[Dixielandjazz] I'm Dreaming Of A White Christmas - One of 1500 by
barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Fri Dec 23 07:35:53 PST 2005
LONG, but then, so was Irving Berlin's OKOM career.(1500 songs including
"Alexander's Ragtime Band") If you are in NYC tomorrow night, why not join
the carolers at 17 Beekman Place and sing "White Christmas" with them for
this annual tribute at Irving Berlin's last residence?
His Manhattan - Dreaming of Irving Berlin in the Season That He Owned
By GLENN COLLINS - December 23, 2005 - NY Times
Irving Berlin's New York was a world of Broadway babies, teeming matinees,
entrances at the Imperial, exits at the St. James, joyful noise at the New
Amsterdam and civic veneration for his great mentor, the showman George M.
The town house on Beekman Place where Berlin lived for 42 years. Now the
Luxembourg House, it has been the site of an annual sing-along of Berlin's
"White Christmas" since 1982.
And it still is.
It's not just that the 1954 movie "White Christmas," highlighting Berlin's
definitive musical statement on the splendor of the holidays, is playing -
as it must, on Christmas Day - on television. And it is no surprise that a
steadfast group of carolers will be singing that classic tomorrow night, as
they have done for more than 20 years, outside 17 Beekman Place, the
five-story town house that Berlin inhabited for 42 years.
After all, he was the nation's songwriter, and vestiges of his long sojourn
in Manhattan are everywhere, a fact that is celebrated in a sumptuous new
book, "Irving Berlin's Show Business" (Harry N. Abrams). And thanks to
exhibitions and a festival, New York will become Berlin Country in the
coming months, far in advance of the centennial of the first of his 1,500
songs in 2007.
His enduring prominence may seem improbable, since Berlin, the man who wrote
"God Bless America," "Easter Parade," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Cheek to
Cheek," "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Blue Skies" and "Puttin'
On the Ritz" was born 117 years ago. His six-decade career, from 1907 to
1966, spanned sheet music, the stage, recordings, radio, film and
television, and for millions his canon continues to evoke powerful emotions.
"He hasn't had a hit song since 1966 with 'An Old-Fashioned Wedding,' but
these days you can't go to many places in Manhattan without bumping into
him," said David Leopold, author of the new book. "We all know his songs,
and they are all part of who we are."
And so it is the moment for Irving Berlin in the season that he owned.
"This time of year is especially his," said Mary Ellin Barrett, Berlin's
79-year-old daughter, who lives in Manhattan and has helped guard his
legacy. "His songs evoke so much feeling at this time when we like to be
close to our families." Berlin also comes to mind in a time of war; he has
the distinction of having created anthems not only for Christmas and Easter,
but also for America itself.
"God Bless America" returned to the Top 10 after Sept. 11, 2001, when Celine
Dion recorded it as the title track of a benefit album; it reached No. 1 on
the Billboard chart in October 2001. The following year, the United States
Postal Service released a commemorative Berlin stamp.
Even Berlin's earning capacity seems remarkably undiminished from the time
of his unimaginable fame in that era when the piano was the nation's
home-entertainment center. The annual Forbes.com list of the rich and
deceased claims that Berlin's works earned $7 million last year (tying two
others among the departed, Johnny Cash and George Harrison). Berlin's
privately held estate has never revealed its revenues.
Beyond this, through more than six decades, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts
of New York have received more than $10 million in royalties from "God Bless
America" and other songs, thanks to Berlin's donation; last year the
contribution was $500,000.
That Berlin was a man of Manhattan cannot be doubted. "My father spent a lot
of time in Hollywood, yes, but he always thought of himself as a New
Yorker," Mrs. Barrett said. "The city was in his bones and his blood, and he
"Everyone, regardless of age, knows five Berlin songs," said Mr. Leopold, a
40-year-old independent curator and archivist who has organized exhibitions
on the works of Oscar Hammerstein, Moss Hart and George Kaufman, and who
also wrote "Hirschfeld's Hollywood" (Harry N. Abrams, 2001), a compendium of
Al Hirschfeld's film-related art.
Mr. Leopold's Berlin book is a 240-page visual biography summoning up the
songwriter's legacy in an assemblage of photographs, drawings, posters, set
and costume designs, sheet music and album covers.
