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An Autobiography: Chapter 1, Toy Pianos

Toy piano.Thurston Moore head shotIt was Christmastime, 1947. I was strolling through Woolworth’s 5 and 10 Cent Store in my hometown of Covington, Kentucky, and having great interest in music (I was writing songs back then), I stopped to play with the toy pianos and xylophones, which were popular at the time. To my amazement, I realized that the only music included with the toy instruments were songs to three or four nursery rhymes. Even the more expensive little grand pianos offered nothing more!

Another toy piano.I immediately saw the need for a songbook, so I bought a copy of Schirmer’s Spiral Music Writing Book and compiled 66 Nursery Rhymes and Songs for Children. In pencil I annotated each song on a page, complete with the notes of the melody and words. (I still have that book.) From this I created a small songbook of 16 pages – a cover page and 15 songs.

Schirmer's Book   Schirmer Contents 

When I learned that the major toy company for this type of product was the Schoenhut Company in Philadelphia, I set my plan into motion. I decided to go to Philadelphia and sell the Schoenhut Company my idea. Even then I wondered, even if I was successful, how I would produce the books. Then I discovered that right across the Licking River from where I lived was the Otto Zimmerman and Son Company, a company that produced music printing for major music publishers throughout the country.

Zimmerman Ad 

I paid Jordan Zimmerman a visit, and after discussing my plans and showing him my mockup for the book, he said, “Get an order from Schoenhut, and we will produce a nice book with illustrations and give you one-third of the profits.” That partnership turned into a successful publishing business that also supplied many of the other toy manufactures with songbooks, and the first in a series of books that established my 25-year career in the country music field.

So now I was ready to go to Philadelphia. I was a broke, married 22-year-old with two children at the time, and I had no knowledge of how to undertake my quest – but I was determined. I didn’t know to call the Schoenhut Company for an appointment, I didn’t have any idea what to expect when I got there, and I didn’t have a clue who I needed to see. But I got on a train in Cincinnati and rode it to Philadelphia.

I’m sure I didn’t make a very good impression, particularly after spending the night in an all-night movie theater (I had no money for a hotel). I don’t remember where the company was located in the city or how I got there, but I did.

Schoenhut plant 

It was a typical huge, old, 19th-century manufacturing building. The entrance was plain and unwelcoming. I had no idea if there was a Mr. Schoenhut or not, but I walked up to the elderly receptionist and asked to see him. Of course, she automatically asked if I had an appointment.

Eventually I was admitted to a large office that was home to a big desk piled high with papers and toys. An elderly gentleman rose from his old, wooden swivel chair when I entered and offered his hand. It was when we shook hands that my heart fell, and I thought “Oh, no, this is futile; what am I doing here?”

You see, immediately what came to my mind was the scene in W.C. Fields’ film, “The Bank Dick,” where Fields played the bank guard and retrieved the money stolen from the bank. The bank president thanked him with a copy of the bank calendar and said, “Let me give you a hearty handshake.”

W.C. Fields 

Well, the close-up of that handshake revealed that the president’s hand barely touched Fields’ hand, and that was exactly the handshake I received. But I left the office with an order for 15,000 songbooks!


Don’t miss the next chapter – Tex Ritter’s 25th wedding anniversary.