Rogers and Astaire


     Irving Berlin led an incredible life, one that lasted over a hundred years and took him from a poor Russian shtetl to seeing his name in lights on Broadway and movie palaces throughout America. His songs earned him many millions of dollars and became standards: “Always,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Blue Skies,” “Easter Parade,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and, of course, his tribute to the country he loved: “God Bless America.”

      To his critics, Berlin was a reactionary: My country right or wrong might have been his personal credo. Others accused him of being a Jew who had forgotten his roots. When he was criticized by some coreligionists for celebrating Christmas, Berlin responded that he regarded it as an American holiday. Indeed, in contrasting the warm California winter with the snowy New York of his youth, Berlin was inspired to write one of his enduring tunes, “White Christmas.”
     Even as his songs sold, Berlin was dismissed by some as a Tin Pan Alley hack. In fact, Berlin never learned to read or write music. He achieved his songs by dogged persistence. Often he worked through the night, employing musical secretaries to help him capture on paper the melodies he heard in his head.

 Early on, he wrote pseudo-Dixieland, in the style of the day, favored by white musicians. “When That Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam'” was one such tune. For years, rumors circulated that Berlin’s songs were ghosted by a stable of black musicians, anonymous toilers that he paid in the dark. Berlin was stung by these rumors. Even in old age, he would sheepishly ask some friend: Did he ever hear the story of the Negro boy? The little boy who they say wrote those great songs?


        Berlin was fiercely competitive, suspicious of any young admirer like George Gershwin who tried to get too close. This wariness was born of a boyhood on the Lower East Side of New York—where nobody gave you anything, people just took—in a city where the moneyed Protestants looked down on the Irish, and the Irish kicked around the Jews.

     The future songwriter was five years old when his family arrived in the New World in 1893. He passed through Ellis Island as Israel Baline. The family settled on Cherry Street, near Chinatown. In the old country his father, Moses, had been a cantor in a synagogue, but he was unable to find steady work and tried to support the family as a kosher poultry inspector. (Laurence Bergreen, As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, New York, Viking, 1990)

     Young Izzy hawked newspapers in the streets—Hearst’s Evening Journal—swam in the East River and sung in schul with his father on the High Holidays. Later, Berlin would remember those ancient Hebrew chants as his first exposure to music.

     In 1901 Moses Baline died, leaving behind his wife and five children. Izzy left home at 14 to ease the burden on his family. He lived in a succession of flophouses—dumps that cost fifteen cents a night. In ten years, Berlin would be making over $100,000 a year, but now he survived on pennies customers threw him when he sang popular songs in Bowery or waterfront saloons.

The young reserve officer

    Berlin never engaged in self-pity or romanticized the poverty of his youth. Later, in speaking of his Bowery days, the songwriter said his main interest was “to get the hell out of there.”

     After a few years of bouncing around, Izzy landed a job as a singing waiter at The Pelham Café, whose proprietor, Mike Salter, was a well-known local character. Upstairs was a whorehouse run by a madam known as “Chinatown Gertie.”

     Running a clip joint was a tough business. When Mike Salter learned that a bouncer in a rival establishment had co-authored a popular song, his competitive instinct was aroused. Mike pressed his 18 year old waiter to do better, and young Izzy obliged. “Once you start singing, you start thinking of writing songs,” he later said. In a few days, the waiter and a pal turned out a tune, “Marie from Sunny Italy,” that caught on among the large local immigrant population. Mike had his hit, and the waiter a new name: Irving Berlin.

     The new songwriter moved to an uptown nightclub, Jimmy Kelly’s, where he worked as a singer and entertainer. The owner was an ex-prize fighter named De Salvo who fought under an Irish name, as was then the custom. His place was a show business hangout, and soon Berlin was writing and selling songs which he dashed off, inspired by some current craze or ethnic theme. When Fanny Brice sang one of his tunes—“Good-bye, Becky Cohen”—in the popular Ziegfeld Follies, Irving was on his way.

They all went to Jimmy Kelly's.


     Part of Berlin’s appeal as a personality was his straightforwardness. He readily admitted he was in the music business “to make money.” Although he earned a royalty on his lyrics, Berlin realized he could double the take if he also composed the music. Here he was handicapped since he could only play the black keys on his piano as they were easier to manipulate.

