Lyricist John L. Golden, in his 1930 autobiography Stagestruck, recalled the collaboration with Raymond Hubbell on the writing of “Poor Butterfly” during the summer of 1916. Trying desperately to find a cool place in the Hippodrome Theater to work, the two descended to the elephant pens in the basement, where a pen was cleaned up and a small piano installed. Hubbell, a violinist, began playing a melody for Golden, who had been asked by producer Charles Dillingham to come up with a “Japanese-style” number relating to Madame Butterfly. Soon Golden, despite the nearby proximity of the elephants and the associated aroma, had created a lyric telling the sad tale of Butterfly waiting for her American lover to return to Japan.
Although a Chinese actress/vocalist, Haru Onuki, introduced the song, she was replaced soon after the opening by soprano Sophie Bernard. The number’s popularity, however, came from early performances and recordings by artists such as vocalist Edna Brown, the Joseph C. Smith Orchestra, and especially the Victor Military Band. The song was so popular that over two million copies of the sheet music were sold, and it was played and sung by almost every musical artist of the day. The tune’s huge popularity waned, but it was performed and recorded over the decades. A 1954 hit record by the vocal group the Hilltoppers bought a new lease on life for the number, resulting in a number of vocal recordings by artists such as Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra, and instrumental recordings by a number of musical groups.
There's a story told of a little Japanese. Sitting demurely 'neath the cherry blossom trees. Miss Butterfly's her name. A sweet little innocent child was she 'Till a fine young American from the sea To her garden came.
They met 'neath the cherry blossoms everyday. And he taught her how to love the American way. To love with her soul t'was easy to learn. Then he sailed away with a promise to return.
Poor butterfly 'Neath the blossoms waiting. Poor Butterfly For she loved him so.
The moments pass into hours. The hours pass into years. And as she smiles through her tears, She murmurs low:
The moon and I know that he'll be faithful I'm sure he'll come to me by and by. But if he won't come back then I'll never sigh or cry, I just must die. Poor butterfly.