Few soldiers have matched Sergeant Irving Berlin’s resourcefulness in beating reveille.
When the United States entered the Great War in April 1917, the hottest young songwriter in the land was Irving Berlin. Ever since his “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” had swept the country six years before and made his name a household word, Berlin had consolidated his position with one hit after another. “When I Lost You,” “Everybody’s Doin’ It Now,” “When that Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam’,” “Snookey Ookums,” “I Love a Piano”–these were just a few of the hundreds of songs he had written by then. Remarkably, Berlin wrote both the lyrics and music even though he had no formal musical training: He required the services of a trained “musical secretary,” a transcriber, to write down his tunes. Nonetheless, he managed to earn $100,000 a year in royalties.
Remarkably, too, the man who would come to be considered the nation’s songwriter was not yet an American citizen. Born in Russia in 1888, the son of a cantor, he had come to the New World with his family in 1893 and grown up amid the throngs of New York’s Lower East Side. His real name was Israel Beilin; he had adopted the somewhat grander ” Irving Berlin” when he launched his songwriting career. Responding to a general upsurge in patriotism, he completed the process of becoming a citizen on February 6, 1918, when he took the Oath of Allegiance.
One unforeseen consequence was that Berlin became eligible for the draft. About to turn 30, he seemed an unlikely prospect. He supposed the army would bypass him on account of his celebrity alone. Still, he wanted to lend his talents to the war effort, by writing patriotic songs, entertaining–whatever was required of him. He was also hoping that one of his war songs would be a hit. He tried a few numbers, which all fizzled, and before he could make his mark, he experienced what his friend Alexander Woollcott, the esteemed drama critic, termed a “painful shock”: He found him self drafted into the army.
He was assigned that spring to Camp Upton in Yaphank, Long Island, and became a member of the Twentieth Infantry, 152nd Depot Brigade. To an urban dweller like Berlin, Yaphank, a 100 miles from New York City, seemed a hopelessly remote and desolate place. Dirt roads meandered through flat, featureless potato fields, and the local inhabitants, mostly farmers and their families, wanted nothing to do with the tumult of the city.
The only excitement Berlin found was at Camp Upton itself, which functioned primarily as a staging area for soldiers bound for France. Most of the inductees, like Berlin, were draftees from New York, often immigrants with little desire to return to Europe and challenge the Hun. They were young men with lives to lead, careers to establish and they found it distasteful to be thrown together in barracks, forced to get up at dawn and spend the day on KP duty or marching across a dusty parade ground in close-order drill.
“I found out quickly I wasn’t much of a soldier,” Berlin later reflected. “There were a lot of things about army life I didn’t like, and the thing I didn’t like most of all was reveille. I hated it. I hated it so much that I used to lie awake nights thinking about how much I hated it.”
Indeed, everything about army life went against his instincts. Patriotic or not, Berlin was indignant. He’d been a law-abiding citizen who more than earned his keep and even employed others, who depended on him for their livelihood. But he’d been taken out of his thriving music-publishing business and plunked down in the middle of nowhere and assigned to peel potatoes, wash dishes, and carry out a variety of other rather demeaning tasks. His soldier’s pay–only $30 a month–hardly compensated for the indignity of army life.
What did his dreary routine have to do with fighting a war? An utterly private man, he was now forced to share crowded sleeping quarters with dozens of other men, a situation he hadn’t encountered since his days in Lower East Side flophouses. Nor did the strenuous physical drills and his status as a humble private suit his taste. He used occasional weekend passes to return to his apartment in New York, which now seemed more luxurious than ever to him, and to eat food prepared by his own cook exclusively for him, but the brief return to civilian life only made life at Camp Upton more difficult to bear.
A few times he tried to cut corners and assert his status. In one instance his valet, who was visiting, made up his bunk and polished his army-issue items while Berlin was on the field, enduring drill. “I really wasn’t fitted to be a soldier,” he soon concluded. “I was a songwriter. I knew entertainment.”
