Hershey Felder performs as Irving Berlin, March 2017. (Photo/Samantha Voxakis)
Hershey Felder performs as Irving Berlin, March 2017. (Photo/Samantha Voxakis)

Mother’s Day: Hershey Felder’s online Irving Berlin concert to raise money for local theaters

Social distancing may prevent some people from dancing cheek to cheek these days, but Hershey Felder is offering up an alternative: a livestream theatrical performance of his play saluting the life and music of Irving Berlin.

Known for his one-man shows exalting Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Leonard Bernstein, the actor, pianist and playwright made a splash in the Bay Area a few years ago with “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.”

This time, he’ll be reprising the show in a May 10 Mother’s Day performance, livestreamed from his home studio in Florence, Italy.

It’s being offered to darkened theaters around the United States as a means to raise desperately needed funds during the pandemic.

“I decided to partner with various theaters … that have been home for me for years,” Felder, 52, said by phone from Florence, “and offer this at no charge to them so they can make some money to help their furloughed workers.”

Locally, the $50-per-household tickets can be purchased through Berkeley Rep, or through TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. The phone numbers for the two box offices are (510) 647-2949 and (650) 463-1960, respectively.

The 105-minute show will begin at 5 p.m. PDT and will be followed by a 10-minute live talkback. Viewing will be available for up to 72 hours after the live performance, and purchasers can watch it on a computer, smart phone, tablet or smart TV.

Felder grew up in Montreal, where he attended Hebrew Academy Day School and later McGill University.

Though conservatory trained, and revering the classical masters, Felder has a special affection for Berlin, the Jewish immigrant who wrote so many priceless contributions to the Great American Songbook. While Berlin’s early songs deal with the immigrant experience — “Marie from Sunny Italy” and “Yiddle on Your Fiddle, Play Some Ragtime” — he is best known for “White Christmas” “God Bless America,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “Cheek to Cheek” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

Born Israel Isidore Beilin, Berlin escaped the pogroms of Belarus in 1893 when he was 5, along with his family. He grew up one of eight children on New York’s Lower East Side, and when he was 13, he started singing on street corners to earn money after his father (a cantor) died. Later he landed a job as a singing waiter in a Chinatown café.

His career included writing music for 50 Broadway shows.

“He had an uncanny ability of tapping into very simple and visceral human emotions and being able to turn them into poetry using the most economical and beautiful of means in the English language,” Felder told J. in 2017. “There’s never a word you don’t understand. But I wouldn’t [underestimate] his melodic writing and his harmonic intuition.”

Though “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” is more than 5 years old, Felder said he has added a new and timely section. He very recently learned from Berlin’s daughter that her father had survived the 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic.

The previously unknown details of that episode will be revealed in the May 10 performance, Felder said, adding that he hopes today’s theatergoers can persevere the way Berlin’s audiences did through two world wars and the Great Depression.

“We’re going to make it through [the current pandemic] and that’s the point,” Felder said. “That’s the point of his whole story, the ups and downs, his losing a child on Christmas Day and then writing ‘White Christmas.’ This show may be something to bring people together.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.