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Keeping The Faith

In Hollywood

Left: Irving Berlin, middle: David Sarnoff, right: Louis B. Mayer

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In Recognition Of Jewish-American Heritage Month, A Remembrance Of Some Of The Greatest Contributions To Popular Culture From Hollywood Icons And Legends Including Spielberg And Seinfeld


By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel To Real Special For Modern Times Magazine

April 28, 2014 — May is Jewish-American Heritage Month, a time to recognize notable American Jews and their contributions to America’s pop cultural landscape over the past 100 years.

Here’s our list of five “game changers.” Go at it with your picks!

Irving Berlin: Composer Jerome Kern, a legendary tunesmith in his own right, said this about his songwriting peer: “Irving Berlin has no place in American music, he is American music!” Born Israel Baline in Russia in 1888, he immigrated to the U.S. a few years later. After a hard-knock childhood on the tough streets of New York City, the young, uneducated and self-taught musician, against all odds, began writing the words and music that define the great American “songbook.” Berlin’s dozens of song hits include his first in 1911, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” followed by “Cheek to Cheek,” “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade,” “God Bless America” and “There’s No Business like Show Business.”  He died in 1989 at the age of 101.

Louis B. Mayer: Eastern European immigrants (dreamers and visionaries all) with names like Mayer, Laemmle, Goldwyn and Zucker, around the turn of the 20th century saw gold in the new-fangled invention called motion pictures. If there was such a thing as Hollywood royalty, Mayer could be described as the sometimes benevolent and always possessive overseer of Hollywood’s greatest dream factory – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or MGM.  “Mr. Mayer” took an interest in all of his contracted stars with a particular penchant for his leading ladies. As a young starlet at MGM in the early 1940s, swimming star Esther Williams (in a 1996 interview) told us that Mayer took a “keen interest” in her. “He wanted you to tell him everything,” she said. “He said to me, ‘Esther, I want to be a father to you.’ I said, ‘Mr. Mayer, I have a father.’ That line of his worked on a lot of girls.” Mayer’s reign as MGM boss ran from the studio’s founding in 1924 to his eventual dismissal in 1951. Mayer died in 1957 at the age of 73.

David Sarnoff: If you look at radio and TV pioneers, invariably, two top the list: David Sarnoff, and William Paley. As the man who ruled the airwaves as both the president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), we give Sarnoff the nod over his CBS rival Paley. A fierce, “take-no-prisoners” competitor, “General” Sarnoff (he was actually awarded a Brigadier General’s star for his work with President Eisenhower during World War II) was at the forefront of virtually every broadcast innovation of the 20th century – AM radio, entertainment programming, the advent of television and later color television. His tenure at RCA/NBC ran for 60 years and he died in 1971 at the age of 80.

Steven Spielberg: There have been a lot of legendary Jewish filmmakers – Cecil B. DeMille (his mother was Jewish), George Cukor and Billy Wilder, but perhaps nobody has made a bigger impact at the box-office or with filmgoers than Steven Spielberg, born in 1946. If there was such thing as a modern-day movie mogul, that title would go to Spielberg. Starting with his monster hit Jaws, in 1975, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, The Color Purple, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln and Spielberg’s most personal film, Schindler's List.

Jerry Seinfeld: Jewish comics have had a long and storied history in pop culture. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, you’d see the greatest – Groucho Marx, George Burns, Milton Berle and Jack Benny – holding court and flinging one-liners at the Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles. A worthy successor to the greats, Jerry Seinfeld, born in Brooklyn in 1954, took his observational humor, infused it with a strong cast of supporting players and (along with Larry David) created the iconic “show about nothing,” Seinfeld, which ran on NBC from 1988-1998 and remains popular in re-run syndication. Since leaving prime-time Seinfeld still works the stand-up circuit and appears in a popular web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, where he has a nosh, a cup of java and kibitzes, with such comedic heavyweights as Sarah Silverman, Don Rickles, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and David Letterman.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from Hollywood’s Golden Age. They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 years of celebrity profiles from vaudeville to movies to TV. Reach them at
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