General News

One Night Only: Rita and Her Famous Brother-in-Law

Harold and Jerry Arlen, back in the day. (Photo courtesy of Rita Arlen.)

House of Flowers, a musical by Truman Capote and Harold Arlen, had a brief run on Broadway—just 165 performances from its debut on Dec. 30, 1954, until it closed on May 21, 1955. But for Rita Arlen, that was long enough.

Rita—a member of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church since 1994 and the longtime president of the Women’s Association—was in her teens when she met the musical director of House of Flowers, Jerry Arlen, the brother of the Oscar-winning composer and her future husband. Jerry and Rita were married for 25 years until his death in 1988.

That’s one reason that “A Sleepin’ Bee,” one of the featured numbers from House of Flowers, is Rita’s favorite Harold Arlen song. And it’s the reason “A Sleepin’ Bee” will be part of the repertoire when the Women’s Association presents “The Music of Harold Arlen” on Tuesday, May 14, in Bonnell Hall.

Clayton Kahler Brown, a singer and actor in New York (and a member of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church Choir), will perform a slice of the Arlen songbook during the Women’s Association’s annual Spring Dinner.

“I’ve been a fan of Arlen’s ever since I heard Sammy Davis, Jr. do his standup routine with ‘One For My Baby,’” Clayton says. “It got me to listen through some of the other big hits. I grew up listening to jazz primarily, and Arlen was a very big part of that. I’ll be performing a good mix of his hits and a couple that are lesser known.”

Among the hits Clayton is preparing are “That Old Black Magic,” “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” and “Over the Rainbow,” Arlen’s Oscar winner from The Wizard of Oz, which the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts named the number one song of the 20th century. And, of course, “A Sleepin’ Bee.”

“It’s such a beautiful song, and it’s so rarely performed or recorded,” Rita says. “It’s the one song I specifically asked Clayton to sing.”

“After I performed ‘A Sleepin’ Bee’ at one of her Women’s Association luncheons, Rita requested I sing a whole set of his music,” Clayton says. “She invited me to her home for lunch and showed me the piano he composed on and told me stories. She spoke about how he was always happiest with his wife, and when he was with her the music would come. While they were driving one afternoon, the tune for ‘Over the Rainbow’ came to him. They pulled over, and he wrote it outside the famous Schwab’s Drugstore.”

Unlike his songs, Arlen has never been particularly well known outside the industry. As a New Yorker profile once put it, “If Arlen’s name is not on the American public’s lips, his songs are in our hearts.” His father was a cantor for a synagogue in Buffalo, where both Arlen brothers were born. When Harold was still an up-and-coming composer, his father worked his music into shabbat services to help get his name before the public. Arlen himself never had an agent or publicist, and Rita suspects that’s why the compositions have always outshined the composer.

Arlen’s career began in 1921, when dropped out of school at age 16 to move to New York and the vaudeville stage. His brother stayed home, graduated and went on to Syracuse University. But before finishing his degree, Jerry followed his big brother to the big city. “Jerry played violin and sax, and he also wrote music,” Rita says. “He gave that up to support his brother. He used to say, ‘We only have one composer in the family.’”

Jerry was the musical director for a number of Harold’s Broadway productions. There were lots of them, but none brought him the success he achieved in Hollywood, where he lived for two decades. Fifteen years after The Wizard of Oz, he worked again with Judy Garland, on the 1954 film version of A Star Is Born, with Ira Gershwin as his lyricist.

Back in New York, Harold and his wife, Anya, stood beside Jerry and Rita at City Hall when they married. Jerry and Rita hosted the seder every Passover. “I learned to cook all the right dishes,” she says. “Harold always said I wasn’t bad for a shiksa!”.

After Harold’s death in 1988, Jerry and Rita became the keepers of his memory, and of a few of his awards, which she plans to display at the May 14 dinner.

“Arlen is one of the absolute greats,” Clayton says. “Diving into some of these songs I didn’t know about has been such a joy. He is a master at making things sing easy.”

Clayton Kahler Brown with Rita Arlen in Bonnell Hall.