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A baseball comedy routine, a singer and a song

In the 1940s, my father’s cousin would occasionally get us tickets to the broadcasts of the Kate Smith radio program, which General Foods sponsored. Those excursions across the Hudson to Manhattan’s Radio City and dinner at Tofenetti’s Times Square restaurant were major events for our young family.

I don’t remember Smith singing “God Bless America” at these broadcasts but I vividly recall two particular performances — a classic comedy routine and Smith’s rendition of another wartime song so moving that it even touched my eight or nine year old heart.

The comedy routine, performed many times in the 1940s by a pair of former burlesque comedians named Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, was about a baseball lineup composed of players named Who, What, Where, Why, Because and Tomorrow, among others designed to perplex the easily confused Costello to the annoyance of straight man Abbott. “Who’s on First?” was very funny and made the comedians radio and movie favorites in the 1940s:

Abbott:  Who is the name of the first baseman.

Costello:  OK. So what’s the name of the guy on second?

Abbott:  Tomorrow.

Costello:  Why can’t you tell me today?

And so it went, on the air, in movies and later on TV.

Kate Smith is best remembered for singing the World War II anthem, “God Bless America,” written by a young soldier named Irving Berlin for an all-soldier musical show called “Yip Yip Yaphank” in 1918 but dropped from the lighthearted show by the composer as too solemn.

Berlin, who would become one of the nation’s most prolific and admired composers of our popular songs, revived the song in 1938 as the nations of the world moved toward a second world war. In the succeeding decades, it all but replaced the national anthem for many Americans, especially at the ballpark where fans would stand and sing along with Smith’s recording, especially after 9/11. 

Until now.  

“God Bless America,” at least the Kate Smith recording, has been banned by the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Flyers because of the recent, unproven claims that Smith was a racist. It seems that back in the 1930s, Smith recorded songs whose lyrics contained two frequently heard words that are now rightfully considered racist: “darky” and “pickaninny.” (One of the songs, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” was also recorded by the great black vocalist Paul Robeson, not long after he changed the introduction to Show Boat’s “Old Man River” by eliminating the N-word and replacing it with “darkies.” Different times, different standards, unless you run the Yankees or Flyers.)  

It isn’t the first time Irving Berlin’s century-old anthem has seen controversy. In 1940, during its first revival, the song was savaged, not for its singer, but because its composer was a Russian-born Jewish immigrant whose right to seek God’s blessing and call this nation his “home, sweet home” was questioned by the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi-supporting German-American Bund. Both organizations called for a boycott and a Bund publication said the song “smacks of the ‘how glad I am’ attitude of the refugee horde.” Berlin, by the way, turned over all the royalties from “God Bless America” to the Boy and Girl Scouts.

I had two reasons to remember Kate Smith in recent days. One, of course, was the stupid overreaction to lyrics sung more than 80 years ago.  The other was prompted by the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the song I heard Kate Smith sing on her show in 1942 or ‘43, during the Nazi occupation of that great city.

As I recall, Smith’s announcer Ted Collins spoke of the sadness that had enveloped the City of Light since the 1940 occupation and then said, “Listen, Paris” as Kate Smith sang:

“The last time I saw Paris, her heart was warm and gay 

No matter how they change her,

I’ll remember her that way.”

And that’s how I’ll remember Kate Smith. 

After the two teams rushed to judgment about Smith, the Philadelphia Inquirer found some more remarks about race from the singer, in her own words. In a 1945 radio program called “We, the People,” Smith told her listeners: “Race hatreds, social prejudices, religious bigotry — they are the diseases that eat away the fibers of peace.” 

But by then, the Inquirer’s hometown hockey team had removed the statue of the singer that had graced the arena for three decades and decreed that fans would no longer hear her ask for God’s blessing on America.

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.