inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #0 of 80: Hal Royaltey (hal) Mon 23 Jan 06 00:10
We're pleased to welcome David Leopold, our next guest in the InkWell.

David is an independent curator who has organized exhibitions for 
institutions around the country including the Library of Congress,
the New York Public Library, and the Norman Rockwell Museum at
Stockbridge. He has been the archivist of Al Hirschfeld’s work for
fifteen years and is the Director of the Studio of Ben Solowey in Bucks
County. He is the Picture Editor for the literary magazine, Lincoln
Center Theater Review. His articles have appeared in The New York
Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette,
and Pennsylvania Heritage. He heard his first Irving Berlin song played
professionally at a Jerry Garcia Band concert in November 1981.

Leading our discussion with David will be our own Angie Coiro.
Angie is the host of Mother Jones Radio on the Air America Radio
Network. She and the Mother Jones team debuted the show in June 2005;
already it's ranked third of the most downloaded political content on
iTunes. She conducts regular interviews with City Arts and Lectures,
most recently with Mike Wallace and Andrew Weil. Angie's also worked in
industrial and commercial voiceover for almost thirty years, with
clients including Intuit and Oracle, and a decade-long run as the voice
of PeopleSoft.   She's been on the Well for seven years, is
<aaronzent>'s spousal unit, and lives in a Winchester Mystery cottage,
the remodelling project that has no end. Cats control her life.

Welcome to the Inkwell!
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #1 of 80: Angie (coiro) Mon 23 Jan 06 06:10
This is great. I'm so pleased to be working with you on this, David.

My first thought on hearing about your book was, "I wonder why?"
Irving Berlin's is a life well-documented, with multiple biographies,
significant chapters in Broadway and Hollywood history books. Why
another, I thought.

Then I discovered - was downright tickled to discover - that this is
the companion book to three traveling exhibitions, three separate parts
of the Irving Berlin tale. Can you start us off here by telling us how
the exhibitions were conceived, how the division into three parts was
arrived at, and what that told you about how to tackle the book?

And may I suggest for those of you who haven't seen the book itself -
get a glimpse of the cover at Amazon or another online book site. Even
just that will give you a taste of the festive and fabulous offerings
inside. Want to toss in any thought about that cover shot, David?
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #2 of 80: David Leopold (dleopold1) Mon 23 Jan 06 08:04
Angie, pleased to be here.

Yes, I thought the same thing too. "Why another book on Berlin?" He
has been the subject of bios since 1925 when Alexander Woollcott wrote
a fascinating one. In 1988, James Agee's biographer, Laurence Bergreen
wrote what seemed to be exhaustive one, and in 1994, Berlin's daughter,
novelist Mary Ellin Barrett wrote a wonderful memoir about her father.
So I imagined the subject had been well covered.

But in looking over all of the above and more, I realized the
Bergreen's and all the others had many facts wrong, and while Mary
Ellin's is a touching and informative book, it still did not not tell
his whole story.

That and Berlin's entire career had been winnowed down to about 30
images, most of which were reprodcued ad nauseum. Berlin understood the
“show” of show business. He worked with the top designers on Broadway
and in Hollywood, and their art was almost as memorable as his words
and music. Berlin’s career also coincided with a golden age of
illustration. Audiences often received their first glimpses of Berlin’s
latest triumph through caricatures, drawings, and paintings in
publications across the country. 

The goal of the book and exhibitions is to show Berlin’s career as he
and his audiences saw it, from the lavishly illustrated sheet music
covers of his first songs to the image of Marilyn Monroe delivering a
sultry version of “Heat Wave” in Berlin’s final film. This compendium
of Berlin iconography demonstrates that the popularity of Berlin’s
songs, stage shows, and films allowed his visual legacy to seep into
the national consciousness almost as much as his music did.

So while my editor at Harry Abrams suggested the porject, it
eventually took on a life of its own. I quickly realized that Berlin's
story told the story of the Broadway musical, the film musical and
really American popular song - hence  Broadway, Hollywood, America
became the m.o. of the project. I wanted to tell Berlin's story inthe
context of these three stories,a nd as a curator, my natural form is
the exhibition. I divided the book into interleaving chapters that not
only tell his story, but function as the catalogue of the three

The exhibiton on his Broadway work will open in New York on February
14th at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, after a
very successful run of five months in San Franciscio at the Performing
Arts Library and Museum. Infromation on that show can be found at
You can also get even more ifno at SFPALM"S site at

The New York run will feature many additonal wonderful artifacts from
Berlin's Broadway career and is a chance to see even more of the NYPL's
stunning collection. From New York (where it will be on through June
3rd) it goes to the McNay Koogler Museum in San Antonio from July
through September. And based on the response its been getting, it  will
probably go on from there.

