I’ve always loved Broadway but never thought I’d end up performing such musical classics as the 1929 Irving Berlin song “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Yet on March 7th and 8th , the Metropolitan Detroit Chorale will perform the legendary composer’s music along with other hits of New York’s Great White Way as part of their Cabaret 2014 – Broadway and Beyond shows in Fraser, Michigan. I’m singing in the chorus that night, supporting the singer/dancers.
“Puttin’ on the Ritz” refers to dressing very fashionably, a phrase inspired in the 20s by the opulent Ritz Hotel. The song was first introduced by Harry Richman in the film “Putting on the Ritz” in 1930 and was first recorded by Fred Astaire, who also sang it in the film “Blue Skies” in 1946.
I’ve always identified Berlin’s classic song with that bygone era of super- rich New York tycoons in top hats that ended with the 1929 crash. I first arrived in the Big Apple in the ‘70s to work in publishing, a time when the city briefly flirted with bankruptcy and Park Avenue gentry seemed more subdued. Yet when I recently saw the Mel Brooks film “Young Frankenstein”, where the monster, played by Peter Boyle, joins scientist Gene Wilder in a hilarious stage rendition of the immortal song and dance routine, I realized it was released in 1974, a really depressed year financially. In fact, that’s just a year before the Daily News ran the famous headline about President Ford’s refusal to bail out New York City — “Ford to City: Drop Dead”. Obviously Berlin’s ode to New York style has continued to fascinate filmmakers long after the original era he celebrated. Out of further curiosity I went online and saw that a Dutch singer named Taco made a synthesized version contrasting the Park Avenue rich with the urban poor huddled around campfires in the streets to stay warm – it went up the charts worldwide in 1983 – a few years before the city’s economy crashed in 1987, along with Wall Street’s junk bonds. Of course, some might argue that today’s spotlight on the wealthy 1% again brings the song’s lyrics full circle.
So while I originally thought of writing this column to encourage friends and family in Michigan to come see my chorale’s latest interpretation of indelible Broadway songs, my research also convinced me again that Broadway icons like Irving Berlin remain some of our most important songwriters, appealing to many generations. Besides“Puttin’ on the Ritz,” Berlin penned “White Christmas”, “God Bless America, ” “Always,” “There’s no Business like Show Business” and many more songs for the ages. In short, Berlin’s lyrics continue to capture the pulse of this ever-changing nation and its complexities. For more information on the chorale and to find out how to purchase tickets for the Broadway cabaret, visit the website at www.detroitmetropolitanchorale.org
During the 2011 holiday season, we’re a year further into a stalled economy but we’ve also witnessed the phenomenal rise of the populist Occupy Wall Street Movement and the death and legacy of a modern Einstein, Apple visionary Steve Jobs. It seems a good time to repeat a blog I wrote last year about the lessons for hard times we can learn from one of our greatest filmmakers, Frank Capra, a Sicilian immigrant who wrote several tributes to the “common man” (including the classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 1946). Capra, who lived the American dream by putting himself through college with several jobs, was also fearless in the pursuit of his film career during the depression. He truly believed that the enemy was greed and that “Meet John Doe” was a script he needed to direct.
Frank Capra and “Meet John Doe”:
Despite his growing fame throughout the 1930s, the screwball comedy genius Frank Capra also wanted to establish himself as a serious filmmaker. Subsequent films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” with Jimmy Stewart, which he produced in 1939, still did not approach the success of “It Happened One Night,” a 1934 romantic comedy by screenwriter Robert Riskin that featured Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. “It Happened One Night” garnered all five top Oscars, including Best Picture – a feat that was not matched until 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and later in 1991 by “Silence of the Lambs.” Capra was determined to produce another script by Riskin with a populist theme that reflected his views on America and the fate of the common man during the depression; but to finance this one, Capra had to first mortgage his house. The film was “Meet John Doe” with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in the starring roles, which premiered in 1941 and was an immediate hit. It also earned him another Academy Award nomination for best screenplay and has remained a highly regarded film.
As I watched it recently on PBS, I thought of the lingering hardships in this economic cycle and wondered how many brilliant works of art, new inventions or breakthrough ideas are out there waiting for the dreamer to take a huge economic risk in this stagnant economy.
I remain hopeful that the solution to our present malaise is a new wave of innovation, ready for launch, including creating new green products and industries to fight global warming – and new ideas for solving the lingering environmental impact of disasters like the BP Oil spill. I only hope those young innovators have the courage of Frank Capra.
There’s another message in this film. It was about a young woman reporter about to be fired by her editor as they streamline staff during hard times – she dreamed up a story about an angry common man threatening to jump off a building on Christmas eve and presented it to her editor as her parting shot. He loved it, even when she admitted that she had invented John Doe, but argued he would be easy to find – she was right. The movie’s ultimate theme was that people needed to reach out to their neighbors during the depression and help each other – and the result was a political movement of “John Doe” clubs, making sure no one was battling joblessness or foreclosure alone. It’s a message that is timeless and I wanted to share it again. Thank you, Frank Capra, for the courage to keep sharing your serious side.
