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  Curled Up With a Good Book
An interview with Horace Heidt Jr., author of *Horace Heidt: Big Band Star-Maker*

Horace Heidt, Jr., has a lot of memories of his father, the famous bandleader/visionary Horace Heidt. In his book, Horace Heidt: Big Band Star-Maker, he shares those memories and the multiple moments in his dad’s life that have become part of the history and legend of Big Band music. Here, the son reminisces about his father and takes us back to a time when Big Bands ruled the airwaves, Los Angeles was still a growing town, and American Idol was just a glimmer in Horace Heidt’s eyes. 

What are your earliest memories of your dad’s music?

Horace Heidt Jr.: My earliest memories of dad’s music would be going as a child at the ripe age of five to the garages at the double H ranch that had been converted into rehearsal halls. The band would rehearse six days a week starting at 9 a.m. in the morning. There I could talk to and watch the 14 or so girl dancers called the “Heidt Steppers,” and listen to the great music of the Musical Knights. The song I remember most from that period was “Hot Lips.” I especially liked the arrangement featuring Red Nichols, Pete Candoli and Al Hirt duking it out on their trumpets.

Did you watch your dad conduct the band?

I did watch my dad conduct the band. From time to time, he would hand me the baton. What a thrill it was to stand up in front of 14 of L. A.’s top musicians and give them the downbeat to the most famous songs of the ‘50s!

Did you have “famous” musicians and Hollywood people come to your house?

Hollywood people and famous musicians would come to our home, the Double H ranch, all of the time. I remember seeing Gordon MacRae come over to play golf with my dad; Frankie Carle would stop in to give my dad a piano lesson. Dick Contino was always out by the pool getting a suntan and surrounded by 14 of the most beautiful dancers in the world who just happened to be my babysitters. Boy, was I spoiled! Other famous Hollywood people who would stop by were Louis Armstrong, Fred Lowery the whistler, the King Sisters, Alvino Rey, Ken Berry of F-Troop fame, arranger Frank DeVol, and Dean Jones known for Disney movie fame, to name a few. Bob Hope and my dad were good friends throughout their lives. Art Carney, who later received an Academy Award for Harry and Tonto got his first job fresh out of high school with the Horace Heidt organization.

Did you ever want to follow in your dad’s footsteps?

Growing up as I did on a musical ranch, I feel that I had no choice but to follow in my dad’s footsteps, if only to continue the great sound of America’s big bands. I memorized many of his speeches, like “What is America” and “Let Us Have Peace” and my favorite “There Are Two Kinds Of People.” Throughout my life I’ve had a lot of collecting the best big band arrangements.

What was your dad’s favorite music?

Dad’s favorite music personally was playing Chopin on the piano, but professionally he enjoyed playing music of the great American songbook.

Did you accompany your dad at all on the road?

My mom and dad decided I should stay home and go to school, so I did not go on the road with my dad each year as he toured the country and the world. I did, however, fly to meet him for special events held in Chicago, New York, London and Paris. I remember wearing a Davy Crockett coonskin hat on a television show featuring Fess Parker as “Davy Crockett.”

Do you have any early memories of Los Angeles/California from back in the day?

My early memories of Los Angeles back in those days were that it was much less crowded, and it was great fun going to the various venues like the Hollywood Bowl, the Wiltern Theatre, the Palladium and especially the Trianon Ballroom in Southgate, California. My Dad was one of the first bandleaders to buy a ballroom during the ‘40’s so his band could appear there. The irony is that once he started booking Count Basie, Harry James and Lionel Hampton, he had a hard time finding an open date for his own band. Starting in the early ‘50s, dad started broadcasting from the Trianon Ballroom on KLAC, which eventually went national on CBS and NBC.

What was the music scene like in Los Angeles/San Fernando Valley back in those early days?

Back in those early days the music scene for my dad was playing the various ballrooms and theatres around town. He had very few nightclub appearances, probably due to the size of the band. I do recall that he played at the Beverly Hilton in the Grand Ballroom during the ‘50s, and also had many engagements in Las Vegas in the Sahara Hotel. Dad also owned his own hotel in Las Vegas, called the Shamrock Biltmore located downtown. The musicians, of course, were among L. A.’s finest. I remember Shorty Sherock on trumpet, Abe Aaron on clarinet, Jimmy Sheldon on piano, Stan Black on guitar, Tony Johnson on alto sax, Bill Dolney on drums, Louis Mitchell on trumpet, Benny Carter doing the arrangements, Allen Breneman on drums and Ollie Mitchell on trumpet.

Did you listen at all to rock and roll?

When my dad’s band was on television in the ‘50s, rock and roll was just coming in, and many of the talents on his famous talent show called The Original Youth Opportunity Program sang or played rock and roll. Elvis was turned down for being on the show because he didn’t have big band arrangements. The Ink Spots appeared on my dad’s TV show. I had a band called Horace Heidt and his Hornets that was a light rock band. I had a great time playing drums. The Original Youth Opportunity Program was the first traveling televised talent show in America. Many of the ideas used on American Idol and a new show, The Voice, were ideas that were borrowed from my dad’s The Original Youth Opportunity Program. For instance, auditioning talent in cities all over the country was started by my dad. He had the first talent show to come to the people instead of waiting in Los Angeles or New York for people to come to them there. His talent show was called The Championship Battle of the Year and was broadcast from a boxing ring that looked exactly like the ring that’s used in The Voice.

Was your dad aware of bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones?

My dad was very aware of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. He, like all of the other band leaders of the time, were desperately trying to find rock acts to front their bands. Elvis was discovered by Tommy Dorsey, and my dad discovered Dick Contino, who was an incredible front man and entertainer who thrilled the bobbysoxers and had a huge following!

When you look back on your dad’s many accomplishments, what do you think are his most enduring contributions?

Looking back on my dad’s major accomplishments, there were four in particular:

  • He had the first giveaway music program, the Pot O’ Gold, which turned into the movie, Pot O’ Gold starring Jimmy Stewart and Paulette Goddard.
  • He helped thousands of young performers in his traveling talent show The Original Youth Opportunity Program.
  • He also was a patriot and spent a great deal of time entertaining our men and women in uniform all over the world, and at the end of World War II, he was instrumental in helping returning GI’s through his radio show called Welcome Home, sponsored by Hires Rootbeer.
  • He had over 50 hit records released on Brunswick and Columbia Records during the big band era.

He truly understood the importance of helping others, and he was both a fine bandleader and a conscientious businessman. He will always be remembered for the exceptional resort living community he built in the San Fernando Valley, known by many as the Horace Heidt Estates. His motto engraved on his tombstone at the Hollywood Forest Lawn is “‘Tis better to build boys than to mend men.” All of this and much, much more is contained in his biography, Horace Heidt: Big Band Star-Maker.


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