The Hollywood exhibition opens at the James Michener Art Museum in
Bucks County, Pennsylvania on May 27th.
From The Jazz Singer to the integrated musical and beyond, Irving
Berlin’s story tells the evolution of the Hollywood musical as an art

And many wonder why Marilyn Monroe is on the cover of a book about
Irving Berlin. The image shows Monroe as a Follies-like showgirl in his
last film in 1954 titled THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS. I
thought it wonderfully pulls together all three strands as she is in a
film, about a stage production, and a true American icon (and she's
singing one his no-production related songs). She makes you realize
that Berlin's career encompassed so many parts of American popular
culture in the 20th century. I like it because the image because it is
both unusual and familar at the same time.

There are over 400 images inthe book that bring the story to life and
interleaving chapters on his Broadway, Hollywood, and American career
that can be read sequentially or individually. In all it is a one stop
shop for anyone interested in Berlin.
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #3 of 80: Angie (coiro) Tue 24 Jan 06 12:19
There's a ton of content to be delved into, and I promise we'll do
that! But first let's talk mechanics. It's always been intriguing to
me, that a good researcher/biographer can unearth letters, scripts,
memos, pictures, etc. that, for whatever reason, have been untouched by
people who undertook the same subject.

Can you talk about your sources, how you gained access? Where were
these little pockets of untouched gold? How did they escape earlier

What surprises did you find - both in terms of unexpected places you
ended up looking, and valuable bits you never expected to uncover?

Are there "protectors" of the Berlin legacy that you needed to
negotiate with for some of the choicer pieces?
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #4 of 80: David Leopold (dleopold1) Wed 25 Jan 06 10:44
You'll forgive me for throwing so much out at you, but Berlin's career
is so vast. Even with 240 pages in the book, nearly 500 images, and
50,000 words, there are still a few parts of Berlin's career that I was
unable to explore in the depth I would have liked.

I cast a very wide net for this project, looking at the obvious
sources, as well as a number of not-so-obvious. For me it is detective
work where there is a body but I am not interested in how he died, but
how he lived.

The place to start with Berlin is the manuscript collection at the
Library of Congress. During his career, Berlin kept everything related
to his business, but never let anyone see it. They have finally
finished cataloguing the material. In order to use the material, one
needs permission from the Estate (his three daughters are still alive
and are represented by the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization). I
went to one of their regular meetings and made the case for what I
wanted to do, and asked for complete access, but without doing an
"authorized' book. I feel an authorized book, would be more or less
just a pr organ, and I was not interested in doing that.

The family invited me to their homes and brought out everything they
had, which was considerable, and their office also had a considerable
amount sheet music and photographs.

Then I went to numerous performing and visual arts collection in New
York, Los Angeles, and many private homes all over. Of course knowing
something about the period, I was able to put together random bits from
one area with information from another to get a full picture, as well
as making new discoveries of what inspired songs.

Some of the surprises I found were a Diego Rivera painting that had
never been seen. On a visit to Mexico in 1948, the Berlins were
introduced to Diego Rivera who wanted to paint the songwriter’s
portrait. Berlin demurred, but later commissioned the artist to paint a
cover for a new song he had written “I Gave Her My Heart in Acapulco.”
This painting was never used as it was deemed “too cartoonish” and
with its scenes of interracial couples frolicking in the water, too
advanced for the South, where sheet music still sold well.

In learning that Berlin's first two Broadway shows were designed by
Vogue magazine cover artists, it soon became clear that the classic
song "Girl on the Magazine" was inspired by these artists, who had show
girls coming to life right off of Vogue covers in Berlin's second show

I could go on, but fear than another epic post will scare everyone.
More "surpises" and stories aobut the "protectors" to come...
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #5 of 80: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 25 Jan 06 11:15
(Note: offsite readers can email their comments and/or questions to
<> to have them added to this conversation)
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #6 of 80: Ari Davidow (ari) Wed 25 Jan 06 11:26
Welcome, David.

I hope this isn't too off-topic, but one of the things about Berlin is 
that he represents a generation of children of Jewish immigrants who were 
anxious to be American, as different from and opposed to being Jewish. 
Even early songs of his, in Yiddish, are notable for poking fun at Jews. 
After that, it's a subject he avoided.

