American musical theater composer Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline, in eastern Russia on May 11, 1888, the youngest of six children of Jewish cantor, Moses Baline, who brought his family to New York in 1893. When his father died a few years later, Israel left school and helped support the family as a busker, entertaining with skits and songs on the sidewalks of New York's Lower East Side. He changed his name to Irving Berlin in response to rampant anti-Semitism in the New York entertainment world.
Although he never learned to read or write music, Berlin became a self-taught rudimentary pianist and moved from street entertainer to jobs as a singing waiter, and later as a song plugger in Tin Pan Alley. He "wrote" songs by first working out his compositions on the piano, and then playing them for somebody who could transcribe them into musical notation, a system he continued to use his entire career.
Irving Berlin's first hit song, "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911, and his first major Broadway musical, "Watch Your Step" in 1914, initiated a musical career that produced 19 musical shows, 18 movie musical scores, and over 1,000 songs during the next 50 years. Among these were such classic hits as "Easter Parade", "There's No Business Like Show Business", and "White Christmas", which won the Best Song of the Year Academy Award in 1942. He built his own Broadway theater, the Music Box, where he produced new shows and revues at a rate of almost one a year. Perhaps his all time most successful shows were "Annie Get Your Gun", 1946, and "Call Me Madam", 1950, both starring Ethel Merman.
Berlin married Dorothy Goetz in 1912, but that marriage ended tragically when she died of typhoid fever only five months later. In 1926 he eloped with wealthy socialite Ellin Mackay, very much against the wishes of her father, who then disinherited her. They had three daughters and one son, Irving Berlin, Jr., who died shortly after birth.
Berlin was always very openly patriotic, and wrote several wartime musical shows to raise money for the war efforts."Yip, Yip Yaphank", written in World War I, was produced and performed by the men of Camp Upton, and raised more than $150,000 in revenue to build a service center at the base. Out of this show came the wonderful "Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning", which was also later included in his World War II hit show, "This Is The Army". That production raised $10 million for Army Emergency Relief. Berlin was also generous toward many other causes. After his most famous song, "God Bless America", introduced in 1939 by singer Kate Smith, became so popular that there were efforts to make it the new National Anthem, Berlin signed the copyrights over to the Boy Scouts and the Girls Scouts of America. He gave unstintingly to Jewish charities and organizations and was honored a number of times for his contributions toward promoting racial and religious understanding.
Berlin's last musical production, "Mr. President"in 1962, received mixed reviews, and was a box office disaster. Evidently his music did not resonate with the new Rock and Roll tastes in entertainment. He openly expressed his distaste for the new musical styles of the 60's and 70's, and once tried to persuade radio stations across the country not to play Elvis Presley's Rock and Roll version of "White Christmas". His confidence shaken, he stopped writing songs after the failure of "Mr. President", and became increasingly reclusive. For the last 20 years of his life rarely left his apartment, refusing most requests for interviews and appearances. His wife died in 1988, just a year before his own death on September 12, 1989.