Irving Berlin's American Musical Theater

By Jeffrey Magee | Go to book overview

1
IRVING BERLIN’S THEATER

The mob is always right.
Irving Berlin

In 1901 Izzy Baline, age thirteen and fatherless, dropped out of school and moved out of his family’s Lower East Side tenement flat to fend for himself. He lived in cheap lodgings among the Bowery’s lowlife, had his few belongings stolen, and once even got stabbed.1 He was destitute and alone in perhaps the most densely populated neighborhood in the world, a neighborhood transformed by some of the millions of immigrants who had effected perhaps the most massive demographic change in world history. Yet he did not romanticize want. He “never felt poverty,” he claimed, because he’d “never known anything else.”2 And he regarded his childhood as ideal, insisting that “everyone should have a Lower East Side in their lives.”3

He discovered that singing could be a path to distinction in this crowded, sometimes dangerous world. As a freelance, he shuttled from one Bowery saloon to another, earning tips by “passing the hat” or by picking change out of the sawdust on barroom floors.4 He grew especially fond of new songs from George M. Cohan, who made a point of getting his material in the hands of buskers like Baline.5 Berlin would later refer to Cohan as his “favorite songwriter.”6 Gaining confidence, he auditioned for and won a short-lived position as a chorus boy in a musical called The Show Girl, in which he performed during out-of-town tryouts before getting cut on the way to Broadway.7 He then became a publisher’s song-plugger and a singing “stooge” on vaudeville, paid to rise from his seat in the audience as if suddenly overcome by the onstage music to repeat the refrain of a new song published by his employer, Harry Von Tilzer. In 1904 he landed a steady job as a singer at a Chinatown saloon, the Pelham Café, where he earned a regular wage plus tips.

The whole neighborhood was a theater for slumming New York sightseers, who “outnumbered the local talent” in their quest to discover “the seamy side of life,” according to Berlin’s first biographer, Alexander Woollcott.8 In three years at the Pelham—also known as “Nigger Mike’s” after its swarthy, Russian Jewish proprietor Mike Salter—Baline earned local fame as a parodist of current popular songs, taking material that everyone knew and giving it a freshly satiric and often risqué twist that was “seldom printable.”9 He enjoyed the work, but it took a toll. Four decades later when he was a celebrity, he made a return visit with a reporter and recalled that “I did all right working here. I used to come to work at 8 p.m. and stay on until 6 a.m. I was paid $7 a week and did pretty good passing the hat. Some nights I’d take in $7 and

-9-

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