Centennial for a songsmith. Irving Berlin turns 100 today, but his music remains ageless

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Irving Berlin is 100 years old today - and his birthday is being celebrated with tributes on stage, on television, and in a series of re-released recordings. More remarkable than Berlin's longevity, however, is his rags-to-riches life and his extraordinary impact on American popular culture. Besides writing songs that have become inextricably linked with three holidays - ``God Bless America,'' ``Easter Parade,'' and ``White Christmas'' - he wrote the scores for 19 Broadway musicals, including ``Annie Get Your Gun,'' ``Call Me Madam,'' and ``The Ziegfeld Follies.'' He also wrote the songs for 18 Hollywood musicals, including ``Follow the Fleet,'' ``Carefree,'' and ``On the Avenue.'' The score for his first film, ``Top Hat,'' is often cited as the best ever composed originally for the screen.

Along with Victor Herbert, John Philip Sousa, and others, he helped found ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) in 1912 to protect artists' rights and collect royalties for public performances. And tonight that organization, together with Carnegie Hall, is presenting the only ``official'' Berlin centennial event - a concert dubbed ``Top Hat, White Tie & Tails: America Celebrates Irving Berlin's 100th Birthday.''

Berlin helped plan the Carnegie Hall event, though he his not expected to attend. The evening will feature Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Rosemary Clooney, Walter Cronkite, Garrison Keillor, Shirley MacLaine, Frank Sinatra, Isaac Stern, and others. CBS will televise the show as a two-hour special May 27.

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Here in Washington, the Arena Stage has revived the 1925 musical ``The Cocoanuts,'' as a tribute to Berlin, who wrote nine songs for the show. Several of Berlin's tunes match the nonstop zaniness of the Marx brothers, who starred both on Broadway and in the 1929 Hollywood ``talkie'' version. Berlin's score also includes several fine ballads, though ``Always,'' one of the composer's most enduring waltzes, was dropped from it.

Last week the Arena played host to a symposium on the show. One of the participants was Edward Jablonski, a biographer of George Gershwin and Harold Arlen, who has also written about his friend Berlin.

Mr. Jablonski, who said he talks with Berlin on the phone from time to time, noted, ``He sounds great, totally in charge.'' Jablonski also mentioned Berlin's seclusion over the last 25 years. His last musical, ``Mr. President,'' opened at Washington's National Theater in 1962 with President Kennedy in the audience. The musical was considered a flop, and Berlin has been seen only rarely in public since then. He is described as shy and reclusive and has turned down all requests for interviews. ``He doesn't need the fame, and he doesn't need the fortune - he's been immortal from the beginning,'' said Jablonski.

In addition to tributes like the Arena Stage revival, several record labels are reissuing their back catalogs of the composer's songs. Among them are ``Irving Berlin Songbooks,'' by Fred Astaire and Ella Fitzgerald (both on Verve). RCA has a special compilation, ``The Irving Berlin Songbook: A Centennial Celebration.'' And MCA has put together ``The Irving Berlin Anniversary Album,'' with Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman, and Al Jolson.

Histories of American popular song cite Berlin as the most prolific pop-music writer of all time - with more than 850 published pieces. In many ways, Berlin's life epitomizes the American dream. He was born Israel Baline in Tyumen, Siberia, the youngest of eight children. He grew up in poverty on New York's Lower East Side. He had only two years of formal schooling and ran away from home at age 14, singing for pennies in Bowery saloons.

By age 23, he was a partner in a major music publishing firm and that same year wrote his first smash hit, ``Alexander's Ragtime Band.'' He went on to found his own enormously successful music publishing company, and with the profits from that built the Music Box, the first Broadway theater dedicated to the work of a single composer.

Berlin so dominated Tin Pan Alley that Jerome Kern, a fellow composer and contemporary, said 60 years ago, ``Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.'' Even in the '80s, a good case can be made to support that sentiment. Happy 100th, Mr. Berlin!

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