A Melody Played In A Penny Arcade…

amusement-park-1045212_1280As longtime readers of my blog probably recall, when I was laid off from my day job as assistant director of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education seven years ago, I decided to devote my life to making music.

And writing songs.

And leading Music Together classes.

A few months after my lay-off, a Boston-area jazz pianist named Joe Reid reached out to see if I might like to do a gig at the retirement community where his dad lives.

I had met Joe several years earlier — when HE was in the midst of a life transition from working full-time as a lawyer to working full-time as a musician — and promptly said, “Yes!”

We needed to prepare an hour of music, and I mentioned that I had long loved many songs co-written by composer Harold Arlen — a list which includes “My  Shining Hour,” “I’ve Got The World On A String,” “Accentuate The Positive,” “Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” “Blues In The Night,”  “That Old Black Magic,” “If I Only Had A Brain,”  “Over The Rainbow,” “Happiness is Just A Thing Called Joe,” “Let’s Fall In Love,” “Get Happy,” and “It’s Only A Paper Moon.”

Harold Arlen

I had sung a few of these songs in a program of music featuring the lyrics of Johnny Mercer with singer Bobbi Carrey and pianist Doug Hammer — because one of Mr. Arlen’s many collaborators was Mr. Mercer.

And I was familiar with others due to the movie version of The Wizard Of Oz, for which Mr. Arlen composed the music and Yip Harburg wrote lyrics (and a lot of uncredited dialogue  —  a topic I will explore in a future blog post dedicated to Yip).


I biked over to Joe’s house — in the town next to mine — with a bunch of sheet music.

We spent about 90 minutes running through thirteen songs — picking comfortable keys and exploring tempos/feels for each of them.

And that was it for rehearsing with Joe.


Joe (on the left) is very much a “let’s-trust-in-the-moment” kind of musician who welcomes improvisation and spontaneity.

I, too, value spontaneity — and I also appreciate structure.

So I booked time with pianist Doug Hammer at his studio north of Boston.

We recorded all of the Arlen songs once or twice so that I could have a set of piano-only tracks to play on my iPod as I walked around Arlington memorizing lyrics.

And some of the versions we recorded — such as the version of “It’s Only A Paper Moon” included in the player at the beginning of this blog post — came out surprisingly well.

“It’s Only A Paper Moon” was written for a 1932 play (not a musical) called The Great Magoo set in Coney Island which was not a big success.


It is credited to Arlen, Harburg, and impresario Billy Rose — who was somewhat infamous for adding his name to the songwriting credits of other people’s work after having contributed an idea or two during the creative process.

You may recognize Rose’s name because he was married for many years to the great performer Fanny Brice, and his character appears in the movie Funny Lady starring Barbra Streisand as Brice.


Somehow this Coney Island hot dog made me think of him…


Luckily the song was rescued from The Great Magoo and included in a movie called Take A Chance the next year — which led to successful recordings by a wide range of musicians over the past 70+ years.


I love the metaphors and imagery used in the song — all things one might encounter at an amusement park like Coney Island.


I also love the sentiment of the song — that if someone believes in and loves another person, their belief and love can be transformative.


And looking at these photos, I am struck by the way an amusement park transforms from day to night…


Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and I would like to dedicate Doug’s and my version of “It’s Only A Paper Moon” to all of the folks who have at one time or another believed in me — including friends and acquaintances in the WordPress blog-o-sphere.


Your positive feedback regarding my music and my blog continues to touch and inspire me every day.


Thank you to Pixabay for the great color photographs of Coney Island and other amusement parks around the world.


Thank you to Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg and Billy Rose for writing this wonderful song.


And to Joe Reid for asking me to do a gig with him seven years ago.


Since then Joe and I have done hundreds of gigs together and created twenty five different one-hour musical programs.


Thank you to Doug Hammer for his engineering excellence and his playful virtuosity at the keyboard.


And THANK YOU for reading and listening — and even leaving a comment or two from time to time.


Happy Valentine’s Day!




52 thoughts on “A Melody Played In A Penny Arcade…

    • Thank you, Audrey! When Joe and I share this song at retirement communities and public libraries (as part of an hour-long program of songs with music by Arlen or an hour-long program of songs with lyrics by Harburg) it elicits some of the strongest sing-along response from members of the audience — which I love.

  1. Happy Valentine’s Day, Will! Thank you for the music history and thoughtful analysis of the song. I also loved hearing your version, and I agree with Jade above about the ending notes.
    I don’t know if this was your intended career path, but with my mom in assisted living in the Philadelphia area, let me say how much I admire you (and others) who perform for residents in those types of facilities. ❤

    • Sharing one-hour programs of music in retirement communities and assisted living residences was not anything I aspired to. But as I grew older, I realized that I no longer yearned to be in a show performing eight shows per week of the same material. And I have been ambivalent about the carbon footprint of a fulltime career in show business ever since I was in my 20s and saw all of the records and cassettes and 8 track tapes and later CDs that eventually turned into TRASH/JUNK in a landfill — and served the fossil fuel costs of touring with lights and sound equipment. Putting together one-hour programs of music — in which I pick the songs and choose the keys and co-create the arrangements and write the patter — became more and more attractive. And I love reading about the songwriters’ lives, which were, of course, deeply woven into the history they were experiencing firsthand (such as The Great Depression and WWII). A few of my gigs I can walk or bike to, although more often Joe and I drive together in his ten-year-old hybrid car (which will be upgraded in the near future to an electric car since he and his wife recently installed solar panels on their roof, bless them!) And the songs themselves act like a tonic on the spirits of anyone who sings them (and I invite/encourage lots of singing-along whenever possible/allowed). And then I never know what comments the music will be wh shared with us while we are packing up afterwards. I have met people who knew some of the songwriters personally, who saw historic concerts (like Judy Garland at the Palladium in London) first hand, whose parents’ courtship involved a song we shared, etc. etc. etc. Thank you for reading and listening and commenting — I open-heartedly accept your admiration!

