11 Surprising Facts About Irving Berlin

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Irving Berlin is famous for writing classic American songs such as “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” "Puttin' on the Ritz," and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Known as the King of Tin Pan Alley, he wrote more than 1000 songs that appeared in movies, TV shows, and Broadway musicals. In honor of what would be Berlin’s 130th birthday, here are 11 facts about the legendary songwriter.

1. HE WAS RUSSIAN BY BIRTH, NOT GERMAN.

Israel Isidore Baline was born May 11, 1888 in Mohilev, Russia. In the early 1890s, Berlin’s parents moved their family of eight (Israel, who was 5 at the time, was the youngest of six) from Russia to New York City’s Lower East Side to escape anti-Jewish pogroms. He went by Izzy in America in an attempt to assimilate, and when his first composition was printed, it bore the name "I. Berlin." Berlin allowed a rumor to circulate that it was a printing error that created his pen name, but biographers tend to note that he chose it because it closely resembled his birth name, but sounded less ethnic. In 1911, he legally made the change from Izzy Baline to Irving Berlin.

2. AFTER HIS FATHER DIED, HE QUIT SCHOOL AND BEGAN SINGING ON THE STREET.

Berlin's father, Moses Baline, had been a cantor (one who leads prayer songs) in Russia, but had trouble finding steady work in America. He died of chronic bronchitis when Berlin was just 13. Though the young boy had already been selling newspapers to try to help his family make money, Berlin quit school and, in an attempt to lessen the financial burden for his mother, he also moved out and lived in a ghetto on the Bowery, beginning when he was just 14 years old. To support himself, he busked on the streets and in back rooms of saloons for money, hoping that passersby and bar regulars would give him their spare change. He later worked as a singing waiter in Chinatown.

3. HE EARNED A HANDFUL OF COINS FOR HIS FIRST SONG.

In 1907, Berlin sold the publishing rights to his first song to a music publisher for 75 cents. Because he co-wrote the song, called “Marie from Sunny Italy,” with a pianist, Berlin only received half (approximately 37 cents) of the payment for the piece.

4. HIS RAGTIME SONG INSPIRED A TRENDY DANCE.

Long before the Macarena or the Harlem Shake, Berlin’s song “Alexander's Ragtime Band” (1911) topped the charts and sold more than 1 million copies of sheet music. Although it wasn’t an authentic ragtime song, it inspired people across the world to hit the dance floor. Over the decades, different singers including Ray Charles recorded versions of the song.

5. “WHEN I LOST YOU” WAS ABOUT THE DEATH OF HIS NEW WIFE.

In 1912, Berlin married Dorothy Goetz, but his new wife caught typhoid fever on their honeymoon in Cuba and died five months later. He wrote his first ballad, “When I Lost You,” about the experience: “I lost the sunshine and roses / I lost the heavens of blue / I lost the beautiful rainbow… When I lost you.” The song sold more than 1 million copies.

6. HE WROTE PATRIOTIC SONGS IN WWI AND WWII.

In 1917, during World War I, the U.S. Army drafted Berlin to write patriotic songs. In order to raise funds for a community building on his Long Island army base, he wrote Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, a popular musical revue performed by actual soldiers that later went to various theaters around New York. It included the popular song "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," which Berlin sang at each performance.

During World War II, Berlin wrote This Is The Army, which became a Broadway musical and 1943 film starring Ronald Reagan. Berlin chose not to personally profit from the show—he gave all the earnings, over $9.5 million, to the U.S. Army Emergency Relief Fund.

7. HE BOUGHT TRANSPOSING PIANOS DUE TO HIS LACK OF MUSICAL TRAINING.

Despite Berlin’s incredible songwriting success, he was neither classically trained nor educated in music theory. He only knew how to play the piano in F sharp, so in order to write songs that didn’t all sound the same, he bought transposing keyboards. These special keyboards changed the key, allowing him to play the same notes but produce different sounds. Berlin also paid music secretaries who notated and transcribed his music.