A recent interview on CBS Sunday Morning celebrated the 30th Anniversary of the rock band Journey’s perennial hit “Don’t Stop Believin’,” officially the most downloaded song ever recorded in the 20th century.
The song’s history has a message as powerful as its lyrics and is worth repeating.
“I was starving before I hit Journey,” keyboard player Jonathan Cain told CBS’s Jim Axelrod. “Very, very rough times…I didn’t know where the next pay check was gonna come. I sold stereos. I quit the business. I was so lost, you know? And I was borrowing money from my father, who wouldn’t let me come back to Chicago. He said, ‘You stay there. Something good is gonna happen. Don’t stop believing.’ And he would always say that to me. ‘Don’t stop believing, Jon.'”
The year was 1980 and everything turned around when he was asked to join Journey. Right away, Cain said he sat down with guitarist Neal Schon and then-lead-singer Steve Perry. Within an afternoon, he told CBS, his father’s advice was transformed into a rock’n’roll phenomenon that broke into the top 10 charts as a single in 1981 and then anchored Journey’s monster album “Escape.” When the band broke up six years later, it took a series of chance happenings to turn the song into the national anthem it has become today.
The first break was in 1998, when it appeared in the soundtrack of the film “The Wedding Singer,” as a string quartet dusted off “Don’t Stop Believin’” for Adam Sandler, followed by seven other movies and more than a dozen television shows, including the cliffhanging series finale of the Sopranos.
But it was as the pilot episode’s killer closer of the TV hit show Glee in 2009 that stamped “Don’t Stop Believin’” as an all-time classic. Adam Anders, Glee’s executive music producer, told CBS that the show’s creators originally wanted Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” to be the pilot episode’s killer closer, but were denied permission to use it. The rest, Anders says, is Glee history.
The finale to the song’s history is how Arnel Pineda, a young Philipino and the lead singer for the current evolution of Journey, has embraced the song as his own. The band spotted his performance on YouTube and offered the front singer for a Philipino band a job replacing the retiring lead singer Steve Perry. What the Journey members didn’t know was that Arnel was singing to survive. His mother died when he was just 13, after a long illness that left the family bankrupt. He ended up homeless, sleeping in a park in Manila, collecting scrap metal to scrape up enough money to eat.
“Even before I discovered ‘Don’t Stop Believin’, it has been my motto, you know, to never stop believing in myself,” Pineda told Axelrod, choking back tears. “The life that I’ve gone through. You know, all those hardships– that I– you see, I never– I never stopped believing that someday there is something magical that will happen in my life.”
“Never in my, like, entire life here on earth, that I would ever, ever stumble upon this kind of magic,” Pineda continues. “Playing to all of these people around the world… What a ride. You know?”
The constantly recycled history of this song has a unique message over a few generations now – the struggle never ends, but there are happy endings for believers who don’t give up. A good message to take to heart.
The holidays are a time when entertaining should be considered more than just a yearly obligation – it can really make a difference now and all year long in showing you care enough to share your special seasonal recipes with your friends, family and even your clients.
At my Brooklyn food coop, we held our Annual Meeting for our members during Hanukkah and ended it with a reception that included store made latkes from the deli, fresh apple sauce, and holiday cookies from a kosher bakery, along with our regular fresh fruit and vegetable platters and other organic staples. It was an opportunity to spread an appreciation of special recipes, along with goodwill and good cheer.
In Manhattan, event planner Pat Ahaesy and her husband Vince, partners in P&V Enterprises, host an annual Hanamas Party in the same spirit of sharing beloved recipes. The guests love tasting their selection of mixed Hanukkah and Christmas traditions that includes latkes and Swedish meatballs. One of their guests, another event planner, is a gospel singer in a Harlem church, who brings along her sister and some friends, and they are easily convinced to share a medley of beautiful gospel songs.
I now call sharing traditions with clients, as well as friends and family, The Hopping John Agenda, after a southern holiday tradition that my late husband Tim and I started together– sharing a New Year’s Day feast of black-eyed peas and rice with greens that is called Hopping John with friends and family in LA and San Francisco. This tradition was originally meant to bring prosperity and healthy eating to folks in the Deep South — in Tim’s case, it was Alabama. Sharing authentic cuisine is an amazing networking idea at any time of year, as I wrote about in an earlier blog that recommended sharing your passions, including food, as a way to network authentically.
If you aren’t a cook or just don’t have the time to prepare complicated recipes, consider sharing in other ways. Rosemarie Hester from my Brooklyn writer’s group loves to surprise her sons when they celebrate together with locally grown honey, unusual cheeses and special balsamic vinegars. She includes Christmas caroling in the evening’s agenda, and brings along xeroxed pages with the lyrics. When she visits her son’s girlfriend’s Chinese American family, she brings fig bread or olive bread to complement their lavish banquet of Asian food.
Dania Rajendra, a fabulous cook who is also in my writer’s group, added she is always delighted when guests contribute their favorite holiday treat when they visit, even if it is Junior’s Cheesecake (from the famous Brooklyn deli) or cookies from that neighborhood Norwegian Bakery.
So consider this your reminder all year long that those authentic recipes, whether you personally prepare them or not, are really appreciated by your relatives, as well as by friends and clients, who love being included as “family.” Happy Holidays!