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‘Swingin’ on a Star!’

Downtown After Dark

Syracuse-born composer Jimmy Van Heusen with the tools of his trade.

Syracuse-born composer Jimmy Van Heusen with the tools of his trade.

When he played hooky from school to work at a local radio station, Jimmy would invite listeners to send in lyrics. He believed everyone wanted to be a songwriter, and for a trifling $10 he would compose a piano part to accompany the submitted lyrics.

Following multiple expulsions from Central High, Jimmy’s parents sent him to Cazenovia Seminary in 1928 and’29, but he remained focused on music.

Williams Hall piano

A classmate, Maurice Golden, who later joined the college’s board of trustees, said Van Heusen spent plenty of time at the piano in the Lyceum fraternity meeting room in Williams Hall. “Many of his most famous songs were developed from ideas that had their beginning right there,” Golden said.

Van Heusen broke into the big time in 1938 by collaborating with bandleader Jimmy Dorsey on a song called “It’s the Dreamer in Me.” The hits flowed as he wrote for stage and screen, composing melodies for tunes such as “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” “It Could Happen to You,” “Personality” and “My Kind of Town.”

In 1963, as co-chair of the Cazenovia College Alumni Fund Drive, Van Heusen lent his song, “High Hopes,” to the campaign, with lyrics supplied by Development Director Ralph Larsen vocalized by Bing Crosby. The song was pressed as a 45 RPM record and sent to alumni, who responded enthusiastically with donations.

Civic Center’s 1986 tribute

In January 1986, 73 years after his birth, Van Heusen was honored in Syracuse with am SRO variety show culminating the Civic Center’s Tenth Anniversary Celebration Week. Among the entertainers who flew here to perform were Tony Bennett, Maxine Sullivan, Sammy Cahn, Margaret Whiting, Jack Jones and emcee Tony Randall.

Van Heusen died on Feb. 6, 1990, in Rancho Mirage, Calif., at age 77. His headstone is engraved with the title of one his best-loved tunes, “Swinging on a Star.”

Russ Tarby’s column appears weekly in The Eagle and online at theeaglecny.com. He also covers the arts and sports. Reach him at russtarby@netscape.net.

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