Classic Movie Travels: Hoagy Carmichael
Hoagy Carmichael was a beloved
American composer, songwriter, actor, and lawyer. In addition to appearing in
films and on television, he composed numerous hit songs, including “Stardust,”
“Georgia on My Mind,” “The Nearness of You,” “Heart and Soul,” “Skylark,” “Ole
Buttermilk Sky,” “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” and many more.
Hoagland Howard “Hoagy” Carmichael was born in Bloomington,
Indiana, on November 22, 1899, to Howard and Lida Carmichael. He was named
after a circus troupe dubbed “The Hoaglands,” as the group boarded at the
Carmichael home during Lida’s pregnancy. Howard worked as a horse-drawn taxi
driver and electrician, while Lida was a piano accompanist at movie theaters
during the Silent Era and performed at private parties. Howard and Lida also
had two daughters named Georgia and Joanne.
As Howard pursued various job opportunities, the family
moved on many occasions. Carmichael spent his early years in Bloomington;
Indianapolis, Indiana; and Missoula, Montana. During these years, Carmichael’s
mother taught him to play the piano. Though the family lived in Indianapolis in
1916, Carmichael returned to Bloomington three years later to finish high
school. He also assisted his family by working jobs in construction, at bike
shops, and in a slaughterhouse. During these difficult years, Carmichael found
solace in enjoying ragtime music, performing duets with his mother, and a
friendship with bandleader Reginald DuValle. His professional career in music
began in 1918 when he was paid $5 to play piano at a fraternity dance.
Tragically, Carmichael’s three-year-old sister passed away
from influenza in the same year. Carmichael reflected upon her as a “victim of
poverty,” stating that his family could not afford a doctor. As a result,
Carmichael vowed to never be broke again.
Carmichael progressed as a musician, soon meeting and becoming close friends with cornetist Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke. Beiderbecke later introduced Carmichael to Louis Armstrong in Chicago, Illinois, eventually leading to collaboration. Carmichael’s first recorded song was first called “Free Wheeling” and written for Beiderbecke, but was recorded as “Riverboat Shuffle” in 1924 at Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana. His recording of “Washboard Blues” from 1925 would mark the earliest recording in which Carmichael is featured playing his own songs, as well as an improvised piano solo.
Carmichael continued his educational career at Indiana
University in Bloomington, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in 1925 and a
law degree one year later. He was active in the Kappa Sigma fraternity and
toured with his band, “Carmichael’s Collegians,” throughout Indiana and Ohio. Following
his graduation, Carmichael relocated to Florida and worked as a legal clerk at
a legal firm in West Palm Beach, Florida. He returned to Indiana in 1927 after
failing to pass the Florida bar exam. Instead, he joined the Bingham,
Mendenhall, and Bingham law firm in Indianapolis, passing the Indiana bar exam,
but ultimately focused more on his music. No longer interested in law, he moved
to New York City. There, he worked for a brokerage firm during the weekdays and
spent his evenings composing.
In 1927, Carmichael recorded “Stardust,” which would become
one of his most famous pieces. He recorded it at Gennett Records, while singing
and playing the piano. When Isham Jones and his orchestra recorded the song in
a slower, more sentimental style in 1930, it became a major hit and would be
recorded by many notable artists.
Throughout his career, Carmichael composed hundreds of
songs, fifty of which became major hits. Early on, he played in an
improvisational hot jazz style, ideal for the latest dances. Once he moved to
New York City in 1929, he crafted songs that stood alone, though still had a
jazz influence. His later years in California led him to compose instrumental
pieces, several of them written specifically for films.
As fate would have it, Carmichael met Duke Ellington’s
agent, Irving Mills, who was also a sheet music publisher. Mills and Carmichael
coordinated recording dates and Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair” was recorded by
Armstrong and Mildred Bailey. As the stock market crashed and Carmichael’s
savings declined, the success of “Rockin’ Chair” helped support Carmichael
through this period and became a jazz standard. He would go on to record
“Georgia on My Mind” and “Up a Lazy River” before joining the American Society
of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1931.
