"How Soon They Forget! Mechanicville's 'Unsung' Star"
Submitted by Dr. Paul Loatman Jr., City Historian
They say fame is fleeting, but I did not realize how true that is until recently. Carmine DeCrescente passed on to me a booklet given to him by a former local resident, Charles Crotty, which was published in 1953 at the time one of our "local heroes" was honored with a parade and formal banquet. At the time I received the booklet, I happened to be preparing some remarks I was expected to deliver at a banquet honoring Mechanicville's "best and brightest" - the annual Top 6 Awards Dinner recognizing the outstanding academic performers at the high school and their parents. In the course of my address, I asked the audience who, if anyone, had heard of Ray Heindorf. One lone hand was raised, thus confirming my wife's worst prediction - that a prophet in his hometown receives no recognition. I then retold part of Ray's story to the young scholars because I believe that he was a great example of someone who created success in the face of adversity, and his life might help them deal with some of the obstacles they were sure to face in the future. In other words, he was a "role model," and some of what was said bean repeating here.
Ray Heindorf was raised in Mechanicville, graduating from the local high school in 1926. Like many residents - then and now - Ray had a love for, and talent with music, and in his case, his abilities were extraordinary. Ray earned extra money while growing up by playing accompaniment at the State Theater on North Main St. (Yes, Virginia, there was a movie house in Mechanicville, in fact, two of them at one time). For those of you, like myself, who are too young to remember, early movies were "silents" which carried subtitles to move the story along. To keep the audience in the proper frame of mind, theaters hired small orchestras, including piano players, to play music appropriate to the mood of the scene being shown on the screen. Ray was good at what he did; in fact, some say that he was so good that many people paid their nickel (the usual entrance fee) to hear Ray rather than pay attention to the movie. At times, Ray extemporized on the piano, leaving his fellow musicians sitting there listening in awe rather than accompanying him. Confident in 1926 that his newly-minted high school diploma and his musical gifts entitled him to a $5 a week raise, Ray was so disappointed when his boss turned him down that he quit his job at the State Theater and struck out for greener pastures in New York City in 1928. Little did he know then, but technology was in the process of dealing Ray and thousands of movie-house piano players across the country a cruel blow. In 1927, Al Jolsen's The Jazz Singer was an instant success as a "talkie," and though not obvious to everyone yet, sound movies were about to make "silents" (and movie-house piano players) go the way of the dinosaur. Mechanicville's own Ray found himself out of town and out of luck regarding his prospects for the future. But, as they say, that is not the end of the story.
After moving to New York, Ray talked himself into a job as a musical arranger, only being able to survive on the meager salary he earned by depending upon the hospitality of an aunt with whom he lived in Brooklyn. Fortunately, his manager had an inkling that "talkies" might be the wave of the future, and leaving Ray behind to hold down the office in New York City, he went to Hollywood to confirm his instincts. In a few months, Ray followed and he got his feet wet doing some minor musical arrangements for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Next, he spent a season free-lancing on the road playing the piano for Lupe Velez. (Readers not above a certain unmentionable age will need to check with your grandparents to identify some of these once famous people.)
Ray's big break may have come when Rudy Vallee praised him on nation-wide radio as a "brilliant young musical genius." Soon afterwards, he became the top musical director for Warner Brothers Films. From that point on, the awards and recognition followed. Ray was busier than most of his contemporary musical directors because few studios relied as much on evocative background music as did Warners. When Ray won the Oscar for musical scoring in 1944 for This is The Army, he became the first music director to win back-to-back Oscars, having garnered his first the previous year for Yankee Doodle Dandy. The list of other films scored by Ray reads like a catalogue of famous Hollywood cinema: Night & Day, Rhapsody in Blue, By The Light Of The Silvery Moon, The West Point Story, No Time For Sergeants, Marjorie Morningstar, Young Man with a Horn, A Star is Born, Damn Yankees, A Streetcar Named Desire, and, of course, The Music Man, for which Ray won his third Oscar. Ray was nominated a total of 18 times for Academy Awards.
Though a "big name," Ray never forgot where he came from, and at the urging of his classmates, he returned home in 1953 for a full-scale recognition program which included a parade (with a ceremonial stop at the old homestead on Third St.), a banquet, and an invitation ball celebrating the 500 anniversary of the local American Federation of Musicians, of which Ray was a life-long member. He also may have stopped off at the local "Y" for a game of pool, since he had such a deft touch with a cue stick, having learned the nuances of cushion shots as a young man at the place where his father worked as the local Railway Express Agent. Local residents also remember Ray as always being a gracious host to people from Mechanicville who visited him in California.
Ray passed away in February 1980, having made a profound effect in American cinema and popular music, not only as an arranger, but also as a composer and conductor. Entire generations of Americans kept time to countless numbers of songs which originated in the creative imagination of Ray Heindorf. He is cited in at least five encyclopedias of films and music; you can generate numerous "hits" about him on the Internet, depending upon which search engine you use; and, a Professor at the University of Leeds in England lists her e-mail address where you can contact her to find out about the years of research she has done regarding Ray's career. Ray left behind two daughters and a son when he was buried from St. Francis de Sales Church in Sherman Oaks, California. To an older generation, Ray is remembered as a hometown boy who made good; to younger ones, his name is hardly recognizable. People of all ages should take pride in the achievements of one of our "local heroes," and remember him as our own "music man."