The book is a companion to three exhibitions curated by Mr. Leopold. "Show
Business: Irving Berlin's Broadway," organized for the New York Public
Library, opened in San Francisco last July and arrives at the New York
Public Library for the Performing Arts on Feb. 14. This spring, the Film
Society of Lincoln Center plans to hold a Berlin film festival.
Another exhibition, "Show Business: Irving Berlin's Hollywood," will open at
the James Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa., in May. "Show Business:
Irving Berlin's America" is to open in Washington in 2007 under the auspices
of the Library of Congress.
There is no time like the holiday present, however, to take a tour of the
New York of Berlin, who emigrated from Russia at age 5, left home at 13 to
sing in the city's streets and saloons, and began his celebrated journey
down Tin Pan Alley in 1907. In fact, there is so much extant Berliniana that
a comprehensive inventory would make for a punishingly long walk. Perhaps
the most amiable place to embark on a tour of some prominent haunts is
Gallagher's Steak House, the Runyonesque hangout at 228 West 52d Street that
began as a speakeasy in 1927.
Though favorites such as Lindy's, Dinty Moore's and the Cub Room of the
Stork Club are all gone, Berlin - a steak fancier - "would have dinner at
Gallagher's, and there was always someone else in the restaurant that he
knew," Mrs. Barrett said.
Thus legally fortified (hidden silver flasks at Gallagher's are no longer
the essential accessories they were during deepest Prohibition), pilgrims
might head east to Broadway, turning to salute the Broadway Theater, current
home of "The Color Purple" - 1681 Broadway, at 53rd Street. There, in 1911,
Will Archie and Helen Hayes sang Berlin's first stage duet, "There's a Girl
Stop at 799 Seventh Avenue, at 52d Street, the site of the Irving Berlin
Music Company from 1933 to 1944, if only to note that it is now the Sheraton
New York Hotel. Back then, Berlin's office was focused on musicals,
including "Face the Music" and "As Thousands Cheer," and it handled the
stunning popularity of "God Bless America." It remained his New York base
when he turned his talents to Hollywood in the 1930's.
Walk down to 1650 Broadway, at 51st Street. It was the home of Berlin's
music business from November 1944 to 1963, right next to the Winter Garden
Theater (now the Cadillac Winter Garden). The current home of "Mamma Mia!,"
the theater at 1634 Broadway between 50th and 51st Streets once featured
Berlin's "Broadway Beauties of 1920." Summon up, for a moment, the frantic
hurly-burly of 1920's Broadway, when 300 shows a year hit the boards, and
envision the excitement and sense of occasion that made dressing up for the
theater essential. Even in a time when Broadway production has ramped down
to a saner pace, and T-shirts and blue jeans are more prevalent than furs,
it is still a glorious throwback to walk among the bustling theaters just
before curtain time.
Wander, then, down to 1619 Broadway (the Brill Building), between 49th and
50th Streets, which once housed a favorite Berlin diversion: the Trans-Lux
Newsreel Theater, a staple of the era that was the cable-news info crawl of
its day. Although starting in the 1950's the Brill Building would be
remembered as the center of doo-wop and pop music crafting, the real Tin Pan
Alley in Berlin's early years centered on 28th Street between Fifth Avenue
Fittingly, the place where the offices of Irving Berlin Inc. were situated
from 1921 to 1933 (1607 Broadway, between 48th and 49th Streets) has been
replaced by the Crowne Plaza Hotel, formerly the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza.
"That hotel chain," Mr. Leopold said, "was named for the movie 'Holiday
Inn,' " the 1942 perennial starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire that, of
course, showcased Berlin's "White Christmas." Not the least of Berlin's
achievements was that this son of a cantor, born Israel Baline in a Russian
village, created an imperishable idealization of a hallowed Christian
Further south, there is the Palace Theater, on Seventh Avenue between 46th
and 47th Streets. Berlin performed there as a vaudevillian during the week
of Oct. 13, 1919, and first sang his own "Nobody Knows (and Nobody Seems to
At the traffic island at West 46th Street in Times Square, you can give your
regards to the bronze statue of George M. Cohan. The great showman
championed Berlin early, and made him a member of the Friars Club in 1911.
