Irving Berlin, the “King of Tin Pan Alley,” is a legend of American musical theatre. He is the author of some of the greatest hits of the past century, including “Blue Skies,” “White Christmas,” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band;” a seven-time nominee and winner of an Academy Award; the winner of the 1951 Tony Award for Best Score (for Call Me Madam); and the recipient of the Army’s Medal of Merit, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline in Tyumen, Russia on May 11, 1888. His family soon fled Russia to escape persecution and immigrated to New York in 1893. In his youth, he made ends meet by first working as a street singer, then as a singing waiter in 1906 at Pelham’s restaurant in Chinatown. He soon became popular with the customers for his parodies of contemporary hits. His first published tune for which he wrote the lyrics was “Marie From Sunny Italy” in 1907. When the music was printed, his name was misspelled on the sheet music as “I. Berlin.” Baline decided to keep it, changing his name to Irving Berlin.
Berlin soon became a lyricist for the music publishing company Waterson & Snyder. He also began to write some of his own melodies during this time, but only with the assistance of arrangers. Berlin himself never learned how to read music and was a self-taught pianist, playing exclusively in the key of F-sharp. Throughout his life he would work with assistants and later with a special transcribing keyboard to explore music in other keys.
In 1911, Berlin wrote his first major hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which earned him the nickname “King of Tin Pan Alley.” The song sold over a million copies in just a few months and became a national craze. Soon after, he was hired to write the music and lyrics to a Broadway musical starring the popular dance couple Vernon and Irene Castle. Watch Your Step opened in 1914 and was a modest success—Berlin’s music received particular praise from critics.
Berlin became a U.S. citizen in 1916, and during his service in the First World War penned the musical Yip! Yap! Yaphank! as an Army fundraiser. Some 20 years later in 1938, Berlin again contributed to the American patriotic spirit when he published one of the cast-off songs from that musical, “God Bless America.” Berlin donated the entire royalties from that song to the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Campfire Girls, saying that he refused to capitalize on patriotism. After the attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into the Second World War, Berlin wrote another patriotic musical entitled This is the Army. Berlin donated all of the royalties and proceeds from this show to charity—an amount that totaled over ten million dollars.
After the Second World War, Berlin worked extensively in Hollywood and on Broadway. Some of his greatest hits include the musical Puttin’ On the Ritz (1929), the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers smash hit film Top Hat (1935), the Fred Astaire/Audrey Hepburn film Easter Parade (1948), and the Ethel Merman Broadway spectacular Annie Get Your Gun (1946).
Berlin’s personal life was as romantic as the plots of his musicals. His first marriage was to Dorothy Goetz in 1912, but she died tragically a few months later of typhoid fever. Thirteen years later, in 1925, Berlin fell in love again, this time with Ellin Mackay, a young New York heiress. Her father was opposed to the match, and soon sent Ellin off to Europe in order to separate the lovers. While she was abroad, Berlin penned some of his most famous love ballads, including “Remember” and “Always.” Upon her return to New York, the two eloped and were married in a simple civil ceremony. Theirs was a lifelong romance that yielded four children, and they were inseparable until Ellin died in July 1988 at age 85.
After crafting the musical Mr. President in 1962, Berlin retired. He lived out most of the remainder of his life in the Catskill Mountains with his family, making only infrequent public appearances. Berlin died in New York City on September 22, 1989, at age 101. The importance of Berlin’s legacy can hardly be overemphasized: he wrote the foundational songs of the Great American Songbook, some of the most seminal tunes of early American musical theatre, and important songs in both the First and Second World War. As Jerome Kern once said, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music.”
By Holly Dayton