God blessed America with Irving Berlin

 

 “I don’t like to be alone. And one thing a song will never do is leave you alone.” –Irving Berlin

By Eric George Tauber

SAN DIEGO — Hershey Felder has a devoted following in this town made evident by the packed house just a few days before Christmas. A gifted and animated pianist and storyteller, he holds pathos in one hand and humor in the other, weaving engaging tales that are full of heart.

On this trip, Felder brings us into the private world of Irving Berlin, an elegant parlor decked out for the holiday –theirs, not ours- with a tastefully ornamented evergreen and red poinsettias behind a shiny baby grand. Berlin talks to himself, or rather, Berlin’s top-of-his-game self talks to his 100 year-old curmudgeonly self.

With 232 hit songs and the Presidential Medal of Merit from Harry Truman, Irving Berlin has definitely made his mark as an American cultural icon. Berlin wrote for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ethel Merman, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland…. Blue Skies was featured on the first talkie, The Jazz Singer by Al Jolson and White Christmas with Bing Crosby endures as a holiday favorite. Kate Smith sang God Bless America to sell war bonds during World War II. Without them, Europe could be dominated by the Third Reich to this day and the Shoah would have left no survivors.

“When you are singing, you know you have a neshuma.” –Moishe Beilin (Berlin’s father)

A poor Jewish immigrant, Berlin was born Israel Beilin, the son of a cantor in a humble shtetl. He was five when it was burned to the ground in a pogrom. From there, the family came to a tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where they scratched out a living. When old enough, Berlin worked as a singing waiter in a deli in Chinatown in fierce competition with the Italian place down the street.

Berlin’s first hit was Alexander’s Ragtime Band in 1911. Scott Joplin claimed it was his, which Berlin of course denied. I’d heard the story from Joplin’s point-of-view in another show, so I was a little disappointed that Felder made no mention of the controversy. I don’t know whom to believe, but I know that the yetzer hara gets the better of all of us sometimes.

Berlin fell smitten with Ellen Mackay, a debutante of the Comstock Fortune who danced with the Prince of Wales. She was disinherited for marrying an immigrant Jew, but she got the song Always, still popular at weddings to this day. It was a love affair that would last sixty-two years.

There’s so much more to the story, but it’s Hershey’s to tell and he’s telling it on the Lyceum Stage until January 7. Come a little early to peruse an assortment of vibrant paintings capturing the zeitgeist of the Swing Era by the San Diego Watercolor Society. I particularly liked Beverly Berwick’s String Serenade and Wanda Honeycutt’s surreal Lost in the Music.

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Tauber is a freelance writer specializing in coverage of the arts. He may be contacted via [email protected]

 

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