Reel to Reel: Somewhere Over the LES Rainbow

Posted on: January 7th, 2016 at 10:24 am by
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The amount of talent that emerged from the Lower East Side throughout the decades is immeasurable. Astounding, really. We narrow it down to a handful of world-renowned songwriters and composers who hailed straight from the Lower. Of course, we had the Yiddish Broadway on 2nd Avenue; but did you know that, were it not for some enterprising neighbors, motion pictures as we know it wouldn’t be?

The following Lower East Siders forever changed the world of entertainment with direct influences both on- and off-screen.

The founders of Loews Theaters, 20th Century Fox Pictures, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer were all immigrants or first-generation Americans who grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Eddie Cantor, George Burns, James Cagney, et al. were also good ol’ LES boys.

As for local songwriters: George and Ira Gershwin (on Eldridge Street), Yip Harburg, Irving Berlin, and Harold Arlen were all of the neighborhood. These legendary melody-makers are our focus today.

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Yip, Harold, Judy Garland and company

Yip Harburg, the youngest of four children born to Russian-Jewish immigrants. His real name was Isidore Hochberg, and he grew up in a Yiddish-speaking, Orthodox Jewish home on 11th Street and Avenue C. Yep. Alphabet City. Harold Arlen, also a cantor’s son (real name was Hyman Arluck) lived in the area, as well. His parents immigrated from Lithuania.

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Yip and Harold

So why them? Because it’s time to give credit where it’s due – the true wizards behind behind The Wizard of Oz were Yip and Harold. They penned an iconic and timeless song for the unforgettable classic that would impact cinema and musicals forever: “Over The Rainbow.” And while you might find it a fairytale-esque ballad, the song written in 1939 has a deeper meaning all its own.

From Old Faithful:

…it is number one on the “Songs of the Century” list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. The American Film Institute also ranked “Over the Rainbow” the greatest movie song of all time on the list of “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs.” It was adopted (along with Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” by American troops in Europe in World War II as a symbol of the United States.

Garland herself performed the song for the troops as part of a 1943 command performance. In April 2005, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp recognizing lyricist Yip Harburg’s accomplishments. The stamp features the opening lyric from “Over the Rainbow.”

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There you have it; “Over the Rainbow” was more than a cinematic thrill. Not bad for a little ditty that almost didn’t make the final cut. The song came out as the Holocaust loomed, and while I never could understand why my Bubbie (Grandma) would never watch the Wizard of Oz with me (she adored musicals), years later I now understand.

Through much oral history, I have learned that some of those imprisoned in the concentration camps would hum the tune wishing they, too, could fly, above the chimney tops. Yes, those chilling and ghastly chimney tops. From two Lower East Side Jews to millions who perished:

Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high,
There’s a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby.
Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.
Someday I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me.
Somewhere over the rainbow
Bluebirds fly.
Birds fly over the rainbow.
Why then, oh why can’t I?
If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can’t I?

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Auschwitz Remnants

The song is perfect in that its meaning is in the ear of the beholder. To know that it provided hope when there was none, to realize that this song, one from a movie, may be the very song that pushed Survivors to do just that. Survive. I will never listen to it again without tearing up. Thank you, Yip and Harold.

Here’s the song in Yiddish:

Deep breaths, lots of tissues. To some it’s a reach, to so many more, it is a spot-on interpretation.

Carrying on … Yip had a deep-seeded relationship with some other famous Lower East Siders: The Gershwin Brothers.

They all attended Townsend High School in Queens. Ira’s home, which was on 2nd Avenue and 5th Street was damn near upper class compared to Yip’s at 11th and C. Yip also wrote and performed in shows at the Henry Street Settlement.

Ira [Gershwin] was the shyest, most diffident boy we had ever known. In a class of Lower East Side rapscallions, his soft-spoken gentleness and low-keyed personality made him a lovable incongruity. He spoke in murmurs, hiding behind a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles. Ira had a kid brother who wore stiff high collars, shirts with cuffs and went out with girls.

Yip Harburg

Thus began their lifelong friendship.

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