     This musical obstacle was solved when Berlin learned of a piano manufactured by an English company that used a hidden lever to operate any key. The instrument was popular in the rollicking London music halls where a stray note might easily pass unnoticed.

     Berlin fondly referred to the new instrument as his “trick” piano. Later, he had several custom-made. The piano allowed Berlin to compose more complex tunes than the novelty items he was writing: “Sadie Salome, Please Go Home” had been another Fanny Brice favorite. Since Berlin could not write music, he hired a musical secretary to transcribe a song’s melody after he had worked it out on the piano and memorized it.

     According to Laurence Bergreen, pre-World War I American music was dominated by ragtime. This fast, rowdy style had its origins in African tribal rhythms and wound its way north through the bawdy houses and saloons of the old South. The music had been popularized by Scott Joplin, an African-American pianist from Missouri, who was ill and living in obscurity in New York City.

     Irving experimented with ragtime, first working on an instrumental, then adding lyrics. Finally, Berlin borrowed a phrase from Stephen Foster—his favorite composer—put a whiteface on Scott Joplin’s style, and came up with a lively tune, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

     The fictitious bandleader of the title was supposed to be black, but when Hollywood bought the rights to the song in the 1930s and asked Berlin to come up with a treatment, the bandleader was transformed into Berlin himself who was played by Tyrone Power, a handsome matinee idol.

     In any event, when published in 1911, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” created a sensation. The song sold over a million copies of sheet music in that pre-radio and pre-recording era. On both sides of the Atlantic, Irving Berlin was hailed as “The Ragtime King,” the ruler of Tin Pan Alley.

     Berlin fell into a comfortable routine, writing for Ziegfeld’s annual Follies and occasionally Broadway. For the first time, he saw his name in lights.

     Berlin’s work consumed him. There was no time for show girls or parties. Usually, he worked through the night, then slept till noon. He seldom relaxed: Irving was always counting the house, they used to say.

     Unlike Ziegfeld and others, Berlin’s name was untouched by scandal. With his first flush of royalties in 1913, the songwriter bought his mother a home in the Bronx which was then considered the country.

     The world is a far bigger stage than Broadway, filled with characters and plots that can affect everyone. In 1914 Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated sending tremors throughout Europe, and soon America was drawn into those faraway events. It was Woodrow Wilson, the New Freedom, then War, and Irving Berlin, like so many others, was drafted—a doughboy, assigned to Camp Upton, in the far reaches of Yaphank, Long Island.

     Almost overnight, Berlin exchanged his cook for KP duty and his well-appointed Riverside Drive apartment for a wooden barracks. Although he took his turn around the drill field, on at least one occasion the songwriter snuck his valet into the barracks to spruce up his quarters.

     Rising at 5:00 a.m. rankled Irving the most, since that was the time he usually went to bed. “There were a lot of things about army life I didn’t like,” Berlin’s biographer quotes him as saying, “and the thing I didn’t like most of all was reveille.”

     Just when it seemed Private Berlin would spend the war peeling potatoes, an enterprising superior officer suggested the songwriter work up a camp show to raise money for a guesthouse for soldiers’ families.

     Drawing on his fellow soldiers, some of whom had show business backgrounds, Berlin came up with a spoof on the Army called, Yip! Yip!Yaphank. With his many contacts, and the blessing of the Army, Irving took the show to Broadway for a limited run where it was a smash.

     Berlin’s song on the misery of reveille, “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” became a standard Army lament.

     Following his discharge from the service, Sergeant Berlin—he had been promoted at the war’s end—found himself more famous than ever. Everywhere he went, he was recognized. It seemed anything Irving touched turned to gold. He started his own publishing firm, Irving Berlin, Inc., just in time to catch the flow of royalties from the sale of records that the public was gobbling up in place of sheet music. In 1919, his last season with Ziegfeld, Berlin had another hit, “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.”

     As the twenties roared in, Berlin built his own theater to put on annual revues. He called it The Music Box. The shows had chorus girls and funny skits that might have stepped off the stage of the great Ziegfeld who, in turn, had taken old vaudeville routines and put them in gorgeous settings for his own Follies.

