TED LEWIS BIOGRAPHY
Ted Lewis was born Theodore Leopold Friedman on June 6, 1890 at 132
West Main Street, Circleville, Ohio. He was one of five sons. His
parents, Benjamin and Pauline Friedman, owned Friedman’s Bazaar at 121-123 West
Main Street, an emporium that supplied the womenfolk of Pickaway County with the
According to Ted in one of his writings, at about nine years of age he began
playing on a piccolo, because his fingers were too small to reach and play a
clarinet. He later mowed lawns to earn money to buy an Eb clarinet.
When minstrels came to town he would help them unload and then carry the banner
in parades. At age 13 or 14, he would play his clarinet and bring the
crowds together for the old-time medicine shows that came to town. All of
this conduct embarrassed his parents.
From earliest childhood, young Theodore was less than enthusiastic about
ladies’ wear. His earliest employment consisted of “sweeping up” both
inside and outside the Friedman store and delivering packages. When a German
music teacher, Oscar Armeringer, arrived in town and formed The Circleville Boys’
School Band, Ted joined with his clarinet. Unbeknownst to the bandmaster, he had
been taking lessons in syncopation from a local barber, Cricket Smith, a black
barber who had organized a barbershop orchestra. Every day after school
he would go to Cricket’s shop where he practiced “innovative
syncopation.” In 1927 Ted wrote, “At the next band concert, things went
smoothly until we were ready for ‘Poet and Peasant’. Whether from a spirit of
revolt or a strain of negativism, the notes I played were the beginning of the
Jazz Age for me.” Also, this proved to be the end of his being in the
Boys’ Band, for the teacher threw him out! (He later apologized when Ted
had become famous.)
The Circleville Cadet Band, Ted in lower right corner
Theodore's first professional singing job was in between movies at Circleville's Electric (Exhibit) Nickelodeon in 1911. "I earned four dollars a week and had to learn a new song
each night," he liked to recall.
His parents enrolled Theodore in a Columbus, Ohio business college, but the
stage-struck youth played hooky. He worked in Goldsmith's Music Store and
persuaded Gus Sun, who operated a vaudeville circuit, to give him a job.
He was soon in New York City, working in a cabaret called the El Dorado.
This was not the future Mr. Friedman had in mind for his son. While on a
buying trip to the big city, he discovered the lad's whereabouts and hustled
But it was too late! Gotham beckoned and young Theodore was soon back
with renewed determination. While there he met Jack Lewis and they formed
an act called Lewis and Friedman. When performing in the Carolinas, he
noticed a billing of "Lewis and Lewis" outside the theater. The
manager explained that his name was changed to Lewis to better fit on the
marquee. Thereafter, he was known to the world as Ted Lewis, but he never
legally changed his name. In 1916, while in New York, Lewis put together
his first band, a five-piece ensemble called the Ted Lewis Nut Band. He
then proceeded to talk his way into an engagement at Coney Island. The
band was an instant success and Bert Cooper booked Ted for a season with Bessie
Clayton and later with Joan Sawyer in "Au Caprice."
In 1916 Ted's band was signed by Earl Fuller to appear at Rector's Restaurant on Broadway and 44th Street in New York City. The same year during an intermission at Rectors, the
battered old top hat, which became Ted's trademark, was acquired in a dice game
from a cab driver, a former prizefighter called "Mississippi."
When resuming a performance after a dance set one night, he tipped the old hat
and asked the question, "Is everybody happy?" Everybody was;
they applauded and that became his catch phrase used throughout the remainder
of his career. Thereafter, the old hat, along with his clarinet and cane,
was always a part of his act.
In a short time, Ted Lewis was on stage at the Greenwich Village Follies,
Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic and Keith's Palace Theatre. He was the first show
business celebrity who had ever been a headliner at three Broadway nightspots
at the same time.
He was soon recording for Columbia and making his brand of syncopated jazz a
nation- wide craze. On the wave of such popularity, in 1918 Ted opened his
own cabaret, the Bal Tabarin, which catered to the New York social set.
He later became a partner in the Montmartre Club and then opened the Ted Lewis
Club on 52nd Street.
