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Jewish Comedy Stars
Classic to Cutting-Edge
By Norman H. Finkelstein
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2010 Norman H. Finkelstein
All rights reserved.
ACT I: On Stage
At the end of the nineteenth and in the early twentieth century, more than two million Jewish immigrants arrived in the United States from eastern Europe. Their dreams of a land where the streets were paved with gold quickly evaporated into bleak reality. The Lower East Side of New York City, where large numbers of Jewish immigrants settled, was among the most densely populated places on Earth. Where could they find shelter? How could they support their families?
Unskilled and uncertain of the English language, they desperately searched for jobs to keep their families alive. Working conditions were terrible—many toiled long hours for low pay in garment industry sweatshops. There was little opportunity for fun. In a time without radio, television, and movies, an important escape from the drudgery of everyday life was the Yiddish theater.
Yiddish was the language of the street that united Jewish immigrants of all classes and backgrounds. The first generation of any immigrant group is by nature divided—one foot still in the Old Country and the other trying to gain a foothold in a strange society with unfamiliar language and customs. The Jewish newcomers were comforted by the familiarity of Yiddish culture that surrounded them. Yiddish newspapers and especially the theaters offered welcome relief. Jews from Russia, Poland, or Lithuania could laugh together at the antics on the stage. But while they laughed, they saw their difficult lives mirrored in the comic scenes and jokes. What they saw on the stage made them realize their own shortcomings while motivating them to succeed in the New World.
In the Yiddish theaters of New York and other major U.S. cities, audiences could see translated Shakespeare plays, melodramatic love stories, and biblical tales. But the favorite of Yiddish theatergoers was the vaudeville format. Yiddish vaudeville, like American vaudeville theater, featured exaggerated mannerisms, ill-fitting clothing, and accented language. The humor revolved around comedians dressed in funny costumes and speaking with exaggerated Yiddish accents. To deflect that their accents were indeed Jewish, the vaudeville comedians began calling themselves "Dutch" acts. It seemed more polite. But the effect was the same.
Vaudeville theaters could be found throughout the country—in large cities and small towns. The shows were made up of a dozen or more different acts ranging from musicians, magicians, acrobats and, of course, the ever popular comics. The weakest acts came first, and the shows built up to the most talented. Vaudevillians worked at perfecting their acts as they repeated them from city to city.
Many of the early Jewish performers were the children of eastern European, Yiddish-speaking immigrants. Anxious to make their way in the United States, these young people often had little patience for the free public school education that was offered. Their families were poor and needed the extra pennies young children could earn by selling newspapers or singing and dancing for pennies on street corners. It was a short distance from the streets to the hurly-burly of the vaudeville stage where the best of them could succeed beyond their wildest dreams. And only the best could survive the audiences who provided their own unwelcome comments, jeers, and tossed tomatoes. Eddie Cantor, later to become one of America's best-known comedians, once said that he pranced around the stage while singing and telling jokes to avoid being hit by rotten produce.
Yiddish theater in America was not a lasting phenomenon and began to disappear in the 1920s as the children of immigrants further assimilated into American culture. They threw off Yiddish culture and developed new ways of expressing themselves as Jewish entertainers in English-speaking, multicultural America. While their parents had been content to view comedy acts that depicted themselves—Yiddish-speaking newcomers trying to make sense of life in America—their American-born children, who grew up in an English-speaking environment, went beyond the experiences of their parents and transformed comedy for a larger American audience.
American vaudeville comedy had become an almost Jewish phenomenon. Comedians wearing fake beards and baggy pants regaled audiences with mispronounced Yiddish-accented English. Modern comedians telling stories and jokes in mangled English with thick Yiddish accents would seem most unseemly and perhaps anti-Semitic. But it was a different time. A typical dialogue by the vaudeville comedy team Joe Weber and Lew Fields provides an example.
In their play, Whirl-i-Gig, a daughter confesses her love for a naval hero to her father who responds with Yiddish inflection:
The daughter says, "The captain is my idea of a hero."
"A hero! Is dot a business? A tailor is a business, a shoemaker is a business, but a hero? Better you should marry a bookkeeper!"
"A bookkeeper! I suppose you think the pen is mightier than the sword," the girl sneers.
"You bet my life," says Papa Cohenski, "Could you sign checks with a sword?"
Weber and Fields are largely forgotten today. But the acts and lines they created at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were borrowed by later comedians, including the often duplicated:
"Who is that lady I saw you with last night?"
"She ain't no lady. She's my wife."
Another famous Jewish comedy team was Joe Smith and Charlie Dale—known as Smith and Dale. They met as children on the Lower East Side in the 1880s when their bicycles collided. Their lines, too, have gone down into entertainment history to be reshaped and recycled by other comedians over time:
Doctor: "Did you have this pain before?"