    • Yes. This era of music-making was very special. I often feel that songs are like viruses — they need a human host in order to keep them alive. I love helping to keep these wonderful — and often very wise — songs in circulation amongst us humans. Thank you for reading and listening and commenting!!!

  2. What a beautiful gift for Valentine’s Day. Your voice and music touch my heart. And I love how seamlessly you weave your posts with background, bios, and photos. Thank you Will. I’m delighted to have found you and your music. May love shine from your music and heart.

    • Thank you for reading and listening and commenting Michael Stephen Wills! Are you based in the Finger Lakes region? A fair number of your stunning photos seem to be taken in upstate NY….

      • Yes!! Ithaca, New York home to three New York State parks. Taughannock, Treman and Buttermilk. Plus, Fillmore Glen a little further away. Watkins Glen “over the hill” from us. Marvelous wineries all round.

      • Hurrah! Much of my dad’s family has lived in the Ithaca/Trumansburg area for several generations. Please keep taking and sharing your beautiful photographs of this very special place on planet earth!

    • Thank you for reading and listening, Malinda. When I found this track in my rehearsal archives a few months ago (while working on a one-hour program devoted to songs with lyrics by Yip Harburg), I immediately thought of Valentine’s Day.

    • Your enthusiastic words are a balm to my spirits on a cold and gray and rainy day in the greater Boston area. Thank you for listening and for commenting and for looking forward to my CD!

  3. Now that deserves a standing ovation. A performance to warm the cockles of your heart.
    Willedare, many years ago I watched that film ‘Warriors’. It left me with a dark, negative impression of Coney Island. Your post has erased all of those images of negativity and replaced them with colour, movement and a much more pleasant sound-track.
    Thanks for sharing. Take care.

    • It brightens up MY day, too. And afterwards I often hear very interesting stories which the songs evoke. Last Thursday, for example, I learned after Joe and I had shared an hour of songs associated with Judy Garland at a retirement community in Concord, MA that a) one resident had grown up with the wonderful songwriter Joe Raposo (who wrote a bunch of songs for clients as diverse as Sesame Street and Frank SInatra) and b) another resident remembered seeing Judy Garland unobtrusively visit the movie house in Belmont, MA when she was staying at McLean psychiatric hospital nearby… THANK YOU for reading and listening to my blog post!

  4. Will,
    I have used “a balm to my spirits” in describing the effect of your posts on me. This one is no different. You bring such joy to these uncertain times, and Doug’s playing was especially delightful in this rendition.

    You mentioned your carbon footprint. For your convenience, I am attaching the link to the post you inspired by raising my consciousness on the topic. The post appeared yesterday. So I think it’s fair to say that you’re still having an impact on adult education too—on a topic that couldn’t be more important!

    Thank you! And a belated Happy Valentine’s Day.


  5. This was just delightful! I learn so much from your posts, Will. The music is fabulous. What else can I say except thank you, keep writing and singing, and hold on to that full heart of yours.

    • I breathe in your comment as I read it. Yes, I will hold onto my full heart with as much love and respect and patience and tenderness as I can muster. And if I ever need to re-charge my full heart or be reminded of what’s most important here on planet earth, I will visit your blog and read a post (or two…or three!) Thank you for finding time to read and listen to my blog posts!

      • Breathe deeply, my friend. And, many thanks. Never forget the power of music. It is truly the universal language. Hans Christian Anderson said, “Where words fail, music speaks.” 🎶

  6. After a grey wet weekend it’s fun to see all those bright pictures and listen to the music. A reminder that with a good tune and good musicians you only need a voice and a piano. 25 different programmes – very impressive.

    • Thank you, Tidalscribe! I definitely savored the vibrancy of colors when finding images on Pixabay for this post. It’s very brown and gray in the Boston area these days. Joe and I have put together 4 new programs of music each year… Right now I’m working on an hour of songs by — and stories about — Irving Berlin with Burt Bacharach/Hal David on the horizon for summer. Then maybe composer Jimmy Van Heusen (who co-wrote a bunch of great songs for Bing Crosby and later Frank Sinatra…) in the fall? Such a wealth of great songs have been created here on planet earth, I sometimes wonder why I bother writing any new ones!

    • Thank you for listening to and commenting on TWO of my blog posts! I think of my previous life as being like an outrigger canoe — I had my 9-5 pm, non-music-making-job as the main part of my canoe with a few musical projects on the side as the outrigger part of the canoe… Now it’s all music. My income level went way down, but I am pretty sure I will have fewer regrets when I die.

  7. Pingback: If I Only Had A… – amusicalifeonplanetearth

  8. I second the first comment, especially about liking the ending notes of your vocal of IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON. It’s a great song which, although written for the failed 1932 play THE GREAT MAGOO, first appeared on film in TAKE A CHANCE (1933) starring Cliff (Ukulele Ike) Edwards. The story of Edwards’ life is a sad one, but I’ve always liked his unique voice. Here is his rendition of the song:

  9. I love learning more about Ukulele Ike. He was — as I am sure you know — in at least one Gershwin Brothers show, and if I am remembering correctly, he had so much clout at the time, he was allowed to stop the show and sing a selection of his (non-Gershwin) hits near the end of the night. Thank you for listening and reading to another one of my blog posts as well as COMMENTING with such a wealth of knowledge about a topic we both obviously care a lot about!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s