     Irving’s tunes captured the spirit of the times: carefree, romantically foolish. One song that he started as a lark turned into a sweet ballad for his future wife. It began: “I’ll be loving you always.”

     Another Berlin song from the twenties, “Blue Skies,” became a popular favorite. It was this song that twenty years later a hitchhiker named Kerouac sang to himself one balmy California day and which he wrote about in On the Road.

     When Prohibition came in, Jimmy Kelly closed his uptown place and opened a speakeasy in Greenwich Village where the cops and politicians were friendlier. Irving occasionally hung out there.

     One night a vivacious 20 year old named Ellin Mackay introduced herself to the songwriter. Ellin was no ordinary female dying to meet Irving Berlin. She was the daughter of Clarence  Mackay whose father had laid the first cable across the Atlantic, and she had grown up on a baronial Long Island estate. The family were Irish Catholics but had been accepted into New York society (or what passed for society).

     Irving was very smitten with the blonde young heiress, and Ellin soon found herself in love with the self-made millionaire. Her father was openly opposed to the idea of his daughter marrying a Tin Pan Alley songwriter (and a Jew to boot). Ellin would wed Berlin “over my dead body,” Clarence  Mackay was quoted as saying. This rich girl-Lower East Side boy angle was played up in the press, and the tabloid headlines followed the romance’s progress.

     Ellin’s father sent her on an extended European tour hoping she’d forget the composer, but when she returned, the romance resumed. A Berlin composition of the day was called, “My Baby’s Come Back to Me.”

     Shortly after New Year’s 1926, Ellin and Berlin eloped and were married in a civil ceremony at City Hall. They sailed on the Leviathan for a honeymoon in Paris and London where Berlin’s musical secretary later joined them so Irving could work on his new show.

     Ellin was dropped from the Social Register and disinherited by her father, but the marriage was a happy one and lasted until her death in 1988. As a wedding present, Berlin gave her the copyright of the song he had written for her: “Always.”

     If Florenz Ziegfeld held any resentment toward his Music Box rival, his revenge came in a roundabout way. Over the years, the impresario had had his ups and downs—sometimes spectacular—and by the late 1920s interest in his Follies was fading.

     Ziegfeld was approached by two young collaborators, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, about producing a musical based on a popular Edna Ferber novel, Showboat, about a steamboat that plied the Mississippi in the post-Civil War era bringing entertainment to levee towns.

     According the Laurence Bergreen, the show’s rich, almost operatic score and realistic treatment of race relations marked a radical departure from the light comedies and minstrel shows favored by Berlin and his contemporaries.

     When Ziegfeld’s Showboat opened, it ushered in a new musical era and paved the way for younger composers—Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers—who were sophisticated and well-educated. Suddenly, at 40, Irving Berlin was “old fashioned”—the kiss of death on Broadway.

     The 1920s left behind a legion of forgotten composers—no one remembers the name of the fellow who wrote “That’s My Desire.” Irving Berlin might have been among them, had it not been for the advent of talkies which drove Hollywood to import well-established composers who could turn out a film score in short order.

     Berlin’s first real foray into movies was the film adaptation of The Cocoanuts, the play he had done with George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind about the Florida landboom and the hucksters and fortune hunters it attracted. The stage and film version starred the Marx Brothers whose ad-libbing of his lyrics drove the meticulous Berlin crazy.

     Following the release of The Cocoanuts, Berlin came up with a story treatment based on his romance with Ellin. He took the idea to Joe Schenck, a friend from his days as a singing waiter, who arranged studio financing.

     Originally, the film, Reaching for the Moon,  contained a full Berlin score, but the hardheaded Irving repeatedly clashed with the hardheaded director, Edmund Goulding, and the final version had only one Berlin song: “How Deep Is the Ocean?” which became a hit in 1933 despite the film’s failure.

     The Great Depression hit Tin Pan Alley and Broadway hard, finally sinking the durable Ziegfeld and sending other theater owners, like the Shuberts, into bankruptcy.  Berlin’s publishing company with its trove of copyrights provided a shelter to weather the storm.

