Between the ages of 19 and 21, Berlin worked odd jobs in the Tin Pan Alley and Broadway areas. He plugged songs, sang in vaudeville, and sometimes played bit parts in shows. After business hours he would find pianos to play on and taught himself to plunk out songs. In 1909 he got his first Tin Pan Alley job, as lyricist for the publishing firm of Waterson & Snyder. These early years of plugging and writing served as his initiation and education in the songwriting industry, and he learned well the art of pleasing the public. In 1911 he published "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which immediately thrust him into songwriting fame; his song was such a hit that he was instantly dubbed the "King of Tin Pan Alley."
He developed at this time the work habits he would retain all of his life. After dinner Berlin would sit down at the piano and write songs until dawn. Since he had no formal musical training, he could only play the piano in one key. To be able to take full advantage of all the harmonies the piano had to offer, he used a special transposing keyboard. He just had to push a lever and the piano would start playing in another key while he still played the same notes on the keyboard. Berlin could not read music. He consequently would work out all of the details of the song in his head, and then sing and play it for his musical transcriber who would then write it down, playing it back to Berlin until it was right. This method of working was not uncommon for songwriters of his generation, and others used both the transposing keyboard and a musical secretary.
It is said that Berlin succeeded in part because he followed a strict work ethic. The composer had "Nine Rules for Writing Popular Songs," which appeared in an interview in AMERICAN MAGAZINE in 1920; he explained one of them thusly: "The song writer must look upon his work as a business, that is, to make a success of it, he must work and work, and then WORK." Between 1912 and 1916 Berlin wrote more than 180 songs, including many that would appear later in films; "Snooky Ookums" and "I Love a Piano," for example, were included in the 1948 film EASTER PARADE. Even Berlin's off hours were filled with his business: he spent his free time in the Broadway and vaudeville theaters. In 1914 he wrote his first complete Broadway musical, "Watch Your Step." This was quickly followed by "Stop! Look! Listen!" in 1915 and "The Century Girl" in 1916.
When World War I broke out, Berlin decided it was time to become an American in fact as well as in spirit. After several years of paperwork and delays, he took his oath on February 6, 1918, and became a citizen of the United States. Several months later he was drafted into the army. The hardest adjustment at Camp Upton in Yaphank, Long Island, for this notorious night owl was to rise to reveille every day. He turned this experience into a song, "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," which became one of the most popular tunes of the day. Berlin subsequently was asked to write a musical show to raise money for the army. "Yip! Yip! Yaphank!" played on Broadway for a month, raising $83,000 before the cast -- 300 army soldiers -- was sent to France.
After the war, life for Berlin returned to normal, and he continued to turn out song hits. In the 1920s he fell in love with heiress Ellin Mackay, who was Catholic. She reciprocated his feelings, but her father disliked Berlin for his undistinguished origins and theater ties and sent his daughter to Europe to forget him. During their months of separation Berlin wrote several of his most lovely ballads, "What'll I Do," "All Alone," and "Remember." Mr. Mackay's ruse did not work; the heiress returned from her year abroad in 1925, and the following year she and Berlin eloped.
1929 was a year of both success and setback for Berlin. Along with the rest of the country, he lost a fortune in the stock market crash. But that year, sound came to moving pictures, and Berlin began to write film scores. His first two films, PUTTIN' ON THE RITZ (1929) and COCOANUTS (1929), were adaptations of Broadway shows. His next film, TOP HAT (1935) -- featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers -- was written expressly for Hollywood. Some of his most famous and memorable songs were in this film, including "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails" and "Cheek to Cheek." More films followed, such as FOLLOW THE FLEET (1936), ON THE AVENUE (1937), CAREFREE (1938), ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND (1938), and HOLIDAY INN (1942), which contains the song that has sold more recordings than any other, "White Christmas."