Irving Berlin once told his daughter that the best years of his life were spent in the United States Army. Inducted in 1918, the Russian-born composer served his adopted homeland in both world wars, not on the battlefield, but on stage. The songs he wrote and performed entertained the country then, and still do now.
Yesterday, the Army said a small thank you to the prolific songwriter, renaming its entertainment division headquarters at Fort Belvoir in his honor. The new Irving Berlin Center bears a bronze plaque that depicts Berlin as a young man in his World War I doughboy uniform, with the words "For the Soldier, By the Soldier."
To mark the occasion, a trio of singing soldiers belted out six of Berlin's timeless tunes, including "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Puttin' on the Ritz," "White Christmas" and the unforgettable "God Bless America."
"Mr Berlin was a truly remarkable, incredibly talented man, an American legend," said Brig. Gen. Robert L. Decker, quoting composer Jerome Kern, who once said: "Irving Berlin has no place in American music -- he is American music."
Decker posthumously awarded the Order of the White Plume to Berlin, who died in 1989 at the age of 101. The medal is bestowed on individuals who have made a significant contribution to Army morale.
For Berlin, that contribution started almost from the moment he entered the service. His first Army musical, "Yip! Yip! Yaphank!," revealed something of his struggle with military discipline and included the soon-to-be-a-hit "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning."
It was "the theme song of the entire Berlin household," joked Bert Fink, who represented the family yesterday. "Even then, he figured out that with his flair for show biz, he could serve his country loyally while still getting a few extra hours of sleep."
The song was included in Berlin's World War II revue "This Is the Army," which became a movie starring then-lieutenant Ronald Reagan. During the 1940s, Berlin performed in the show, following the 5th Army through Italy, according to Berlin's daughter and biographer, Mary Ellin Barrett. Berlin also performed for soldiers in the Pacific.
Every penny made off "This Is the Army" went to the Army Emergency Relief Fund -- and still does; the show has grossed tens of millions of dollars, Fink said. Similarly, the money from "God Bless America" goes to the God Bless America Fund, which supports youth scouting programs. The song was grossing about $200,000 a year until the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when it spiked to $900,000, Fink said.
Berlin published 1,200 songs in his career -- every one of them in the key of F sharp, according to Ray White, a music specialist at the Library of Congress. Berlin never learned to read or write music; the melodies just came to him.
Barrett, one of Berlin's three daughters, fondly recalled attending the opening of "This Is the Army" on Broadway on July 4, 1942. Sitting up front, the 15-year-old eagerly awaited her father's appearance. Finally, the curtain opened: There was Berlin, sitting on a cot and about to sing his popular song about staying in bed. The audience exploded into applause. It lasted for 12 minutes.
"You can imagine what it was like for me," Barrett said in a phone interview from her New York home. "What I saw in the audience was a real love for this man. . . . It was very, very moving.
Army Staff Sgt. Laura Bradley, one of the three singers, said she was honored to be honoring Berlin. "His music got us through some very hard times, and it's still getting us through hard times," she said.
Bradley's voice rang clear and powerful, and when she was done, the audience burst into hearty applause -- just like they did for Berlin those many years ago.