Irving Berlin: ‘master of secular religion’


“What Irving Berlin did for the modern musical theatre,” Alan Lerner once quipped, “was to make it possible.”

But Jeffrey Magee, author of “Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater” (Oxford University Press: $35), appears to believe that Lerner’s praise is an understatement precisely because Berlin’s achievement and influence cannot be restricted to the theater. “Berlin profoundly shaped the principal sites of American musical entertainment from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway to Hollywood,” insists Magee in his masterful study of both the man and his music. “His enterprising musicianship, lyric craft, industrious work habits, stalwart patriotism, and irrepressible optimism (despite bouts of severe depression) manifest a Russian Jewish immigrant’s hunger to belong to the New World.”

Exactly here is both the irony and the importance of Berlin’s role in American popular culture.  He was born somewhere in the Russian empire in the 19th century, endured the violent anti-Semitism of that time and place, entered America through Ellis Island — where the family name was changed from “Beilin” to “Baline” — and started his musical career when the death of his father (a cantor who also worked as a kosher meat inspector) forced him to support the family by singing for tips in saloons in the Bowery.  Young Israel (Izzy) Baline renamed himself Irving Berlin on the publication of his first song in 1907, and he went on to compose a songbook that creates and celebrates a mythic vision of America, ranging from “God Bless America” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” to “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas.”

Magee describes the engine of Berlin’s creativity as his “Lower East Side Aesthetic,” which the author defines as “a practical, and even survivalist, view of creativity as a job joining ambition, entrepreneurship, mercantilism, and, not least, craft.”  Here is yet another irony: “To some this might sound remarkably reminiscent of what used to be called the Protestant Work Ethic,” explains Magee, “except that the more ambitious of the mostly non-Protestant Lower East Siders, being excluded from entry into more conventional and respectable enterprises, found entertainment to be among the most welcoming avenues for work.”

Magee concedes that his definition of the Lower East Side Aesthetic “conjures the anti-Semitic stereotype of rapacious greed” that can be found in the writings and utterances of Jew-haters as various as Richard Wagner and Henry Ford.  But he insists that Berlin’s willingness to sacrifice personal style to popular appeal can be seen as an act of creativity that permitted Berlin and other composers of his generation to “recognize African America contributions as essential to finding an American sound in song.” Then, too, Magee observes a tendency in Berlin’s generation of artists and entertainers “to shift seamlessly between forms that others distinguish as ‘high’ or ‘low,’ or as Irving Howe has put it in his discussion of American Yiddish theater, between schund (trash) and literatur (literature).”

The oddity of a song like “Easter Parade” coming from a cantor’s son has been much remarked upon. “Easter he turns into a fashion show,” cracked Philip Roth, citing it as an example of Berlin’s “Jewish genius,” but Magee corrects Roth: “Berlin did not do this,” he explains. “What he did was distill into song something that well-to-do Christian New Yorkers had been doing already for decades. The Easter parade, not churchgoing, had marked the single most public and visible collective recognition of the holiday since the 1880s.” 

Magee, a professor of music and theater at the University of Illinois, has produced a work of scholarship rather than a popular biography, and is seeking levels of meaning that are not readily apparent to those of us who just love the good old songs.  For example, he includes a good deal of musical notation to illustrate the fine points of composition that he discerns in the Berlin oeuvre. And I came away from the book with much new information about the technical distinctions between minstrelsy, vaudeville and musical comedy, the origins of Broadway — a neighborhood of New York once known as the “Thieves Lair” — as a theatrical venue, and much else besides.

Indeed, one of the glories of Magee’s book is the sheer abundance of fascinating detail, some of which has little or nothing to do with music but all of which helps us to understand the reinvention of American culture and identity that took place in the early 20th century. Thus, for example, the author pauses during his discussion of “Yip Yip Yaphank,” Berlin’s career-making army camp show, to introduce us to a product called “Bevo,” a form of near-beer that was “the closest thing to alcohol that a soldier could drink during wartime.”  Berlin turned it into “a new kind of drinking song” that was both a precursor to Prohibition and “a rare early example of product placement” — Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Bevo, paid $10,000 to Berlin, who promptly donated the money to charity.

Berlin, in fact, contributed to virtually every aspect of American media culture in his lifetime.  He contributed numbers to the Ziegfeld Follies; he was hailed as both “the Ragtime King” and the “king of jazz;” he wrote the score for “The Cocoanuts,” a stage musical that was the breakout vehicle for a vaudeville act called the Marx Brothers; he worked on three Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie musicals (starting with “Top Hat” in 1935); and he penned the tunes for the Rogers and Hammerstein production of “Annie Get Your Gun,” including a song titled “Take It in Your Stride,” which was ultimately replaced with a reprise of the show-stopper, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” in the 1946 production.

