Dreaming of Irving Berlin in the Season That He Owned

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Irving Berlin's New York was a world of Broadway babies, teeming matinees, entrances at the Imperial, exits at the St. James, joyful noise at the New Amsterdam and civic veneration for his great mentor, the showman George M. Cohan.

And it still is.

It's not just that the 1954 movie "White Christmas," highlighting Berlin's definitive musical statement on the splendor of the holidays, is playing - as it must, on Christmas Day - on television. And it is no surprise that a steadfast group of carolers will be singing that classic tomorrow night, as they have done for more than 20 years, outside 17 Beekman Place, the five-story town house that Berlin inhabited for 42 years.

After all, he was the nation's songwriter, and vestiges of his long sojourn in Manhattan are everywhere, a fact that is celebrated in a sumptuous new book, "Irving Berlin's Show Business" (Harry N. Abrams). And thanks to exhibitions and a festival, New York will become Berlin Country in the coming months, far in advance of the centennial of the first of his 1,500 songs in 2007.

His enduring prominence may seem improbable, since Berlin, the man who wrote "God Bless America," "Easter Parade," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Cheek to Cheek," "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Blue Skies" and "Puttin' On the Ritz" was born 117 years ago. His six-decade career, from 1907 to 1966, spanned sheet music, the stage, recordings, radio, film and television, and for millions his canon continues to evoke powerful emotions.

"He hasn't had a hit song since 1966 with 'An Old-Fashioned Wedding,' but these days you can't go to many places in Manhattan without bumping into him," said David Leopold, author of the new book. "We all know his songs, and they are all part of who we are."

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