Does it come up at all in the material you were exploring? Was there more 
to his work than that of a thoroughly assimilated person of a Jewish 
heritage he chose to reject?
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #7 of 80: David Leopold (dleopold1) Wed 25 Jan 06 17:07
Ari, you are right, Berlin was of the generation that wanted to be
American more than anything else. Their idea of America was inclusive,
not exclusive, and his songs reflect that. The ethnic comedy songs he
wrote at the beginning of his career were part of that assimilation.
The fun he poked at Jews, Italians, Germans, and African Americans, was
not particularly derogatory and was actually a form of acceptance. for
an immigrant to come into a vaudeville theater and hear a song about a
countrymen meant that he was too was becoming a part of America. it is
the kind of humor that one makes of their friends. Similar to rappers'
use of "nigga."

Tin Pan Alley produced a flood of ethnic songs at the turn of the
century. Beginning with his first song, Berlin wrote many in his first
decade of songwriting. His neighbors on the Lower East Side were
Italian, Irish, German, and of course Jewish, and he added their
dialects to his musical vocabulary as he did the sounds of the city. He
did write songs featuring black protagonists, but as historian Charles
Hamm points out, many are appreciative numbers that celebrated music
or dance of African Americans. His later “coon’ songs, such as “When
the Midnight Choo-Choo leaves for Alabam’,” do not even mention the
color or identify of the character singing. It is difficult to think of
these songs as ethnic songs today.”

Berlin never wrote in Yiddish, although he wrote songs like "Yiddisha
Eyes" "Yiddisha Professor." An early hit for both Berlin and Fanny
Brice who popularized it was "Saide Salome" was the story of Moishe who
goes to see his girlfriend perform in SALOME and wants her to keep her
clothes on. The protagnists are Jewish, but the sentiments are

He gave up these songs as his career progressed for the simple reason
that as he moved from the vaudeville stage to the Broadway stage and
eventually to film, this type of humor was not as popular.

Of course, it is ironic that Berlin would write the most popular song
of all time: "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade." These songs have
nothing to do with religion, yet they made the holidays seem special
for everyone. Phillip Roth wrote the Berlin was the second greatest Jew
after Moses because he took the Christ out of Christmas and the blood
out of Easter. Berlin nationalized these holidays, making them

The ethnic comedy songs do get people worked up these days, but what
really gets people going is Berlin's enjoyment of blackface. Ask me
about that.
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #8 of 80: Dan Levy (danlevy) Wed 25 Jan 06 17:13

David, what can you tell us about Berlin's enjoyment of blackface?
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #9 of 80: David Leopold (dleopold1) Thu 26 Jan 06 10:05
I find as I go out and talk about Berlin and the book, the one thing,
above all, that gets people in a lather is when I talk about blackface.
In an age when it seems that anything goes, I guess there are still
things that are taboo that are more than a century old.

What we know as the musical has its roots in the minstrel show, which
lasted into at least the first three decades of the 20th century, and
was a popular form of entertainment. The blackface minstrel show, like
the ethnic comedy songs, were not meant to derogatory the way we view
it today, but were rather a collection of stock characters (Mr. Tambo,
Mr. Bones, George Primrose, and the Interlocutor) that created stylized
entertainment like the commedia dell’arte.

Berlin loved minstrel shows. He wrote blackface numbers for vaudeville
performers, his early Broadway shows had blackface comedians in them,
and in 1927 he wrote an unproduced stage musical, MR. BONES, a story of
doomed love on the minstrel circuit that was adapted in 1930 for the
Jolson film, MAMMY.

Yet if Berlin was racist, I doubt he would have written a number for
his 1933 revue, AS THOUSANDS CHEER, in which Ethel Waters, under the
projected headline "Unknown Negro Lynched by Frenzied Mob," sang
"Supper Time" which begins:
Supper time, 
I should set the table
'cuz it's supper time, 
but somehow I ain't able
'cuz that man of mine,
ain't comin' home no more.

This is not 1954 or 1964, but 1933. Waters, who thought if there was
one song that told the story of her race it was this one, was sure the
number would cut because it was simply too powerful. She felt how could
they go singing and dancing after this. But Berlin insisted that it

When Waters co-stars objected to taking a curtain call with a black
actress, Berlin decided that the solution was simple: there would be no
curtain call. Of course, taking a bow from an actor is like taking
candy from a child. The curtain call was restored for all performers.

During World War II, Berlin put together 300 soliders in a morale
boosting, fund raising show that electrified audiences around the
world, THIS IS THE ARMY. Berlin's company in the Army was the first
integrated unti in the armed forces, and they refused any invitation
that did not include the entire company.

