Song girl Ann Ronell


I understand that a long overdue honor will be accorded Ann Ronell when she is posthumously inducted into the Omaha Central High School hall of fame. The recognition should draw new attention here to one of the most accomplished popular music composers of the 20th century, male or female, and shed light on groundbreaking work she did in Tin Pan Alley and in Hollywood when she was one of very few female composers.  Her career intersected with that of many legendary musical artists, some of whom she collaborated with. I came across her story as the result of my association with the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, whose director, Renee Corcoran, alerted me to the fact the author of a new book about Ronell had done research about the artist in the Society’s archives. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) details some highlights about Ronell and her remarkable career and includes comments about her by  the book’s author, Tighe Zimmers.

 

 

Ann Ronell

 

 

Song girl Ann Ronell

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Native Omahan Ann Ronell was a swing era flapper whose songwriting skills made her a Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood name in the male-dominated field of composing. Her versatility extended to writing English adaptations of classic operas.

Her collaborators and friends included such legendary figures as George Gershwin, Lotte Lenye, Kurt Weill and Leonard Bernstein. She’d already worked with the Walt Disney studio when she met Hollywood producer Lester Cowan in 1935. She went on to contribute music to several features produced by her husband.

Before she was through she made history as the first woman to: compose scores for Hollywood feature films (Algiers, 1939, One Touch of Venus, 1948); write both words and music for a Broadway musical (Count Me In, 1942); and earn Oscar nominations for best song (“Linda”) and best score (The Story of G.I. Joe, 1945). She wrote songs for films as diverse as Jean Renoir’s The River and the John Wayne Western, Hondo. She’s best known for the bluesy standard tune, “Willow Weep for Me,” and the novelty song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

Her success is chronicled in the new book, Tin Pan Alley Girl, A Biography of Ann Ronell (McFarland), by American popular song buff Tighe Zimmers, an ER physician at West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, Illinois. He got hooked on the great American songbook at Highland Park’s Ravinia Festival. He collected autographs of jazz greats. The idea for the book came after he purchased a collection of Ronell papers in 1999. The 24 boxes of materials underscored an unusual career that saw Ronell straddle the worlds of low brow and high brow music.

Zimmers found most “impressive” her eclectic interests and ability to work in different genres with diverse artists. “I think it speaks to her talent, intelligence and charm. People liked working with her.” She could also be what a Ronell relative described as “a steel fist in a velvet glove.” Ronell attributed her success to “perseverance and stick-to-it-iveness.” Said Zimmers, “I think that’s what she had and I think in some situations she had to really push to stay in that world.”

 

 

 

 

A few years ago Zimmers’ research brought him to Omaha to sift through the small Ronell collection maintained by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society. Those holdings will soon grow as Zimmers is donating his entire Ronell collection to the NJHS. In addition to handing over the materials, he’s coming to speak about Ronell’s legacy for a 7 p.m. program on July 15 at the Jewish Community Center. Tuffy Epstein and Emily Meyer of Omaha will perform selections of Ronell’s music. Ronell memorabilia, including personal music sheets and photos, will be on display. A book signing and reception will follow. The event is free and open to the public.

“Ronell’s life and music is still very attached to Omaha. She still has friends and family here. It should be a wonderful night filled with memories and music,” said NJHS executive director Renee Corcoran.

 

 

 

 

Born Ann Rosenblatt in 1905, Ronell was a dancing, songwriting prodigy. She composed the class song for her 1923 Omaha Central High School graduation. She performed on a local radio variety show broadcast on WNAL. After a stint at Wheaton College she transferred to Radcliffe, where she bloomed. A meeting with George Gershwin led to her becoming his assistant and protege and some say lover.

Her early work was performed and recorded by many top swing era bands and vocalists, including the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Ruth Etting and Billie Holiday. She wrote special material for an amazing roster of singers and artists, ranging from Eddie Cantor to Louis Armstrong to Ella Fitzgerald to Judy Garland to Andy Williams.

She’s in the National Association of Popular Music/Songwriters Hall of Fame. On one of her few visits to Omaha after making it she performed a concert of her own songs at the Paramount Theatre in 1934. She died in 1993 at age 88 in Manhattan.

“I think she just had an absolute universal love of music and dance and it shows up in her career in many things,” said Zimmers.



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