     Others whom Berlin knew were not as fortunate. Irving’s father-in-law suffered severe reversals and wound up living in the guesthouse on his former estate. Berlin supposedly gave him a million dollars to live on, but the old man was unmoved. Laurence Bergreen noted: “Despite the songwriter’s generosity, his father-in-law still despised him. No matter what Berlin did, what gestures he made, Clarence would always consider him a Jewish songwriter from the Lower East Side…”

      Anxious to get back on Broadway, Berlin teamed up with a 28 year old writer named Moss Hart who later went on to a distinguished theater career. They concocted a play set in an automat about down-and-out socialites who had been knocked off their perches by the stock market crash. The play lost money but received enough favorable reviews to encourage Berlin to try again.

     This time Irving and his young collaborator looked to the days’ headlines for inspiration and put together a satirical revue about the foibles of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton and her marriages, Ghandi—the Mahatma was always good for a laugh or two—and other celebrities and politicians.

     The show was called As Thousands Cheer—and the title was an apt one. Audiences shaken by the Depression enjoyed seeing fun poked at the rich and idle. The first-rate cast included Clifton Webb as the playboy Prince of Wales and Ethel Waters who sang “Heat Wave.” Another tune, “Easter Parade,” became a holiday standard. Irving Berlin was back—on top: a winner.


     Hollywood had given Berlin’s career a boost, but Irving wanted to return to films on his own terms. He avoided major studios like Columbia which was under the thumb of Harry Cohn or MGM where Thalberg and Mayer (or Mayer and Thalberg) reigned supreme. Instead, the songwriter signed with RKO, the industry stepchild.

     The studio had evolved from the Albee theater chain in the 1920s, then was taken over by Joe Kennedy who milked it during his tour of Hollywood, promoting the career of his mistress, Gloria Swanson. When Berlin arrived on the scene in the 1930s, RKO was anxiously emerging from bankruptcy and offered the songwriter a film deal no other studio would: retention of his copyrights and ten per cent of the gross.

     RKO was the studio of oddballs and castaways. Later, it was here that Orson Welles found a home to make Citizen Kane. The actor the studio assigned to the Berlin film, Top Hat, was a veteran Broadway performer named Fred Astaire who had reluctantly been offered a movie contract. He was paired with Ginger Rogers, a newcomer from Texas.


This Is the Army on tour


     Top Hat was a romantic comedy, light on plot. In the movie, Rogers falls in love with Astaire, then mistakenly believes he has concealed from her that he is married to her best friend.

     Astaire was a perfectionist; he assiduously worked on his intricate dance routines. Berlin greatly admired him, leading some to wonder whether Astaire’s public personality was everything Berlin inwardly wanted to be: debonair, upper-class, gentile.

     Berlin liked to say that his best songs were conversation set to music. From the opening bars of “Cheek to Cheek”—“Heaven, I’m in heaven”—Astaire’s casual delivery was perfect. “Oh, that’s great,” Berlin said of the performance. “I love it.”

     Rogers and Astaire were an unlikely romantic couple: She was youthful, wholesome; he was older, slightly jaded. But the magic of Berlin’s songs, and the elegant Art Deco sets evoking Europe in the twenties, helped the public suspend their disbelief. The film opened at Radio City Music Hall, one of the country’s premier movie palaces, and played to packed houses.

    The old movie moguls used to say, Why make a movie once, if you can make it twice? Irving Berlin’s film career fulfilled that adage. Six months after Top Hat opened, RKO released Follow the Fleet, another Rogers-Astaire comedy with a similar plot and a Berlin score.

     Irving was easy prey for the Hollywood sausage factory. He was trapped by his artistic limitations and the money that came from recycling his hits. After George Gershwin, who had once applied to Berlin for a job, created a stir with his folk opera, Porgy and Bess, Irving decided to formally study music. As it turned out, Berlin soon abandoned these plans. He was too busy to learn to read music, Irving told a friend.

     In 1938 Darryl F. Zanuck lured Berlin to 20th Century-Fox to make Alexander’s Ragtime Band. The semi-autobiographical movie featured an array of hits, including the eponymous title song, “Easter Parade,” and “When That Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam'” which had been the big Berlin number of 1914.