In THIS IS THE ARMY black performers appeared in numbers alongside
blackface numbers. No one assumed that the blackface performers were
any more representative of African Americans, than the Keystone Kops
were representative of police officers. These were stock characters,
that were played for laughs. Not at their skin color, but at their

While visiting my folks during the holidays, I happened to catch
Berlin's film HOLIDAY INN (1942) which he wrote numbers for many of the
holidays of the year. The Lincoln's Birthday song, "Abraham," was
filmed as a blackface number (Bing Crosby tries to hide his girl from
Fred Astaire by having themselves black up). I was chagrined, but not
surprised to see the number had been cut for the AMC showing. For those
of you who have to see Bring Crosby in blackface, check out my book,
which has a picture of the number.

John Stausbaugh has a book coming on blackface, BLACK LIKE YOU, this
spring, that is sure to be an interesting take on the subject.
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #10 of 80: Angie (coiro) Thu 26 Jan 06 10:27
David, if you just keep prompting questions at the end of every answer
like you did above, my job would consist of reading and drinking
coffee here! Have at it.

But seriously - I'd like to combine elements of those last two
questions. That curtain-call decision reflects a strong but practical
stance on the racisim he saw in the issue. Did his own status as a
Jewish American sensitize him to mistreatment of minorities? How much
of an issue was that for him, and for his familiy?  Hollywood in
particular was populated with very successful Jewish Americans, moreso
in the front office than on the creative side (please correct me if I'm
wrong on this). Did he face any barriers, any isolation, being a Jew?
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #11 of 80: David Leopold (dleopold1) Thu 26 Jan 06 11:17
Berlin once said that his first memory as child was seeing his home
burning in pogrom in his native Russia when he was 5. While it would be
easy, I think, to see his identification with minorities in this, it
probably only played a role.

Berlin's misfortune was also a good bit of luck. The America he came
to, and particularly the Lower East side, teemed with just about every
race and nationality. growing up in a culturally diverse neighborhood,
and with everyone being economically disadvantaged, there were many
more reasons to get along than not. It makes me think of a line by Bob
Dylan (and Sam Shepard) "Strange how people who suffer together have
stronger connections than people who are most content."

For Berlin, Jews, or any other minority, were not the Other, but
rather his friends, neighbors, and colleagues. And they were all trying
to assimilate into that great gray mass known as America, so in some
ways they had the same goal.

while the son of a cantor, Berlin nevertheless was non-practicing. I
am sure he experienced anti-semitism in his lifetime, but there is no
indication that nay particular experience left a scar on him.

His father in law was not happy about his religious affiliation,
social status, or profession, and that did cause him trouble at first,
but Berlin ended up bigger than that.

To get back to songs like "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade,"
especially after a season of the "War on Xmas." Berlin's "Happy
Holidays" was not meant to obscure the religious nature, but rather was
an invitation to join the celebration. The same people who wrap
themselves in the flag and sing Berlin's "God Bless America" and think
of him as a super-patriot (which he was in the best sense), forget
about his inclusiveness as an individual and as a songwriter/publisher.

As for Hollywood, most of the producers he worked with there, he knew
back in New York, and many were Jewish. The story of "How the Jews
Invented Hollywood" is well told in Neil Gabler's book. On the creative
side, Berlin's  most sympathetic director was a rabbi's son from New
Brunswick, Mark Sandrich, who he made four films with including three
Astaire and Rogers pictures and HOLIDAY INN. I think they are among his
best films. Berlin's closest friend in Hollywood, or anywhere else,
was in some ways the ultimate goy - Fred Astaire. both liked and
respected each other, and somehow each brought the best out in the

To answer your question, by the time Berlin got to Hollywood in 1927,
he had been a success for nearly 20 years, and was able to call the
shots. Already a legend, if his colleagues did not like working with a
Jew, it certainly paid the bills, so no one was complaining.
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #12 of 80: art siegel (arto) Thu 26 Jan 06 12:11
Hello, David.  I loved the book, not only your writing but the many
fascinating illustrations, including that mildly risque Diego Rivera
sheet music cover.  Interesting to hear you elaborate on Berlin's
Jewishness.  If I remember correctly, his lasting marriage was to a
wealthy non-Jewish heiress (though she was disinherited as a result). 
Did he self-identify as Jewish?  I think people certainly must have
viewed him as a Jew regardless.

Apart from his creative achievements, the book talks about Berlin's
business acumen, which I assume made him fabulously wealthy, something
not true of many of his very talented peers in songwriting.  Can you
talk about some of his innovative business practices?
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #13 of 80: David Gans (tnf) Thu 26 Jan 06 16:12

(I interviewed David Leopold on KPFA last fall; if you're interested in
hearing that program, with lots of music incuded, it's in five parts suitable
for download at )
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #14 of 80: Carl LaFong (mcdee) Fri 27 Jan 06 06:02
Ok, I know I'm coming in a little late and a little out of the thread
of the conversation, but I would just like to say how tired I am of
tortured discussions of minstrelsy every time an entertainer from the
first half of the 20th century is discussed.

