Collecting in the Burgh

    The Strip! magazine’s editor inaugurates a new series spotlighting the unique interests of area collectors by writing about his own fascination with all things Gershwin. We invite readers with similar collecting interests to contact the magazine for the possibility of reporting on their collections in future articles.

    A collector is, some might say, an obsessed lifetime student. My own compulsive love of American composer George Gershwin and his music has produced a near lifetime of the joy of research, discovery, and the accumulation of artifacts associated with the composer’s life and career. Many decades’ study of Gershwin’s artistry has yielded several books and articles; a number of special exhibits in association with such Pittsburgh cultural institutions as the Oakland Carnegie Library, the Ballet, and the Symphony; as well as a series of educational talks to a variety of audiences. Over the years relationships have been built with renowned musicians such as Richard Glazier (a pianist who knew Ira Gershwin) and Pittsburgh’s own Marvin Hamlisch.

    My interests have always hovered around collecting things, mostly in the area of visual arts and popular culture. A love of history merged with an early career in graphic design to make older paper items with striking type/lettering and colorful images—redolent of an historical period—attractive sirens beckoning me to acquire them. A love of music led to an obsession with early jazz, ragtime, popular song, musical theater, and modern classical works—and an appreciation for composers who used such sources to create intelligently organized, ambitious music. Anyone courageous enough to produce art that immediately appealed to most people and yet was characterized by seriousness of construction and purpose has been a hero to me—artists like Thomas Hart Benton, Howard Pyle, and Andrew Wyeth; cartoonists such as Winsor McCay, Hal Foster, and Jack Kirby; composers such as Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, John Alden Carpenter, Jerome Kern, Bernard Hermann, Paul McCartney, and Gershwin; and filmmakers such as Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles. These are all profound, appealing artists that defy categorization, and who through their art bring disparate segments of society together.

    Fascination with American cultural life of the early 20th century sparked my interest in collecting vintage theater ephemera, sheet music, and magazines as I commenced a crusade to promote and defend the greatness of Gershwin. Intentions to write and speak on Gershwin led me to embark many years ago on an enjoyable hobby of acquiring paper collectibles, the rarer and more obscure the better, that could add to the research for my books (eventually Gershwin in His Time and The Cinematic Gershwin) and also provide most of the illustrations I might use in those books—or for articles such as the one you are currently reading.

    Gershwin Sunshine

    Among the most obscure of Gershwin’s sheet music is this “theme song” for a silent movie, The Sunshine Trail of 1923. The lyricist is Arthur Francis—aka Ira Gershwin.

    The collection therefore was, and still is, guided by finding rare items that are important historically and add to a complete representation of everything Gershwin wrote or that was published about him, while he was alive. These are true documents of a career, and represent what I have chosen as the focus of my collection.

    So, what kinds of things have I found significant, and delightful, enough to acquire for such a personal hoard? Recordings fall into the category of important sources for musical study, and I have tried to have on hand a copy of every recorded Gershwin composition—song or opera or complete theatrical show—although strictly speaking these do not possess the “age” necessary to join my exclusive club. Certainly recordings that were made in the 1920s and ’30s (Gershwin died in 1937) do count as important for this collection, and old shellac 78s that Gershwin himself recorded have proven very desirable.

    Gershwin Lady Be Good

    The George and Ira Gershwin show Lady Be Good, in addition to being a stage success in America and England (1924 and 1926), became a silent movie in 1928 (oddly, soundless adaptations of Broadway musicals were not unusual, although songs from the original show were sometimes played live).

    But I am mostly enamored of the printed page, and the art and graphics that illuminate such, especially from the first seven decades of the 20th century. And I have always been on a crusade to discover—as well as collect—historical artifacts that objectively confirm the genius, and serious worth, of cultural masters I wish to champion. For Gershwin, this translates primarily into accumulating the rarest songs in sheet music form—but only first editions that the composer himself would have known. It also means original theater programs/booklets for the first Broadway productions of many Gershwin musical shows. And it includes every magazine article and book written about him, as well as periodical and book essays written by the composer. It even results in discovering that elusive painted color portrait for an ad “endorsing” Lucky Strike cigarettes on the back of a 1929 Elks magazine (Gershwin mainly smoked cigars, however), or his full-page testament to the merits of his favorite piano, as part of the Portraits of Musical Celebrities book published by Steinway in 1929.

