Looking back to the year 1892, in Poland, Abram and Bessie Yellen welcomed their firstborn child, Jack Selig Yellen. When Jack was 5 years old, the family emigrated to Buffalo and settled on William Street. Abram, Jack’s father worked odd jobs until he was able to save up enough money and opened his clothing store on Seneca Street.
As a youngster, Jack enjoyed writing rhymes and singing in the choir, but not playing any instrument. The first tune he wrote was in 1907, while a sophomore at high school. The school principal had a contest going for a new school song, Yellen crafted his song, titled “You’ll Have to Come to Old Central High,” sang to the tune of “You’ll Have to Wait Till my Ship Comes In,” and won the contest. What did he win, well, the principal lifted his suspensions for his chronic tardiness!
Jack sold his first song when he was 15, a basic song called “My Schoolday Sweet Heart.” Jack’s friend, Willie Finkelstein, talked his father into loaning them $30, and with that money, they printed 500 copies and sold them at the five and ten cent store. A local publisher bought this tune for $100.
After high school, Jack when to the University of Michigan and sold his lyrics for extra money. He worked with George Cobb to write songs and sold them to publishers for $5 each. In 1913, he graduated with honors and returned to Buffalo. He secured a job reporting for the Buffalo Courier, and on the side, Jack and George continued to create songs.
In 1915, Jack Yellen met a singer named Elizabeth Murray, who liked the song that he and Cobb wrote called “All Aboard for Dixie.” Murray sang the song in High Jinks, a musical farce, and it was there the song was noticed by one of the nation’s largest publishing houses, Jerome H. Remick & Co. He paid $25,000 for the song.
As World War I raged in Europe, Jack enlisted in the Army, but he was still in training when the fighting ceased. A singer he knew, Marion Healy, introduced him to Abe Olman, who was stationed at the Curtiss aircraft plant. Together they wrote, “Down by the O-hi-O.” The song spread and was popular and earned Jack Yellen his first $10,000 paycheck.
This song was sung by some great vaudeville folks like Al Jolson, Belle Baker and Sophia Tucker. Jack went on to write one of her most popular songs she sang, “My Yiddish Momme,” which was dedicated to Yellen’s mother Bessie, a song to honored his Orthodox Jewish heritage.
IN 1920, on Thanksgiving Day, there was a tragedy in his family. Three men named Floyd Slover, Harold Webber and Raymond Mulford held up the Yellen’s clothes store and fatally shot his father, Abram. Floyd Slover admitted to firing the shot that killed him, Slover along with Mulford were sentenced to death at Sing Sing prison and Webber received 20 years to life at the Auburn Prison.
In 1922, Jack Yellen’s personal life was soaring, he married his first wife, Sylvia Stiller from Buffalo. Sadly, they divorced later, but together they had two children, a daughter named Beth who moved to Maryland and a son named David, who was a longtime lawyer in Buffalo.
In 1930, Jack Yellen fulfilled his dream of owning a farm in the country when he purchased one in Springville. In 1934, Jack was called to work a while in Hollywood on the film version of George White’s Broadway revue of Scandals. One gig led to another and soon he had landed a long-term contract writing for Twentieth Century Fox. He wrote scripts and songs for many films including 1936’s “Pigskin Parade” and 1937’s “Wake up and Live,” and both stared Jack Haley, best known for his part the Tin Man.
While he was in California for six years, he met a lovely lady by the name of Lucille Hodgeman — her stage name was Lucille Day — who was a contracted dancer for Twentieth Century Fox. She worked both at Fox and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. Lucille became a choreograph assistant in charge of teaching steps to other dancers and actors. After dating each other for three years, Jack and Lucille got married in 1944. They later moved to New York City and by the ends of the ‘40s, they moved to the farm in Springville.
WHILE HE WAS off being a songwriter and scripts, Chester Harrington managed his property and Yellen and his wife visited frequently. The farm-raised purebred Guernsey cows and chicken eggs were supplied to some of Buffalo’s hospitals and top restaurants. In 1945, the couple hired Tony Limpinsel to manage the farm while his wife, Alice, worked as a full-time housekeeper. The Limpinsel lived in a furnished apartment about the Yellen’s garage. From 1951 to 1969, Yellen served on the board of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, and organization that monitors musical copyrights.
How many have heard the story of the Yellens when, in 1956, Lucille and Alice helped to deliver a baby? The story goes that a car stalled nearby, and then a very pregnant lady was brought to the farm. Jack called a doctor, his brother Dr. Hiram Yellen, to give advice, and they would pass the instructions on to Lucille and Alice. A 5-pound, 6-ounce baby was delivered. Lucille would later tell folks, “I have delivered calves, but this was the first baby I brought into the world, and backward, too!”
Jack Yellen passed away in 1991 and his wife passed away in 2010, and both are buried at Forrest Lawn in Buffalo.
You can research and get more info on people like Jack Yellen and others that have lived in our town at the Lucy Bensley Center, located 23 North Buffalo St., which is part of the campus of the Concord Historical Society. We are open on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call us at 592-0094 or send us a email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Share your family history with us!