Manistique resident Fred D. Heltman composed
ragtime sheet music early in his career and had
several of his songs used in the "Gunsmoke" TV
program in 1960.
By STEVE SEYMOUR
When Fred D. Heltman died in Manistique in 1960, his music career had taken him from writing "rags" early in the century to having his compositions included in a hit television western.
"Gunsmoke" was just five years into its two-decade run when Heltman's songs were used on the CBS-network program.
Heltman passed away on Aug. 1, 1960, just a few months after his songs were used as "background music" on the series which starred James Arness, Amanda Blake, Milburn Stone and Dennis Weaver.
The television exposure brought the 73-year-old composer, who self-published "Carrie Belle Waltzes" as a teenager, into a new medium.
Although he resided at Schoolcraft County's Indian Lake when he died, Heltman was born in Ashland, Ohio on May 3, 1887, according to his obituary.
The young Heltman began taking music lessons at the age of six and had a small orchestra in high school, playing for local dances.
At 16, Heltman composed his first piece of piano music, selling the composition door-to-door in Ashland, before moving to Cleveland a few years later.
He was a student at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music, located near Cleveland.
Gaining early notoriety, he wrote the march "School Ma'am" for a convention of the National Education Association.
In 1908, Heltman wrote "Daisy Rag," "Wedding Ring Waltz" and "Won't You Love Me Honey." Each of these sold in the thousands as sheet music for piano.
He sold "Daisy Rag" to Sam Fox Publishing Co. and used the proceeds to publish additional songs.
One of his biggest successes came with "Chewin' the Rag," published in 1912.
His composition "Just Dreaming of You" is said to have sold nearly half a million copies.
The Edison record label recorded his song "Come to Me," while RCA Victor also recorded his songs.
With his reputation in the music business growing, Heltman was asked by composer Irving Berlin to be a founding member of the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP), but he declined.
During the 1920s, Heltman traveled the continental United States, playing his compositions and distributing his sheet music to department stores in all 48 states.
Heltman married his wife, the former Evelyn Learn, on June 26, 1911 and fathered three children, Fred, Harriet and Mary Jane.
Historians note that the ragtime musical genre was most popular from 1897 to 1918 when jazz captured the public's imagination.
Also known for two-steps and marches, some of Heltman's compositions sold into the millions of copies, according to sheet music aficionados.
The composer was most prolific between 1908 and 1927. He owned and operated Heltman Music Publishing Co. in Cleveland for 31 years.
The Great Depression proved a difficult period for music publishing. However, one of Heltman's numbers was used in the 1933 hit movie "State Fair," starring Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor.
Heltman exited the music publishing business in the early 1940s and "retired" to his summer home in Schoolcraft County's Hiawatha Township.
From 1940 until 1957, Heltman owned and operated Hovey Resort at Indian Lake.
In 1951, Heltman became executive secretary of the Top O' Lake Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a position he held until his death.
At the time Heltman's songs appeared on "Gunsmoke," the program was 30-minutes long and shot in black & white.
Fifty year later, it's not clear which of Heltman's compositions were used since the program's closing credits didn't include such information.
Also known as "The Old Trail" and "Boot Hill," the musical theme was penned by Rex Koury.
Other composers whose works appeared on "Gunsmoke" include Elmer Bernstein, who scored "The Magnificent Seven" and Jerry Goldsmith, who wrote the music for "100 Rifles."
Growing up, I remember watching "Gunsmoke," just like millions of other western fans.
I was probably too young to have seen the earliest episodes when they first aired, but by the 1960s, "Gunsmoke" was a staple on Saturday nights at our house.
While my parents were out square-dancing, my Grandmother Garrett and I would put my brothers and sisters to bed and settle down in front of our Emerson television set waiting for Marshal Matt Dillion to win the gunfight sequence which opened "Gunsmoke."
I don't know if we ever saw the episode which featured Heltman's songs, but if we did I know my Grandmother would have been proud of the composer, since she was a former Manistique resident herself.
Of course, I never dreamed that "Gunsmoke" could have any connection to the Upper Peninsula.
Ragtime music, meanwhile, enjoyed a major revival in 1973 when the genre was used in the soundtrack to the movie "The Sting," starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
The film's soundtrack consisted entirely of early rag time composer Scott Joplin's songs.
Pianist Marvin Hamlisch, also a composer and conductor, recorded a version of Joplin's "The Entertainer."
Had he lived, Heltman would certainly have smiled at the success of "The Entertainer," and the return of ragtime music to widespread popularity.