     Over the decades “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas” (sung by Bing Crosby) had films constructed around them. Louis B. Mayer paid a half million dollars for the rights to “Easter Parade,” a princely sum in the 1940s. The film starred Fred Astaire and a young Judy Garland in place of Ginger Rogers.

     James Agee, the erudite and always polite film critic, wrote of Easter Parade that the cast “…and several of Irving Berlin’s old songs ought to add up to something better than this, but much of it is painless and some of it—chiefly Astaire—is pretty good.” (James Agee, Agee on Film, New York, McDowell, Obolensky, 1958)

     Irving Berlin was 53 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and Congress declared war. Too old for the draft, Berlin could have sat out the conflict, a poolside patriot in Beverly Hills. Instead, he decided to help the war effort by putting on a show to raise money for the Army Emergency Relief Fund which assisted soldiers’ families. “Songs make history, and history makes songs,” Berlin’s biographer Bergreen quotes him as saying.

     The Pentagon jumped at the idea of an all-servicemen show to help boost morale. Word went out from the Army brass to “give Irving Berlin anything he needs,” recalls Alan Anderson, then a young sergeant who served as the show’s stage manager.

     Berlin was allowed to recruit personnel from other Army units and was assigned rehearsal facilities at Camp Upton where he had been stationed during the Great War. According to Anderson, Berlin liked to walk around the camp and mingle with the men to find out “how they talked and how they felt.” “This is the Army, Mister Jones, no private rooms or telephones” went one of the songs Berlin came up with for the show.

     Berlin selected only enlisted men for the company; officers might “pull rank” and interfere with artistic judgment. Irving remained a civilian but was given a correspondent’s uniform. Still, there was no doubt about his status: “He was the boss,” recalls Sergeant Anderson, whose father, playwright Maxwell Anderson, was a friend of Berlin.

     As stage director for the show which was to be called This Is the Army, Berlin chose a 24 year old noncom named Ezra Stone. Before joining the Army, Stone had starred in a weekly radio program, The Adventurers of Henry Aldrich. He played the title role, a hapless teenager who was always in hot water.

     In selecting Stone, Berlin passed over a more experienced director, Lt. Garson Kanin, later a successful playwright, believing young Ezra would be easier to handle. This proved not to be the case, as the energetic corporal rubbed Irving the wrong way throughout the production.

     An early sign of trouble occurred one day when Stone inadvertently (or maybe not inadvertently) praised a George Gershwin tune, “Mine,” that came over the radio. Stone told Berlin that he admired Gershwin’s use of counterpoint.

     The words were no sooner out of Stone’s mouth than he felt the “chill” in the air, as Berlin dismissed Gershwin’s technique as an “old trick” that he had used himself on several occasions.

     Not long after, Stone committed a more serious transgression. He was rehearsing a song, “The Army’s Made a Man of Me,” that Berlin had trouble finishing and took the liberty of completing the last two lines. When Berlin wandered into the rehearsal and realized what happened, he dashed to the piano and tore up the sheet music. “It has and always will be,” he reminded Stone, “words and music by Irving Berlin.”

     Berlin could be self-centered and domineering, but the Army put him in charge. After a few more run-ins with Stone, Irving had had it. He made the right call or two and—like that—in the best Henry Aldrich fashion, Ezra was shipped out to Timbucktu. According to Alan Anderson’s lively book on the production, Stone survived the war and later became a successful New York stage director. (Alan Anderson, The Songwriter Goes to War, New York, Limelight Editions, 2004)
     This Is the Army
opened on Broadway on July 4, 1942 to popular and critical acclaim. Ultimately, the show raised over two million dollars for the relief fund. Several songs, including “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen,” climbed to the top of the Lucky Strike Hit Parade, then the barometer of a song’s popularity. Berlin donated his royalties from the sheet music sales to the Army, to the dismay of his business manager, Saul Bornstein.

     In the summer of 1942, the country was reeling from setbacks in the Pacific, and the War Department decided to send Berlin and the show on tour to lift the public’s mood. Although Berlin was not paid for his work on the production, there were gripes from some soldiers that he grabbed all the publicity. After five months on the road, the company headed for Hollywood where Warner Brothers had purchased the movie rights.

