Joe Hiller

Pittsburgh's Music Impressario who got his start as Chico Marx's Singing Partner

Joe Hiller was a nationally known music impresario who worked as a song plugger, lyricist. music publisher, music store owner, night club manager, and booking agent.  He began his career in 1907 singing with piano player Chico Marx at the Song Shop music store and an Italian restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh. Working with composer George Olcott, Hiller wrote the lyrics to several hit songs that sold millions of copies across the country. Promoted to the New York headquarters of the Song Shop that was own by the music publishing house Waterson, Berlin & Snyder, Inc, Hiller marketed the music of Irving Berlin and became a very successful song picker for Al Jolson Eddie Cantor, and others.  He discovered and promoted several million selling hit songs. After his success in New York he returned to Pittsburgh where he owned a chain of music stores, hosted a regular radio show on KQV, operated the Show Boat and Music Box night clubs, and booked national acts for Pittsburgh area night clubs including the Twin Coaches.  Joe was a member of New York's famed Friars Club.

Immigrant from the U.K. who Meets Chico Marx

Joe Hiller was born on March, 24 1889 in Spitlefield, London, England.  He came to Pittsburgh at age 12 around 1904 to work for his brother Samuel Hiller who operated a trouser factory on Webster Avenue.  Joe hated the pants business and instead found work selling newspapers on the the corner of Fifth Avenue and Wood Street.  On that corner he met Chico Marx.  Chico gave Joe Hiller his start in the music business.

In 1907 Leo (Chico) Marx at the age of 20 was transferred to Pittsburgh by the Shapiro and Bernstein Company to manage their music store at 302 Fifth Avenue near the corner of Wood Street. In the days before radio and phonographs popular songs were sold in the form of sheet music. To promote sheet music sales "song pluggers" sang the tunes for customers. Chico hired the song pluggers and accompanied them on piano. Downtown Pittsburgh music shoppers were treated daily to the crazy piano antics of Chico Marx.

Chico hired as a song plugger the 17 year old Joe Hiller, who had sold him newspapers and ran errands. Chico accompanied Hiller on piano and they sold a lot of sheet music. Hiller looking to make some money persuaded Bongiovanni's Italian Restaurant on Fifth Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh to let Leo and him perform. He told the owner Franceso Bongiovanni that they would be a big draw. The duo billed themselves as Marx and Hiller and performed weekend evenings for free. On their first night someone passed a hat around and they collected $100 in tips. The Bongiovanni engagement was Joe Hiller's first ever booking in his long career as an agent.

When Mr. Shapiro died in 1908 Chico decided to return to New York City. He split the burg leaving a note for Joe Hiller: "You're now the manager". Joe worked as the store manager until 1918 when he left Pittsburgh to serve a year in the Navy.  

Song Writing and Plugging Success

In 1915 Joe Hiller working with composer George Olcott wrote the lyrics of the hit song "The Violet, the Rose, and You".  It sold 42,000 copies of sheet music in Pittsburgh and more than half a million copies across the country.  He also wrote the lyrics of the George Olcott song "If I Could Call You Sweetheart".  The song writing team also wrote the tune titled "Don’t forget the dear old pal you left at home".

After his stint in the Navy in 1918 Joe Hill returned to his job as a song plugger in Pittsburgh.  He sang the song "The Shiek of Araby" at the Olympic Theater on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh and made it a hit selling song. With that success his company promoted him to national manager of song representatives and moved him to their headquarters in New York City.

Music Publisher in New York

During the 1920s Waterson, Berlin & Snyder, Inc. was one of the largest music publishers of popular sheet music in the country. Irving Berlin was one of the firm's partner's and song writers.

Hiller marketed the music of Irving Berlin and became a very successful song picker. He discovered and promoted several million selling hit songs.  Hiller convinced his bosses to buy the rights to the song "Mickey" for $25,000  It sold five million copies.  He convinced singers like Al Jolson an John McCormick to perform and record his company's songs.  He selected several successful songs for Eddie Cantor including his hits "Margie", "A Baby's Prayrer at Twilight" and "Yak-A-Hoola-Hika-Doola".

Among his other song selections that became international hits were "Leave Me With a Smile", "Mary Lou", "Oh, What a Pal Was Mary", and "Tonight You Belong to Me".

Under the Moon with Wife Evelyn

Hiller married Evelyn Silverman of Pittsburgh in 1926.   Their acquaintance happened when Miss Silverman presented her music to Joe for publication. Mrs. Hiller wrote the lyrics for song "Under the Moon" that was co-written by Ted Synder (a member of the Song Writers Hall of Fame who wrote the classic "Who's Sorry Now"). It was published in 1927 and recorded by in a duet by A Aileen Stanley and Johnny Marvin and by Guy Lumbardo.  Evelyn also wrote "Since I Gave My Heart to You" which was performed live on KDKA radio in 1935.

