Performing Arts: Comedy
Singing her way through popular standards and performing imitations of Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson, Harry Richman, and Gypsy Rose Lee kept Barth employed on the vaudeville circuit through the 1930s and 1940s. The character of her act changed in the 1950s, when she began to mix her two talents—music and comedy—and added a splash of “red hot mama” for good measure.
Nora Bayes was an international singing star in vaudeville and musical comedy during the first twenty-five years of the twentieth century. Known as a willful and temperamental star, Bayes relied on her own charisma and popularity as she resisted managerial control and ignored the details of legal contracts.
For a generation of Americans, Gertrude Berg embodied Jewish motherhood in a series of radio, television, stage, and film performances. She is best remembered as the creative force behind the Goldbergs, a fictitious Jewish family who lived in an apartment at 1038 East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. In addition to her matriarchal public persona, Berg was also a one of the first American women to work as a writer and producer of radio and television situation comedy.
A beautiful and accomplished stage and screen actress, Blondell was born on August 30, 1906 (some accounts say 1909) on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“I do not discuss my age, height, weight, or other vital statistics. Other than that, shoot. I tolerate any kind of nonsense up until six o’clock. After that, I just want to be admired.” In typical Selma Diamond fashion, the witty, wisecracking (with a voice she once described as sounding like Brillo), longtime comedy writer/actor held her own when warding off nosy interviewers. Best known as the crotchety, chainsaw-voiced bailiff Selma Hacker on television’s Night Court from 1984 to 1985, Diamond embodied in her writing and her comedy routines the quintessential cynical, jaded character. Penning skits and jokes for some of the early greats of radio and television, she became one of the most famous and accomplished female comedy writers of her time.
Nora Ephron has used her refreshing wit, biting sarcasm, and ability to make the mundane entertaining to write her way into the lives of millions. Heeding her mother’s advice that “everything is copy,” Ephron draws upon her own experiences—childhood dreams, anxieties about her flat chest, and her two divorces—in her articles, books, and screenplays.
Jennie Goldstein was one of the foremost Yiddish theater tragediennes, beloved by the public and acclaimed by critics for her ability to make audiences cry and for her outstanding voice.
Nan Halperin was born in Odessa, Russia, in 1898 and moved to the United States in 1900. She was the daughter of Samuel Halperin, a confectioner, and Rebeka Rose Halperin. She had two brothers—Hal Halperin, manager of the Chicago office of Variety, and Max Halperin, a Chicago agent—and two sisters—Sophie Halperin, who sometimes accompanied Nan on her tours, and Clara Halperin.
Goldie Hawn was born in Silver Spring, Maryland, on November 21, 1945, to Laura (Stienhoff) Hawn, a dance school owner and jewelry wholesaler, and Edward Rutledge Hawn, a professional musician. Hawn was raised Jewish although, she notes, “not in a strictly religious atmosphere,” and describes a happy home life. She began dancing at age three, and danced in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s Nutcracker chorus at age ten. Hawn recalls being asked to dance on point for a friend’s bar mitzva. The music started, and she slipped and fell—twice. Succeeding on her third attempt, “I realized I was probably the little girl who was going to make it.”
The date and place of Anna Held’s birth are shrouded in mystery, confusion or vanity. They range from March 18, 1865, in Warsaw, Poland, to 1878 in Paris, France, a thirteen-year difference. That she was born in Warsaw on March 18, 1873, may be most accurate. Held was the youngest and only survivor of eleven children. Her parents were Maurice (or Shimmle), a glovemaker, and Yvonne (or Helene) Pierre. Some sources suggest that both her parents were Jewish, while one source states that her mother was Catholic.
Born on June 21, 1921, at Lying In Hospital in Manhattan, the only child of Helen Gollomb and Abe Tuvim, Judy Holliday was the only child in a family of childless uncles and aunts, particularly on her mother’s side. Her parents, who met at the Rand School in New York, married on June 17, 1917, and often frequented the Café Royale, a meeting place on New York’s Lower East Side for people in the Yiddish theater. After they separated when Holliday was about six, she was brought up by her mother’s extended family, although later she reestablished relations with her father. President of the American Federation of Musicians from 1929 to 1937, a member of the American Zionist Strategy Council in 1944, and executive director of the Jewish National Fund of America from 1951 to 1958, Abe Tuvim, who died of cancer at sixty-four, was also a journalist for the Jewish-language press. Judy’s mother, whose parents emigrated from Russia—her father had made epaulets for the czar and died shortly after arriving in this country—grew up under the tutelage of a strong socialist mother and amid several brothers. After separating from her husband, Helen Tuvim gave piano lessons during the hard times of the Depression.
Humor is an extremely effective tool with which to observe human behavior. When the comic laughs at herself as well as at the foibles of her audience, she creates a connection between people and an opportunity to examine serious subjects in a funny manner. Important and forbidden topics receive airings. Bette Midler’s knowing smile, which rarely leaves her face, reminds her audience that a humorous perspective, on any and all subjects, offers catharsis alongside illumination.
A drunk’s dare to a five-year-old on a trolley car initiated the career of Molly Picon, the petite darling of the Yiddish musical theater.
Known to television audiences as bumbling Emily Litella, scatterbrained Roseanne Roseannadanna, and nerdy Lisa Loopner, comedian Gilda Radner shot to stardom on NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL) and represented an important breakthrough in the visibility of Jewish women on television.
In revues, nightclub acts, and concert halls, and to a vast new audience via television in the 1970s and 1980s, Joan Rivers popularized and perfected a genre of comedy that challenged reigning social conventions.
Surely the most controversial American comedian since Lenny Bruce, Roseanne exists at the intersection of feminism and the working class. In its nine-year run, Roseanne garnered high ratings and the attention of media critics and political writers. Though its star was never honored by the television establishment for her work, the success of the program launched this inelegant stand-up comedian to a highly visible platform for her own working-class feminism.
American Jewish women have a complex history of association with the medium of television. Since emerging as a mass medium in the early post–World War II years, television has figured prominently in the careers of a number of American Jewish women working both before and behind the camera.
For over a hundred years, Jewish women have been involved in the American theater as writers, actors, directors, designers and producers. The vitality of the Yiddish theater, the splendor of Broadway, the rich tapestry of the regional theater—and everything in between—all owe a debt to the Jewish women who have given of their talents, their energy, their drive, and their dreams.
Sophie Tucker was an international star of vaudeville, music halls, and later film, performing in both Yiddish and English in a career that spanned over fifty years.
It would only begin to tell the larger story of how and why Jewish women and vaudeville came to intersect as they did in the early decades of the twentieth century.