The Music of Hope & Freedom (Diet for Dreamers)

Share

His joy and optimism informed each of his popular musical creations, so it’s hard to believe that his past was marked by poverty and persecution. But Israel Isidore Baline chose not to dwell on his past. Instead, he kept his eyes on the brighter possibilities of the future, and concentrated on creating an enduring body of work that’s distinguished him as one of the greatest composers and lyricists the world has known.

Israel — or “Izzy,” as he was known to his seven siblings — was born in 1888, in a small Russian town in Siberia. It was an impoverished village of Jewish families living in tiny houses which were little more than huts with dirt floors. Outside their homes, wild pigs sometimes roamed the crooked streets, churning up the mud and terrorizing children. Not exactly the kind of place that inspires cheerful songs. And yet, Izzy’s father, a cantor in the local synagogue, made sure his sons and daughters accompanied him each Sabbath for melodic readings from the Talmud.

Long after his family immigrated to America, Izzy confessed he remembered little of his childhood in Russia — except “lying on a blanket by the side of a road, watching [our] house burn to the ground.” Life in Izzy’s hometown had been mostly peaceful until a day when angry Cossacks on an anti-Semitic rampage charged down the muddy streets — not unlike the aforementioned wild pigs — terrorizing the Jewish families while torching the entire village.

That evening, Izzy’s father quickly gathered his family and very little else, and they crept away like thieves in the night. They didn’t have the passports required by Russian law to leave the country, but with a brutal new Tsar, Nicholas II, reviving anti-Jewish pogroms, breaking the law of an inhumane government was their only option for survival.

The Balines eventually succeeded in smuggling themselves out of the country and across the sea to America. When the family reached Ellis Island and the welcome sight of the Statue of Liberty, Israel was locked in a pen with his brother and five sisters — until immigration doctors had certified the children were fit enough to enter the city! But the experience did nothing to tarnish Izzy’s love for his new-found home!

Izzy’s family eventually took up residence in a basement flat with no windows or hot water, in the Yiddish Theater District on the Lower East Side of New York City. His father couldn’t find work as a cantor, so he took a job at a kosher meat market and gave Hebrew lessons on the side. Izzy’s mom worked as a midwife, his sisters wrapped cigars in a tobacco plant, and his older brother spent long days in a sweatshop assembling shirts. And young Izzy sold newspapers in the Bowery. Still, the Balines struggled financially, a situation that weighed heavily on Izzy’s father, who died when the boy was thirteen.

There were no charitable institutions at the time, no financial assistance for immigrant families struggling just to survive. One historian describes the streets of the Bowery as “Dickensian in their meanness, filth, and insensitivity to ordinary human beings.” But it was on these streets that Izzy realized his passion in life. While hawking newspapers, he could hear the music drifting from the saloons lining the street: all the popular tunes of the day, which Izzy quickly learned.

Izzy soon discovered he could make more money singing in the streets than selling newspapers, a fact that gave him hope for a brighter future. He quit school at 14 and started singing in the saloons, eventually working his way up to “singing waiter.” He’d make up new songs to amuse his customers, and at night after closing, he’d sit at the piano and practice. Izzy never received any formal training in music, but he learned everything he could from other Jewish musicians trying to make it in New York City. And always, he kept his eyes on the opportunities and promises of each new day.

Before long Izzy came to the attention of a few up-and-comers. He started collaborating with them, penning snappy songs with simple but heartfelt messages. Vaudeville work soon followed, then the theatre, and finally, this untrained kid who could play the piano in only a single key, was scoring major movies and big broadway shows.

Irving Berlin served in the United States Army during WWI.

Izzy’s great dream was to “reach the heart of the average American,” with his upbeat music and straight-forward lyrics. And he did just that, with memorable songs which are now considered classics: deeply patriotic hits such as “God Bless America” and seasonal standards such as “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas,” In fact, the great journalist Walter Cronkite once stated that in a career that spanned six decades and 1500 songs, Izzy “helped write the story of this country, capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives.”

Not bad for a man whose past included poverty and persecution. But that’s the point here: Izzy — or “Irving Berlin,” as he was known to his fans — made a conscious decision to keep moving forward, leaving behind the past, to live and work in the promise of each new day.

