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The Joy of Processing: a peek into the Bernard Green Collection

Mar 8, 2011 12:30 PM | 0 comments


Composer, writer, and fan of mothers everywhere, Bernard Green (bottom, with telephone) and associate. 


In our Brooklynology articles, we often draw from several sources to flesh out each story about Brooklyn history, including our prints collection, our ephemera files, reference books, and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs and clippings.  These are the same materials that we are most often serving to the researching public that visits the Brooklyn Collection.  A feedback loop begins to emerge -- a researcher requests Eagle photographs, for example, which leads us to browse through the photographs, which leads us to find something new and unexpected, which leads us to write a blog entry about the exciting find, which publicizes the photograph collection and leads more researchers to request Eagle photographs, which starts the whole wonderful process of discovery over again. 

A crucial step in setting off this chain reaction is, of course, to make our materials findable in the first place.  You can't search through a collection if you don't know the collection exists.  That's why we've uploaded so many of our images to the catalog, and why we create digital exhibitions like the Sheet Music Collection and the Fulton Street Trade Card Collection.  That is also why I find it absolutely thrilling to process collections in our archives -- something that would otherwise sit inconspicuously, and most likely forgotten, on a shelf is given new life when we create and share a finding aid that unlocks its heretofore unknown treasures.

Why am I getting so worked up about this?  We're currently preparing several of our finding aids to post on our website to fulfill that crucial step of findability I mentioned earlier.  One of these finding aids is for the Bernard Green Collection -- a donation to the Brooklyn Public Library that fits neatly into one document box.  






That austere monolith of the archive -- the document box.







Despite its demure exterior, the Bernard Green Collection provides a fascinating view of the entertainment industry of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s through the scope of one hard-working, ambitious, talented person.  Bernard Green, born in New York in 1908 and known to most friends and associates as "Bernie", was a composer, conductor, and arranger for film, radio and television.  His better-known credits include the televsion shows "Mr. Peepers" and "Caesar's Hour".  He also recorded albums, wrote columns for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The New York Times, and the International Musician, worked to promote fellow musicians like Les Brown, and wrote comedy scripts.  He was, in short, a real show-biz guy.

The bulk of the collection is made up of letters Green received from colleagues and friends through his career.  These in many ways track the ascent of Green's star -- the correspondence collection begins humbly in 1934 with three graciously worded rejection letters from Daily Mirror columnist and radio personality Walter Winchell and ends impressively in 1972 with a friendly, handwritten letter from the king of television himself, Ed Sullivan.  In the 40 years between those bookends, we find letters from record companies discussing upcoming projects with the colorful patois of the 1940s -- "That fellow out in Hollywood is a whiz" -- alongside personal notes from Army pals, with even more colorful vocabulary -- "There's no question about the fact that a good day's work puts hair on one's poop."



Green at the piano, left, in an undated photograph.








Excerpt from the title page from a comedy script co-written with Eli Lloyd Hoffman, "Ale, Ale, the Gang's All Here."  Come see the collection in person to read the whole thing!

In 1972, near the end of his life, Green began preparations for a book project.  His hope was to publish an amusing collection of anecdotes from celebrities, politicians, and other notable personages about, of all things, their mothers.  Green reached out to the likes of entertainers Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra; politicians Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and then-president Richard Nixon; astronauts John Glenn and Alan Shepard; Elia Kazan, Darryl Zanuck, Jonas Salk, Rex Reed, a veritable cavalcade of stars -- all of whom responded (in varying degrees of friendliness).  It is evident, in reading these, that Green's connections opened some doors for him, if only briefly, and if only to be slammed shut.  Author Herman Wouk, for example, started his brief note with, "Any friend of Alan Meltzer's deserves a prompt reply from me," before politely declining to share stories of his mother. 

At least he got a personal reply from Wouk.  Many of the people Green contacted passed along the duty of replying to a secretary or assistant, including Zsa Zsa Gabor, whose public relations handler kindly explained that Miss Gabor was in the process of writing her own memoir, and so was saving up any stories about her mother.  Ditto for evangelist Billy Graham. 


Letterheads of the Bernard Green Collection.

Those who did comply with Green's request sent along tales of their mothers that tended to reflect back upon the celebrity's own status and style.  It should come as no surprise that comedian Rodney Dangerfield "got no respect, even from his mother."

Strikingly absent, of course, are any anecdotes of Green's own mother.  I can't help but imagine that Green's interest in other families' matriarchs had something to do with the maternal figure in his life.  There must be a hilarious anecdote there that he never quite got around to telling.  The collection provides just one clue to Green's mother -- a tattered letter written by Green himself.  It's stuck into the first page of a scrapbook he pasted together in 1932.  The pages hold clippings of what appears to be one of Green's early successes -- his column in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, called "Penned Portraits".  Prefacing these clippings is this note, which you can just barely make out...

"Dedicated to my dear mother, who has always been my inspiration and whose consolation enabled me to carry on when the going seemed roughest. However it seems a shame to offer her so little as this in return.  But, she never asked for too much.  I hope to do much better and real soon."

Bernard Green died in 1975 at his home in Westport, Connecticut, at the age of 66.  His papers were donated to the library by his daughter-in-law, Janice Greenberg.  The finding aids for this and other collections will be available soon, at the Brooklyn Collection website.