Ervin Drake: No Restricted Signs

Written by Jack Viertel

Artistic Director of New York City Center’s Encores! series

January 6, 2017

Gospel music and the Civil Rights movement have often aligned, especially beginning in the late ‘50s when Reverend Martin Luther King became the face and voice of the movement. Back in the ‘40s, however, the link was not so clear. That didn’t deter lefty Jewish songwriter Ervin Drake (who later went on to write the score for What Makes Sammy Run and a few Sinatra standards) from creating a piece of special material in 1946 for The Golden Gate Quartet, four close-harmony specialists who mostly sang spirituals. Their sound is pretty irresistible, and they can even be seen on camera accompanying Dick Powell and Mary Martin singing Arlen and Mercer’s “Hit the Road to Dreamland” in 1942’s Star Spangled Rhythm. True, they are playing Pullman Porters, but such were the times. Ervin Drake, however, had bigger things in mind.

“No Restricted Signs” is a piece of cheerful agitprop in favor not just of breaking down the color barrier, but also ridding the country of the hateful anti-Semitic practice of “restricted” hotels and resorts, which used coded language like “selected clientele” to reassure their customers that the place was not tainted by the presence of  “Sons of David,” never mind black or brown people.  The song is gospel music, protest music and first class song-writing. This might not be the most powerful protest song ever written, but it’s surely the hippest. And the Quartet sounds great.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjghxFeAi2s

Jack Viertel

Jack Viertel is the senior vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns and operates five Broadway theaters. He has been involved in dozens of productions presented by Jujamcyn since 1987, including multiple Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winners, from City of Angels to Angels in America. He has also helped shepherd six of August Wilson’s plays to Broadway. He is the artistic director of New York City Center’s acclaimed Encores! series, which presents three musical productions every season. In that capacity he has overseen fifty shows, for some of which he adapted the scripts. He conceived the long-running Smokey Joe’s Cafe and the critically acclaimed After Midnight and has been a creative consultant on many shows, including HairsprayA Christmas Story, and Dear Evan Hansen. He was the Mark Taper Forum’s dramaturg and the drama critic and arts editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and he has spent a decade teaching musical theater at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

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