Harry Ruby (originally Rubinstein), who was then a pianist working at Berlin’s songwriting firm of Waterson, Berlin & Snyder, but was soon to join him at Camp Upton, vividly remembered the worst problem his celebrated boss experienced:
Berlin gets into the army at Upton, and now he’s getting up with all the other soldiers, five a.m.! Irving had never gone to bed before two or three in the morning. He would work until two, three, and then sleep, and get up around ten. All of a sudden, he’s getting up with the birds at five, and he’s going out of his mind! This is not for him, believe me.
As much as Berlin detested barracks life, leaving the comforts of home turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened to him, for it gave him an entirely new range of experiences on which to draw for his songwriting. He sincerely “wanted to be a good soldier,” he recalled. “Every morning when the bugle blew, I’d jump right out of bed, just as if I liked getting up early. The other soldiers thought I was a little too eager about it, and they hated me.”
Berlin decided to incorporate his hatred of the military mentality, of bugles, and, most of all, of getting up at the crack of dawn, in a song, and this time he struck a nerve. He discovered that soldiers everywhere, including the one who slept in the bed next to his, Private Howard Friend, felt precisely as he did about reveille. In contrast to the run-of-the-mill popular song extolling the grandeur of war, Berlin’s plaintive “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” with its threat to “murder the bugler,” bordered on the mutinous. The song first made the rounds at Camp Upton, where it gave expression to every soldier’s self-deprecatory, anti heroic sentiments. It was then packaged commercially by Waterson, Berlin & Snyder. The sheet music was inscribed: Dedicated to my friend “Private Howard Friend” who occupies the cot next to mine and feels as I do about the “bugler.”
The dedication emphasized the song’s familiarity and at the same time advertised that Berlin, too, was doing his part for Uncle Sam. He wanted it understood that he was no longer participating in the Tin Pan Alley hypocrisy of sitting around a piano in an office high above Broadway, plunking out a tune that cynically encouraged others to go to war. There remained only the task of finding a performer of the first magnitude willing to take the song to the paying customers, the civilians. (Eddie Cantor would do it.)
The soldier-songwriter’s song of the Great War contained no reference to combat, President Wilson, freedom, peace, or even patriotism. Focusing exclusively on homely details, it was folksy without being a folk song, and was undeniably autobiographical, deriving directly from Berlin ‘s observations and street-smart humor. Its tone of comic grousing appealed not only to the soldiers of Camp Upton, who lived it, but to the country at large. The timing was right, for the song’s mutinous humor wouldn’t have been well received in the grim early days of the war. As a result, Berlin finally had his first hit war song. It eventually sold a million and a half copies.
“There’s a song called ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ which is a pretty big song hit, too,” Berlin said later, “but my answer to the question in the opening line of the national anthem is a loud ‘No!’ I can’t ‘see’ anything ‘by the dawn’s early light.’ My song about hating to ‘get up in the mo-o-o-rning’ was a protest written from the heart out, absolutely without the slightest thought that it would ever earn a cent.”
Here at last was the song in which he finally cast off for good the fetters of ragtime that had bound him to so many ephemeral revues. “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” unlike many of his earlier songs, wasn’t reminiscent of black music, or Jewish, or Italian; it was written in an “American” vernacular: simple, straightforward, masculine. Though he would continue to employ devices he’d learned from ethnic songs, such as syncopation, he would write no more of them. He now belonged to a category by himself.
While “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” was catching on, most of the soldiers who had come to Camp Upton with Berlin departed for France, as expected, but Private Berlin stayed behind, earning promotion to the rank of sergeant; it seemed a special destiny lay in store for him. Major General J. Franklin Bell, the camp’s commanding officer, ordered Berlin to his office and explained: “We want a new community house-a place where friends and relatives of you men can be made a little more comfortable when they come to visit. It could cost a lot–perhaps $35,000–and we thought perhaps you could put on a little show to make money.”