8. HIS INTERFAITH MARRIAGE GENERATED CONTROVERSY.


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In 1925, Berlin met and fell in love with a Roman Catholic debutante named Ellin Mackay. Her father, a financier named Clarence Mackay, disapproved of Berlin because he was Jewish. The couple’s interfaith relationship attracted major press attention, and Mackay’s father reportedly disowned her when she married him in a secret ceremony in 1926. One biographer noted that though Irving was Jewish and Ellin was Catholic, their three daughters were raised Protestant, "largely because Ellin was in favor of religious tolerance." Mackay’s father came around several years later, and the Berlins were together for 62 years until Ellin's death in 1988. He died the following year at age 101.

9. HE GAVE ALL ROYALTIES FOR “GOD BLESS AMERICA” TO THE BOY AND GIRL SCOUTS.

Although Berlin originally wrote “God Bless America” during WWI for Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, he didn’t use the song until 1938. Through its lyrics, Berlin expressed his gratitude to America for giving him everything, and “God Bless America” became an instantly recognizable, patriotic song.

He decided that 100 percent of the song’s royalties would go to the Boy and Girl Scouts and the Campfire Girls. Thanks to Berlin’s God Bless America Fund, which assigned royalties from “God Bless America” (plus his other patriotic songs) to the Scouts, the organizations have received millions of dollars over the years.

10. HE COMPOSED ANNIE GET YOUR GUN AFTER HIS FRIEND’S SUDDEN DEATH.

In 1945, composer Jerome Kern (best known for Show Boat) started working on the score for a new Rodgers and Hammerstein-produced musical, Annie Get Your Gun. But when Kern died unexpectedly within a week of starting to write, Berlin took over scoring duties. Berlin’s music and lyrics for the musical, which included songs such as “There's No Business Like Show Business” and “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” helped make Annie Get Your Gun a massive success.

11. ALTHOUGH “WHITE CHRISTMAS” IS HIS BIGGEST HIT, CHRISTMAS WAS A TRAGIC TIME FOR BERLIN.

“White Christmas” has become a Christmas classic, selling more than 100 million copies. But Christmas was a time of sadness for Berlin and his wife: their only son, also named Irving, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome on Christmas Day in 1928. The baby was three weeks old when he died, and the Berlins, along with their three other children, mourned his death each holiday season.

The Massive Elvis Festival That Rocks One Tiny Australian Town Every January

Ian Waldie/Getty Images
Ian Waldie/Getty Images

For one weekend each the year, Elvis Presley is alive and well in Parkes, Australia. The tiny town hosts the Parkes Elvis Festival during the second weekend of every January to mark the music legend's birthday on January 8. In 2019, the event attracted a record 27,000 guests to the showground—more than twice Parkes's usual population of 11,400, Smithsonian reports.

Elvis fans Bob and Anne Steel held the first-ever festival in 1993 at their restaurant, Gracelands. On top of being an excuse to throw a birthday party for their favorite celebrity, they set up the festival to draw tourists to Parkes during the region's brutally hot off-season. (During a record heat wave in January 2017, Parkes experienced a high temperature of 114.6°F.)

While the first festival lasted one night and had an attendance of just a few hundred people, it has since grown into a five-day affair with an international reputation. Visitors come from around the world to celebrate the music, fashion, and dance moves of The King. It's a large enough event that festival-goers have the option to travel to Parkes from Sydney via special trains dubbed the Blue Suede Express and the Elvis Express. On board, they're treated to the company of Elvis impersonators and performances by Elvis tribute artists for the six-hour journey.

Guests who made it to this year's Elvis Festival from January 9 to 13 took part in ukulele lessons, Elvis-themed bingo, "Elvis the Pelvis" dance sessions, and a Q&A with Elvis impersonators. This year's Northparkes Mines Street Parade, one of the festival's main events, included more than 180 floats, vintage vehicles, bands, and walking processions paying homage to the icon.

Competitions are usually a big part of the festival, with both Elvis Presley and Miss Priscilla look-alikes facing off on stage. This year, the "Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist' crown went to 22-year-old Brody Finlay, the youngest winner in the event's history.