Berlin, who had been a pallbearer at the funeral of the man he revered, was
the primary force behind the statue, Mr. Leopold said.
The Music Box Theater, at 239 West 45th Street, was the only Broadway house
built to accommodate the works of a songwriter, Mr. Leopold said. It was the
home of Berlin's "Music Box Revue" from 1921 to 1925 and "As Thousands
Cheer" in 1933. An exhibition in the lobby (closed for the moment) is a
shrine to Berlin.
In 1940, Berlin's "Louisiana Purchase" played at the Imperial Theater, at
249 West 45th Street. It was there, too, that Ethel Merman starred in "Annie
Get Your Gun" in 1946; she also headlined there in "Call Me Madam" in 1950.
Though Merman's huge stage presence derived from leather lungs and a
powerhouse capacity to deliver Broadway belt, she was grateful to Berlin for
roles in these shows, she said, because his lyrics "made a lady out of me"
and "showed that I had a softer side."
Stroll down the south side of West 44th Street, on the way to Sardi's (where
Berlin used to wait for reviews), and look for the bronze plaque
commemorating the American Theater Wing's Stage Door Canteen, a World War II
servicemen's oasis of entertainment and refreshment. Berlin attended the
canteen's opening in 1942, and that year his song "I Left My Heart at the
Stage Door Canteen" was designated the organization's official anthem.
At 214 West 42nd Street is the New Amsterdam Theater, currently inhabited by
"The Lion King," where Berlin's first Broadway show, "Watch Your Step," was
presented on Dec. 8, 1914. Here, Berlin also contributed to the Ziegfeld
Follies of 1916 - and 1918, 1919, 1920 and 1927.
For extra course credit, true Berlin lovers must wander east to the
Algonquin Hotel at 59 West 44th Street, that literary landmark where Berlin
wrote the lyrics for "Alice in Wonderland" on hotel stationery for his 1924
"Music Box Revue."
Two blocks to the north, a mostly forgotten little gem of Berliniana adorns
the thoroughfare now dubbed Little Brazil Street. At 29 West 46th Street - a
six-story building with weather-beaten marble columns over a Twin Donut shop
and a Blimpie Base - Berlin lived from 1921 to 1926 in the rooftop apartment
with its still-visible buildingwide picture window. For a time, he moved his
business office there.
Further north, and a bit to the east, is Paley Park on 53rd Street, between
Fifth and Madison Avenues, the site of the Cub Room of the Stork Club, a
favorite of Berlin's.
Finally, Berlin's spectral presence is especially intense at Luxembourg
House, 17 Beekman Place (at 50th Street). This town house was home to Berlin
and his family from 1947 until he died in his sleep on Sept. 22, 1989, at
101. A plaque notes that Berlin "lived in this house for his last 42 years."
"I especially remember Christmas and Thanksgiving in that house," Mrs.
Barrett said, recalling that her father "had a movie projector, so he'd have
friends for dinner and he'd show a movie. I thought it was so grand."
As they have there every Christmas Eve since 1982, at 6:30 tomorrow night a
hardy band will carol "White Christmas" and other Berlin favorites. The
tradition began spontaneously when John Wallowitch, the Manhattan
songwriter, pianist and cabaret performer, gathered four other Berlin
worshipers in front of the house to sing "White Christmas."
The house, incidentally, was where Berlin composed "Call Me Madam." That
1950 musical is a retelling of the commotion attending the appointment of
the flamboyant hostess Perle Mesta as ambassador to Luxembourg.
The house was bought by the government of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg
after Berlin's death. "It was a complete coincidence, of course, but one we
embrace," said Georges Faber, the consul general of Luxembourg. Mesta "is
still remembered fondly in Luxembourg," he said, continuing, "We like to
think that she brought the notion of glamour to our country."
The carolers have returned to the house every year, and the group has grown.
The second year, after the caroling, the singers, to their astonishment,
were welcomed into the kitchen, where they were greeted by the 95-year-old
Berlin. "He was standing there in his bathrobe and slippers, and it was so
touching," Mr. Wallowitch said. "He kissed all the girls and hugged all the
guys and said, 'This is the nicest Christmas present I ever got.' "
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