Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

John Wallowitch, 81, composer

MAYBE YOU never heard of the "Lithuanian Furniture Company Radio Hour." And you probably don't hum the song, "I Wish I Had Died at the Altar the Day I Married You."

MAYBE YOU never heard of the "Lithuanian Furniture Company Radio Hour."

And you probably don't hum the song, "I Wish I Had Died at the Altar the Day I Married You."

But both are associated with the life of John Wallowitch, South Philadelphia-born composer and entertainer whose career was spent mostly in New York City, but who got his start in the schools and streets of his hometown.

It was on the furniture store's WHAT radio program back in the '30s that John first performed as a kid in knickers, playing Irving Berlin's "So Help Me" on the piano.

The "Wish I Had Died" song was the work of John and his longtime partner, the late Bertram Ross. But the novelty tune does not give an accurate picture of the type of music John turned out in a 50-year career, on his own and with his partner.

His sister, Anna Mae Wallowitch, said he recently told her he had written about 2,700 songs.

They range from the quirky to the sophisticated to the romantic and all the forms in between. He was also in demand as a performer of the songs of others, including Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers and the like at cabarets and other venues throughout the Big Apple.

John died Aug. 15 of bone cancer. He was 81 and lived in New York.

His songs were also performed by others. Singer and actress Dixie Carter recorded the album "Dixie Carter Sings John Wallowitch at the Club Carlyle."

Dixie's husband, the actor Hal Holbrook, delivered the eulogy at John's funeral in St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York.

Blossom Dearie, jazz singer and pianist, also made recordings of his songs, as did Tony Bennett, Doc Severinson and others.

As a solo cabaret entertainer, John performed throughout the world, and had a long-running hit revue, "The World of Wallowitch."

It all began in South Philadelphia, where he was born in the old Methodist Hospital.

"I'm from the home of Mario Lanza, Joey Bishop, Fabian, all those Italian people, and Bill Cosby," he once told an interviewer. "So, I'm from a very musical place."

He was born the eldest of the four children of John Wallowitch and the former Anna Amelia Norbutas. His parents operated a grocery store at 2514 S. 28th St. for 55 years.

He grew up in the 28th Street and Passyunk Avenue neighborhood, across the street from a dump and surrounded by the tanks of the Atlantic Refining Co.

He said in an interview in 1999 that the city had tried to hide the dump by erecting billboards.

"But when they finally decided to close it and fill it in, the rats invaded our houses," he said. "It was awful."

At an early age, he was picking out songs on his grandmother's piano. He also had poems printed in a children's column in the old Philadelphia Bulletin.

He attended the former Edgar Allen Poe Elementary School and went on to Vare Junior High School, where he would sneak into the building after hours to play the piano. A teacher caught him once and, instead of reprimanding him, offered him free piano lessons.

He become a regular performer on the Lithuanian Furniture Company Radio Hour.

From Vare, he went to Central High School, graduating with honors, including those in chemistry and French.

He decided he wanted to be a high-school music teacher and went to Temple University. However, World War II intervened and he entered the Army. He served only in the States as the war was ending.

While in the Army, he played and sang at USO clubs. After his discharge, he returned to Temple, but was soon off to New York to attend the Julliard School on a scholarship.

His sister Anna Mae, who was 10 years younger, recalls growing up in South Philadelphia with more fondness than her brother did.

She told of bicycle rides along River Road by the Schuylkill and across the Passyunk Avenue Bridge, and of her brother taking her to the Academy of Music and the Robin Hood Dell.

"We were very close," she said. "He was very good to me. I would visit him in New York and he would introduce me to all kinds of interesting people."

Possibly the first song John wrote was "Waiting on the Passyunk Bridge," about suicide. He was 7.

Anna Mae, who lives in Doylestown, joined her brother when he and a group of performers sang Christmas songs on Christmas Eve in front of Irving Berlin's home in Manhattan.

It was a tradition they carried on for 36 years, even after Berlin's death in 1989 and the house had been taken over by the Luxembourg consulate.

If John had had his way, Anna Mae might have been named Greta Garbo. "When I was born, he was 10 and he was writing down names to suggest to our parents. One of them was Greta Garbo."

He and his partner Ross, who died in 2003, were the subjects of a documentary film, "Wallowitch and Ross: This Moment," shown at the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema in 1999.

It includes a song, "If It Takes Two Hours to Make Philadelphia, How Long Will It Take to Make You?"

One of John's two brothers, Edward, was a prize-winning photographer who died in 1981.

Besides his sister, he is survived by another brother, Paul.

Services: Were in New York Aug. 17. *