Magee’s final pronouncement on Irving Berlin is measured.  He sees “a fundamental paradox” in Berlin’s work, which reflects a mastery of American musical traditions but also a reliance on “hoary clichés that had their roots in the turn-of-the-century vaudeville.” Still, he credits Berlin with transcending his own immigrant roots — the disparate origins of his audiences — in order to create not merely a memorable songbook but nothing less than “a redemptive form of secular religion.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at books@jewishjournal.com.

The Circuit


Willkommen, Shalom

Leading representatives from Germany, Israel and the local Jewish community mingled cheerfully at the Brentwood home of Lee and Larry Ramer on June 8, to mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the federal republic and the Jewish state.

Remarking on the evolution of a relationship from deadliest enemies to political allies were consuls-general Ehud Danoch of Israel and Dr. Hans-Juergen Wendler of Germany, and Sherry Weinman, L.A. president of the American Jewish Committee.

The occasion was also a farewell address of sorts for Wendler, who served in Tel Aviv in the 1980s and will be retiring soon from his country’s diplomatic service.

“After 40 years, we have intensive relations between Israel and Germany,” he observed. “But they are not normal relations, because of the enormity of the Shoah.” — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

ADL’s ‘Delovely’ Night

With the elegant Bel Air Hotel as a backdrop, Anti-Defamation League (ADL) donors were honored for their support recently when they were treated to an evening of cocktails and the lilting tones of popular cabaret singer Andrea Marcovicci. A welcome speech by ADL Regional Director Amanda Susskind reiterated the organization’s successful economic turnarounds and sang the praises of departing ADL favorite Loren Stephens, director of major gifts and planned giving for the ADL Pacific Northwest region for 14 years. Almost 100 guests sat enrapt, listening to Marcovicci’s Cole Porter presentation “How’s Your Romance?”

Marcovicci awed the guests with a selection of Porter from his most popular, “Let’s Misbehave,” to lesser-known works from earlier shows; her rendition of “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” was a crowd pleaser. In addition to the honorees, those in attendance included Sam and Sooky Goldman, Dr. Alfred and Cec Katz.

Lasorda a Good Sport

Leagues of fans recently turned out to fete legend Tommy Lasorda and raise money for Vista Del Mar — and both efforts were accomplished with style at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Almost $1 million was raised to help children as attendees bid on numerous auction items and enjoyed the comedy stylings of Paul Rodriguez. Sports permeated the atmosphere as some diners actually snuck away to view the Pistons/Heat confrontation on the plasma TV displayed with the other prizes in the lobby.

Charity honcho and longtime Vista Del Mar supporter Stanley Black hosted the festivities. The event has long been a favorite and a big fundraiser for the group that serves the Los Angeles community and its children in need.

Crosby Gets Fried

Comedy was king recently when Norm Crosby was roasted at the Friars Club when his comic friends showed up to honor a legend.

The packed room nibbled and sipped while exchanging showbiz stories to mark the occasion of the release of Big Vision Entertainment’s “The World’s Greatest Stand-Up Comedy Collection.” The series was compiled from Crosby’s television series “The Comedy Shop” and features early performances from some of today’s comedy giants.

Attending the star-studded event were Monty Hall and wife, Marilyn; Loni Anderson; Red Buttons, whose significant other, noted American artist Jane Wooster Scott, was en route to Sun Valley for the summer; a newly extreme made-over comic Steve Mittleman; George Schlatter; Mitzi Gaynor, looking youthful and radiant; Murray Langston (aka The Unknown Comic); Max Alexander and a host of others.

Comedy aficionados got their laugh fix for the year just standing in the midst of so much raw humorous energy.

Cheers to the Federation

Anheuser-Busch Cos., Inc., continuing a heritage of supporting The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, recently presented a $100,000 check to the organization.

The donation will support a wide variety of education, social welfare and human services provided on a nonsectarian basis by the federation and its 22 local, national and international agencies.

Since 1993, Anheuser-Busch has donated more than $1.1 million to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a total of $5.3 million to Jewish agencies nationwide.

Hope Inspires Hope

It was an upbeat and happy evening recently when The Greater Los Angeles/Orange County Chapter of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) hosted the 28th annual Miracle Dinner — The Miracle of Hope Gala — at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Nearly 400 guests enjoyed dazzling performances by the internationally renowned performing dance troupe Le Masquerade, danced to music from the Gold Record Award-winning artists of Fifth Avenue Orchestra and participated in silent and live auctions.

Hope Anisgarten, Randi Grant, Cathy Greenly and Sherry Porat were presented with the A.J. and Claire Levine Distinguished Service Award for Exemplary Dedication to the Greater Los Angeles/Orange County Chapter.

Proceeds from the Miracle of Hope benefit biomedical research, education programs for patients and physicians, support groups and a summer camp program for children with inflammatory bowel disease.