Happy 129th Birthday, Irving Berlin!

The immortal Irving Berlin was born Israel Isidor Baline in Tolochin, Russian Empire, 129 years ago today. The great Jerome Kern once said of Berlin, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music,” and we couldn’t agree more. Perhaps no songwriter’s works are heard more often on Cladrite Radio. Here are 10 IB Did-You-Knows:

  • Berlin’s father, Moses, a cantor in a synagogue, moved his family to New York City when Irving was five to escape anti-Jewish pogroms. Berlin said his only memory of Russia was lying on a blanket by the road as a young child and watching the family home burn to the ground.
  • Moses, unable to find work as a cantor, worked instead in a kosher meat market near the family’s home on the Lower East Side and gave Hebrew lessons on the side. He died when Berlin was just 13. Irving began working as a newsboy at age eight, hawking The New York Evening Journal, and his mother, Lena, worked as a midwife.
  • While selling papers on the Bowery, Berlin was exposed to the popular music of the day pouring out of the neighborhood’s saloons and restaurants. He began to sing some of those songs as he sold papers, and picked up some spare change from appreciative customers in return.
  • At 14, feeling he wasn’t contributing enough to the family’s welfare, he moved out, spending his nights in a series of lodging houses along and near the Bowery. He at first made his living stopping in saloons and singing songs for tips, but before long, he took a job singing at Tony Pastor’s Music Hall in Union Square and at 18, he got a job as a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe in Chinatown. All the while, he was teaching himself to play piano during his off-hours.
  • Berlin’s first hit, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, created a ragtime craze that reached even his native Russia.
  • It’s estimated that Berlin, one of the few songwriters of his era who composed both lyrics and melody, wrote as many as 1,500 songs, including the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films. His songs received seven “Best Original Song” Academy Award nominations, with White Christmas, written for the 1942 picture Holiday Inn, earning Berlin an Oscar.
  • Berlin was not a fan of Elvis Presley‘s recording of White Christmas, going so far as to send a letter to the nation’s top radio stations, requesting that they not play it over the air.
  • All Berlin’s songs were written solely on the black keys of the piano, which is the key of F Sharp. His specially constructed piano had pedals that changed the key for Berlin.
  • Berlin’s hit song Easter Parade was a reworking of one of his earlier songs, Smile and Show Your Dimple.
  • Despite his association with the holiday, Christmas was a bittersweet day for Berlin, whose infant son, Irving Berlin, Jr., died on Christmas 1928 of typhoid fever.

Happy birthday, Irving Berlin, wherever you may be!

Irving Berlin

Those were the days

It’s a common trait among New Yorkers, both native-born and émigrés of long-standing: We’re all convinced that city’s glory days are now behind it, that the latest arrivals from such outposts asa Waukegan, Wewoka, and Walla Walla are clueless as to what they’ve missed as the city continues to renovate, refurbish and remake itself and beloved retail establishments, eateries, nightspots, and culture centers close their doors for good.

Mind you, this attitude has not become prevalent in just the past couple of years or even the past couple of decades. It’s been this way for at least a century and probably longer. All it takes the closing of a favorite dumpling house, dive bar, or quirky boutique, and we quickly jump to the conclusion that the city just ain’t what it used to be.

Well, what the city used to be is easier to ascertain now, with the opening of the New York City Municipal Archives Online Gallery. This collection of more than 870,000 images lets New Yorkers (and those who wish they were) browse the city’s past with ease, whether one prefers to browse a particular collection of images or use key words to search the entire gallery.

We naturally searched for sepia images of our neighborhood, Chelsea, and we learned that the city is much better off today than it was in the 1930s in at least one key category: In looking at several 1931 shots of our very own block, we were struck by the utter lack of foliage.

Say what you will about the good old days in NYC, the city had a distinct shortage of trees back then, as the photos below demonstrate. As quickly as we’d jump at the chance to time travel back to 1931, we think our block looks significantly more appealing today than it did then (the cool old cars aside), and if you’ll click on the images, you can get an even better look.

New York as it was

Frank Oscar Larson (1896-1964) was born in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, of Swedish immigrant parents and lived in Flushing, Queens most of his life. As an adult, Larson spent his days at a branch of the Empire Trust Company (now Bank of New York Mellon), working his way up through the ranks from auditor to vice-president, and spare time on weekends taking photographs of street life throughout New York City.

