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May 4, 2015
Arranger-Composer-Bandleader Van Alexander Turns 100
"A-Tisket, A-Tasket" writer honored by friends, family, colleagues by Jon Burlingame
HOLLYWOOD—Emmy-nominated arranger-composer Van Alexander turned 100 years old on Saturday, and an estimated 225 members of the Los Angeles music community turned out to celebrate the milestone at Catalina Bar & Grill.
Alexander, the 1940s bandleader who wrote "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" with Ella Fitzgerald in 1938, also scored such cult classics as Joan Crawford's Strait-Jacket and Mickey Rooney's The Atomic Kid; composed for TV shows including Hazel and The Donna Reed Show, among others; served as arranger and assistant conductor for Dean Martin's variety show; and received an Emmy nomination for his music direction on The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters series (1972).
He also received Emmy nominations for composition and music direction on Gene Kelly's Wonderful World of Girls special (1970) and The Golddiggers series (1971), respectively. He is the author of two books, First Arrangement and the autobiography From Harlem to Hollywood, and received the ASCAP Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.
Singer and popular game-show host Peter Marshall served as emcee. He introduced a 20-minute video, produced by former Dean Martin Show music director Lee Hale and narrated by Alexander, showcasing many of the highlights of his varied career – from arranging for Chick Webb to his own big-band career, his songwriting and work in films and TV. Included were remembrances of Alexander working with Gordon MacRae, Peggy Lee, Mitzi Gaynor, Lena Horne, Bob Hope, Tony Bennett, and many other top-name acts.
Daughter Joyce Harris, who organized the event, pointed out that her father recorded his now-classic song "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" with Fitzgerald for Decca exactly 77 years ago, on May 2, 1938. And in keeping with the child's nursery rhyme that inspired the song, Alexander's great-grandchildren, 8-year-old twins Brooke and Drew Bronson, took to the stage to sing it.
Paying tribute to Alexander in song were veterans Sue Raney ("We'll Never Stop Loving You" and a breathy, Marilyn Monroe-style "Happy Birthday"), Marshall (a medley of "The More I See You" and "You'll Never Know"), Florence Henderson ("Not So Long Ago," a new song by Lee Hale, who dueted with her), Dina Martin ("I Love Being Here With You") and Tierney Sutton (a specially revised "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" with Mike Lang on piano).
Composer-arranger Johnny Mandel ("The Shadow of Your Smile"), 89, recalled studying with Alexander as a young musician. "He threw me in the water and yelled 'swim,'" Mandel said. "If it wasn't for Van, I don't know what I'd be doing. Thank you, Van!"
Letters of congratulation were read from MIchael Feinstein, Frank Sinatra Jr. and former American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers president John Clayton. Current ASMAC president Chris Walden presented Van with a commemorative clock inscribed "you and your music are timeless."
A beloved figure in the professional music community – not only for his musical abilities but also for his kindness and sense of humor – Alexander closed the evening by stepping up to the mic, where he had the crowd in stitches with lines like "I'm not going to stand up here and bore you with good material" and "I never touched a cigarette, a drink or a woman... until I was 11 years old."
"I'd rather reflect on the wonderful life I've had," he added in a rare serious moment. "I've really been blessed and I don't take anything for granted." He concluded with a pair of bawdy limericks and a final poem: "It's been a night to savor / I had so much fun / I'm going to try for 101!" A lengthy standing ovation followed.
©2015 Jon Burlingame