Ted recorded for Columbia, Mercury, Decca and RKO Unique. For many
years he received royalties from such standards as "When My Baby Smiles At
Me" (his theme song)," "St. Louis Blues," "Sunny Side
of The Street," "Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gave To Me,"
"Rose of Washington Square," "Georgette," Three O'clock In
The Morning," and "Me And My Shadow." His 1926 Columbia
recording of "Tiger Rag" sold more than five million copies. As its
highest-paid artist of the 1920s, Columbia designed a customized silver label
for him—his name and a silhouette of the bandleader in his top hat. In December
1929, he signed a new contract with the label, guaranteeing him $42,000 plus
royalties on each record pressed each year, for two years.
Ted shared the stage with the show business greats Texas Guinan, Sophie
Tucker, Fannie Brice, George Jessel, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Victor Moore and
Will Rogers. Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden Muggsy Spanier and Jimmy Dorsey all performed or recorded with Ted's band.
Early in his career, Ted noticed a young usher mimicking his stage
movements. He hired the usher, Eddie Chester, to become his shadow as he
sang his popular hit, "Me and My Shadow." Lewis would work with
four other shadows (all black men) during his career, making him the first
prominent white entertainer to showcase black performers.
Known as “The Jazz King” and “The High-Hatted Tragedian
Of Song,” Ted was a magician in the art of extracting drama from jazz.
career he maintained one method, one style of administering song and
dance. His theory was that the only way to reach the public with music
was to give it to them in a form they could understand and thus enjoy.
1925 he appeared in England at the London Hippodrome and the Kit-Kat
with his band. He gave performances for nine United States Presidents
a command performance for King George V of England. He appeared in
several movies, and was a major star signed by Warner Brothers to make a
based on his life story, called “Is Everybody Happy?” His show business
career spanned more than 60 years. Ted brought jazz music into the
mainstream and popularized the genre.
In 1915 Ted met his wife, ballerina Adah Becker, in Rochester, New
York. Six weeks later they were wed in three separate ceremonies on the
same day (first by a justice of the peace, next by a rabbi, and finally on
stage that night). They were married 56 years. Adah gave up her
dancing career and was his secretary, business manager and loving helpmate
throughout his long career. The young couple settled into a lovely
15-room apartment overlooking New York City's Central Park. Ted and Adah
continued to live there the remainder of their lives.
Portrait of Adah Becker Lewis
Ted Lewis died in his sleep on August 25, 1971, at the age of 81.
Following a Jewish funeral service in New York City, his body was brought to
his beloved Circleville where thousands walked past his coffin. Rabbi
Jerome D. Folkman officiated; he remarked, "The song has ended, but the
memory lingers on." Burial took place in the local Forest
Cemetery. Ted's stone, in the family plot, has his hat and cane incised
upon it. Ted's beloved wife, Adah, who died on May 31, 1981, rests beside
Upon Ted's death, the City of New York, Yale and Harvard Universities and the
Smithsonian Institute asked Adah for his memorabilia. She politely
declined, saying Ted wanted everything to come back to the "Capital of the
World," Circleville, Ohio. The Ted Lewis Museum, located across the
street from where he was born, was dedicated on June 5, 1977. Adah, who
had dreamed of a museum in the hometown that Ted loved so much, was present to
cut the large ribbon that crossed the front door. Celebrities, relatives,
friends and Ted Lewis admirers came from far and near to attend the
dedication. The museum archives serve as a valuable resource for
researchers of early 20th Century American Music. The Ted Lewis Theater
within the museum provides a chance for visitors to see Ted Lewis in
performance by means of early TV and movie clips.
Ted was a combination of musician, satirist, dancer, singer, songwriter,
minstrel and troubadour, but one of his greatest traits was his compassion for
his fellow human beings. He and Adah devoted themselves to a number of
philanthropic projects and supported Circleville's Berger Hospital and
schools. They also made possible Circleville's 13-acre Ted Lewis Park and
its playground equipment. Ted sold more war bonds than any other
celebrity during World War II and often entertained our troops. He received the
Distinguished Service Award from Ohio's governor, Michael V. DiSalle. Lewis
is one of the Teenage Hall of Fame, located in the Ohio Capitol.
Ted Lewis made the world brighter with every note he sang and played.
He was genial, generous, a credit to his profession and a gentleman.
Circleville claims a great distinction for having Theodore Leopold Friedman as
a native son.
Ted and his band in the 1920s