“…I have not achieved it [yet], but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the Heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” (Philippians 3:14 NLT)

Share

Pray They’re Looking for Color! (Diet for Dreamers)

Share

In the early 1960s, Desilu Studios was a force to be reckoned with. The company founded by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had several hit shows and also rented out its facilities for use on many of comedy series of the time. But by late 1962, the driving force behind Desilu was feeling the stress of running an operation with three studios, thousands of employees, dozens of busy sound stages, and acres of backlots. The joy was gone, and Desi sank into alcoholism. In the end, Desi had to walk away from it, so Lucy reluctantly took the helm.

Throughout Desilu Studios, people were nervous about the future of the company. They’d lost their captain, the creative genius who’d put Desilu on the map. And under Lucille Ball, the studio that had shined so brightly under Desi, that had produced such mega-hits as The Untouchables, began to lose its luster. Over the next several months, the studio released numerous ill-conceived shows which were quickly cancelled. (Remember the series Glynis? Neither do we.) This string of failures resulted in Desilu losing tons of money.

Over at CBS, the network that had profited handsomely from the success of the I Love Lucy show, was watching Desilu’s steady decline with horror. William Paley, the head of the network, was a big fan of Lucille Ball’s work, and he also felt indebted to her studio. So he sent two of his best men — troubleshooters — to fix Desilu. One was a financial expert, the other a savvy Jewish programming executive named Herbert Solow.

Solow arrived with one objective: help Desilu develop some viable series that would get the studio back in the game. To accomplish this task, he needed to find high concept projects that would stand out from the typical TV fare of westerns and cop shows. He quickly found two projects that fit the bill: an unusual spy show called Mission: Impossible (ironically, also an apt description for Solow’s assignment at Desilu) which would become iconic; and an SF series pitched by an L.A. cop who found critical success as a writer.

You remember Eugene? On Tuesday we left the controversial writer and producer struggling to sell his SF series. He’d recently become something of a hot potato for wanting to write about important social issues. Plus, SF was not an easy sell at the time. But fortunately for Eugene, Desilu — now under the guiding hand of Solow — was looking for unusual projects, and had better things to do than be upset by a little controversy. In other words, when the talented and tenacious writer approached Solow, the timing was right. (Actually, it was perfect!)

“S” should stand for SOLOW — Herb Solow!

Solow later described the ex-cop turned writer as “mumbling exotic” who appeared to have “recently learned to dress himself but hadn’t yet quite gotten the knack.” A slightly disheveled Eugene handed Solow a wrinkled sheet of paper with his concept for a new series. Solow overlooked all this, because he saw the potential in both the writer and his ideas. He quickly grabbed the show for production At Desilu, but Solow still needed to secure a network to televise the series. Here’s where Solow had his work cut out.

Remember, Eugene had a reputation for being trouble, and at the time, SF was “alien” to the network money men. Not to mention, the “mumbling” writer was terrible at making a presentation. The first two times Eugene had pitched the series to network executives, Solow hadn’t been present; and the results had been disastrous: two of the three major networks had already passed on his show. DEFINITELY NOT GOOD!! This was, after all, an extremely primitive age long before the advent of multiple cable channels, and Solow knew they had only one chance left of selling the series, to the “peacock” network (NBC) — and he wasn’t about to let anything screw it up. 

Solo essentially dressed and groomed Eugene for the presentation; he told him exactly what to say and how to say it; and he told him when to just keep his mouth shut. When the two men arrived at NBC the timing was again PERFECT. The network wanted to return to the number one spot in the ratings, which they had previously occupied; but they couldn’t get there with all the musical and comedy variety shows currently proliferating their schedule. They were ready for bold new ideas. They wanted unusual and COLORFUL shows, which is why they’d already scheduled I-Spy starring TV’s first African-American superstar, Bill Cosby.

NBC grabbed the series, but not just because it sounded like an awesome show. NBC was owned by RCA, the corporation at the forefront of color television technology. RCA wanted NBC to air more shows “in Living Color” in order to boost the sales of color TV sets; and Solow promised NBC that Eugene’s new show would be filmed in LIVING COLOR! So, again, the timing was right. However, years later an NBC executive commented, “It was Herb’s tenacity and presentation that sold the series.”

Kirk: “Mister Spock, our future appears to be very colorful.” Spock: “A logical observation, Captain.”

Eugene (Gene) Roddenberry’s cultural phenomenon STAR TREK probably never would have seen the light of day were it not for Solow’s tenacity and some really good timing! Moral: be tenacious, ask God to open the perfect door in His perfect TIMING — heh, and pray they’re looking for color!

“God never changes His mind when He gives gifts or when He calls someone.” (Romans 11:29 GOD’S WORD)

Share