Song Shop Music Stores and KQV Radio Show

After his success in music publishing in New York he and Evelyn returned to Pittsburgh in April of 1928 and moved into the Carlton House Hotel.  With the proceeds from his music publishing Joe Hiller bought three “Song Shop” music stores in Pittsburgh, two in downtown Pittsburgh and one in East Liberty  One of the stores was located at 540 Smithfield Street next to the Davis Theater.  

Hiller also started his own music publishing house to publish the music of Pittsburgh song writers.  He published songs by Alfred Bryan such as"My Heart Is Bluer Than Your Eyes, Cherie".and from Monti Wilhite, the tune "When Summer Is Gone". 

To promote songs he hosted the “Song Shop” live music radio show on KQV.  The radio show aired on 11:30 PM every Tuesday and featured original music performed live by local and national singers. He also hosted an amateur hour show on WWSW.

Show Boat Night Club

With the decline of sheet music sales to phonographs and radio Joe Hiller became a booking agent and a night club manager. Hiller booked, managed and emceed the floating Show Boat night club from 1928 through 1933.  The club located on the Allegheny River near Sixth Street featured variety acts in a floor show.  It was billed as Pittsburgh's "river-front entertainment", featured an orchestra and held 300 to 400 people.  Hiller closed the Show Boat in February of 1933.

Joe Hiller's Music Box

In 1934 Hiller rented the empty basement store at 818 Liberty Avenue and opened his own floor show nightclub “Joe Hiller’s Music Box”. The grand opening was held on November 9, 1934. Dora Maughan, a night club and vaudeville star from London, headlined the opening night. The first floor show featured Alfredo and Delores, the Rumba Dance Team, the Four Rhythm Queens, and music by Buzzy Kountz and his Orchestra. He booked Pittsburgh singing star Jackie Heller for a two week stay in December of 1934. Eddie Loughton and his Aristocrats of Rhythm were also headliners. The Music Box became a popular spot to catch dinner and watch a floor show. Business was good until the great St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1936. The muddy waters destroyed the basement club. The piano and the furniture of the Music Box floated away.  The Music Box became the Copa club in the 1940s and the Staircase Lounge in the 1960s. 

Joe Hiller Booking Agency

After the flood washed away the Music Box Joe Hiller went into the booking agency business taking on young Pittsburgh singers Perry Como and Vaughn Monroe as clients.  He also represented the famed Claude Thornhill big band and Fred Waring.  He booked Sophie Tucker, Fannie Brice, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Groucho Marx, Milton Berle and others into Pittsburgh area shows.  Joe also booked dancers, acrobats, jugglers, and magicians during the vaudville era. He booked national acts for Pittsburgh area night clubs, corporate affairs, and private events.  Joe booked the Twin Coaches night club for 22 years.  Hiller also booked the Ankara, the New Arena, the Allegheny Country Fair, the annual Steel Workers convention, The Town and Country Lounge, the Carlton House, the Harp and Crown Room in the William Penn Hotel. .

During World War II Hiller actively recruited musicians to perform with the USO.  He was also called upon to book the entertainment for many charity events and the annual Dapper Dan dinner.  He brought Eddie Cantor, Helen Hayes and George M Cohan to Pittsburgh to give benefit performances at Veteran's Hospitals. 

Joe Hiller retired in 1972 selling his Joe Hiller Booking Agency business to Roy Agostini.  Agostini continue the business until 2011.   Joe Hiller passed away at age 84 on April 16, 1973 in Montefiore Hospital.

In an interview with the Jewish Criterion in 1960 Joe summed up his life.  "I haven't made much money, but it's been a rich, rewarding, and colorful life." 

The Violet, the Rose, and You - 1915

First Verse

The shades of night were falling and the sun had gone to rest, In dreams I seemed to see the one I've always loved the best; She stood among the roses where perfume filled the air, 'Twas the love light from her eyes so bright that put me in despair. 

Second Verse

The roses lose their splendor and they droop when you're away, The stars don't shine so brightly and I miss you more each day; You've made the world a garden of roses filled with love, You are all to me in this wide world, you're mine by the stars above. 

Chorus

Violet, the rose and You, dear, that I met in the garden of love, The moonlight, the sunshine, all came with you, you brighten the heavens above. Each rose seemed to tell a story of your love so fond and true, I need you, I want you, I love you forever, the Violet, the Rose and You.


Joe Hiller in the Navy 1918
The Violet the Rose and You
If I Could Call You Sweetheart