George and Ira Gershwin in Ossining 1927
By William J. Reynolds, Village of Ossining Historian.
One of George M. Cohan’s
classic songs reminds us that New Rochelle is ‘Only Forty-Five Minutes
From Broadway,’ but it may surprise some people to know that Ossining
has its own unique connection to the American Musical Theater. The song writing
team of George and Ira Gershwin once called Ossining their home.
In the Spring of 1927, The Citizen Sentinel heralded the news that George and Ira Gershwin had leased the forty-acre Chumleigh Farm estate (Shubert house) on Hoags Cross Road out past Maryknoll on Pinesbridge Road and just before Stillwater Lake. It was where the bulk of the songs for “Strike Up the Band” would be written.
The article goes on to say: “The estate is ideally situated
for one who must keep in constant touch with the city, and yet it (is) far
enough away from the metropolis” for the composer to enjoy the peaceful
privacy of a country retreat in order to do his work in quiet solitude.
The house was roomy, with plenty of space for visitors, a two-story stucco and brick structure. There was a lawn for croquet, trees, one with a swing, and rugged rock outcroppings in the yard.
At the time, the Gershwin Brothers were at the pinnacle of their success. That season saw audiences flocking to their latest theatrical sensation, ‘Oh Kay.’
It had been quite a journey for the pair from their humble beginnings.
Born just before the turn of the century, George and Ira were the sons of
Jewish immigrants from Russia and were raised in New York City. George, the
younger of the two, was the first to develop a taste for music. At age 14,
he started classical training on the piano. Two years later, he was playing
on Tin Pan Alley and in Broadway rehearsal halls. His first major success
came at the age of 21 with the release of ‘Swanee,’ which was
brought to life, and musical immortality, by the premier entertainer of the
day, Al Jolson.
Ira, on the other hand, pursued a career in journalism. His first poem, ‘The Shrine,’ was published when he was 20 years old. Using the pseudonym of ‘Arthur Francis,’ Ira segued into music by writing lyrics for his brother’s song ‘The Real American Folk Song’ in 1918. The dawn of the Roaring ’20’s saw the two in full collaboration with each other. Their first success came in 1924 with the Broadway debut of ‘Lady Be Good.’
At the time of their residency in Ossining, George and Ira were
working on one of their most ambitious, if risky, projects. ‘Strike
Up the Band,’ as originally conceived, was a satire on war and politics
written by George S. Kaufman. Such songs as ‘I’ve Got a Crush
on You’ and ‘The Man I Love’ were included in the show’
score. But the show, as it was first presented, was ahead of its time. America
in the bustling, carefree days of the mid-1920’s, before the Stock Market
Crash, was not receptive to such heavy themes. The show closed shortly after
its debut. The Gershwins, not willing to give up on the project, would reconstruct
it, and present a revised version in 1930, that met with greater success.
Another song written by the Gershwins during their stay in Ossining was ‘Meadow Serenade’, which was, undoubtedly, inspired by the country setting of Chumleigh Farm and the animals who lived in its woodlands. The fields, stables and lake can still be seen today in 2002 behind the small sign at the gate “Chumleigh Farm”.
While in Ossining, Ira bought a car, determined to finally learn to drive. Around the local roads he drove, but became frustrated by the impatience of other drivers who did not appreciate his slow overly cautious driving. George on the other hand would speed in and out of Manhattan in his recently purchased used Mercedes Benz.
Chumleigh Farm became a social center as well as a workplace. Over the summer the Gershwins entertained the Schirmers, the Paleys, Bill Daly, George S. Kaufman, columnist Franklin P. Adams as well as songwriters Howard Dietz, Harry Ruby and others.
By mid-June the score to ‘Strike Up the Band” was virtually complete with rehearsals scheduled to begin in New York in July. On one of their last Sundays at Chumleigh Farm, on June 19th, they entertained a few guests from town including Bill Daly and Franklin P. Adams. In the evening, George went to the piano to play the score of “Strike up the Band”.
George had not limited his talents to the American Musical Theater. In 1924, he was approached by bandleader Paul Whiteman to write an original jazz work for a concert. ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ for piano and jazz band was Gershwin’s debut in the concert hall as pianist and composer. It was his first attempt at writing an extended piece, and the first time jazz rhythms and blues-oriented melodies were used successfully within a classical framework. He expanded on his phenomenal success with ‘Piano Concerto in F’ (1925); ‘Three Preludes for Piano’ (1926); and ‘An American in Paris’ in 1928.
The brothers collaborated on four more musicals: ‘Girl Crazy’ (1930); ‘Of Thee I Sing’ (1931), which was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize; ‘Let ‘Em Eat Cake’ and ‘Pardon My English’ both in 1933.
Hollywood beckoned the Gershwins where they worked on the film
scores of ‘Damsel in Distress’ and ‘Shall We Dance,’
both starring Fred Astaire.
George Gershwin’s crowning achievement, before his untimely death from a brain tumor in 1937, was his work on the opera ‘Porgy and Bess’ which made its debut in 1935. And, what other connection does this musical classic have with Ossining? The role of Jake the fisherman was originated on stage by Ossining resident Edward Matthews. Furthermore, when the screen version of ‘Porgy and Bess’ was made in 1959, Matthews’ sister, Inez’ voice was featured in the film’s score in the role of Serena. Isn’t it a small world?
After George’s death, Ira worked with a succession of
composers, including Kurt Weill, Jerome Kern, Arthur Schwartz and Harold Arlen.
The remaining half of this dynamic duo of music died in 1983 at the age of 86.
It is thrilling to know that these two musical giants once lived, if even briefly, in our hometown, and it reaffirms my firm belief that Ossining is, indeed, a very special place.
Sources for information,
excerpts, and photographs:
“Gershwin: A Biography” by Edward Jablonski. Doubleday, New York 1987.
“Fascinating Rhythm- The collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin” by Deena Rosenberg. Dutton - Penguin Books, New York. 1991