A trip down Tin Pan Alley with L. Wolfe Gilbert

L. Wolfe Gilbert in his office at Twentieth Century Fox studios. L. Wolfe Gilbert papers, Box 11, Folder “Photos, 1937-1966 and undated.” American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

L. Wolfe “Wolfie” Gilbert (1886-1970) was a Ukrainian-born songwriter of the early to mid 20th century. He was born in Odessa, and immigrated to Philadelphia as an infant with his family. At age 14 they relocated to New York, where he made several unsuccessful attempts at the theater and eventually became a copy boy at The New York Post. He got his break in showbiz after persevering through vaudeville, burlesque, nightclubs, and finally, a tour with the boxer John Sullivan. His first hit song was “Waitin’ for the Robert E. Lee” in 1912. He was one of the most notable songwriters of the Tin Pan Alley group, even referred to as the “dean” of the crew. In 1928, Gilbert wrote the lyrics for the song “Ramona,” a song released in conjunction with the adventure-romance film of the same name. It was the first motion picture to have a theme song.

Gilbert was unusual for his time in that he lived in Hollywood, where he moved in 1915. At the time, most songwriters lived on the East Coast. He further innovated the field by publishing and promoting a catalog of his own works. He was quite active professionally, serving from 1941-1944 as the director of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). In 1970, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Working in the entertainment industry, Gilbert had a sizable network of collaborators, including Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Paul Whiteman, Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, and Frank Sinatra.

L. Wolfe Gilbert (right) with Cole Porter (center). L. Wolfe Gilbert papers, Box 11, Folder “Undated photographs removed from frames.” American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Some notable songs by Gilbert include: “Peanut Vendor,” “Hopalong Cassidy March,” “Lucky Lindy,” “Green Eyes,” ”Down Yonder,” and “O Katharina” among others. His songs continue to be used in films to this day. You can view the finding aid for L. Wolfe Gilbert papers here.

Sheet music for the song, “The Natchez and the Robert E. Lee.” L. Wolfe Gilbert papers, Box 21, Folder “Sheet Music.” American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

–Kathryn Brooks, Processing Archivist

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