CBC Digital Archives

Irving Berlin celebrates his birthday in Toronto

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May 11, 1966, is the birthday of one of America's most famous and successful songwriters. Irving Berlin, the composer of such treasured songs as White Christmas, Puttin' on the Ritz, Cheek to Cheek and There's No Business Like Show Business is in Toronto for the revival of his popular musical, Annie Get Your Gun. The much talked about revival opens just a few days before Berlin's 78th birthday to rave reviews. When asked about his long and prolific career, Berlin tells CBC's Bill McNeil that he simply focuses on writing songs, not hits. "Hits are not written," says Berlin.
• Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline on May 11, 1888, in Russia. His family immigrated to New York in 1893.
• Berlin supported himself as a busker from an early age. He couldn't read music or really play the piano. He wrote songs in one key, F sharp, using just the black keys on the piano. Berlin later had a device attached to his piano, which allowed him to transpose other keys to his one favoured key.

• In 1911, Berlin catapulted to fame with the song Alexander's Ragtime Band.
• Berlin's White Christmas, first sung by Bing Crosby in 1942, remains one of the most-recorded tunes in American history.
Annie Get Your Gun, originally mounted in 1946, was one of Berlin's most famous musicals. The musical, loosely based on the life of Annie Oakley, with music and lyrics written by Berlin, ran for nearly 1,200 performances on Broadway.

• Berlin's first wife, Dorothy Goetz, died in 1912 after contracting typhoid fever on their honeymoon in Cuba.

• His second wife was the highbrow socialite Ellin Mackay, the daughter of Clarence Mackay, the chief executive officer of Postal Telegraph. Mackay's father tried to prevent the marriage objecting to Berlin's undistinguished origins. But the two secretly wed in 1926.

• By the 1950s, Berlin's productivity began to slow down but he reaped the benefits of his past hits. Berlin's royalties exceeded the income of any other songwriter ever. For example in 1956 he earned $102,000 in royalties.

• After his last Broadway show, Mr. President, bombed in 1962, Berlin retired from songwriting and public life.

• Berlin became increasingly reclusive and misanthropic as he moved into his late 80s. He became obsessed with his privacy and staunchly refused to co-operate with anyone writing about his career.

• Irving Berlin died on Sept. 22, 1989, in New York. He was 101.
Medium: Radio
Program: Assignment
Broadcast Date: May 11, 1966
Guest(s): Irving Berlin
Host: Bill McNeil
Duration: 4:09

Last updated: March 4, 2014

Page consulted on July 15, 2014

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