Walter Turnbull Shirley was born October 9, 1896 in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn . His father was a trolley car conductor for the Coney Island & Brooklyn Railway Co. Walter left school in 1910 at age 14 and went to work with his neighborhood pal, J. Fred Coots at McSweeney's Theatre in Bay Ridge, leading patrons in song as the words to "East Side West Side" & "My Wild Irish Rose" flashed on the screen. He got $5.00 a week for his efforts. But there's no business like show business and it was show biz pure and simple and would stay with him forever. Getting the crowd to sing along would serve him well 40 years down the road as he pied pipered folks into driving out some sixty miles east of Brooklyn to consider buying the 15 square miles of scrub oak and pine he gathered up a few hundred acres at a time to sell to them on easy terms.
Brooklyn's Vaudeville Theatres like these are where Walter T got his real formal education. Possessed with a decent singing voice & exuberant personality, he was hired by Irving Berlin to pitch Berlin's tunes. Shirley's singing partner J.Fred Coot's went on to a career as a Broadway Tunesmith. Coot's most famous tune is probably "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" Center Photo is the Park Theatre circa 1902 where the Spooner Stock Company (Phoebe Knapp was a patron) held court. My grandpa Jack's brother Charlie Spooner was a music hall pianist.
Now here's an area I know a little bit about. I did an extensive term paper on the life of Cole Porter back in high school. It was so extensive, that my English teacher Mr. Turpin gave me a special award for the research. In doing it, I learned a lot about songwriting and song plugging as it was done then. In becoming a professional song writer, I naturally learned a lot about how song plugging is done now. Though radically different in the days before demo recordings, song plugging still takes a whole lot of chutzpa, persistence, salesmanship & POLITICS. Shirley had all of it in spades.
According to Walter, Berlin fired him because he couldn't sell the song "Smile & Show Your Dimples" . "I couldn't sell it for smoke"..... Walt tried to convince Irv that it needed a re-write. Years later Berlin would do just that and turn it into "Easter Parade" and Shirley would never tire of singing it endlessly at parties. In the meantime Berlin & Shirley would cross paths again in the future neck of Shirley's woods then known as Camp Upton. The year was 1917 and the U. S. went marching off to the War To End All Wars!
Another pal stationed with him there was Big Bill O'Dwyer who rose through the army to major and eventually became top cop and then Mayor of New York City. They remained life long friends. Shirley was a bugler at Upton and a member of the 77th Liberty division which would go down in history as the "Lost Battalion" There are now many websites on the Lost Battalion you can search through if so inclined using Google. One of the largest with focus on Camp Upton is the Longwood Site
On October 2nd, 1918, units of the 77th "Liberty" Division from New York advanced into the dense terrain of the Argonne Forest in France. History was made over the next 6 days as this unit, the "Lost Battalion", refused to surrender even though they were completely surrounded, constantly attacked, low on ammunition and supplies, had no food, shelter and limited access to water. Of the over 600 men first trapped in the "pocket", only around 200 walked out. They received 3 Congressional Medal of Honors (CMO), many Distinguished Service Crosses (DSC), and many other awards. Their leader, Major Whittlesey, was declared one of the three most important members of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) by General Pershing, Commander of the AEF. Two airmen received CMO's for their involvement in the event, the first attempted air resupply drop in military history. Others trying to releive the battalion also received the DSC. A carrier pigeon, Cher Ami, received international acclaim for heroically delivering a message. A movie of the event was made in 1919, and scores of books on the subject make it one of the most analyzed military actions in history. If that was not enough, Major Whittlesey committed suicide in 1921, and controversy has swirled around the event for over 80 years. Now A&E is presenting a new "Lost Battalion" movie, hopefully bringing new interest into this fascinating piece of history.