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Veteran Songwriters Reunite at Benefit Concert for Homeless

<i> Colker is a Times staff writer</i>

Veteran Broadway and film songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane never have to ponder the age-old question: Which comes first, the lyrics or the music?

“Our answer is both,” said Blane, 76, speaking from his home in Broken Arrow, Okla., near Tulsa. “We have a very different way of writing, for a team. We spot a place for a song in a show and then both write one, separately, to fit it. So, we end up with two songs for each spot. Then we get together, play each other our songs and decide which one is best.”

This method has produced stellar results for this team, which has been together since 1938. For one movie, the 1944 musical “Meet Me in St. Louis,” they wrote three songs that have become standards--"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Trolley Song” and “The Boy Next Door.”

These songs and many more from their careers as a team and solo songwriters will be featured Monday night at a benefit concert for the Valley Mayors’ Fund for the Homeless, an organization that provides support to shelters and other organizations that help the homeless. The show at the Westwood Playhouse will be a tribute to Martin and Blane, and will be headlined by singer-pianist Michael Feinstein, who is planning to record an album of Martin and Blane songs.

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The show will also feature Rue McClanahan, George Hern, John Raitt, Betty Garrett and Gloria DeHaven, most of whom have appeared in movies or shows featuring songs by the duo.

“It is the first time we have been honored with a benefit,” said Blane, who will perform “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with Martin at the show.

It’s a homecoming for Blane and Martin, also 76, who lives in Encinitas. After they wrote for shows on Broadway, MGM brought them out to Los Angeles in 1942 for the film version of their show “Best Foot Forward,” which featured Nancy Walker and June Allyson.

Blane and Martin also worked at the studio as arrangers and vocal coaches. One actress they coached was Marsha Hunt.

Hunt was not only a performer, but also a social activist. When she was planning the first celebrity benefit for the Valley Mayors’ Fund for the Homeless, an organization she founded in 1983, she contacted her old friends Martin and Blane.

Hunt started the fund shortly after she was appointed honorary mayor of Sherman Oaks by the Chamber of Commerce. The Chambers of Commerce in the San Fernando Valley had been appointing honorary mayors since the 1930s and the position had never amounted to much more than being asked to show up for civic functions.

“Getting the title of honorary mayor was a nice compliment,” said Hunt, whose screen career goes back to 1935 and includes appearances in “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Human Comedy.” “But I thought it could be used for more than cutting a ribbon at the opening of a bank.”

Proceeds from Monday’s benefit will go toward establishing a new multiuse center for the homeless in the Valley.

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The Valley Mayors’ Fund for the Homeless benefit show will be at 8 p.m. Monday at the Westwood Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tickets range from $25 to $100. For information, call (818) 784-6011.


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