Thursday, February 2, 2017

“Snoot” Suit Required for Puttin’ on the Ritz?

“We’re all alone, no chaperone
Can get our number
The World’s in slumber
Let’s Misbehave!” 

Steve Perry’s zany Cherry Poppin’ Daddies resurrected that wonderful Cole Porter tune – along with 13 other show tunes from the Roarin’ Twenties and Depression Era – about a year or so ago for a release they cleverly entitled Boop-a-doo.

The “De-Lovely” Mr. Porter covers a lot of ground in his lyrical celebration of surrender to one’s carnal instincts, un peu d’amour from the Garden of Eden to the (love)birds and bees.

“They say that bears have love affairs
And even camels
We’re merely mammals
Let’s Misbehave!”

On another Boop-a-doo track, Perry and his Politically Imperfect Parents ponder a different sort of surrender:

“Oh who treats his sweetie to
High-brow drinks and oyster stew
Though he knows quite well his stash
Eats six days of warmed-up hash
High spots tonight they’ll borrow
Dry spots will come tomorrow
But nobody cares
For now they’re all millionaires.”

Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle didn’t quite make it to that part of Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” during their classic “Young Frankenstein” song-and-dance number.

Nor did an outfit named Taco, who enjoyed their fifteen minutes of fame during MTV’s infancy via a clever video rife with tuxedos, tails – not to mention a couple of performers sporting black face paint whose presence was deemed unsuitable for a 1980s audience and promptly edited out.

Taco’s excessive (?) seasoning aside, there didn’t seem much that was controversial or offensive about this little ditty – a happy song about the minor, all-too-human vice of some occasional self-indulgence, overspending for a big night on the town.

The experience is presented as a communal activity – come let’s “mix” where the Rockefellers go to live it up. Everybody’s doin’ it! Don’t get left out of the fun.

But as originally conceived, composed and performed (in a 1930 film of the same name), Puttin’ on the Ritz was more spectator sport than block party – and was infused with the racial overtones that were common for that time.

Maybe the poetic license being exercised in Taco’s video was not merely gratuitous.

For example, the original setting for this “romp” was not Park Avenue “where fashion sits,” but rather Lennox Avenue “where Harlem flits.”

And just how pray tell does Harlem "flit," and who exactly is “Harlem”?

“Spangled gowns upon the bevy
Of high browns from down the levee
All misfits.”

(Did they get bored “shufflin’ along” waitin’ for the Robert E. Lee?)

“That’s where each and every Lulu-Belle goes
Every Thursday evening with her swell beaus
Rubbin’ elbows.”

It should be noted that Berlin’s “representative name” for a member of this apparently transplanted population is not without significance. Around the time that ol’ Irv was scribing this little morsel of lyric poetry, one of the more popular plays on the New York stage (it was made into a movie in the late ‘40’s) was named “Lulu Belle,” whose protagonist was – you guessed it – a prostitute. Perhaps that accounts for the plural noun “beaus” in the subsequent line.

A clever guy like Berlin could have easily re-phrased the previous line so as to require the verb form “go,” huh? ("That's where all the flashy Lulu-Belles go"?)

(A weird irony here is that the original stage version of Lulu Belle was among the first major New York theater productions to feature an integrated cast.)

“Come with me and we’ll attend
Their jubilee and watch them spend
Their last two bits.”

So, in its original form, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” was not about diverse revelry at all, but rather privileged derision … the proof lies in the pronouns, the “us” and “them” has no overlap.

I’ve long admired the “brass” of the CPD; Mr. Perry and the boys tell it like it is.

(Full disclosure: I’m not sure Irving Berlin deserves credit for the “Sweetie / High spots, dry spots” verse of the song. I’ve seen/heard it nowhere else.
British crooner Robbie Williams also uses the original lyric in another recent (2013) version, but forgoes the oyster stew.)