I mean, if the entertainer being discussed is Al Jolson (or Bert
Williams) fair enough.  

But for entertainers whose careers were not focused on those issues,
maybe we should just stipulate that the minstrel tradition was around. 
If you were a successful entertainer in that period, you probably had
some connection to it, even if it was only playing on a bill with
others doing blackface.  

My dad's high school put on a minstrel show in the late 30s, I happen
to know from an old clipping I found in my grandma's stuff.  For all I
know, my dad was up there on stage playing a banjo and singing coon
songs (he's still around, but I haven't asked him).

But what does this tell you about my dad?  Nada.  During its time,
minstrelsy was thought of as absolutely normal and acceptable -- which
tells us something about the time, but not much at all about
individuals, because only a tiny subset of people ever think twice
about doing things that society considers absolutely normal and
acceptable.  I'm sure many thing we now consider acceptable will seem
strange, controversial or awful to people in 2100 (driving SUVs that
get 10 miles a gallon, for example).

Anyway, that's my rant.  
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #15 of 80: Rick Brown (danwest) Fri 27 Jan 06 06:24
Did it have a point other than letting you climb back down off the
soap-box at the end?
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #16 of 80: Mark K. McD (mcdee) Fri 27 Jan 06 06:28
    <scribbled by tnf Fri 27 Jan 06 10:35>
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #17 of 80: David Leopold (dleopold1) Fri 27 Jan 06 06:32
Hi Art! thanks for the kind words about the book.

I am sure Berlin identified as Jew his whole life, but how much of his
identity was his faith, I don't know. He never visited Israel as far
as I know, never wrote a song for it, but he gave to a number of
charities (almost always anonymously) over his career. His children I
believe were raised more in their mother's faith, although I believe
she took them to temple as well at times.

For Irving Berlin there really was no business like show business.
Early on he learned how to “sell” a song, and never lost his enthusiasm
for it. He understood the commerce that goes hand in hand with
creativity, and without any formal training in either music or
business, he became a genius at both.

After his earliest efforts, he did not work with a collaborator,
unlike most of his songwriting contemporaries. Berlin was also unique
in that he published his own music for almost his entire six-decade
career. Berlin also took an active role in producing his own Broadway
shows; he owned his own theater; and he was the first songwriter in
Hollywood to get a percentage of a film’s gross. A famous insomniac, he
frequently took care of business during the day and wrote songs at
night. Berlin felt that one could not write a “popular song”; it had to
become popular because of the sheer number of people who bought the
sheet music, recording, and/or tickets. Giving the people what they
wanted was his uncanny talent.

He could be considered an early adaptor as he recognized the
possibilities in everything from the illustrated song slide to the
animated film. During his  extraordinary long and active career from
1907 to 1966, Berlin was at the forefront of every form of mass popular
culture: sheet music, the Broadway stage, radio, records (he had
twenty-six number-one songs), film, and television. 

He was also one of the founders of ASCAP which helped all songwriters
get their due from their work. Unlike many show business stories,
Berlin's never felt financially cheated in his work. 
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #18 of 80: David Leopold (dleopold1) Fri 27 Jan 06 06:46
Carl, I only brought up the subject of blackface so that we could get
it out of the way and talk about Berlin. As for it tells about Berlin,
I think it shows he enjoyed the popular forms of entertainment of his
time and built upon them.

Blackface may not tell us alot about your dad, but as Berlin wrote
blackface numbers, including the finale of the first act of the
Ziegfeld Follies of 1919, considered by many to be the apotheosis of
the series because of its stars, sets, girls, and songs. 

It featured nine Berlin numbers when it opened. “Sterling Moon” a
blackface number from Yip Yip Yaphank (1918) was revised and called
“Mandy.” It was part of the minstrel show first act finale, with Eddie
Cantor, Bert Williams, and George Lemaire as blackface minstrels. The
singing duo of Van and Schenck came on crooning the song with John
Steele and Eddie Dowling. Marilyn Miller, dressed in pink satin, did a
soft shoe number as the chorus around her tapped. Ray Dooley as Mandy,
had ten other blackfaced chorus girls in tow, all dressed like Miller.
Nearly fifty years later Berlin would remember that “Everyone still
thinks that [the Follies of 1919] was the best Follies Ziegfeld ever
had and the Minstrel Finale was the high spot.”