Carmichael later worked for the Southern Music Company as
big band and swing music grew in popularity. During this period, he befriended
lyricist Johnny Mercer, with whom he would collaborate on songs such as
“Lazybones,” “Thanksgiving,” “Moon Country,” “Skylark,” and the Academy
Award-winning “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.”
Carmichael left the Southern Music Company to compose songs for Warner Brothers, beginning his connection to the film industry. His first song written for a film was “Moonburn,” performed by Bing Crosby in Anything Goes (1936).
In 1936, Carmichael married Ruth Mary Meinardi and the couple relocated to California. They would have two children—Hoagy Bix and Randy Bob—before divorcing in 1955. Carmichael signed a contract with Paramount Pictures as a songwriter but also worked as a character actor. His screen debut was in Topper (1937), starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, in which Carmichael played a pianist and performed “Old Man Moon.” This opened the door to other screen roles in which Carmichael tended to appear as a pianist and would play his own music. Carmichael appeared in 14 films, including To Have and Have Not (1944), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Canyon Passage (1946).
Outside of his studio obligations, Carmichael continued to
write prolifically. He wrote “Chimes of Indiana” and presented it to Indiana
University in 1937. Additionally, he collaborated with Frank Loesser to create
“Heart and Soul,” “Two Sleepy People,” and “Small Fry.”
As Carmichael’s family grew, he, Ruth, and the children
moved to the former William P. Wrigley, Jr. (of Wrigley chewing gum) home in
Los Angeles, California. The U.S. soon entered World War II and Carmichael
wrote many wartime songs, including “My Christmas Song for You,” “Cranky Old
Yank,” “Don’t Forget to Say ‘No,’ Baby,” and more.
Carmichael again paid homage to his Bloomington hometown by
composing Brown County in Autumn in
1948. The orchestral work was, unfortunately, not praised by critics.
In the 1940s, Carmichael also worked as a radio personality,
hosting variety programs such as Tonight
at Hoagy’s. Though his career slowed in the 1950s, he continued to perform
and transitioned to television, hosting Saturday
Night Review. After writing another orchestral piece—The Johnny Appleseed Suite—which was also unsuccessful, Carmichael
wrote over a dozen songs for children, such as “The Whale Song” and “Rocket
In his later years, Carmichael published memoirs and was
receiving over $300,000 per year in royalties. He enjoyed golf, painting, and
coin-collecting during his retirement, splitting his time between residences in
Los Angeles and Rancho Mirage, California. He made occasional television
appearances, including being the first celebrity to provide a voice on The Flintstones. He appeared as himself,
working for the fictitious Rockwell Music Publishers and playing a Stoneway
piano, and debuted a song called “Yabba-Dabba Doo!” on the show. He also
participated in the PBS television show Hoagy
Carmichael’s Music Shop, which featured jazz-rock versions of his songs, as
well as the Fred Rogers PBS show Old
Friends, New Friends. Carmichael married again in 1977, to actress Dorothy
Carmichael received many awards in his later years,
including an induction to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, an honorary doctorate
in music from Indiana University, and a birthday tribute at the Newport Jazz
Festival. His last public appearance was in 1981 as part of Country Comes Home with country
performer Crystal Gale.
Carmichael passed away on December 27, 1981, at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage from a heart attack. He was 82 years old. He was buried in his family’s plot at Rose Hill Cemetery in Bloomington, Indiana. Rose Hill Cemetery is located at 1100 W. 4th St., Bloomington, Indiana.
To this day, Carmichael’s legacy is celebrated in several
locations and is particularly beloved in Bloomington, Indiana.
In 1900, Carmichael resided at 325 E. 10th St., Bloomington,
Indiana, which no longer stands. His residence at 214 N. Dunn St., Bloomington,
Indiana, still remains.