Doctor: "Vell, you got it again!"
Vaudeville's popularity began declining with the advent of film and radio. At first, theatergoers enjoyed an abbreviated live stage show along with a film. As theater owners reviewed the size of their payrolls and theatergoers began preferring movies, the live entertainment gradually disappeared. Vaudevillians had to find new outlets for their talents.
Beginning in the 1920s, many Jewish comedians found their way to the Catskill Mountains of New York State. There, a growing collection of summer resorts began catering to Jewish families seeking escape from the heat and tumult of the cities. At first, they came just to live simply in boardinghouses and farmhouses and enjoy the fresh air. As time went by, the guests insisted on—and could afford—more than rocking chairs on the front lawns.
Eventually the dilapidated farmhouses were replaced by lavish hotels and resorts such as Grossinger's and Kutcher's, which became famous for their unending amounts of food and entertainment. Some of America's best-known singers, dancers, and comedians began their careers in what by then was known as the Borscht Belt, named after the beet soup from eastern Europe that frequently appeared on resort menus.
For many developing comedians, the Borscht Belt was a grueling training ground. Only the best survived to achieve fame. The comedians no longer relied on vaudeville costumes and Yiddish accents. The new immigrant phase of Jewish life was disappearing. Instead, the Borscht Belt developed a model for stand-up comedy that involved quick-thinking speech and one-liners. Comedians were playing to a different audience composed largely of second- generation, English-speaking American Jews.
In the beginning, the Borscht Belt acts consisted of out-of-work vaudevillians, but as the resorts grew, a new group of comedians appeared. At the heart of entertainment activity at each resort was the social director. The tummlers, as they were called, after a Yiddish word meaning "funmakers or noisemakers," had the job of making each and every resort guest happy—a nearly impossible task. At first, the tummlers organized employees and guests to put on amateur night shows. As the guests became more demanding, the tummlers added professional acts. Often, the tummlers themselves, fast on their feet and quick witted, regaled the audiences with their own patter and jokes and realized they could make a career in comedy. They understood their audiences and often made fun of them with barbed humor. "The food at the hotel is rotten—and the portions are so small," was a famous tummler line making fun of persnickety customers. Tummlers such as Joseph Levitch, Milton Berlinger, and Joseph Abramowitz crafted their humor at these resorts. They changed their names to Jerry Lewis, Milton Berle, and Joey Adams and became a few of America's favorite comedians.
Others who graduated from tummler to international star were Danny Kaye, Moss Hart, and Phil Silvers. Their name changes were important back in the 1920s and 1930s for Jews trying to get ahead in an America where anti-Semitism was still widespread. The story is told that Joey Adams once met a member of the old-line Boston Adams family who inquired if they were both related. Adams responded, "I don't know. What was your name before you changed it?"
Born: December 14, 1908, Chicago, Illinois
Died: October 27, 1996, Los Angeles, California
Like other Jewish comics, Amsterdam's career began in vaudeville. His father was a concert violinist, and in 1922, young Morey went on the stage playing the cello to accompany his piano-playing brother. When Morey realized that his "off the cuff" jokes were getting more applause than his music, he turned exclusively to comedy. He was famous for the ability to quickly generate a joke on any subject at any time and became known as the Human Joke Machine.
Morey Amsterdam is best remembered for his role as Buddy Sorrell in the popular 1960s television series, The Dick Van Dyke Show, in which he played a comedy writer. In many ways, he was playing himself—including references to being Jewish.
Born: October 29, 1891, New York, New York
Died: May 29, 1951, Hollywood, California
Real name: Fania Borach
"Like many other Jewish comedians of her time, Fanny Brice left school to enter show business. After just a few years in a burlesque show, she caught the eye of legendary promoter Florenz Ziegfeld, who promptly hired her for his shows. She became a Ziegfeld Follies staple for more than twenty years. The multitalented singer and comedian became particularly associated with two hit songs. "My Man" told the story of a woman who is faithful to her husband no matter what his faults. In real life, she married three times. Her second husband, Nicky Arnstein, was a gambler who served time in jail. The other song was "Second Hand Rose," which recounted the woes of a poor girl. Fanny herself grew up in a comfortable Jewish home and had to practice Yiddish intonation to sing her first hit song written for her by Irving Berlin, "Sadie Salome, Go Home!" Singing with a Yiddish accent became her trademark. After her successful career as a comic singer on the stage, she moved her Yiddish inflections to Hollywood and became the first woman to star in a sound film. In the early years of radio, Fanny re-created the character of Baby Snooks, a wisecracking toddler she originally introduced in the Follies. From its start in 1938, the Baby Snooks program became a weekly favorite throughout the country for over ten years. No longer relying on a Yiddish accent, Fanny played a bratty kid. She once remarked that "Snooks is just the kid I used to be.... With all her deviltry, she is still a good kid, never vicious or mean." Her life was immortalized in the film, Funny Girl, with Barbra Streisand playing the role of Fanny.
