On May 14, 1961, Alan Niederman of Merion, Pennsylvania celebrated his 13th birthday. The only reason I know this is because his well-heeled father pressed up a deluxe album commemorating his Bar-Mitzvah. No ordinary vanity effort, this four record set spans a whopping SIX HOURS. The ceremony itself unfolds in all its solemn glory across the first three sides. The last five sides capture the festive birthday blowout that was no doubt etched indelibly in the memory of all who received their complimentary copy of this magnificent keepsake. Oh, did I mention that it was pressed on clear red vinyl, or that it was mastered at 16rpm speed?
I've owned this album for years, but I haven't had access to a turntable that can handle 16rpm since my grandparents' entertainment console died some time in the early 80s. Somehow, it wasn't until last week that I finally evoked the miracle of technology, unleashing digital pitch control on the whole mess. Rendered intelligible by the process, the recording is an absolutely charming fly-on-the-wall document of a bygone era and a tightly-knit community coming together to honor their traditions and flout flaunt their excessively kitschy lifestyle.
Even leaving off the ceremony itself (as I have), the dinner dance goes on for four hours. Master of ceremonies Jay Jerome and his orchestra play for nearly the entire time, supplying both contemporary hits and popular music from yesteryear, as well as the occasional traditional fare. Jay's lively vocals animate the proceedings as he emcees the candle lighting ceremony, wishes the Rabbi a happy birthday, announces the anniversary of Alan's parents Nat and Janet, and leads the kids in a dance. He admonishes the boys, "now look fellas, when I say change partners, don't leave the girl standing there...take her over to another partner, ya know? Like gentlemen!"
Though Jay comports himself throughout with the expected professionalism, as soon as the spotlight is turned on the family or their guests, it's knuckle-dragging time. "Is this thing on? Am I on the air?" inquires one thick-accented dowager into the microphone. Janet inquires of Alan, "ya gonna kiss your mother, or are ya too old now?" At one point, Alan cravenly thanks his father for everything he's done for him, to which Nat responds, "It was a pleasure, Alan." As they leave, one party-goer estimates that the flowers alone must have cost "at least seven thousand."
For his part, Alan plays an understandably central role in the proceedings, delivering the blessing, interviewing the children's and parent's table, dancing with his mother and sisters, and offering farewells to the drunken guests at night's end. Through it all, he displays a cheeky chutzpah befitting one truly to the manor born. ("You havin' a good time? Don't forget your money to me...")
And all the while, the orchestra just keeps noodling away, sawing through medleys that never seem to end. And Jay just keeps going, flirting with the little girls, joking with the guests, crooning song after song after song. "How do you keep it up?" someone asks him. "Ya gotta make a livin', don't ya?" He replies. At one point, Jay honors his host by performing a song he wrote during World War II. It seems Nat Niederman was a songwriter back then, and managed to place his opus "Gee I Wish (A G.I. Wish)" with Vaughn Monroe, who recorded it in the Forties.
I found Jay's obituary (he died in 2001) online at the web site of his alma mater, the University Of Pennsylvania. He was a legendary fixture in the region, playing important events both for the Jewish community and the public at large, as well as setting up residency in Atlantic City during the summer season, until he retired in the late 1980s.
This time of year, the blogosphere is drowning in Christmas posts. (Don't they know there's a war on?) And though this album (mercifully) has no Christmas music on it, it makes the perfect soundtrack to any holiday party. Just let it run in the background while everybody drinks. What better way to spread joy this year?