To comply, Berlin initially prevailed on his vaudeville friends to assuage their guilty consciences and make morale-boosting visits to Camp Upton, but he began to feel “this was running a little thin.” Around the same time, he remembered, “the navy did a show called Boom Boom. I read about it in Variety and I thought: Hmm, this is my chance. So I went to a Colonel Martin, I think it was, who was on the staff of the commanding officer, and asked him, ‘Why can’t we do a show here at Camp Upton?’ ”
So ran the official version. The unofficial version, according to Harry Ruby, was that Berlin continually pestered the commanding officer for an opportunity to stage a vaudeville show. It would occupy the camp’s other show business draftees–and more important, would provide a way for Berlin to avoid getting up at reveille.
After General Bell agreed to Berlin’s proposal, the songwriter went on to say, “Here’s the thing, General. I write at night. Sometimes I work all night when I get an idea. And I couldn’t do that if I had to get up in the morning at five, you understand.”
” You don’t have to get up at five,” replied the general. “You just forget about all that. You write this show.“
If the cost of sleeping late was writing a show gratis, Berlin was prepared to proceed. Indeed, realizing that what ever personnel he required would come free, he contemplated a lavish, Ziegfeld-style revue, conceived on a scale that the impresario would have approved. Furthermore, he wanted to stage it not on the base, as just another talent show, but on Broadway, as a full blown theatrical event.
In May the navy had taken over the huge Century Theatre on Central Park West for 16 performances of a show noted mainly for its female impersonators. Berlin naturally wanted the Century for his own revue, in which he planned to teach the navy a trick or two about entertaining civilians. The only modest aspect of the production was to be the length of its run: eight performances.
To fill a theater of the Century’s out size proportions, Sergeant Berlin requested a crew of 300, evenly divided between performers and stagehands. When the extent of his demand became known, General Bell quickly established a supervisory board consisting of three officers–Major J. John Brandreth, Captain James G. Benkard, and Lieutenant Basil Broadhurst–to over see the ambitious project.
As he began his nocturnal labors on the score, Berlin sent for Harry Ruby, who moved into the same barracks and became the songwriter’s musical secretary. Ruby marveled at Berlin’s ferocious work habits:
He’d come up to me in the morning…and he’d say, “Harry, got a pencil and some music paper?” and I’d say sure, and he’d say, “Take this down,” and sing me a melody…. I’d ask him, “When the hell did you write that?” and he’d say, “Oh, I was up all night. Do you like it?” And I’d say it was great, and I’d play it back for him to hear what he’d dictated–and he’d listen, and he’d say, “You got one chord wrong in there.” And he’d be right–he couldn’t play the chord, but he could hear it all right!
Berlin dictated a rich assortment of songs that cast military experiences in human, even homely terms: “I Can Always Find a Little Sunshine in the Y.M.C .A.,” “Kitchen Police,” and “Dream On, Little Soldier Boy.” In keeping with the show’s vaudeville format, he even devised, despite the unlikely circumstances, a romantic show stopper, “Mandy,” which would serve as the centerpiece of a minstrel section. After writing down the melodies and devising appropriate harmonies, Ruby turned the songs over to an arranger, who further elaborated them into orchestral parts. In all respects Berlin’s modus operandi was the same as it was for a conventional Broadway revue. Finally, Berlin composed one unashamedly patriotic anthem. He called it “God Bless America,” but even as he dictated it to Ruby, Berlin became insecure about it. “There were so many patriotic songs coming out everywhere at the time,” Ruby recalled. “Every songwriter was pouring them out.” As he wrote down the melody, he said to Berlin, “Geez, another one?”
Deciding that Ruby was right, that the song was too solemn to ring true for the acerbic doughboys, Berlin cut it from the score and placed it in his trunk. “Just a little sticky” was the way he described the song. “I couldn’t visualize soldiers marching to it. So I laid it aside and tried other things.”
After holding auditions, Berlin started rehearsals in June for Yip-Yip Yaphank, as he called his show. New York newspapers carried ads for seats priced from fifty cents to two dollars.
