A grand piano, a Christmas tree, a fireplace, two big windows and snow falling outside… it made me want to reach for an eggnog, but I was at The Armory and settling into my seat when Hershey Felder walked out on the stage to begin his one-man show about the life and music of Irving Berlin, the great American songwriter. For the next hour and forty-five minutes, Felder held the SRO audience at Portland Center Stage spellbound as he retold Berlin’s remarkable life story, singing and playing the piano with such panache that you practically thought you were watching Berlin himself.
Starting with Berlin’s humble beginnings as a refugee from Russia where his family’s home was burnt to the ground because of rampant anti-Semitism, Felder embarked on a tour of Berlin’s life that was truly astonishing. Berlin rose out of the poverty-stricken tenements in New York City, parlaying his street-corner busking into a singing waiter job that helped him to sell his first song, “Marie From Sunny Italy.” That led to his first smash hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and the rest was history. But actually it wasn’t, because Berlin, like everyone, had his ups and downs. Of course, he had more ups than downs, but still the downs that Felder recounted were major, such as the death of his first wife, Dorothy. She contracted typhoid fever during their honeymoon in Havana and died five months later. Berlin took her death very hard. His melancholy ballad, “When I Lost You” was dedicated to her, and he did not marry again for twelve years. That was when he fell in love with the heiress Ellin Mackay, whose father disowned her after she married Berlin. They had four children, but their only son died on Christmas Day in 1928.
The show included Berlin’s hits during the First World War, the Second World War, his work in musicals and films. Felder performed several of them, including “My Wife’s Gone to the Country,” “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “What’ll I Do?,” “Blue Skies,” “Supper Time,” and “There’s No Business Like Showbusiness,” and made sure to include the audience in “God Bless America” and “White Christmas.” He showed an impeccable ear and talent for mimicry when he spoke or sang in the style of others such as Ethel Merman, but his parrot voice for the last verse of “My Wife’s Gone to the Country” was the most surprising and funniest of all.
Felder related fun facts about Berlin, such as how he wrote all of his pieces in the key of F sharp and relied on his staff to transcribe them to other keys. He loved to work at night and into the early morning, thriving under pressure to find just the right words and create a new song. But his genius was not the center-point of the show, rather it was the wonderful embrace of humanity that embodied Berlin. He took care of his family, his friends, and others (for example, since 1940, all royalty payments from “God Bless America” have been directed to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America.” He was not arrogant or disdainful of others, and he supported civil rights, giving Ethel Waters star billing in 1933 for his musical revue “As Thousands Cheer.” She became to first black woman to star in a white show on Broadway.
In his final years, Berlin became a recluse. He had been such a part of the nation’s life and breath that it was difficult for him to fathom the popularity of rock and roll. Felder had an excellent quip that summed it up: “I lived beyond my expiration date.” Well, Felder’s superb performances as Irving Berlin at The Armory are due to expire at the end of the month. Be sure to see this amazing show. It is life-enhancing.
PS: Felder directed “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” which will return to Portland Center Stage in June. For more information on that show, click here.