A profile of the great American songwriter and some of his classic songs

By Kristi Casey Sanders

In a world where Madonna is considered an innovative musical artist because she’s been around for 20 years, it’s hard to imagine the power Irving Berlin must have had between 1911 and the mid-1960s, when he was creating iconic popular songs such as “God Bless America” and “White Christmas.” For more than 70 years, his music dominated Broadway stages, Hollywood movies and radio play lists. Although he stopped composing in the 1960s, his music still resonates. In 1982, Berlin became the oldest songwriter (age 94) on Billboard’s Top-100, thanks to Taco Orkerse’s cover of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

Now, a new musical adaptation of the film Irving Berlin’s White Christmas , one of the most anticipated shows of the Theater of the Stars season, debuts this month on the Fox stage. Like the 1954 film, the stage musical Irving Berlin’s White Christmas features some of Berlin’s best-loved songs, including the titular number, which held the record for best-selling single in any musical category for more than 50 years.

But, this legendary American songwriter wasn’t born in America. In fact, he wasn’t even born Irving Berlin. He was born Israel Isidore Baline in Belarus in 1888, and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1893. While working as a singing waiter in New York’s Chinatown, he was approached to write the restaurant a catchy theme song. When the song, “Marie from Sunny Italy,” was published, his name was misprinted as “I. Berlin” on the sheet music, giving the young man a new career and a new name.

Berlin’s first hit song was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911); during the ensuing 50 years, 12 versions of the song topped the music charts. After serving in World War I, Berlin began producing annual revues of new songs at the Music Box, a Broadway theater he built on W. 45th Street in New York. He also wrote a few traditional Broadway musicals, of which Annie Get Your Gun (1946) was his most successful.

Movies proved a perfect showcase for his work. His Hollywood musicals (Top Hat , Easter Parade ) featured attractive performers and a string of catchy songs unencumbered by heavy plots. Ironically, the Jewish Berlin became associated with Christian holidays because of his holiday-themed compositions. He also created many shows for the armed forces, performing extensively during World War II for soldiers in war zones.

Here’s a look at some of the classic songs you’ll hear this month in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas:

Blue Skies (1926) The song was written for a Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical. On opening night, the audience demanded more than 20 encores of “Blue Skies.” Singer/star Belle Baker forgot the lyrics during the last encore, so Berlin sang them from his seat in the front row. The follow year, it became the first song sung in a motion picture, in Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer .

Let Yourself Go (1936) Written for the film Follow the Fleet , it was first sung by Ginger Rogers. Other singers who have recorded the piece include Fred Astaire, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald.

How Deep is the Ocean? (1932) Two 1930 Berlin songs served as a springboard for this 1932 composition: “To My Mammy,” which was written for Al Jolson, and “How Much I Love You.” The haunting melody ends: “And if I ever lost you/How much would I cry?/How deep is the ocean?/How high is the sky?”

White Christmas (1940) Berlin penned the song poolside at the Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa in Phoenix, gently poking fun at a L.A. friend’s nostalgia for snowy Christmases. Bing Crosby first sang the song in the film Holiday Inn . His 1947 recording is the one most familiar to radio listeners, but artists ranging from The Three Tenors to Twisted Sister have recorded versions in every genre imaginable.

I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm (1937) Originally appearing in the film On the Avenue , the song was sung by Dick Powell and Alice Faye, two musical stars who could act and sing, but couldn’t dance.

Let Me Sing and I’m Happy (1930) Berlin originally wrote this song for the film Mammy . At the time, star Al Jolson, who performed in blackface, was receiving $500,000 per film.

Happy Holidays (1942) In 1940, Berlin was commissioned to write songs for a film musical based on his idea of an inn only open on public holidays. The resulting film, Holiday Inn (1942), starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, and introduced the world to this song and “White Christmas.”

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas plays The Fabulous Fox Theatre Nov. 6-11.