The finale started with Berlin's "I'd Rather See A Minstrel Show"
which featured the following chorus:
I'd rather see a minstrel show
Than any other show I know.
Oh, those comical folks
With their riddles and jokes!
Here is the riddle that I love the best:
'Why does the chicken go...?"
You know the rest.
I'd pawn my overcoat and vest
To see a minstrel show.

When he writes about blackface, Berlin never mentions color, but the
humor of it. that was the point of my post. Blackface was part of show
business, Berlin loved show business, and wanted to share his
enthusiasm of it with a wide audience. Considered not politically
correct today, it is often misunderstood, just as his patriotism is
often seen as reactionary, rather than fairly liberal for his time.
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #19 of 80: David Leopold (dleopold1) Fri 27 Jan 06 06:55
That leaves with me with David's post. I had the pleasure of walking
through Berlin's career for more than two hours with David, playing the
songs all along the way. The songs are where the real magic is, and I
am delighted that David is making that piece available for all to hear.

I've also had the pleasure of appearing on several other radio shows
that have been archived on the web. I did a very fun hour with Irwin
Chusid on WFMU. That can be found at

I also did an hour in Philadelphia with Marti Moss-Coane's Radio Times
on WHYY. Go to  and follow the link to Radio
Times' archive of shows. I appeared on 12/19 (2nd hour) . This show
will also probably be aired on television in the spring when the
exhibition I have organized on Berlin's Hollywood work opens at the
James Michener Art Museum in Bucks County, PA
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #20 of 80: Angie Coiro (coiro) Fri 27 Jan 06 09:23
That's great, David, fills a huge hole. We can only talk so much here
about Berlin without audio!

So let's get into Berlin's evolution as a musician and composer. How
soon were his talents evident? Was he a prodigy? Was his entry into the
creative world something of a destiny, or arrived at after efforts in
other directions?
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #21 of 80: Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 27 Jan 06 10:11
At every Jewish symposium about American Jewish musicians I've attended, 
where Berlin is discussed, he is always trotted out as someone who was, a 
best, ambiguous about his origins. Great American. Not notable for his 
ethnic identity.

On the other hand, his songs were great and define a neat part of America. 
The Mandy Patinkin recording of a Yiddish version of "White Christmas" 
closes the circle ;-).
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #22 of 80: David Scott Marley (nightdog) Fri 27 Jan 06 12:05
David, I'm only about halfway through your book, but I'm fascinated by
it. The extraordinary wealth of information you've put together is

What I find so extraordinary about Irving Berlin is how versatile he
was. You look at the fact that English was his second language, you
look at his limited musical abilities, you'd have to figure this guy
wouldn't have a very wide range as a songwriter. Yet he wrote such
incredibly varied songs. Even in a revue like "As Thousands Cheer", you
can hardly believe the same person wrote "Not for All the Rice in
China" and "Easter Parade" on the one hand, and "Harlem on My Mind" and
"Supper Time" on the other. And the same is true of all his shows, the
songs are amazingly varied and amazingly surehanded in all these
different styles. From a guy whose cradle tongue was Russian and whose
musicianship was very limited.

And when he started writing songs for book musicals he often wrote
very specifically for characters. Not so much in "Louisiana Purchase,"
I think, but in "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Miss Liberty" and "Call Me
Madam", without ever going outside of the form of the popular American
song, he wrote songs for specific characters in specific situations.
And they were still good popular songs, too. Whereas you look at, say,
Cole Porter, or at the Gershwins, in the great majority of their shows
they wrote these wonderful songs that were pretty much interchangeable;
you could give "Night and Day" or "Fascinating Rhythm" to pretty much
any principal character in any of their shows and set it up with a few
lines of dialogue, but "Moonshine Lullaby" is both a terrific pop song
in standard American song form AND a striking and personal statement
about the character who sings it; you couldn't give it to anybody else
in the show, nor to anybody in, say, "Miss Liberty" or "Call Me Madam",
and have it make any sense.

He must have been working very closely with his bookwriters in shaping
these shows, and "Annie" at least was only three or four years after
"Oklahoma!", when it was a very new idea in the musical theater that
you could write songs tied to characters and situations in that way and
still have a popular score. Cole Porter, who was a much more
technically skilled composer, tried to change his style that way in his
later shows, but the more he wrote for specific characters, the less
good his songs became. So it's remarkable to me that, after writing for
so many revues, Berlin was able to adapt to that style so quickly, and
do it so well.

And so I'm wondering if your research turned up any insights into how
Berlin worked with his collaborators on "Annie" and "Call Me Madam" and
the other book shows. Any correspondence turn up, any sketches or
notebooks that might give us a peek into how he set about planning and
writing a score for a book musical?
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #23 of 80: David Leopold (dleopold1) Fri 27 Jan 06 12:29
Berlin left his family on the Lower East Side at the age of 13 so that
his widowed mother and hardworking brothers and sisters would not be
burdened with his mouth to feed. 

He slept in flophouses, or sometimes on the streets around the Bowery,
the most dangerous section of New York at that time, called the
“paradise of the criminal.” He was one of more than 10,000 homeless in
the region. He first worked as a newsboy, then a busker, singing
popular songs in the streets or in saloons for whatever coins were
tossed his way. Although not a great singer, he learned how “sell” a
song, and his ballad singing could bring tears to even a hardened
drunkard’s eyes.

He soon got a job as a singing waiter at the Pelham Café, one of the
area’s more colorful watering holes. It was a regular stop for
criminals, prostitutes, and anyone looking to lose himself in drink.
Working all night, Berlin and his fellow waiters took turns at devising
parody lyrics to popular tunes. 

Customers started to forsake the dive when Callahan’s, a saloon around
the corner featured a new song hit written by their own piano player
and waiter, titled, “My Mariucci Take A Steamboat.” In response,
Berlin's boss, Mike Slater demanded that his staff come up a song and

Berlin worked with the saloon’s pianist on the assignment, with Berlin
supplying the words. When they had come up with “Marie From Sunny
Italy,” an Italian dialect love song, they were chagrined to discover
that neither knew how to transcribe their work. Berlin had spent odd
moments at the piano picking at only the black keys. It would be
another twenty five years before he could take down a lead sheet.

When the song was finally transcribed, they shopped it around Tin Pan
Alley, a warren of offices on West Twenty-eighth Street. Berlin claimed
thirty-seven cents was all he ever made on the song (although I have a
roaylty statment in the book that shows that he made at least $1.20).
The publisher mistakenly credited the song’s lyrics not to Bailine
(Berlin's given name) but to “I. Berlin,” and a new name and
personality was born.

Despite the song’s failure, Berlin enjoyed the experience, and less
than a year later he had another song published (in which he is
credited with both the words and music.) Another flop. A third, written
three weeks later for music publisher Maurice Abrahams fared no

A singer asked Berlin for a “wop” song. The talk at the time was of
the Italian marathon runner, Pierro Doronado, who had lost the race in
the 1908 London Olympics owing to a technicality. Berlin used the idea
of the runner as the basis for the story of his song. 

The publisher, Henry Waterson of the Ted Snyder Co., saw promise in
the young man and offered him a job as a staff lyricist. Soon the songs
began to pour out. 

A month later he scored another, even bigger, hit with a “Hebe” song,
“Sadie Salome (Go Home),” a comic song about a man who goes to see the
risqué opera  Salome, only to discover that his own sweetheart is
singing the title role.  Again, Berlin had drawn on current events, as
the Met’s controversial production of Strauss’s opera Salome, with its
Dance of the Seven Veils, had recently been closed after one
performance in response to public outrage. 

As a lyricist working with different musicians, he was the constant in
all of these successes, and he may have contributed much to the music
as well. He often started with a title or an idea, and gradually worked
up some verses and picked out a melody on the black keys of a piano.
Once he felt he had something, he would ask a trained musician to take
it down. On his earliest songs, the pianist had indeed been a
collaborator. Soon, however, Berlin bought a composing piano, which had
a wheel under its keyboard that allowed its player to shift into any
key. He often referred to it as “my Buick.” A fixture in Tin Pan Alley,
the composing piano soon became part of the Berlin legend. Still
working on the black keys in F sharp, Berlin would soon hire a musical
secretary to transcribe what he had worked out on his piano.
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #24 of 80: David Leopold (dleopold1) Fri 27 Jan 06 13:17
Thanks for the wonderfully insightful post about Berlin. Even after
spending as much time as I have with Berlin, the sheer breadth of his
accomplishments leave me a bit baffled. How did he do it? he worked
hard for sure, and seem preternaturally tapped into the American

As for how he worked on book shows and writing for characters. With
ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, of course, his producers were Rodgers and
Hamemerstein, his director was Josh Logan, and the story is about show
business, so he had the right mentors and the right subject.

But if you look back to some of his earliest shows and films, you will
see that he is already writing remarkable hits that happen to be
perfect for his characters. Although OKLAHOMA! (1943) is generally
considered the start of the integrated musical (with a bow to SHOWBOAT
in 1927), I think the integrated musical might begin in Hollywood in
the 1930s.

