My family’s story intersects with Irving Berlin’s at least twice, through my grandmother who played piano in the ragtime era until arthritis silenced her hands in her old age. My mother tells the story that during the war, probably 1943, when she and her brother had been evacuated during the Blitz and were living high on the hog on a farm in Scotland, eating ham and bacon that they’d never tasted before, Irving Berlin brought his show, “You’re In The Army Now” to Glasgow. Her mum, my grandmother Elizabeth, took them to see the show and they went backstage afterwards. Mr. Berlin took one look at her, and yelled, “Liz!”, and threw his arms around her in a huge bear hug, surprising the cast and crew and greatly impressing my mother and uncle, especially because they knew that no one, but no one, was allowed to call her Liz.
Irving Berlin is considered the greatest and certainly most prolific composer of popular music of the 20th century. Born in a poor Jewish ghetto in Russia with the name Israel Balain, he emigrated to the US with his family in 1893, when he was 5, settling in the Lower East side of NYC. Israel was the son of a cantor, and earned pennies singing on the streets of NY to help support his family after his father died. He never learned to read music, but sounded out the melodies of his songs using the black keys of the piano, letting someone else write the tunes into music notation.
Irving Berlin worked out the tune for In My Harem in 1912 while on the 20th Century Limited train to Chicago, and it was published with witty lyrics early in 1913. These lyrics allow the singer to choose between an Irish or Jewish protagonist (Pat Malone or Abie Cohen) who finds himself with “wives for breakfast, wives for dinner, wives for supper time” while taking care of a harem for a Turk who goes off to war.
That same year, 1913, my grandmother Elizabeth was 16. She was already an accomplished ragtime pianist, accompanying silent movies in her mother’s movie theatre in Brooklyn. She dropped out of school and ran away from home to marry my grandfather Harry Gilbert, a Kosher butcher. When my grandfather promptly lost his job soon afterwards, she went out looking for work, and was hired by Irving Berlin to play his tunes in the window of his music publisher in Tin Pan Alley. This was her job until her first pregnancy the next year. It is likely that In My Harem was one of the tunes she played every day, with her rollicking left hand keeping the syncopated rhythm of the time. Listen and watch this fine four-hands piano rendition.
Now, I’m a dancer with The Academy of Danse Libre, which performs dances like In My Harem in ragtime costume, at Cubberley Auditorium in Palo Alto, California, next on June 6 and 7, 2014. The full program includes 16 dances from the Victorian, Gay Nineties, Ragtime, and Golden Age of Hollywood eras, in authentic period dress and mannerisms, performed by 24 fine dancers. In 2015, catch us performing with the Peninsula Symphony at Flint Center for the Performing Arts in Mountain View, CA. Visit www.danselibre.org for YouTube links, more info, including photos and performance schedule.