Tribute to patriot/songster Irving Berlin

The life of Irving Berlin is an affirmation of the American dream. This immigrant boy from Russia has, for about 80 years, given America such songs as ``God Bless America,'' ``White Christmas,'' ``Easter Parade,'' and some 1,500 other songs that have become an essential part of the musical fabric of the nation. Irving Berlin's America (PBS, Friday, 9-10:30 p.m., check local listings) is much more than a tribute to a songwriter; it is a recognition of the social awareness and patriotic contributions of a man who somehow managed to make ``Any Bonds Today?'' into a pop tune when the United States was trying to finance World War II. It also reminds us of a time when lyrics were straightforward and meaningful, and less simplistic than people tend to remember them now. But most important, they were enunciated so that they could be understood by all.

Using archival news footage and vintage TV performances as well as up-to-date interviews with such stars as Alice Faye, Ginger Rogers, Donald O'Connor, and Mary Martin, this ``Great Performances'' tribute, with Sandy Duncan as host, manages to put more than 30 Berlin tunes on the air. Viewers may find themselves saying over and over, ``Did he write that, too?'' as tune after tune from our musical heritage is performed.

Despite all the appearances by star performers singing his songs, the most unforgettable performances are two by Irving Berlin himself, singing ``Oh, How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning'' and ``God Bless America,'' backed by, naturally, a Boy and Girl Scout chorus (all profits from the song have been donated to the Scouts).

Ronald Reagan appears twice in this program, once as a performer in the WWII movie ``This Is the Army,'' where he reports that word has come from the high command that the soldiers' show will be going to Washington. The ironic response is ``Wouldn't it be great if the President comes to see us?''

The President's second appearance is more solemn: He refers to Berlin's work as ``a reflection of all the decency and goodness and heart in the American past. America owes him a debt for helping us to understand who we are.''

But ``Irving Berlin's America'' is not merely a repayment of a debt to a unique American; it's a tuneful and joyous celebration of America.

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