August 19, 2019: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
A slightly modified column based on one written three years ago today.
Yes, it was a mere 101 years ago tonight that the musical revue Yip Yip Yaphank opened on Broadway. Well, not really Broadway. The theatre was the Century, and its location was at Central Park West and 62nd Street, which puts it outside the parameters of the Broadway we know today (with the exception of Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Broadway and 65th Street — which has always been an exception).
I love envisioning what theatres off-the-beaten-path like the Century must have looked like, nestled as they were in neighborhoods, as opposed to commercial districts. Photos don’t really do them justice, but for those of you with a similar interest, The City and the Theatre: New York Playhouses from Bowling Green to Times Square, by Mary C. Henderson, is a must. I also recommend Lost Broadway Theatres, by Nicholas van Hoogstraten and Broadway Theatres: History and Architecture, by William Morrison. I can sit with these books for hours, dreaming of what it was like to have entered these palaces, which is no exaggeration, as many of them were just that. The Century was enormous with a seating capacity of 2,320. To give you an idea of how big that is, the average seating for the current crop of Broadway theatres is under a thousand seats less at 1,230.
Built in 1909, the Century was demolished by 1930. This was shortly after the stock market crash and the Great Depression, when dozens of New York theatres ceased to operate. Many were torn down; an incalculable loss to the arts. If it weren’t for preservationists today, we wouldn’t have as many theatres as we do, not to mention Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall, both of which faced an uprising when their destructions were considered, which happily resulted in their being saved.
But back to Yip Yip Yaphank, which if it is remembered at all, is due today entirely to its contributions by Irving Berlin. It’s impossible to sum up this composer and lyricist’s career in any brief fashion, so it’s easiest to go to the oft-quoted line of his contemporary, Jerome Kern. When asked what Berlin’s place was in American music, Kern responded by saying, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music — he is American music.”
Berlin hit the big time at age twenty-three with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” a song of such drive and verve that it became an international sensation. Thereafter, Berlin forever called his own shots over the length of a career that ended only with his full-time retirement in 1966. He lived until 1989, when he passed away at the age of 101, having written an estimated 1,500 songs. “White Christmas,” sung by Bing Crosby, is according to Guinness World Records, the best-selling single of all time, selling more than 100 million copies throughout the world. Berlin’s was, by any measure, an astounding career.
The musical revues that were integral to the early years of Berlin’s stage successes, ceased to exist as Broadway commodities by the 1950s. In the first half of the twentieth century they were ubiquitous. As proof, in just eight years, Yip was the twenty-fifth revue Berlin participated in.
With the outbreak of World War I, Berlin was stationed as a recruit at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York. He was asked to put together a show, the proceeds of which would go to help build a community building on the base. This led to Yip Yip Yaphank, which as already mentioned, opened a short time later on Broadway. Resembling more of a vaudeville entertainment than what might be considered today a revue, it featured acrobatics, dancers, jugglers and military drills choreographed to Berlin’s music. Two songs Berlin composed for the show were cut, though found their audiences elsewhere. One was “Mandy,” which Berlin recycled a year later for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919. Introduced by Eddie Cantor and Marilyn Miller, it became enormously popular. Cantor sang it fifteen years later in the film, Kid Millions, making it a hit all over again. It was brought back in the 1954 film White Christmas, making it all the more popular. The second cut song was (believe it or not) “God Bless America,” second only to “The Star Spangled Banner” as our national anthem. Berlin thought it was “too sticky,” and wrote another patriotic song, “We’re On Our Way to France,” instead.
But when it came time to get patriotic again as soon as the World went to war for a second time in twenty years, Berlin brought back “God Bless America.” Singer Kate Smith’s recording gave him one of the biggest hits of his career. Berlin also gave all its royalties to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in New York City. To this day, both organizations receive benefits by way of Berlin’s generosity. Here’s the man himself singing “God Bless America,” backed by Boy and Girl Scouts, on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1968:
But the song forever linked to Yip Yip Yaphank, is one that Berlin not only wrote, but introduced and sang in the show himself. “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” a soldier’s lament over the sound of the bugle at dawn, was a sensation. Berlin reprised his playing the solider when This Is the Army, a revue created in the same spirit as Yip, brought the song to a second generation’s attention, again raising money for the war effort.
If you scroll up and look once again at the sheet music for Yip Yip Yaphank, you’ll find Berlin as as the writer of its music and lyrics under the name “Sgt. Irving Berlin,” as well as being listed in the Playbill along with the other performers in the company as simply “Sgt. Berlin.” And as for having his name on the show in any producing capacity, Berlin opted out, with the credit going entirely to someone named “Uncle Sam.”
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions, at Ron@ronfassler.org.