     Hollywood was not what most soldiers expected. They lived on the Burbank studio lot in tents that had been made by the prop department and which doubled as a backdrop in the movie.

     Alan Anderson remembers that the only time he or his comrades saw stars up close was in the few scenes they had together, most of which wound up on the cutting-room floor.

     The movie starred George Murphy, a popular song and dance man, as a Berlin-like composer, and a young cavalry reserve officer named Ronald Reagan whom the Army had assigned to the production.

     In making the movie, Warner Brothers decided against filming the show exactly as it had been done on stage. As Alan Anderson put it, a “phony baloney” love angle was added, and actress Joan Leslie was cast as stage manager Ronald Reagan’s romantic interest.

     The studio also added a song, “God Bless America,” sung by Kate Smith, that Berlin had originally written for his World War I revue but not used.

     In the original stage version, the female chorus was played by male soldiers. These skits were popular with audiences who enjoyed the jolly barracks humor.

     The studio, however, wanted to use girls on the dubious grounds that the film’s distribution would be harmed in Latin America where female impersonators (supposedly) were unknown. Berlin balked at the change, and the boys stayed in the show.

     Toward the end of the shooting, Berlin filmed the song “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” in his rough, nasal voice. “He’d done the song all across the country,” remembers Alan Anderson, “but Berlin loved doing it in the movie. Here was a chance for it to be on film—for posterity.”

     Shooting on This Is the Army was completed in August 1943. At a wrap party for the cast, Joan Leslie was the only principal to show up. Most of the soldiers expected to rejoin their combat units; according to Anderson, some were worried about “getting their asses shot off.”

     But Irving Berlin wanted “to take music to the front,” and the War Department agreed to send the show on a tour of American bases and camps overseas. In London, the company played the glorious Palladium, and Berlin was feted by American generals who wanted “to pal around with the great composer,” as Anderson recalls in his memoir.

     As well known as Berlin was, he was still the victim of a diplomatic mix-up. He received an invitation to lunch with the Prime Minister that was intended for Isaiah Berlin, an Oxford don and diplomat whose dispatches from Washington had amused Winston Churchill who wanted to meet him.

     Over lunch, the Prime Minister asked about U.S. war production unaware that he was talking to the wrong Berlin. Irving assured him that things were excellent.

     The conversation turned to Roosevelt’s chances for re-election. Berlin admitted he was a FDR supporter and added that he hoped to vote for him in the next election.

     Churchill appeared slightly amused but went on with the luncheon. Since the Prime Minister and his guests fortified themselves with good brandy, perhaps such mealtime conversations were not so out of the ordinary.
     Berlin spent two years touring with the show in both the European and Pacific theaters. He was “tireless” in his commitment. “We got to win this one,” he would tell Anderson. Sometimes after a performance, the songwriter would visit nearby hospitals to entertain the soldiers.

     In the Pacific, Berlin persuaded the military to provide the company with its own ship, and for five months they crisscrossed the ocean in a rickety converted freighter bringing cheer to jungle camps and island outposts: Milne Bay, Oro Bay, Hollandia.

     Berlin’s wartime service won him many admirers. Laurence Bergreen used the Jungian phrase-- an “Archetype”—to refer to Berlin as a national symbol: the immigrant boy who rose to the top of his profession, then tried to repay his adopted country for that opportunity.

     Shortly before the end of the war, Irving returned to Hollywood to supervise Blue Skies, another picture strung together with old Berlin tunes. The picture starred Bing Crosby who had appeared in Holiday Inn, a 1942 film in which he introduced “White Christmas.” Berlin had worked on Holiday Inn while writing This Is the Army.

     Berlin had a knack for predicting which of his songs would be a hit. As the tune ran up the charts, he would tell friends it was “the best” he had ever written.

     Irving wrote “White Christmas” in one all night session, overcome with nostalgia for his New York boyhood and a holiday he had shared with a gentile friend. Critics and colleagues disparaged the song—one associate dismissed it as “cockamamie”—and dampened Irving’s initial enthusiasm.

     When released, Holliday Inn did well at the box office though none of its songs was a runaway hit. The film’s familiar Berlin theme of two vaudevillians (Crosby and the reliable Astaire) in love with the same beauty (Majorie Reynolds) proved a popular escape for a war weary public.