In July, Yip-Yip-Yaphank opened for a tryout at Camp Upton’s little Liberty Theatre, and Berlin endowed the occasion with all the publicity he could muster. He discovered that with the might of the United States Armed Forces behind him, he was able to command respect (and attendance) for his work as never before. A private train hired for the day transported 70 celebrities from New York to see the show, including vaudeville stars Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, and Will Rogers, as well as the female chorus of a Broad way revue entitled Midnight Frolics.
The run-through, a scaled-down version of the revue planned for the Century, served its purpose, which was to win the approval of its military backers, especially General Bell, and the Yip Yip-Yaphank company proceeded to take over the Century Theatre.
It was now August, and the city sweltered in relentless heat and humidity, but the 300 soldiers from Camp Upton yielded nothing to the weather. They bivouacked at the Seventy-first Regiment Armory, at Park Avenue and 34th Street, and each day they marched uptown to the Century in military formation, rehearsed under the direction of Sergeant Berlin, and then marched back downtown to the armory, where they remained under military discipline. Meanwhile, playbills appeared all over town, proclaiming, “UNCLE SAM PRESENTS…a military mess cooked up by the boys at Camp Upton.” Opening night, August 19, found every seat in the old theater occupied. Outside, on Central Park West, soldiers equipped with rifles were stationed every few paces, while others guarded the entrances. This show of force might have seemed threatening had not each sentry been under orders to smile at the crowds. Once again, vaudeville stars turned out in force; in addition to the familiar faces of Brice and Jolson, celebrity watchers noted the presence of George M. Cohan and the dancer Irene Castle. Entirely ignored by the crowd but of far greater importance to Sergeant Berlin was the bulky, stooped figure of one other theatergoer–his mother, Lena Beilin.
Within, a call of “Atten-shun!” brought the excited murmurs of the audience to a sudden halt, and every head, including those of the girls selling programs, snapped forward. The crowd rose in unison, stood more or less at attention, and waited as General Bell passed among them on the way to his box. And the show began.
Berlin had framed his revue with minstrel acts, but in his version the traditional minstrel line wore khaki and only the men on either end were in blackface. Acting as an interlocutor, a Captain McAllister informed the soldiers that they now faced a seasoned enemy, perched just over the foot lights, an enemy they must bomb with jokes and vanquish with songs.
The first song struck an attitude of comic irreverence that would be maintained throughout the evening: “You Can’t Stay Up All Night on Bevo.” “Bevo” was nonalcoholic wartime beer, and Anheuser-Busch, the brewers, actually paid Sergeant Berlin $10,000 to deride the stuff; Berlin promptly donated the “contribution” to war relief.
But there was more than songs; since the revue intended to depict life at Camp Upton and showcase the talents of its inhabitants, there ensued a procession of acrobats, jugglers, and dancers. There was even a boxing demonstration featuring Benny Leonard, lightweight champion of the world. Recognizing how much theater was inherent in army life, Berlin cannily included military drills. Set to his syncopated music, they became transformed into choreography as the soldiers marched in ever more complex formations.
In addition to these displays of talent, the revue included much silliness, as the soldiers became hairy-chested chorus girls parodying the lavish spectacles Ziegfeld had staged in the same theater. Individual soldiers tried to imitate leading ladies of the moment, such as Ann Pennington and Marilyn Miller. In response to all of this organized lunacy, the audience, according to Theatre magazine, became a carefree mob that whistled, shouted, and cheered every number, and joined in the choruses after the first encore. The enthusiasm and vigor of the boys on the stage and the stimulus of the songs swept everyone irresistibly into the spirit of the evening. It was more like the last inning of a World Series ball game than anything else.
Although he had orchestrated all these activities from behind the scenes, Berlin refrained from appearing on stage until late in the show. And he gauged well the effect of a delayed entry, for by the time he did appear, it was nearly 11 p.m. and the anticipation of the audience, which had been waiting several hours for a chance to see him, reached its highest pitch.
