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He was born in New York, New York. He ran away from home at the age of 10 to become a magician at a tent show, and retained an interest in magic all his life. He never got much of an education, but decided to make a career in show business. He earned enough money as a vaudeville performer to start a music publishing company, Kalmar and Puck. He hired Harry Ruby as a song plugger, and as a result of a knee injury that stopped him from dancing professionally, turned to writing song lyrics full-time. Ruby, who had got a job at the firm of "'Waterson, Berlin and Snyder'," got Kalmar a job at the same firm writing song lyrics. Before World War I he had begun to write lyrics for a number of different composers. One of them, Ruby, who had also had a number of collaborators, saw a strong compatibility between the two, and by 1920 Kalmar and Ruby recognized that they should form a permanent songwriting team. Their partnership resulted in some of the most well-known songs featured in the Marx Brothers' Broadway production of Animal Crackers (1928) as well as the film of the same name. Kalmar and Ruby's songs were also featured in the Marx Brothers' films Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933).
Kalmar's partnership with Harry Ruby is portrayed in the 1950 MGM musical Three Little Words starring Fred Astaire and Red Skelton. He sometimes worked with other songwriters as well, including Oscar Hammerstein II and Ted Snyder.
He died in Los Angeles, California and was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. On Kalmar's death, Ruby almost totally ceased writing songs, though he lived 27 more years.
Bert Kalmar is an inductee of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Bert Kalmar was married to Jessie Brown, the marriage producing a son, Bert, Jr. and a daughter, Margaret. The couple were later divorced. 
Note: All works are musicals unless otherwise noted.