Irving Berlin Feted at Carnegie Hall

The immigrant son of a Russian cantor was given a 100th birthday party last week and saluted as America’s greatest songwriter by an all-star cast at Carnegie Hall.

Irving Berlin, born Israel Baline on May 11, 1888, in Temun, Russia, was saluted last Wednesday night in words, song and film by as wide a mix and diversity of musical talent as were the 1,500 songs that the versatile Berlin wrote in his lifetime.

Appearing on stage were Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Shirley MacLaine, Tony Bennett, Madeline Kahn, Tommy Tune, Leonard Bernstein, Nell Carter, Marilyn Horn, Rosemary Clooney, Natalie Cole, Bea Arthur, Isaac Stern, Walter Cronkite, and Garrison Keillor.

They sang from all the great hits of Berlin’s career, including “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Blue Skies,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “God Bless America,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” and “Putting on the Ritz.”

Berlin himself did not appear at the three-hour concert, remaining at home with his wife, Ellin. He will watch the special when it is shown nationally on May 27 by CBS.

The stage of Carnegie Hall, which will celebrate its own 100th birthday in 1991, was decorated with giant gold and silver piano keys arranged in ribbons and bows. MacLaine opened the show, and then Cronkite took the stage and spoke of Berlin’s legacy. “Irving Berlin helped write the story of this country by capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives,” he said. “Since 1906, Irving Berlin has written over 1,500 songs, and it is there that we find our history, our holidays, our homes and our hearts.”

The night’s tribute, benefiting the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which Berlin co-founded in 1914, was divided into four segments of Berlin’s music: Americana, swing, Broadway and Hollywood.

Interspersed with movie clips and songs came verbal tributes from Stern, president of Carnegie Hall (a place, inconceivably enough, where Berlin never played), and Keillor, who said of Berlin, “He took our American talk and made it into poetry — not fancy, not highbrow, but simple and graceful.”

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