gershwin,  Lincoln High School, former mob boss Angelo  Bruno, the Bunny Hop, and the University of  Pennsylvania.
 What stories, you ask? Well, that he and Lincoln  High classmate Erma "Dimples" Eininger created  the Bunny Hop dance in 1952 at the request of  Bob Horn, host of the original Bandstand show in  Philadelphia.
And that as a young man, he became a friend of Bruno's, and was counseled by him on topics from job opportunities to choosing the right wine.

That he thought the world of Gershwin and Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin and Rodgers & Hart and all the other 20th-century Jewish composers and lyricists who transformed the nation's music.

And that last week, the University of Pennsylvania Library accepted his donation of video footage of performances of more than 2,000 song titles dating to the 1920s, much of it big band and Broadway musical! s, a collection the university called "unique" and "invaluable."

Sheldon says the collection of Jewish music videos has been appraised at $3 million. Penn says that's his figure and that the university library does not appraise gifts.

That's not important, according to Sheldon, 65, "still a teenager at heart, still a crazy dreamer."

He can talk on and on about the Jewish influence on jazz, about meeting drummer Gene Krupa when he was 9 years old, about his dream of a TV documentary - "a series, it has to be a series" - on the great 20th-century composers.

People invariably describe Sheldon as a "character," and he is that and more, a passionate, charming, won't-take-no-for-an-answer, "and-did-I-tell-you-that-Judy-Garland's-grandfather-was-Jewish?" sort of guy.

Many institutions said no before Penn said yes. What matters, Sheldon says, is that "I've finally found a home for my music."

Disc jockey. Bandleader. Radio station owner. Television producer. Songwriter. Sheldon could write a book, and has, coauthoring The Bunny Hop: The Harvey Sheldon Story and the Bandstand Years.

Here's a shorter version, beginning in South Philadelphia, where so many Jewish stories in the 1930s began.

Born Harvey Saltzman, he grew up the son of an executive with an oil company. The family soon left the little rowhouse for Wynnefield, and then Oxford Circle.

"The Bob Horn Bandstand show, when it began, was just clips of performers and didn't have kids dancing," Sheldon says. "So I called him. He was very nice, and I told him he should have kids dancing."

It was 1952. Sheldon was 16.

Later that year, he says, teenagers, including himself, began to dance on the show.

A few months later, Horn told him that Band Leader Ray Anthony had a new record coming
out called "The Bunny Hop," and its producers wanted the Bandstand teenagers to dance to it.

Could he and Dimples come up with some steps?

"We practiced in the community room at Lincoln," he says. "We choreographed the steps that were in the song. It goes into a little jitterbug, a little swing, and then back to the Bunny Hop. It's a takeoff on the old conga dance, but with a different melody."

Today, Dimples is Dee MacGregor, 64, of East Norriton, and she says no one knew it would become a line dance.

"We just jumped around, and the kids loved it," she says. "Never in a million years did we think we were doing anything worthwhile.

"If I tell people I'm the co creator of the Bunny Hop, they look at me like I'm wacko."

Sheldon and Dimples may have been among the first local television-created personalities.

"I told Dimples that we had to be recognizable, so we each wore the same clothes on the show. I had five of the same vests, shirts, pants, and I just rotated."

Sheldon quit school and got a job as a disc jockey in Atlantic City. Later he would get a high school degree and attend college, but school was not for him.

The entertainment business was. Especially the music business.

He worked at local radio station WHAT on WDAS, was an extra on the Red Buttons TV show, began his own big band, worked as a disc jockey in Washington, bought radio stations in Miami and Boston, and moved to California in the mid-1960s, where he hosted a radio talk show in Fresno and produced a 24-hour all-rock-and-roll station in Los Angeles.

In the meantime, he had gotten married, had three children, and wisely invested his money in mutual funds.

And he remembered what his grandmother had once said: "She told me to collect things that I thought will be valuable."

So through the years, he collected film of musical performances - the music videos of the past. Broadway shows, big band performances, film musicals - he had them all.

"I loved the big band music. People were dancing in the aisles when Benny Goodman played, and that had never happened before. When that era died, I sat shiva."

In 1990, an illness threatened his eyesight. After he recovered, he decided to give ! away a chunk of his 30,000 performance films and videos. "I wanted a library for my music so that people would know."

What is it that people didn't know?

"People said to me they didn't know that Irving Berlin, a Jew, wrote 'White Christmas,' that Jerome Kern created the Broadway musical, that they never heard of Gershwin and didn't know he introduced Afro-Cuban music to the United States."

He had collected rock-and-roll music footage as well, and in 1999 gave the University of Southern California footage of more than 4,500 song titles.

Then he looked for a home for Paul Robeson singing in Porgy and Bess, and a Paul Whiteman Band performance, and Lena Horne singing in Showboat.

"Everybody turned me down," he says.

"Libraries usually don't collect things like this," explains Penn's Arthur Kiron, curator of Judaica Collections.

But Kiron accepted the footage, transferred to 182 videos, because "it provides a visual window into understa! nding how Jews helped to create Broadway musicals, jazz and other ente rtainment genres from the 1920s to the present."

Sheldon lives near Los Angeles, keeping busy by producing a nightly one-hour show on cable television on big band music. He flew alone to Philadelphia for the official bequest ceremony.

He had a busy week. Penn wanted to house him for a few days at a posh hotel, but he wanted to stay longer, so he took the money and stayed for a week at a suburban Comfort Inn. "Senior rate," he explains.

He saw old friends from Bandstand, gave away copies of his book, talked to Dimples, and gave a speech about Jewish composers and lyricists.

And he talked about the importance of the Harvey Sheldon Jewish American Music Video Research Library at Penn.

"You can't just read about the music. You have to hear it. You have to see it."

Murray Dubin - The Philadelphia Inquirer