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Irving Berlin Exhibit at Lincoln Center
Rob Lester

Used by Permission of the Estate of Irving Berlin
Recognize these lyrics?

You receive a telegram that Uncle John
Has just been buried, he's dead and gone.
With a broken heart, you holler, "I'll go on."
Let's go on with the show ...

Traveling with a company is so thrilling,
Playing thru the matinees and nights ...

Sounds vaguely like "There's No Business Like Show Business," doesn't it?  Well, it was - before the words were changed.  This earlier version of the lyric, on yellowed paper, typed on a typewriter with some of the handwritten replacement lines scrawled into the margins, is now on display, framed.  This is just one of many intriguing items in the new Irving Berlin exhibit in the Vincent Astor Gallery at Lincoln Center's New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. 

"He saved almost everything," says curator David Leopold, also the author of the recently published Irving Berlin's Show Business.  He's an enthusiastic Berlin booster and chatted with me at the preview of the collection, now open.  "I didn't want to tell the story with just production photos," he tells me as he points out some other features. 

Yes, there are many photos, some familiar and others quite rare.  Beyond that, you'll find a rough sketch by legendary caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, headphones for listening to rare songs, early copies of productions scripts,  vintage sheet music of little-known numbers like "Try It On Your Piano"  (I wanted to). 

"Did you see the designs by Raoul Pène du Bois?  He had exquisite taste.  People don't realize how much he did," Leopold says of the costume/scenic designer whose long career included Berlin's 1950 hit Call Me Madam.  Not surprisingly, that show's star, Ethel Merman, is very much in evidence.  Many artifacts are from their landmark Annie Get Your Gun, including signed costume sketches by Lucinda Ballard.  The walls are full of treasure.  My personal favorite item is a telegram Merman sent to Irving Berlin on opening night.  Here is the complete text of that telegram:  



Caricature of star Ethel Merman by Peter Arno for Irving Berlin Music Corporation.
Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Leopold says that's one reason Berlin and Merman got along so well: they were both direct. 

Our conversation is interrupted by a woman who wanted to know exactly where the composer-lyricist lived for the last part of his 101-year-long life (Beekman Place on Manhattan's East side).  Looking around at the room brimming with all kinds of Berlin songs, he quoted what Berlin used to define which songs made him happiest or what he thought were the good songs: "the hit songs." 

Under a giant, thick glass that might be used to protect the U.S. Constitution is a personal scrapbook of candid photos from the Army productions the writer contributed to, right around the corner from memory pieces from The Ziegfeld Follies, Louisiana Purchase, Miss Liberty and other shows like his last, Mr. President (out in the hall is someone humming one of that musical's tunes and extolling the virtues of its lyric, "The Secret Service makes me nervous...").   Others comment that New York's record snowfall the day before the exhibit's opening was fitting for this tribute to the writer of "White Christmas."  The new stage production based on the movie musical of White Christmas is also represented, along with other reminders of Berlin's lasting impact, like the hit revival of Annie Get Your Gun.  A sign on that wall says, "For one who died in 1989, Irving Berlin has been incredibly busy."

In conjunction with this memory mounting, curator David Leopold take part in two free events at the Library celebrating Irving Berlin: a panel discussion on Thursday, March 23 at 6:00 pm and a talk on Saturday, April 29 at 3 pm. 

Also of note: Focusing on Irving Berlin songs, Barbara Cook's Lincoln Center master class for student singers this Tuesday, February 21 at 3 pm will be simultaneously webcast:   

The exhibit is at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, Vincent Astor Gallery, Cullman Center (111 Amsterdam Avenue entrance) and is on view until May 26 (when it travels to Texas).  The Gallery opens at noon, closing at 6 pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays and stays open until 8 pm on Thursdays.  (Closed Sundays, Mondays and holidays).  Admission is Free. Phone: 212-870-1630.  Website:

David Leopold's large, deluxe book is Irving Berlin's Show Business, published by Harry N. Abrams. 

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