Each year, the Elvis Presley festival returns to Parkes with a new theme, giving Elvis fans an incentive to keep coming back. This year, the theme "All Shook Up" celebrated the 1950s era. In 2020, festival organizers are preparing to celebrate the 1966 Elvis comedy Frankie and Johnny.

Can't make it to Australia? Grab a bite of Elvis at one of these American eateries inspired by The King.

[h/t Smithsonian]

12 Larger-Than-Life Facts About Carol Channing

Carol Channing circa 1970.
Carol Channing circa 1970.
John Downing/Express/Getty Images

Legendary Broadway star Carol Channing died January 15, 2019, just two weeks shy of her 98th birthday. Her long, storied career includes her hit Broadway shows Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly!, and her lovably wacky roles in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Alice in Wonderland. Her 70+ year entertainment presence has garnered a Tony (plus two honorary ones), a Golden Globe, and an Academy Award nomination.

1. AS A YOUNG GIRL IN SAN FRANCISCO, CHANNING FELL IN LOVE WITH THE THEATER.

Carol Channing in her 'Hello, Dolly!' costume in 1979.
Carol Channing in her 'Hello, Dolly!' costume in 1979.
Monti Spry/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born in Seattle on January 31, 1921, Channing moved with her family to San Francisco shortly after birth. Her father worked as editor-in-chief of several Christian Science newspapers, and as a young child, she accompanied her mother to the Curran Theatre to help distribute these newspapers backstage. Channing recalled a powerful feeling that overcame her as she felt the theater was a sacred place. "I stood there and realized—I'll never forget it because it came over me so strongly—that this is a temple," she told The Austin Chronicle in 2005. "This is a cathedral. … This is for people who have gotten a glimpse of creation and all they do is recreate it. I stood there and wanted to kiss the floorboards." She used her weekly allowance of 50 cents to buy tickets to see live theater in San Francisco.

2. HER FIRST BIG STARRING BROADWAY ROLE WAS IN GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES.

In 1949, Channing landed her first lead role in a Broadway musical, playing Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. "Bye Bye Baby" and "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" became the most well-known songs from the show, though Channing often performed another of her character's big numbers, "I'm Just a Little Girl from Little Rock," throughout the years. The part made her a star. In the 1953 film adaptation, Marilyn Monroe played Lorelei Lee, a role that also cemented her celebrity status.

3. SHE PERFORMED HELLO, DOLLY! MORE THAN 5000 TIMES.

In January 1964, Channing originated the role of matchmaker and general busybody Dolly Gallagher Levi in the Broadway musical Hello, Dolly! The show was a huge success, and Channing later starred in Broadway revivals and in touring productions, performing the musical more than 5000 times. Even if she was sick, she almost always chose to go on stage, feeling healed by the audience’s positive energy.

4. CHANNING WAS INCREDIBLY BITTER WHEN BARBRA STREISAND WAS CAST AS DOLLY IN THE FILM VERSION.

Streisand's performance on Broadway as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl is legendary, but one musical swept the 1964 Tony Awards, and that was Hello, Dolly! Channing's musical won 10 Tonys (out of 11 nominations), including a statuette for Channing's Dolly over Streisand's Fanny. A few years later, however, when casting for the movie version, the screenwriter felt Channing's outsized personality (as evidenced in her performance in 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie) wouldn't play well for an entire movie. Streisand, who was only 25 at the time, was cast as the middle-aged matchmaker. "I felt suicidal; I felt like jumping out a window," Channing told a newspaper years later. "I felt like someone had kidnapped my part." In her 2002 autobiography Just Lucky I Guess, Channing admitted that even though she views Streisand as a great creative force and that she admires her, the bitterness remains. "Her movie of Dolly was the biggest financial flop Twentieth Century-Fox ever had," Channing wrote. "There! I said it."

5. HER SUCCESS IN HELLO, DOLLY! ALLOWED HER TO BEFRIEND PRESIDENTIAL FAMILIES.

A year after JFK's assassination, Jackie Kennedy and her two kids saw Hello, Dolly! and met Channing backstage. In the summer, Channing would visit the Kennedy family in Hyannis Port every other weekend on her days off. After Channing sang an adapted version of "Hello, Dolly" for Lyndon Johnson's 1964 election campaign, she became friends with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, later visiting the Johnsons' family ranch.