In 1910, he lived at 706 W. Pine St., Missoula, Montana, which no longer
By 1917, Carmichael was living at 130 Neal Ave., Indianapolis, Indiana,
which stands today.
In the 1920s, Carmichael resided at 536 S. Washington St.,
Bloomington, Indiana. Parts of “Stardust” were written in this home.
Though the home sustained fire damage in 2013, it has since been restored and
is habitable again, with tributes to Carmichael adorning the entrance.
“Stardust” was also partly composed at one of
Carmichael’s favorite haunts, the Book Nook. The location is now BuffaLouie’s
and is decorated with Carmichael memorabilia. BuffaLouie’s stands at 114 S.
Indiana Ave., Bloomington, Indiana, and a historic marker honoring Carmichael
stands in front of the building.
Carmichael attended Bloomington High School South, which has
since named its school auditorium Carmichael Hall. The school stands at 1965 S.
Walnut St., Bloomington, Indiana.
The Monroe County History Center also has a small display
honoring Carmichael. Visitors can listen to samples of his music while learning
more about him and other Indiana composers. The Monroe County History Center is
located at 202 E. 6th St., Bloomington, Indiana.
Additionally, there are many tributes to Carmichael on the
Indiana University Campus. My favorite tribute to him is the statue, located in
front of IU Cinema. IU Cinema stands at 1213 E. 7th St., Bloomington, Indiana.
In 1986, Carmichael’s family donated his archives, piano,
and memorabilia to his alma mater, Indiana University. The university
established the Hoagy Carmichael Collection in its Archives of Traditional
Music and the Hoagy Carmichael Room to permanently display selections from the
collection. The room is able to be viewed by private appointment. My favorite
pieces were Carmichael’s piano, desk, and Oscar. Aside from very special
occasions, the piano is played once a year to celebrate Hoagy’s birthday. The
Hoagy Carmichael Room is located in the Archives of Traditional Music, Morrison
Hall, Room 006, Bloomington, Indiana.
Within the Indiana Memorial Union, visitors might stumble
upon a painting of the “Constitution Elm.” This painting happens to
have been painted by Carmichael himself and is on display. The Indiana Memorial
Union is located at 900 E. 7th St., Bloomington., Indiana.
Near campus, visitors can stay at the Showers Inn, which has
a Composer House. The various suites here are named after songs written by
Indiana composers, with a few named after Carmichael’s work. I happened to stay
in the “Stardust” suite. The inn is located at 430 N. Washington St.,
Outside of Bloomington, Richmond, Indiana has the Gennett
Records Walk of Fame. Carmichael is honored with artwork and a plaque. There is
also a mural in town in his honor. The Gennett Records Walk of Fame is located
at 201 S. 1st St., Richmond, Indiana.
Gennett Records comes to life at the Indiana Historical
Society, with a living history exhibit that allows visitors the opportunity to
engage with docents who are in character as the Gennett Records team. The
basement of the museum also features the Stardust Cafe, named after
Carmichael’s hit composition. The Indiana Historical Society stands at 450 W.
Ohio St., Indianapolis, Indiana.
In 1936, Carmichael resided at 121 E. 52nd St., New York, New York, which
does not remain today. Likewise, Carmichael lived at 626 N. Foothill, Beverly
Hills, California, which has since been razed.
Carmichael’s Rancho Mirage home exists today, albeit renovated, at 40267
Club View Dr., Rancho Mirage, California. Some parts of the home remain as
Carmichael would have recognized them; the wood ceiling in most of the living
room is original, as is the 1950s KitchenAid stove, river rock fireplace, and
an etched glass piece in the wine room. Carmichael purchased the glass piece on
Sunset Boulevard in the 1960s from his daughter-in-law, Mur Doherty.
Carmichael has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located
at 1720 Vine St., Los Angeles, California.
–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub
Annette Bochenek pens our monthly Classic Movie Travels column. You can read all of Annette’s Classic Movie Travel articles here.
Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.