     As the movie was shown overseas, homesick servicepersons bombarded the Armed Forces radio with requests to play “White Christmas.” Irving was pleased by this turn of events. “ ‘White Christmas’ is doing pretty good, eh?” he ribbed one critic.

     Upon returning from active duty, the veterans’ continuing affection for the song made it into a holiday favorite and Berlin’s all time best seller, selling over forty million recordings during its composer’s lifetime.

     In 1943 while Berlin was touring, Rodgers and Hammerstein scored a triumph on Broadway with Oklahoma! The musical celebrated the vitality of the American West and of the country itself even during the dark days of the Second World War.

     After the war, Richard Rodgers wanted to produce a musical based on Annie Oakley, the sassy sharpshooter who matched Buffalo Bill’s boys shot for shot in old Wild West shows.

     Rodgers had persuaded Jerome Kern to do the score, but the composer died suddenly while the show was on the drawing board. Since Rodgers did not want to produce and write the music, he turned to Berlin.

     Irving had never heard of Annie Oakley and was reluctant to take on the job. He didn’t write “hillbillie” music, he explained to the show’s backers.

     Even so, there were practical considerations. In addition to his Army relief work, Irving had assigned the royalties from “God Bless America” to a charitable trust benefiting scouting. It was time to write new songs to support his wife and three young daughters.

     After signing on, Irving decamped for Atlantic City and secreted himself with his amanuensis, Henry Kresa. The German born arranger had been with Berlin on and off since 1927. He was used to Irving’s marathon work sessions and middle of the night brainstorms.

     A week later, Berlin had a sheaf of songs, including the future hit, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” that Ethel Merman belted out on stage. Another number, “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” became a popular duet on radio and later television.

     As Laurence Bergreen points out, the narrative musical—a show with a theme—had never been Berlin’s forte, and the songs had little relation to Annie Oakley or the Wild West. Nevertheless, the public was hungry for a new Irving Berlin musical, and Annie ran for over 1,000 performances.

     The New York Times called the production “professional,” or, in other words, conventional. The Lindy’s crowd had a different slant. Behind Irving’s back, they said it was vaudeville, shtick.

     For decades Berlin verged on going out of style, only to magically bounce back. He survived the jazz craze in the twenties and outlasted the big bands, and swing, which swept the country in the thirties.


Irving--the showman

       Irving might have slid into retirement, a musical elder statesman, like George M. Cohan, the composer of rousing World War I ballads whom Berlin had admired in his youth. But Irving was restless and could not stay away from Broadway.

     Robert E. Sherwood, the author of Abe Lincoln in Illinois and other historical plays, wanted to dramatize the story of the Statue of Liberty. Sherwood was to focus on the newspaper battle between Joseph Pulitzer and a rival publisher to raise money to provide the Lady with her berth in New York harbor.

     Irving’s cronies always said patriotism was his true religion, and he readily agreed to write the score and produce the play as well, using his own money.

     Miss Liberty, as the show was called, ran into problems from the start. Robert Sherwood, who was on the declining end of a brilliant career, drank heavily, missed rehearsals, and refused to make script changes suggested by Moss Hart, the director and Irving’s former protégé.

     In order to save money, Berlin cast a young dancer, Allyn McLerie, as the lead, instead of an established star, like Ethel Merman, who might have carried the show by the force of her personality.

     Irving knocked out the score with his customary swiftness, including one song based on Emma Lazarus’s poem about the tired and hungry masses which was carved on the base of the statue. Berlin was convinced the song would become another “God Bless America” and flew into a rage if anyone suggested the contrary.


     By the end of its out of town tryout, the show still had not pulled together. Even young Miss McLerie was “embarrassed” to go on stage each night.

     Miss Liberty bombed on Broadway, though not as badly as its detractors expected. Even so, there were no hit tunes, no Hollywood sale. The calendar page had finally turned; at 62 Irving Berlin’s reign was over.

     Sometimes Time can be as cruel to the artist who lives beyond his epoch as to one who dies young, and such was the case with Irving Berlin. In the 1950s rock and roll seemed a personal affront to him.