Born: April 3, 1898, New York, New York
Died: May 23, 1981, Los Angeles, California
George Jessel was known as the Toastmaster General of the United States, an unofficial title given to him by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in recognition of the hundreds of speeches given by Jessel in support of social and political causes. His reputation for public speaking led to his becoming a popular deliverer of eulogies at the funerals of well-know entertainers. As a child, he sang on street corners to earn money for his family after his father died. His big break into show business occurred in 1910 when he joined Gus Edwards's traveling vaudeville act, which featured other talented boys and girls. Later, he created a comedy monologue called "Hello, Mama," which became popular with theatergoers for decades. Using a prop telephone, he pretended to talk to his mother about a variety of topics that featured Jewish humor. He starred in Broadway shows, including The Jazz Singer, his most popular role. Yet, when the play was turned into the first talking motion picture, Al Jolson got to play the role that Jessel originated since the studio refused to meet his salary demands. Jessel was a film producer and the star of his own radio and television show in the early 1950s.
Born: June 1, 1898, New York, New York
Died: April 6, 1992, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Real name: Margaret Pyekoon
Although short of stature, Molly Picon was a giant on the stage in the Yiddish theater, in film, and on Broadway. Born on the Lower East Side of New York, she first appeared onstage when she was five years old. She grew up in Philadelphia where, as a teenager, she dropped out of high school to perform in Yiddish vaudeville. In 1919, as part of a troupe playing in Boston, she fell in love with Jacob Kalich, the manager of the Boston Grand Opera House. Kalich became Molly's husband as well as her professional partner. Together, they created memorable comedic and musical Yiddish plays, which became the favorite of Jewish theatergoers throughout the United States. They traveled to Europe, where Molly not only learned from other Yiddish-speaking performers but also became a star whose fame spread back to the United States. Molly was particularly beloved for her lively and funny characterizations of young women disguised as boys. Her sense of humor was revealed in popular plays including Yankele and Mamele in the 1920s. In a New York Times review of Here Runs the Bride, William Schack wrote that Molly is "among the comparatively few musical-comedy players whose artistry transcends their immediate personalities. She can take off male and female, young and old, the rowdy and the refined."
By the 1930s, she starred in comic Yiddish films that were produced in Europe, including the classic Yiddle Mitn Fiddle. Those films actually provide us with glimpses into shtetl life in Europe that was destroyed during the Holocaust. Her talents took her beyond the limited world of Yiddish onto the American stage and in films. In 1963 she starred in Milk and Honey, a Broadway musical about Israel. Her memorable film roles include Come Blow Your Horn, for which she received an Oscar nomination, and Fiddler on the Roof. She also appeared on a number of television shows. As the world of Yiddish theater disappeared, Molly continued to travel around the country into her eighties, entertaining Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.
Smith and Dale
Born: February 16, 1884, New York, New York
Died: February 22, 1981, New York, New York
Real name: Joseph Sultzer
Born: September 6, 1885, New York, New York
Died: November 16, 1971, New York, New York
Real name: Charles Marks
Like other Jewish comedians of their time, Smith and Dale grew up in the Yiddish-speaking world of the Lower East Side. They developed a comedy act when they were teenagers, and, by the early 1900s, became well known on the vaudeville stage with their comedy sketches performed with Yiddish accents. They also appeared together in a number of short comedy films and made appearances on early television variety shows. In the 1920s, their sketch, Doctor Kronkheit and His Only Living Patient became a staple vaudeville act, and many of the dialogues are still used by comedians today.
"Doctor, it hurts when I do this."
"Don't do that."
Weber and Fields
Born: August 11, 1867, New York, New York
Died: May 10, 1942, Los Angeles, California
Born: January 1, 1867, New York, New York
Died: July 20, 1941, Los Angeles, California
Real name: Lewis Schanfield
Weber and Fields met as students in elementary school. They didn't last long there and were expelled when they were eleven years old. Both came from very poor families and set out on a show business career together. They developed a "Dutch" act, speaking Yiddish-accented English and dressing in oversized clothes. Their act was action packed. They chased each other around the stage, slapping each other while keeping up a fast-paced patter of jokes and one-liners. Their entrance theme song was appropriately named, "Here We Are, a Jolly Pair." As their act became noticed, they received bookings across the country and improved on their act as they traveled. Their comic parodies of well-known stage plays were particularly popular and attracted attention from theater critics and audiences alike.
Excerpted from Jewish Comedy Stars by Norman H. Finkelstein. Copyright © 2010 Norman H. Finkelstein. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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