The Jewish Historical Society of Lower Fairfield County’s series of lectures and discussions returns on Sunday, Sept. 25, at 10:00 a.m. at in Stamford. The speaker will be Oscar “Andy” Hammerstein III, the grandson of the man who wrote the groundbreaking stage musicals Oklahoma, South Pacific, The Sound of Music and many others during the “Golden Age of the Broadway Musical” in the 1940’s and 50’s.
Hammerstein will be on hand to talk about his book The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family, which is a memoir that looks back at four generations of his famous relatives to explore how they helped to shape America’s commercial theater, both onstage and off. Using his family’s collection of letters, photographs, programs, theatre blueprints and even patents, Hammerstein provides a detailed history that began in 1864 when his great-great-grandfather Oscar, a German-Jewish immigrant, first set foot in the U.S.
PATCH: What inspired you to write about your family at this point in your life?
HAMMERSTEIN: I’d been thinking about doing it for a very long time. In fact, I’d been collecting material — I suppose unconsciously — for about 20 years. Three years ago, I decided to fish-or-cut-bait. So, I got it out of my system. But, I had it in my system for two decades!
PATCH: Almost everyone is at least fleetingly familiar with your grandfather, Oscar II, because of the musicals he wrote with Richard Rodgers. But for two generations before he came along, there were theatrical giants in your family. Can you mention a few of their most significant accomplishments?
HAMMERSTEIN: Oscar’s father, William Hammerstein introduced most of the major Vaudeville stars that we still recognize today: Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Mae West, Al Jolsen — the Ground Zero of entertainment. That was the environment that my grandfather grew up in. And his uncle Arthur mentored him in the art of writing old school operetta, like Naughty Marietta. Then, he produced Oscar II’s shows and, pretty much, paid for all of his flops. But, first there was Oscar Hammerstein I who is widely credited with having invented Times Square as a theater district. So, my grandfather had an uncle who helped him, a father who inspired him and a grandfather who actually created the world in which he was going to succeed.
PATCH: Are any of the theaters that your family built in Manhattan still standing?
HAMMERSTEIN: Yes. The place that is more familiarly today called the Hammerstein Ballroom on 34th was built by Oscar Hammerstein I. Then there’s the New Victory Theatre on 42nd Street that was also built by Oscar I. And the David Letterman Theatre on 52nd Street was built by Arthur Hammerstein.
PATCH: What is it about your grandfather’s musicals that makes them evergreen?
HAMMERSTEIN: They have extremely hearty stories. Oscar II realized that the story in a musical was the single most important element around which everything else was ordered. Everything else is secondary. There are a lot of great songs in a lot of flop shows. But, if you hear a song like “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (from Carousel) it triggers the memory of the whole show. And that’s what gives his songs their power.
The Jewish Historical Society of Lower Fairfield County program is free of charge and open to the public. Refreshments will be served at 9:30 am.