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“God Bless America”: Celebrating Irving Berlin and Military Veterans

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You might expect a 91-year-old to have plenty of leisure hours. Not Francis Kilduff. The WWII veteran is so busy putting the final touches on his latest docudrama and hobnobbing at the USO headquarters, he barely made it to the theater. Though he managed to carve some time out of his weekend to enjoy a pre-performance meal at the Geffen Playhouse, he’s hurriedly slicing into his beef and hoping he doesn’t miss curtain.

It’s the Sunday night before Veteran’s Day, and Geffen has invited military vets not only to take in the final dress rehearsal of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, but also to enjoy a catered dinner buffet. Partnering with the Gary Sinise Foundation (Sinise and Randall Arney, Geffen’s Artistic Director, are pals from their days working together at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre), the Geffen celebrates veterans by hosting these special veterans nights for every Gil Cates Theater subscription production. As a proud partner of Blue Star Theatres, the Geffen Playhouse also offers veterans free tickets to season productions year-round.

But tonight is extra special. For most of these vets, Irving Berlin composed the soundtracks to their lives.

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Seated at the table with Kilduff is Alan Bertik, an affable vet who was on a Navy destroyer in the Korean War (“It was 30 below,” he says, chuckling). He and his wife used to usher at the Geffen. They saw Felder perform one New Year’s Eve, but he’s especially excited about this show for the simple reason that he knows most of the music. Of course, everyone knows the biggies: “White Christmas,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” Still, Berlin’s catalog is so expansive — he wrote at least 1,500 songs — there are many that history has forgotten. Yet the men and women who fell in love, broke up and fell in love again remember them fondly.

“Of course I’m excited!” Kilduff chimes in. “That’s my era.”

Hershey Felder has crafted one-man shows based on Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven and Bernstein, creating experiences that are half concerto, half stage play. In fact, they’re so unique he’s become quite famous not only in Southern California, with many premieres at the Geffen, plus performances at Pasadena Playhouse, Laguna Playhouse, San Diego Rep and the Old Globe, but also across the nation and world. (You can read more about his work in a recent American Theatre magazine article that is also re-published as the program note for the show.)

For Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, Felder recounts Berlin’s life story by weaving memories into songs. During the peformance, Felder plays one of Berlin’s most famous songs, “God Bless America,” and invites the audience to sing along. As voices surged with pride during the dress rehearsal, there were more than a few eyes filled with tears. The one constant in Berlin’s life — from being an immigrant baby to a “singing waiter” to Fred Astaire’s best bud to a lonely recluse — was that he found comfort in music. Berlin may be America’s most famous composer, but to that end, he’s not so different than the rest of us.

Join the Geffen Playhouse in celebrating veterans like Francis Kilduff and Alan Bertik. Click here to donate now or call Regina Miller at 310.208.6500 ext. 112.

Click here for tickets and more information on Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.

Haithcoat is the Geffen Playhouse’s Communications Editor. Her writing on music, theater and even weddings has been published in LA Weekly, The New York Times, Noisey and Billboard, among others.


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