His solo act was a reflection of his own self-contained, even isolated personality and offered a dramatic contrast to the foregoing excitement. The lights dimmed, and a Camp Upton-style tent appeared onstage. There were calls for “Sergeant Berlin,” but he failed to materialize. Eventually two other soldiers dragged him out of the tent, asleep on his feet.
“Of course there was a welcome that rocked the theater,” wrote Theatre magazine’s critic, “but to his credit as a good actor, there he stood, while his friends waited for a nod of recognition, staring dreamily ahead, and buttoning up his coat. Then he sang, in his peculiar, plaintive little voice, the chorus that goes: Oh! How I hate to get up in the morning.”
This endearingly mournful under playing enthralled the audience, and in the process Berlin established a stage persona for himself: that of the feisty little common man buffeted by events over which he has no control but man aging, through a sense of humor and innate toughness, to survive in an often insane world.
Irving’s slight build made the persona credible, and so did his Lower East Side accent. There was nothing slick about his thin, high voice; he could easily have been just another soldier, except that his timing was flawless and his lament hilarious. Someday, he sang, he was going to murder the bugler. Except that in his mouth, the words came out sounding more like he’d “moidah dah buglah”–pure Cherry Street tough talk.
Berlin furthered his comical exploration of the serviceman’s unhappy lot in his last scene, where he sang of how he was making the world safe for democracy with a mop and a pail. Said one observer: “Every soldier in the audience who was doing his bit by peeling potatoes or picking weeds from what were they saying? English remained a foreign tongue to her.
Throughout the evening, only one song fell flat, and it was, as Berlin had feared, the sentimental number “I Can Always Find a Little Sunshine in the Y.M.C.A.” Invoking motherhood and the dubious pleasure of writing home, the ballad drew boos and catcalls.
But the finale, a minstrel scene called “Darktown Wedding,” quickly restored the audience to good humor. Intended as a grotesque, comic parody of a typical Ziegfeld “tribute” to the American girl, the scene contained a song that later became a Berlin standard: “Mandy.”
And what did the impish Berlin do with this tender song about a young suitor who wanted a minister handy so he could marry his Mandy? He staged it as a drag number with a hairy-chested blackface male chorus decked out in ribbons and curls. The spectacle was tasteless, it was racist, but it was also funny. In the midst of the revelry, Mandy herself appeared onstage. She was played by an actual woman, not a drag queen, and the actress really was black. Her unexpected appearance, according to an unsigned Theatre magazine review, “fairly stopped the proceedings with a pair of eyes that would be worth a million dollars in the movies if they were topped with Pickford curls instead of Topsy pigtails.”
After exploring the limits of theatrical absurdity, the company shed their blackface and costumes and rallied for the finale. The entire Camp Upton company–227 soldiers, fortified with police reservists–crowded onto the stage wearing full battle gear. A song Berlin had hurriedly written as a replacement for the “sticky” “God Bless America”–”We’re on Our Way to France”–began. The soldiers suddenly streamed from the stage, down ramps and through the aisles of the Century, rifles on their shoulders, and continued out the doors, as if they actually were on their way to France and possibly their death.
After this stunning conclusion, General Bell rose in his box to address the audience. He thanked them all for their generosity, explained that the proceeds would be used to build a community house at Camp Upton, and then added: “I have heard that Berlin is among the foremost songwriters of the world, and now I believe it.”
He gestured to Sergeant Berlin, indicating that he should speak. Applause for Berlin began. It had taken upwards of 300 soldiers to pull this revue off, but it was Berlin who had shaped the entire production–written the lyrics, composed the music, and staged the scenes. Though he had been onstage a matter of minutes, everyone knew he was the evening’s mastermind. His reticence only inspired the audience to cheer more lustily.
The roar of approval continued for a full ten minutes while the songwriter groped for words. Spontaneity did not come easily to a man as disciplined as he, but he had to overcome his inhibitions and respond; his commanding officer’s wishes had the force of an order. The cast came to his rescue by hoisting him onto their shoulders and parading him around the stage.
