By David-Elijah Nahmod, April 9, 2015.
Isadore Hochberg (1896-1981) was a poor kid who grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City, a neighborhood enclave for the thousands of Jews who emigrated to the U.S. to escape the religious persecution of Eastern Europe.
Hochberg, who took on the name Edgar “Yip” Harburg, went on to find fame and fortune on Broadway and in Hollywood.
In 1932, he and composer Jay Gorney co-wrote “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” a song that became the unofficial anthem of the Great Depression.
Harburg also composed many songs that became classics of musical theater as well as grand musicals MGM Studios produced during the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. His “April in Paris” was a major hit for singer and movie star Doris Day.
Of the countless songs Harburg composed, none became more legendary than “Over the Rainbow,” which was immortalized by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939). From that moment on, Judy, and musicals, became a big part of gay male culture.
“The film starts with a girl who feels out of place,” said Aaron Harburg, Yip’s great-grandson. “Many gay men, myself included, are forced with a monotonous reminder of being different, or out of place in a hetero-normative society. That desire to escape to a place of acceptance is very intense in gay men.”
Harburg also pointed to how “fabulous” Oz is. “Why would you want to go home after going there?” he said. “But I suppose that’s the point. Even if everything is colorful and exciting, that doesn’t mean it’s fulfilling. Perhaps being able to recognize the value of our relationships and the ways in which we do belong is what matters.”
According to Harburg, there’s one other component to Oz that makes the film resonate with gay men: Judy Garland. “I don’t need to say anything more than that,” he said.
Harburg never met his great-grandfather, who died five years before he was born, but he was always aware of his family’s place in Hollywood history.
“The Wizard of Oz was just sort of background for me,” he said. “I can’t remember when I first learned of it, it’s sort of like asking when you learned that two plus two equals four, it’s just always there … It wasn’t until much later that I began to understand the full impact of the film and of Over the Rainbow.”
He also recalls sitting in a restaurant, looking at other patrons, and realizing that they all most likely knew the song.
“To this day when I hear ‘[Somewhere Over the Rainbow],’ I feel that in some way my great-grandfather is speaking to me from the past,” he said. “Encouraging me to keep going, that the dreams I dare to dream really can come true.”
Harburg, the first member of his family to work in the entertainment industry since Yip, is not only dreaming, he’s actually making a feature length documentary about his famous relative.
“The film will center on three things,” he explained. “The stories of the men behind the songs, how the songs have continued to impact culture and why they have continued to endure.”
Harburg, reluctant to give too much information away at this point in the project, did say “a great line-up of household names” might be appearing in the finished film – which he hopes hopes to release in 2016.
In the meantime, he added, there are some “cool perks” available on The Sound of Oz’s IndieGogo page, which will remain live until May 1.
“I think people, especially gay guys, will love the Somewhere Over the Rainbow T-shirt I designed,” Harburg said. “Any contribution helps, so make sure to tell your friends about it!”