He was an accomplished photographer who eloquently documented 1950s Chinatown, the Bowery, Hell’s Kitchen, City Island, Times Square, Central Park, and much more.

This exhibition is compiled from thousands of negatives recently discovered stored away in his daughter-in-law’s house in Maine in 2009. Soren Larson, his grandson and a television news camera man and producer, has been scanning and printing the 55-year-old images found stored in over 100 envelopes filled with mostly medium format, 2-1/4 x 2-1/4″ negatives, and neatly noted by location and date in Larson’s own hand.

Frank Oscar Larson: 1950s New York Street Stories is on view at the
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Times Square Tintypes: Irving Berlin

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles perhaps the greatest of American songwriters, Irving Berlin.
 

THE BIRTH OF THE BLUES

HE has a name that will live forever and he bought it for a song. IRIVING BERLIN.
Came to this country at the age of four, the youngest of eight children. In Russia his father was a cantor. Here a kosher butcher.
He has yet to find a hat to fit him.
He eats a lot for one of his size.
Plays the piano by ear. And only in F sharp. Has a specially constructed piano with a sliding keyboard. When the music calls for another key he merely moves the lever.
He is not a one finger player. Uses all his fingers badly.
Has a scar on his forehead. It was received on a Washington’s Birthday in Cherry Street, trying to start a bonfire.
Thinks he is a good stud poker player. His friends say he’s lucky.
His pet aversions are riveters and second verses.
Ran away from home at the age of fourteen. His first stop was Callahan’s saloon. Here he sang “The Mansion of Aching Hearts” until enough coins were tossed at him to pay for a night’s lodging. Later became a singing waiter at Nigger Mike’s place, 12 Pell Street. The barker on the trip to Chinatown bus now points out the place.
He wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” credited with starting the jazz vogue, at the age of twenty-three.
Crowds frighten him. So do certain individuals.
His idea of a great achievement is writing a song that reaches the million copy mark.
Maintains a home in West Forty-sixth Street. But lives elsewhere. The first of every month generally finds him moving.
His square moniker is Israel Baline. For a time, he went under the name of Cooney. Became Berlin because that was the way the Bowery pronounced Baline.
As a singing waiter he kicked a hoofer named George White out of the place for being a pest, and he served Al Smith.
Is always chewing gum. This can be observed by merely watching the funny way his hat moves on his head.
His favorite biographer is Alexander Woollcott.
He composes in this fashion: First playing the song on the piano. Then singing it to Arthur Johnson, his right and left hand man, who records upon paper what he hears. Then Johnson plays the written manuscript. This is the first draft. From this Berlin works on to the final version. Often after a song has been published he changes it.
His bill for flowers for the Mrs. is $1,000 a month.
His patent leather dinner shoes have more cracks than his hair has waves.
Of all the songs he has written, a figure exceeding four hundred, his favorite is “The Song Is Ended But the Melody Lingers On.”
Is very restless. Can’t sit or stand still. Always paces the floor. He walks miles in any room he is in. It is the only exercise he gets.
As far as playwrights go, his taste begins and ends with George S. Kaufman. As for music, he’ll whistle anything by Jerome Kern. For lyrics he hands first prize to B. G. De Sylva. And if asked to name the swellest guy in the theatrical game, he’d shout Sam Harris.
He has had to change his entire working schedule since he became a father.
He has never worn a diamond. The only jewelry he wears is, occasionally, a pearl tie pin.
Never eats the crust of bread or rolls. Always plucks the filling. This can be seen circled about his plate.
After finishing a song he sings it to the first person he meets. A bell boy at Palm Beach was the first person to hear “Lazy.” A Broadway taxi driver was the first to hear “All Alone.” A bewildered stranger, occupation unknown, was the first to hear “Say It With Music.”
He never writes anything in longhand but his signature on a check. Everything else he prints.
The one thing in life he is looking forward to is walking into a restaurant with his daughter, Mary Ellen.
Of all the songs ever written the one he’d love to be the author of is “The Rosary.”
On the fly leaf of a book containing every song he wrote there is this ditty which he believes sums up everything:

Let Me Be a Troubadour,
And I Will For Nothing More
Than One Short Hour Or So
To Sing My Song And Go.

He has a form-fitting couch which was especially designed for him.