    Gershwin Lady Be Good

    Lady Be Good promotional flyer.

    Still, my main focus has been the sheet music published concurrently with the staging of George’s musical shows, most of which were written with his brother Ira as lyricist. The covers’ wonderful art deco images and lettering enhance the historically important music in contemporary published versions that best represent Gershwin’s initial musical intentions. Of particular interest are music sheets for his earliest songs, often plopped into shows containing tunes by other composers (e.g., The Lady in Red, The French Doll, Little Miss Bluebeard, The Sweetheart Shop), or for famous Gershwin shows that changed titles (Funny Face was first called Smarty; Sweet Little Devil began as A Perfect Lady; ditto Our Nell as Hayseed).

    Magazine articles are especially juicy items, written roughly at the moments of creation of many Gershwin works. There’s the piece by his first biographer, Isaac Goldberg, in Theatre Guild Magazine (March 1930) that analyzes the serious musicianship that went into Strike Up the Band. There’s the discussion in a 1928 issue of Musical America of a new composition called An American in Paris, via an interview with Gershwin, in anticipation of its first performance by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Then there’s the amazing Stage magazine illustrated discussion of Porgy and Bess by its author/librettist, DuBose Heyward, followed in that publication’s next issue (November 1935) with a lengthy and rapturous review accompanied by nine photographs of the production.

    Gerswin Damsel in Distress

    A very ephemeral paper item (thus categorized by collectors as “ephemera”) is a folded flyer, or motion picture herald, advertising coming attractions at specific theaters. This one depicts, among others films, the last movie musical George completed, 1937’s A Damsel in Distress with Fred Astaire, which featured such masterpieces as “A Foggy Day” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”

    An especially prized periodical find was the rare magazine Along Broadway for October 1920, in which a very young Gershwin is interviewed following his first big success with “Swanee.” Asked to identify his “ambition in composing,” Gershwin replies, “Operettas that represent the life and spirit of this country are decidedly my aim. After that may come opera, but I want all my work to have the one element of appealing to the great majority of our people.” There are also the composer’s own articles on “jazz”—defined by Gershwin and his contemporaries as a term encompassing all forms of traditional and modern popular music, from ragtime and the blues to orchestrated popular songs—in Singing (July 1926, “Does Jazz Belong to Art?”) and Theatre Magazine (March 1927, ”Jazz Is the Voice of the American Soul”).

    In the area of books, I have managed to obtain the original jacketed hardcover editions of the scripts for the two greatest Gershwin operettas, Of Thee I Sing and Let ’Em Eat Cake—as well as the famous 1932 Song Book with art deco illustrations by Alajalov and containing the first appearances of the composer’s pithy, “serious” variations on 18 of his songs.

    Collected too are movie stills and posters; small movie heralds and promotional leaflets; print ads for the many products “Gershwin the celebrity” endorsed; and programs for orchestral concerts such as Whiteman’s Rhapsody in Blue events and Gershwin’s 1934 multi-city tour during which he performed his newest composition, I Got Rhythm Variations. Most notable are several 1930s Lewisohn Stadium (College of the City of New York) programs for the renowned all-Gershwin concerts, during which the composer himself performed—sometimes in association with his protégé, Pittsburgh’s Oscar Levant. (Other Pittsburgh-born Gershwin associates include playwright George S. Kaufman, who authored the Gershwin brothers’ operettas Strike Up the Band and Of Thee I Sing, a well as Pandro S. Berman, the RKO studio production head who produced two 1930s Fred Astaire movie musicals with original Gershwin scores, Shall We Dance and A Damsel in Distress.)

    Gershwin Goldwyn Follies

    The movie left musically unfinished by Gershwin at his death was The Goldwyn Follies (1938), for which this exuberant chromolithographed window card (movie poster) was created.

    Collecting is rewarding in so many ways, particularly for how it puts one in touch with other eras and often other cultures. But it also stirs the emotions through tactile and visual stimulation, challenges the intellect in calling for study and organizational expertise, and quickens the heart in anticipation of new discoveries. And in my case, whether it be Gershwiniana or 19th-century books with Pre-Raphaelite engravings, it serves to accumulate evidence that proves the ultimate brilliance of great artists.

    Greg Suriano is editor of The Strip!, teaches college art and music, and writes on the arts.