Without quite intending to, and even now only dimly aware of the moment’s larger implications, Berlin had out stripped the conventional measurements of Broadway success and be come, to the audience and to the soldiers, a symbol of camaraderie, fun, and catchy tunes. Moreover, the night had promoted this little man to the status of an archetypal figure: the minstrel of Camp Upton, of the Great War, and, by extension, of the country.
Better than any other show-business figure, he had managed to capture the war in song–not the hideous blunders, needless deaths, and general horror, which would become widely acknowledged once the war had ended, but the gap-toothed, good-natured, aw-shucks spirit of a nation awakening from the long and perilous slumber of isolationism to its eminence as a world power. Wrote one entranced cub reporter, Marion Spritzer:
It may well be that no mortal theatre was ever so beautiful as the Century that hot night in August of 1918, and it is even more likely that no mortal show could ever have been quite so transcendentally wonderful, so altogether out of this world.
After the show, Berlin celebrated the occasion as only Berlin would: He slipped out of the crowd and took his mother home to the Bronx. Once there, she confessed, in Yiddish, her relief that he had been released. Her son pressed her for an explanation. Released? “Yes,” she answered, “by all the gangsters who got hold of you and carried you on their shoulders. ”
Though designed as a limited-run benefit talent show, Yip-Yip-Yaphank received the press coverage and publicity of a Broadway hit. In the morning, New York’s newspapers headlined the show’s success.
YIP! YIP YAPHANK” MAKES ROUSING HIT-All of the Numbers Are Patriotic and its Chorus “Maidens” Are One Long Laugh.
–New York Times
“YIP YIP YAPHANK” WINS!–Camp Upton Boys Make Big Advance on Manhattan Front.
The Eagle reserved special praise for the show’s score:
To hear Irving Berlin sing, “How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” [sic] alone is worth a trip to Manhattan. There is more truth than poetry in the song and it came home strong to the boys under 45 in the audience last night, many of whom may be “cussing” the bugler themselves, inside of a few short months.
Contributions poured in. Even E.F. Albee, the powerful vaudeville manager who rarely went to the theater himself, took 16 friends and enjoyed himself so much that he donated $1,000. Buying a seat for Yip-Yip-Yaphank at the highest possible price quickly be came a patriotic duty. The revue’s run was extended for another week and then for a full month, well into September; since another show had already been booked into the Century, Yip-Yip Yaphank moved to the Lexington Avenue Opera House, where the ovations continued and the donations piled up. Expected to earn $35,000, the show eventually collected over $80,000.
The Camp Upton contingent’s Cinderella existence on Broadway came to a dramatic conclusion. On closing night, when the soldiers marched down the aisles singing “We’re on Our Way to France” at the end of the performance, they continued marching to the street. It looked as if it were all part of the usual show, but then the production’s large crew began to follow the actors down the aisles, led by Sergeant Berlin. Gradually some of the audience realized that the soldiers actually were going to war.
There was considerable crying and fainting and cheering–a jumble of emotions that coalesced into cheers that rang in the ears of the departing soldiers as they proceeded in formation to a troop carrier. They boarded it without delay and sailed within the week for France.
Berlin, however, stayed behind. At the end of the show’s run, he returned to Camp Upton. Although he would fail to see any action, he had already had himself a very nice war. He had reaped vast goodwill and priceless personal publicity from Yip-Yip-Yaphank-the kind that could not be bought on Tin Pan Alley at any price.
When the war ended in November, the need for Camp Upton’s community house–the original reason Yip-Yip Yaphank had come into existence suddenly evaporated. The structure was never built, and Berlin, who returned to civilian life at the beginning of 1919, never did find out what became of the cash he’d raised for Uncle Sam. MHQ
LAURENCE BERGREEN is a journalist and biographer who lives in New York City. This article is adapted from his book As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, published by Viking Penguin.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 1990 issue (Vol. 2, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Oh! How He Hated to Get Up in the Morning
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