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Welch: Two Continent Kern-ucopia

October 19, 1985|STEVEN SMITH | Smith, a USC senior majoring in broadcast journalism, is a Times intern

One century after the birth of its subject, "Kern Goes to Hollywood"--a tuneful, savvy revue of the composer's best work from the '30s and '40s--has proved one of London's hottest tickets of the '85 season, and a likely Broadway visitor this December.

Not to be outdone, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced last month its own presentation, "Jerome Kern: A Centennial Celebration," featuring live performances and vintage Kern film clips, to be held at the academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills at 8:30 p.m. Monday.

Bridging both shows is New York-born singer Elisabeth Welch, a 62-year stage veteran who made London her home in 1933 after her success in Cole Porter's "Nymph Errant."

At 81, Welch seems virtually unstoppable. As one of "Kern Goes to Hollywood's" four stars, the singer warmed the hearts of London audiences with renditions of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "She Didn't Say Yes" and other Kern standards.

At the academy's Kern celebration Monday, Los Angeles audiences will be given a special preview of the London musical when Welch makes her first West Coast appearance.

Why has it taken the singer so long to make her first trip to Hollywood? "I let all my Los Angeles friends visit me--they have more money than I do," Welch said with a laugh during a phone interview from London.

More accurately, for more than half a century the English have been happy to claim her as one of their own, ever since her first London appearance in the revue "Dark Doings" and the Porter smash "Nymph Errant."

"The rest," the Brit-accented Welch intoned, "is silence."

It was "Errant" that provided the singer with her permanent theme: Porter's witty "Solomon," which Welch reprised in her 1970 one-woman show "A Marvellous Party."

"People still come up to me and say, 'I remember you singing "Abraham," ' or some other old biblical name, but they occasionally get it right," she said. Despite her U.K. affiliation with Porter and Ivor Novello musicals, Welch says her favorite songwriters are Rodgers and Hart (whose music she performed in the British television series "Song by Song") and Kern.

"He's absolutely beautiful for your vocal cords," she said of the latter, "and he chose some of our best lyric writers to match his beautiful notes. And when you think of the artists that first sang them--the Gene Kellys, the Fred-and-Gingers!"

How does Welch account for Kern's continued popularity in England?

"My God, the beauty of the music. Also, Kern's wife was English, and he worked in this country a lot. The English are a very loyal people; they never forget you--and I'm very grateful for that as well."

There is one past accomplishment Welch would just as soon leave forgotten. Didn't she introduce "The Charleston" in the 1923 Broadway musical "Runnin' Wild"?

"Yes, that's right," Welch replied, "but I'm not a dancer. I just sang the song, then those terrific dancers took over. I always tell people I didn't dance the Charleston, but they still get it wrong."

Besides, she added, "it's a dreary number--and the verse is worse."

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