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The Odyssey of ‘God Bless America,’ and its Nevada connection

Chic DiFrancia

New York City, Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, a 9-11 wakeup call of monumental proportions. Death and devastation of a magnitude never seen before in the history of the United States.

Sickened and saddened Americans were desperately seeking a rallying cry. A sound to bind us all back together again and heal the wounds the four fuel-laden airplanes had torn asunder. By nightfall, the airwaves were awash with that cry, a soothing balm, contained in the lyrics of a song composed more than 90 years ago by a Jewish immigrant.

The song: “God Bless America.”

Born Israel Baline in 1888, Irving Berlin got his first taste of fame in 1910, when at the tender age of 22 he composed a snappy little number known as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Before he was finished, 79 years later, his portfolio would contain more than 1,500 compositions. This is the story of one of the 1,500.

“God Bless America” is a song that literally came close to never seeing the light of day. Berlin composed the song in 1918 when he was stationed at Camp Upton in Yaphank, Long Island, N.Y. He wrote the song as a patriotic hymn to America and for the troops still fighting in Europe as WWI was coming to a close.

Irving, however, didn’t like the song; he thought it a little sticky, a little hokey and worst of all, the troops probably wouldn’t march to it. So, Irving put the song on the back burner for awhile and stuck it in a trunk where “God Bless America” languished for the next 20 years.

A strange incident in New York City on Sunday night, Oct. 30, 1938, inspired Berlin, and his a long-forgotten song came to life welding millions of Americans together 63 years ago, just as it’s done for the past two months.

It happened at CBS radio station in New York City when actor Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater Co. gave a very convincing portrayal of the H.G. Wells novel, “War of the Worlds.”

Because the play was broadcast like a news bulletin, the millions of Americans who tuned in late never heard the disclaimer it was only a play. The result: A whole lot of people believed Martians had landed in Grovers Mill, N.J. Thousands more were convinced Hitler and the Nazi menace had invented some king of futuristic machine capable of sustained flight with the ability to emit a deadly ray.

The fear factor was in high gear. Americans were getting antsy. Little did anyone know at that very moment Irving Berlin was already at work on the problem.

With Armistice Day fewer than two weeks away, Irving was desperately trying to compose a special song for the occasion. With war clouds looming in Europe and the Orson Welles fiasco, this song would not only have to make Americans feel good, but also give us a strong sense of security.

Irving struggled, but he couldn’t get it together. The music and the lyrics just wouldn’t mesh. Then suddenly he remembered, the hokey little ditty he put together 20 years ago. Was it still in the trunk? He called his secretary Mynna. Would she please go take a peek in the trunk? Because the song was untitled and lay under a mountain of musical memorabilia, Mynna’s job was not going to be easy.

Patiently she peeled through the years until she came to 1918 at the bottom of the trunk. There it was. The song showed its age, and Irving knew he’d have to make some changes in the lyrics; especially that line, “Stand beside her and guide her to the right with the light from above.”

In 1918, the phrase “To the right” had no political significance as it has now. So Irving changed that line to read: “Through the night with a light from above.” He made only a couple of other minor changes before he was finished.

In truth, the song really didn’t need that much of a makeover because it was a powerhouse in the way it was originally penned. The song was completed, but Irving’s job was only half finished for he still needed a singer who could deliver it in a manner it deserved.

Irving happened to be an acquaintance of Ted Collins, who managed a popular radio singer from Greenville, Va., by the name of Kathryn Elizabeth Smith, and Miss Smith happened to be looking for a patriotic song for her Armistice Day broadcast.

The date was Friday, Nov. 11, 1938, 63 years ago today, when 29-year-old Kate Smith stepped up to the CBS microphone in New York City and, with a set of pipes second to none in the business, gave the country a megadose of what it so badly needed. Some of the old-timers who were fortunate enough to hear that original broadcast tell me they still get goose bumps when reminiscing about that night so many years ago.

In 1921, Irving opened the Music Box Theater, a magnificent edifice located on 45th Street in New York City. It was here a ton of Berlin tunes were played over the decades. It was also at the Music Box the year following its opening, an attractive 21-year-old debutante came to take in a show. Her name was Ellin Mackay.

Ellin and her family stood at the highest circles in New York society. Her father was telegraph magnate Clarence Mackay, the son of Big Bonanza king, John Mackay.

The source of the Mackay wealth originated in Virginia City, where in 1873, John Mackay with partners Fair, Flood & O’Brien opened up the Consolidated Virginia Mine. It was in the Con Virginia the boys removed the largest concentration of silver known to man – “The Big Bonanza.”

The Con Virginia eventually produced $61 million, making it the most productive operation in the history of Virginia City mining. When John Mackay, Ellin’s grandfather, died in London in 1902, the bulk of his estate was left to his wife, Marie, and son, Clarence.

The Mackays were doing very well for themselves: fame, fortune, high social standing and most importantly, they were nearly scandal free – until Ellin walked into the Music Box Theater that fateful day in 1922.

Most people would think that a Russian Jewish immigrant who grew up in a rat-infested tenement in New York and a girl of privilege who grew up on a 648-acre estate known as “Harbor Hill,” (then the largest private summer home in the United States) would certainly make for the oddest of couples, but when 21-year-old Ellin Mackay met 34-year-old Irving Berlin, she was smitten at once; so much so she continued seeing him for the next couple of years.

The 13-year-age difference was not the greatest obstacle the pair faced, for Irving was Jewish and Ellin was Catholic. When the couple announced their intention to marry over the holidays in 1925, as expected, Clarence Mackay went ballistic. No turkey from Tin Pan Alley was going to marry his daughter! So Ellin and Irving did the next best thing, they eloped Jan. 4, 1926, in New York City. The New York newspaper headlines were many and the type was big: “ELLIN MACKAY WEDS IRVING BERLIN; SURPRISES FATHER!” “ELOPERS SPEED AWAY ON HONEYMOON.”

As expected, Clarence Mackay was now in orbit and instructed his lawyer to draw up a revised will, excluding Ellin of any and all the goodies she would have received if she had listened to Daddy. It came to about $10 million. Isn’t love grand? The couple loved each other very much, and the marriage would survive for more than six decades. Both had very creative careers; Ellin became an accomplished writer, authoring several books and, of course, Irving Berlin being Irving Berlin, composed a lot of music along the way.

Berlin established the “God Bless America” fund where royalties earned from the song would go to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America. Thus far, the amount has exceeded $250,000. He would go on to write such classics as “Easter Parade,” “White Christmas” and a host of other tunes, too many to enumerate.

Irving Berlin died Sept. 22, 1989, at the age of 101, just 14 months after Ellin’s death. Only death could separate the marriage of 62 years. Irving Berlin truly was an American treasure. His music is America. It’s woven into the very fabric of our society that makes us all the unique people were are: Americans.

Today, “God Bless America” is still on the job and working its magical cure. As anyone who recently saw the World Series can attest – the seventh- inning stretch never sounded better.

Americans will get through this crisis that is now facing our country. We have before and we will again, and it doesn’t hurt that we have “the song” to do it with – a song that nearly died a slow death in a musty trunk.