Berlin's first great film there is TOP HAT (1935) and his score for
that is not only incredible (the first to have all five songs in the
Hit Parade at the same time) but great songs for the film's characters.
At the top when Astaire sings "No Strings" we not only get a clear
idea of his character, but his dance introduces him to Ginger Rogers,
not in a performance setting but in a "book" setting. Now the film
closer, The Piccolino is in no way a integrated song, but its great

Even earlier in 1930, Berlin wrote a script and a score for film
originally titled LOVE IN A COTTAGE, but then renamed REACHING FOR THE
MOON. The script is a romantic comedy, much in the style of Astaire and
Rogers (before the duo ever danced together - actually both were still
on Broadway and not as an act) but without the dancing. The songs were
very well integrated, but were cut from the film during production,
leaving a completely disjointed film. Film musicals were considered box
office poison at the time and the powers that be decided they could do
without them. You never heard of the film, well you see how good that
decision was.

To get back specifically to ANNIE. Berlin was asked by R and H to take
over for Jerome Kern who had died suddenly before he started to work
on the show. Berlin had his doubts. His idea of the West was the
Beverly Wilshire Hotel. It had been six years since his last book show.
Berlin also admitted to Hammerstein that he did not feel comfortable
with “hillbilly lyrics.” Hammerstein counseled him to drop the final
“g” from most verbs and he would be fine. After reading the one and
only act at that point, Berlin wrote “Doin’ What Comes Nat’urally” and
“They Say It’s Wonderful” in a weekend. 

Two decades later, Berlin recalled that the songs came quickly and
easily “because of the possibilities in the Fields’ script, my
association with Rodgers and Hammerstein and, above all, writing songs
for Ethel Merman.”

Josh Logan tells a story in his autobiography that they finished a
production meeting and knew they needed a duet for the two leads. When
he returned home 15 - 20 minutes later his phone was ringing. It was
Berlin who played him "Anything You Can Do." When Logan said where did
you find that one? Berlin said he wrote inthe cab on the ride home. He
knew they needed something quick.

Although already a living legend, Berlin was a team player. Open
production meetings for Annie Get Your Gun were held at Hammerstein’s
home in New York, and the group ironed out many of the problems that
were normally left for the out-of-town tryouts. In New Haven, Berlin
may have felt odd not having any of the usual backstage dramas, and he
continually re-worked “Doin’ What Comes Nat’urally,” before leaving it
as it was originally written. 

For CALL ME MADAM, playwright Russel Crouse confided to his diary on
August 22, 1949, “Lindsay and Irving Berlin to dinner and tell him our
idea, and he’s never heard of Perle Mesta and doesn’t know much about
square dancing. And I am discouraged but he warms up later.” Lindsay
and Crouse had thought up a new idea for a musical based on the
exploits of Perle Mesta, a wealthy manufacturer’s widow who had moved
to Washington a decade earlier and raised money for the Democratic

After Berlin's wife told him who Mesta was, Berlin called Crouse the
next day enthused about the project. By December Berlin had written
half of the score, including some of the best numbers in the show “The
Hostess With Mostes’ On The Ball” and “Can You Use Any Money Today?”
they did rest mostly by mail, as Berlin was a warm weather person and
wrote the score in Nassau.

He lett the sitatuions dictate the song, but he considered himself a
songwriter, not a composer, so he wrote hits.  Couldn't stop himself. 
“I’ve tried to work completely from their book. The songs I’ve written
are topical enough to be in a revue. The show is a topical as State of
the Union,” Berlin said right before the show opened, referring to
Lindsay and Crouse’s comic hit about life in the White House. “The
songs I’ve done are certainly not for the ‘Annie’ type of show. I’ve
tried not to write for Ethel Merman but for the situations that the
boys have provided. I’m sure that Ethel can sing any song I’ve written
—but it better be good.”
inkwell.vue.264 : David Leopold - "Irving Berlin's Show Business"
permalink #25 of 80: Franklin J. Flocks (fjf) Sun 29 Jan 06 12:09
Hello David - I am very much enjoying your book.  You mentioned on page
153 that Woody Guthrie considered the ideas behind Berlin's song, "God
Bless America" to be reactionary and that (in 1939) it inspired him to
write "'This Land Is Your Land," originally titled "God Blessed America."  
Did Berlin say anything in response?

- I have read that the last verse of This Land is Your Land originally

"One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people --
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
[God blessed America for me.]" 

(See  Even if Berlin
never heard it in that form its a pretty strong statement.


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