6. SHE PARTNERED WITH DESI ARNAZ FOR HER OWN TV SHOW.

In 1966, Channing filmed a pilot episode for The Carol Channing Show with Desilu, Lucille Ball’s production company that she had originally founded with ex-husband Desi Arnaz. Directed and produced by Arnaz, the episode never turned into a series, which Channing attributes to the mismatch between her comedic style and the I Love Lucy writers who wrote the episode.

7. CHANNING APPEARED ON TV SHOWS RANGING FROM THE LOVE BOAT TO SESAME STREET TO THE ADDAMS FAMILY.

Channing guest-starred on TV shows like Sesame Street, singing a "Hello, Dolly" variation called "Hello, Sammy," as well as The Red Skelton Show, The Muppet Show, The Love Boat, Magnum, P.I., and The Drew Carey Show. She also appeared on classic TV game shows What's My Line? and Hollywood Squares, and voiced characters on The Addams Family and The Magic School Bus.

8. SHE THOUGHT SHE WAS PART AFRICAN-AMERICAN FOR MOST OF HER LIFE.

In Just Lucky I Guess, Channing revealed that before she went to college, her mother told her that her father was born in the south and that his mother was African-American. Channing hadn’t revealed that she was part black until 2002, but eight years later she backtracked on Wendy Williams's talk show. She explained that she doesn’t know for certain if she’s part black or not because when her mother claimed her father was half black, she was angry at him and may have wanted to get back at him for something. Plus, the census records from 1890, which should hold the key to her father's parentage, were destroyed in a fire, so that portion of Channing's heritage may always remain a mystery.

9. SHE RELEASED A GOSPEL ALBUM IN MEMORY OF HER FATHER.

Carol Channing with her memoir in 2003.
Carol Channing with her memoir in 2003.
Jessica Silverstein/Getty Images

In 2009, Channing released a gospel album, For Heaven's Sake, in memory of her father, who sang gospel songs to her when she was growing up. Channing included spirituals like "Joshua Fit' the Battle of Jericho" and classic Americana songs that her father had taught her. "I can hear my father's voice harmonizing with me every time I sing them although he's long gone," she said in 2010.

10. AT 82 YEARS OLD, CHANNING MARRIED HER CHILDHOOD SWEETHEART.

Carol Channing and her husband Harry Kullijan in May 2003.
Carol Channing and her husband Harry Kullijan in May 2003.
Jessica Silverstein/Getty Images

In 2003, at 82 years old, Channing married her fourth husband, Harry Kullijian. The couple had met in middle school but lost touch over the decades. In her autobiography, Channing devoted a passage to describing her "first love" experience with Kullijian, whom she "went steady" with for two years. "I was so in love with Harry I couldn’t stop hugging him," she wrote. He heard about the passage in the book and contacted her, and they got engaged two weeks after their reunion. They remained together until his death in 2011.

11. SHE FOUNDED A NON-PROFIT TO SUPPORT ARTS EDUCATION.

Carol Channing in 2004.
Carol Channing in 2004.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In 2004, Channing received an honorary doctorate from California State University, Stanislaus. Inspired to support arts programs in schools, she founded the Dr. Carol Channing and Harry Kullijian Foundation for the Arts with her husband. Now called the American Foundation for Arts Education, the non-profit works to make arts part of schools' core curriculums. Channing herself visited schools and taught master classes.

12. JOHNNY DEPP’S DREAM ROLE IS TO PLAY CHANNING.

Carol Channing performs in 2003.
Carol Channing performs in 2003.
Giulio Marcocchi/Getty Images

Johnny Depp has mentioned a couple of times that he'd love to play Channing in a biopic; in 2009 he called it a "dream role," and in 2013 he reiterated that point. "I mean it. She's fantastic," he told reporters. Depp's appreciation runs deep: he also revealed that he used to dress up as her as a kid. Channing, for her part, loves the idea. "Men have been imitating me for as long as I can remember," she quipped. "In fact, most of the impersonations I have seen have had a five o'clock shadow."

This story first ran in 2016.

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