‘Putting On The Ritz’ was written by Irving Berlin in May 1927 and first published on December 2, 1929. It was introduced by Harry Richman and chorus in the musical film ‘Putting On The Ritz’ (1930). I’ve posted a clip of that notoriously awful musical performance above–more about that in a minute. According to The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin, this was the first song in film to be sung by an interracial ensemble.
Now: In all the years I’ve known this song I was only dimly aware that sometimes singers singing the verse (‘Have you seen the well-to-do, strolling on Park Avenue’) substitute ‘Lenox Avenue’ for Park. Why I never bothered to check into this is beyond me as it’s a genuinely interesting bit of pop-tune sociology. Lenox Hill is in Harlem, which means that the entire story of the song is radically different if the well-to-do’s are black people. Since there were few if any ‘well-to-do’ blacks in Harlem the song is, in fact, a patronizing, joking look at how black people dress up like white ‘swells’ and parade around their neighborhood in imitation of their ‘betters’. The narrator of the song is encouraging his white audience to journey up there and observe this pathetically amusing demonstration by the black residents of the neighborhood. This unfortunate lyric remained in effect until the 1940s when Fred Astaire performed the song in the Berlin omnibus musical ‘Blue Skies’ (1946). Just who exactly prevailed upon Berlin to rewrite the lyric to reflect a less offensive stance toward black people is unknown (at least to me). It’s interesting that Berlin agreed to this as he was notoriously protective and fussy about his songs–perhaps it was Astaire (whom Berlin had great respect for) who asked for the rewrite. By substituting Park Avenue for Lenox Avenue, the black element is completely removed from the song, which is now simply about wealthy residents of the Upper East Side dressing up for a night on the town.
The above debut version features Harry Richman, a ridiculously popular song-and-dance man of the 20s whose trademark top hat and cane are extensively on display. Like all early talkies, part of the pleasure in watching it now is in the meta-film–you can feel the cast/crew/director struggling with the new equipment and techniques that early sound demanded and barely turning out something halfway legible as a result. Whatever sleek charm Richman once possessed as a performer is mostly invisible to us now. And the number is interminable–going on for at least eight choruses without so much as a key change to amp up the proceedings. As the chorus members behind Richman multiply and the number chugs onward it turns into a true train wreck. Nonetheless there are some of me who cherish this clip and I hope you’ll view it though the lens of an archeologist examining a dead culture for clues to how the now dead civilization’s people communicated. Below is the ‘pre-code’ lyric to the song. Ouch.
Have you seen the well to do
Up on Lenox Avenue?
On that famous thoroughfare
With their noses in the air?
High hats and narrow collars
White spats and fifteen dollars
Spending every dime
For a wonderful time
If you’re blue, and you don’t know where to go to
Why don’t you go where Harlem flits?
Puttin’ on the Ritz
Spangled gowns upon the bevy of high browns
From down the levy, all misfits
Putting’ on the Ritz
That’s where each and every Lula-Belle goes
Every Thursday evening with her swell beaus
Come with me and we’ll attend their jubilee
And see them spend their last two bits
Puttin’ on the Ritz
(BELOW IS SPOKEN)
Boys, look at that man puttin’ on that Ritz
You look at him, I can’t!