Tag Archives: Irving Berlin

Friday Flashback #152

“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” — the wonderful Westport Country Playhouse production running now through August 3 — got me thinking about entertainment options, back in the day.

America’s greatest songwriter lived long enough to see Elvis Presley (whose version of “White Christmas” he loathed) and MTV (it’s unclear what Berlin thought of “Video Killed the Radio Star”).

But in 1919 — when he turned 31, and was already a Tin Pan Alley and Broadway composing star — the main entertainment in many small towns was a motion picture theater.

Westport was no exception. The Fine Arts on the Post Road (today it’s Restoration Hardware) seems like a hopping spot. I posted photos a while ago.

Now — thanks to Kevin Slater — we’ve got a great idea of exactly what Westport movie-goers were watching, exactly 100 years ago.

There were 3 shows a day: a 2:30 matinee, then 7 and 8:45 p.m.

But the Fine Arts was open just on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. (The fact that it was closed Sunday was so obvious, it wasn’t even noted on the poster.)

You had to move fast: Each movie (and accompanying shorts and newsreels) was there for one day only.

So what was Irving Berlin doing in 1919, when long-forgotten names like J. Walter Kerrigan, Vivian Martin and Madge Kennedy were stars?

That’s the year he wrote “A Pretty Girl is Like a melody” for Ziegfeld’s Follies.

And it was a full 8 years before Al Jolson performed Berlin’s “Blue Skies” in “The Jazz Singer” — the first feature sound film ever.

If you had any questions about any of the shows — and you could find a telephone — all you had to do was call.

The phone number was right there at the top corner: 325.

Irving Berlin: Playhouse Production Is Nostalgic, Educational — And Very Relevant

It’s mid-July. But the set for the Westport Country Playhouse production of “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” — which opened last night — evokes a snowy winter night.

(Photo/Dan Woog)

Of course. America’s greatest songwriter is well known for “White Christmas.”

Plus “God Bless America.” “Easter Parade.” “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” And many, many, many, many, more.

His life — from his birth in the Russian Empire, to his youth on the Lower East Side (he left school at 13), to Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood, with a stop in the Army, and all the ups and downs of his personal life — is told with warmth, wit and wonder.

It’s a remarkable tale. He lived to be 101 — long enough so that his copyright on “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” expired before he did.

The show is educational, entertaining and fun.

It’s also extremely timely. Berlin was an immigrant who loved his adopted country. The story behind “God Bless America” — with the Playhouse audience singing first quietly, then lustily along — gives goose bumps.

(“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” runs through August 3. Click here for more information, and tickets.)