     According to Laurence Bergreen, Irving was “appalled” when he heard Elvis Presley’s recording of “White Christmas.” The young singer’s souped up version seemed “a sacrilege” to its composer. Berlin had his staff telephone radio stations around the country urging them not to play the Presley recording.

     Since he was Irving Berlin, the songwriter did not relinquish the stage without a fight, of course. He had learned some lessons from staging Miss Liberty and recruited Ethel Merman to play Perle Mesta in a musical about the Truman era hostess who became an ambassador. Only a sweet duet, “You’re Just in Love,” that Irving added at the last minute salvaged a dull second act and the show itself.

     Though he lived until 1989, Berlin had his last hit in 1954, “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.” The upbeat ballad was introduced at a gala banquet by Eddie Fisher, a singer who had made a career of being a nice Jewish boy. Berlin insisted Fisher dedicate the song to “our greatest blessing”—President Eisenhower.

     As he approached 70, Irving was well-heeled financially. He owned the Music Box Theatre in partnership with the Shuberts, his former rivals, and controlled his copyrights through his publishing house. Berlin’s catalogue numbered about 1,000 songs, and he guarded his rights zealously, if not always prudently.

     For years, Irving refused to license his songs for a television special and even blocked a tribute to his music on Ed Sullivan’s popular variety hour.

     As a conservative, Berlin instinctively mistrusted any new medium. In the 1920s he had feared radio and had lobbied successfully against a congressional bill that would have exempted stations from paying songwriters’ royalties.

     Berlin’s battles were carried out by a procession of lawyers who fired off warning letters to any potential pirate, including a producer who wanted to release a children’s version of “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”

     In 1961 Irving sued Mad magazine for parodying his classic songs, “Cheek to Cheek” and “Easter Parade” in a special issue, “Sing Along with Mad.” Only a cranky old man and his high-priced lawyers could fail to see that chasing Alfred E. Newman around the Hall of Justice was the best vaudeville show of all.

     The suit dragged on for several years, then went against Irving. The composer was strongly rebuked from the bench on the importance of parody and satire in social affairs by Judge Irving R. Kaufman, the dour jurist who had sent the Rosenbergs to the electric chair.

     In old age, Irving grew increasingly eccentric. He spent his days on the top floor of his Beekman Place townhouse, a virtual recluse, going for walks at night to avoid well-wishers and the curious. The composer’s contact with the outside world was through the telephone which he used to berate an occasional “longhair” critic who had written some “crap” about him.

     Irving shunned cast reunions of This Is the Army which were held periodically at Sardi’s. He even tried to discourage Alan Anderson from writing about the production.

     “It was just a show,” Irving said of the wartime contribution that had earned him a special Medal of Honor.

     Anderson admired Berlin and was puzzled by his attitude. Twelve years after Berlin’s death, Anderson finally finished his book. The composer didn’t want anyone else to get the publicity, Anderson reluctantly concluded. “He still wanted to be in charge.”

     As the fifties exploded into the sixties, Berlin fell further into obscurity. Irving Berlin: Is he still alive? People would wonder. Not that it mattered. Few people could be more irrelevant to the sixties, and the angry decade that followed, than the man who wrote “God Bless America.”

     A young Julliard student named John Wallowitch took it upon himself to keep the flame alive. One Christmas, as a tribute to the composer, Wallowitch stood outside Berlin’s townhouse and sang, “White Christmas.” Thereafter, this became a ritual; every Christmas Eve, a few more admirers would join the circle, singing Berlin’s standards in the winter night.

     Early on, one cold Christmas Eve, Berlin invited the band into the kitchen for refreshments. The frail, little old man hugged and thanked them.

     The annual rite continued into the eighties, but the house remained silent as the carolers raised their voices and braved the cold.

     Once, towards the end, Wallowitch saw the curtain slightly move in the third floor bedroom, and then the window was framed in darkness as the bedroom light went out.

     It was as though a ghostly figure looked down on them, then disappeared into the shadows, maybe content to know that as long as there was Christmas, so long as there was song, there would be Irving Berlin.

Ron Martinetti for AL. The author would like to thank Alan Anderson for providing several interviews about Irving Berlin and This Is the Army. Irving Berlin photos courtesy of Jenna Young and Limelight Editions.