Cabaret singer reveals a love affair with the Gershwins romantic songs

After developing a crush on George Gershwin as a child, cabaret singer Mary Cleere Haran has returned to her old stomping grounds here to mark the late composer's 100th birthday.

"He was the first of the famous songwriters I liked as a kid," she said. "He was great-looking and lived in an incredible penthouse and dated beautiful women. He was the one I fell in love with."

Haran — along with the San Francisco Symphony's artistic director, Michael Tilson Thomas, and the local nephew of Gershwin's brother Ira, Michael Strunsky — has been caught up in Gershwin mania this year.

After a five-week engagement at New York's Algonquin Hotel, Haran is slated to perform "George Gershwin on Broadway and in Hollywood" at the Marin Jewish Community Center Saturday, Nov. 21 and Sunday, Nov. 22. She will be accompanied by pianist Richard Rodney Bennett, also of New York.

The program is a medley of the classics as well as lesser-known George and Ira Gershwin pieces. "I'm in love with these songs," the singer said by phone from her New York home.

For Haran, performing here is a homecoming. Her family still lives in the area, and the singer started her career as part of the original cast of "Beach Blanket Babylon." She also is a founding member of San Francisco's Eureka Theater.

She was inspired by Gershwin as a child, while listening to her father's album collection. Since then, she's become a Gershwin aficionado, digging for the details of his short life.

Gershwin was born Sept. 26, 1898 in Brooklyn, the second of four children of Russian Jewish immigrants.

George's father bought a piano so older brother Ira could begin musical training, according to historical accounts, but when young George showed such an aptitude for the keyboard it was he rather than Ira who continued with piano lessons.

He was raised on the classics of Schonberg, Chopin, Schubert and Liszt but succumbed in his teens to American popular music. His first job as a professional musician landed him in a bar tinkling pop music on a piano. He was 15.

Family lore has it that Gershwin took part in Yiddish theater productions as a youngster. Those productions were staged by Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky — who happen to be Tilson Thomas' grandparents. According to Linda Steinberg, founding director of the Boris Thomashefsky Project in San Francisco, Theodor Thomas, Boris' son and Tilson Thomas' father, was one of Gershwin's childhood playmates.

It was Boris Thomashefsky who early on recognized the boy's genius and introduced him to Jewish composer Sholom Sekunda. Sekunda, however, didn't share Thomashefsky's opinion.

The young Gershwin didn't get his break until years later. He was working as a composer for a Tin Pan Alley music publisher and wrote several small musicals before he made his first splash with "Rhapsody in Blue." From there, it was nowhere but up on a rocket ride to stardom together with brother Ira, his lyricist.

However, Gershwin's flame was short-lived. After only a handful of musical productions and two Hollywood movie ventures, the 39-year-old bachelor died suddenly of an undiagnosed brain tumor.

Tilson Thomas in September opened Carnegie Hall's performance season with a tribute to Gershwin. The show was met with national critical acclaim and has been broadcast on public access television and radio. The San Francisco Symphony is slated to perform a series of Gershwin's music throughout the season.

Gershwin heir Strunsky, whose aunt married Ira, attended the Carnegie Hall tribute as well as performances held all over the world in George Gershwin's honor. Managing the Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Philanthropic Fund as its sole trustee has become a full-time job for Strunsky, who was formerly in the construction business. He has committed himself to the family legacy by promoting George's and Ira's works with theater companies.

Though George died when Strunsky was but a toddler, he was raised on Gershwin tales by Aunt Leonore and Uncle Ira. The enchanted nephew recalled that the Gershwins were not particularly religious but both Ira and George were raised with plenty of Yiddishkeit.

"Yiddish was spoken in the family," he said. "It was not the principal language. Like so many immigrant families, they immediately changed the primary language of the family to English."

Later, Ira and Leonore were known to give generously to Jewish causes. The couple's philanthropic fund is supervised by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Perhaps no one was more fascinated by Gershwin history than Haran.

"He was such a dashing figure of the day kind of like the Beatles," she said, conceding a soft spot for male Jewish musicians (she later married one).

Haran says her job is to turn on younger generations to Gershwin's timeless tunes.

"There's such energy in his [music]. It was boy energy," Haran said. "They were beautiful love songs, but there's no fat on them, not an ounce of sentimentality."

The cabaret singer wants to capture the feeling of the 1920s and early '30s at her Marin show. She will perform a medley of pieces that Gershwin popularized at the keyboard during the soirées of the era. She also sings pieces from a couple of Fred Astaire movies as well as Gershwin's more well-known classics.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.