BERKELEY -- E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, the man who penned the lyrics for "Over the Rainbow," named the most famous song in movie history, was a deeply committed social activist who was once blacklisted from Hollywood moviemaking over accusations of being a communist.
While his best-known work includes all the songs for "The Wizard of Oz," which earned him an Oscar in 1940 for "Over the Rainbow," Harburg also wrote about the women's movement, racism, poverty and social justice for movies and Broadway. His words and works will be celebrated at a program led by music historian Bonnie Weiss at 2 p.m. Jan. 27 at the Jewish Community Center, East Bay, 1414 Walnut St.
"Yip Harburg was not only a songwriter, he was a great social rights activist and some of the songs and statements he made over the years are so in keeping with today's environment that they remain relevant," Weiss said.
Weiss said a retrospective of Harburg's life is perfect subject matter for today's Berkeley activists. Harburg was a lifelong socialist and pacifist who worked three years at a factory overseas, thereby avoiding service in World War I.
After returning, Harburg wrote his first hit, the Great Depression anthem "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" which highlighted the plight of America's poor.
"It was about all these people who had fought in World War I and built all the railroads and helped turn this country into a successful one," Weiss said. "They were standing in bread lines and were never given the personal recognition or financial recognition that they deserved."
Harburg, who died in 1981 at age 84, grew up a poor Jewish kid in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. That, Weiss said, influenced his body of work in Hollywood and on the Broadway stage. His songs reflected his core values, which are now memorialized through the Yip Harburg Foundation, designed to give money to projects that create world peace, to work that ends economic and social discrimination and to efforts that promote political art.
Along with writing "Over the Rainbow," in which Dorothy yearns for a better and more peaceful world, and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Harburg conceived the 1947 hit Broadway musical and book "Finian's Rainbow,"a work that championed black rights and became a Francis Ford Coppola film in 1968 starring Fred Astaire and Petula Clark. He showed his humorous side with the Groucho Marx comic song "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" and produced the haunting song "April in Paris" with composer Vernon Duke.
"I think he deserves to be recognized as much as his other lyric-writing colleagues such as Lorenz Hart of Rodgers & Hart, Ira Gershwin and Oscar Hammerstein," Weiss said. Although memorialized on a postage stamp in 2005, Harburg today is relatively obscure compared to his songwriting contemporaries. Yet Harburg was productive and popular during his time, getting two more Oscar nominations for film lyrics.
The political undertones of many his songs, however, may have been Harburg's undoing in Hollywood.
Though anti-communist producers didn't have to look far to find equality-driven lyrics in his work, the name of a song he authored for the all-black musical "Cabin in the Sky," called "Happiness is a Thing Called Joe," convinced one film producer Harburg was a communist penning songs in honor of Joseph Stalin.
Harburg was targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and spent the next several years working on Broadway, which was less restrictive than the Hollywood community, Weiss said.
His musicals are often revived on Broadway and the San Francisco performance company 42nd Street Moon recently presented "Finian's Rainbow" and "Darling of the Day."
The 90-minute program Weis will present features video of Harburg performing some of his songs and rare interviews where he relates how and why he wrote the words to his tunes. She will also show legends of the stage and screen -- Judy Garland, Ray Bolger and Groucho Marx -- as they execute Harburg's works.
Extra video featuring "60 Minutes" interviews and other talks with Harburg will be played on loop in the lobby of the theater. The presentation is funded by a grant from the Yip Harburg Foundation.
Tickets to the talk are $15 general admission and $12 for JCCEB members, seniors and students. They can be purchased in advance by visiting www.jewishmusicfestival.org or by calling 800-838-3006.
The center is holding a "Wizard of Oz" singalong at 2 p.m. Jan. 20. The center suggests a $5 donation to attend that event.