The NiteLife Person of the Week: The great Songwriter Irving Berlin, born this week in 1888

BY ROB LESTER**** Here’s a True or False Quiz on the iconic songwriter whose work is still heard today, though he was born 12 years before the 19th century ended.  Here are 10 interesting facts (or lies) about Irving Berlin… So which statements are true?  Answers below.  

1.  It was so difficult to get past Irving Berlin’s very protective secretary, Hilda, that folks trying in vain to talk to him nicknamed her “The Berlin Wall.”  —–  True or False?

2.  In various stage productions of Berlin’s smash show Annie Get Your Gun, after the original 1946 production, the role of real-life sharpshooter Annie Oakley was played by Mary Martin, Dolores Gray, Barbara Eden, Debbie Reynolds, Ginger Rogers, Cathy Rigby, Jenn Collela, Susan Lucci, Cheryl Ladd, Reba McEntire, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Suzi Quatro, Karen Morrow, Lee Remick, Jo Anne Worley, Jay P. Morgan, Judy Kaye, Lucie Arnaz, and someone who first came to fame playing another gal named Annie: Andrea McArdle.     —–   True or False?

3. Back in the 1930s, all the songs in Irving Berlin’s score for the film Top Hat reached the Top 15 the same week and were featured on the popular radio show Your Hit Parade.    —–  True or False?

4.  Rodgers & Hart wrote the score for a musical produced by the famous impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, who hired Irving Berlin to write an additional song.  This especially displeased Rodgers & Hart because they didn’t find out until they attended opening night and heard it and then sat by as it got the cheers and critics’ praise.  — True or False?

5.  Dorothy was the name of Irving Berlin’s first wife and was also the name of the two songwriters-turned-producers who presented one of his biggest hits.  Another Dorothy was signed to write the lyrics, but when the man slated to write the music with with her suddenly died, she — whose own idea the show was— agreed to just write the script, with the help of her brother, when Irving Berlin came on board, since he’d been writing his own lyrics since his early days.  —-  True or False?

6.  Like his fellow theatre composers Kurt Weill and Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin’s father was a chicken-plucker.  When his dad complained about a lack of skill, Irving wrote a comedy number called “Better Pluck Next Time.”   —  True or False?

7.  Oddly, Irving Berlin’s last Broadway show, Mr. Presidentwas about the life of a fictional French President who had been a successful and rich businessman, had no political experience, alienated much of the country and was impeached in the show’s big musical finale.    —- True or False?

8.  The original title of the melody that became Berlin’s big hit “White Christmas” was “Black Thursday,” because it was written for a musical film with a scene about the day of the 1929 stock market crash.  When the producer asked him if he could write a new, more cheerful lyric, he sarcastically said, “What do you want me to do? Change ‘Black Thursday’ to ‘White Christmas’ and be a sentimental slob?”  The producer said it was a great idea and a classic was born.   —- True or False?   

9.  Berlin’s 1950 hit show Call Me Madam, about a U.S. ambassador, was originally titled Call Me Adam because the main character was named Adam, with a wife named Eve, to be played by Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe in their planned Broadway debuts.  When Sinatra and Monroe couldn’t come to terms on salary with producer David Merrick, the ambassador role was rewritten for a woman when Ethel Merman said she liked the songs.  Because the title song “Call Me Adam” had already been written, with clever rhymes for “Adam,” the title was changed so the rhymes and most of the other words could be used.  —-  True or False?

10.  The series of CDs which recently came out featuring many of Irving Berlin’s very early songs, some of which had never been recorded, have the following connection to Berlin’s family.  Some are cast albums of shows about the songwriter’s career and the role of Berlin is played on all of them by the great-grandson of Berlin, who has lived his whole life in Russia, speaks no English and learned them all phonetically.  His name is Alexander Berlin, and he was named after the songwriter’s first giant hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”  Because one of the CDs includes the iconic Berlin song “God Bless America,” the Russian government cancelled a Russian TV broadcast of the biographical musical.  A YouTube performance of Alexander singing this number in both English and Russian has gone viral with over 700,000,000 hits.  “We Berlins certainly know about having hits!!” he said when told about this.       —-  True or False?

OK… Look down below to check your answers!!


1. Anita Gillette, who co-starred in Irving Berlin’s last Broadway musical, presented this amusing fact about the nickname for the fesity Hilda in her cabaret show.  Yes, it’s true.

2. Ethel Merman played the role originally, in 1946, and played it again in a NYC revival a full 20 years later, causing someone to famously tag the show Granny Get Your Gun.  And all these ladies played the star part, too, so this is also true.

3. That would make a score with a perfect score, wouldn’t it?  And it did!  This is true and quite a coup!

4. Many stage productions had songs by others interpolated into scores by the main writers hired.  It’s not always the original plan.  It happened to these writers and this is all true.  The song was “Blue Skies,” which certainly lasted to this day, 91 years later. The musical was called Betsy. 

5. Berlin was married to heiress Ellin Mackay from the first week of January in 1926 until her death in 1988.  But, before that, he was married to a woman named Dorothy, for six months.  She died on their honeymoon.  The producers of the show in question, the aforementioned Annie Get Your Gun, also were married to women named Dorothy.  This show was planned to have lyrics by the successful Dorothy Fields, a rare female in the Broadway world of writers, returning to her successful collaboration with composer Jerome Kern, who suddenly died.  She agreed to work on the script with her brother Herbert and Berlin agreed to write the songs, writing the first few over a weekend.  So, again, this is all true.

6. Irving Berlin wrote “Better Luck Next Time,” but plucking chickens was not a subject for a song created for his dad, Moses, who died when Irving (born Israel Baline) was eight years old.  Moses had been a cantor singing in synagogues, like the fathers of Arlen and Weill.  So that story about chicken-plucking is false in every way.

7. Mr. President was about the fictional chief executive, named Stephen Henderson, of a country called the United States, which is, apparently, real— unlike the story we tried to present, which is not true at all.  Imagine that—a bunch of lies and a U.S. President together!

8. The holiday hit “Easter Parade” was based on an older Berlin song, a rather coy non-hit called “Smile and Show Your Dimple,” but “White Christmas” was always just that.  This story is false.  Merry Christmas!

9. Call Me Madam is a fun show, but its ambassador protagonist was always female and Ethel Merman played her in the show and in the film version.  The character was never called Adam, but her last name was Adams.  The show did not even have a title song and there aren’t a lot of rhymes for “Madam.” Well, years later, Berlin did write what would’ve been/could’ve been a title song for a TV version to star Angela Lansbury, but it never came to be.

10. That series of Berlin CDs is a bonanza and great fun, but the rare and famous songs of the great writer have no connection to Alexander Berlin, because Irving had no such-named great-grandson. False, false, false!   Irving was, however, born in Russia and came to America with his family when he was a little boy.  The CDs are the projects of writer/director/producer Chip Deffaa.  Here is a link to them and his other theatre-related recordings, and you can feast on the sound clips: