Molly Picon: A Celebrity for the Ages
Years ago, when I was working on my undergraduate thesis on Yiddish film, I attempted conversation about the subject at cocktail parties (well, at that point they weren’t yet cocktail parties, but there were definitely M&Ms) –
“Yiddish? Film? What? Like Yentl?”
No. Not like Yentl. They’re in Yiddish! And most of them were originally Yiddish theater productions. Molly Picon? ... No?... Nobody?... Nevermind. Is it hot in here? Pass the M&Ms.
This legacy of the Jewish cultural stamp on American pop culture that loomed large in my own mind was but a mystery to so many others. (Like, perhaps, “sports” is to me.) These films which were the jumping-off point for many future Hollywood stars, were also the thematic mother to the first American talkie, The Jazz Singer. The Yiddish film industry grew out of the massive Yiddish theater machine whose home was on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Stars of Yiddish theater were well known even outside the Yiddish speaking world.
The feisty Molly Picon—star of Yiddish theater, Yiddish film, and Hollywood stage and screen—is an example of such a star. Her legacy endures today because of her colossal fame. In Making Trouble, the Jewish Women’s Archive film about there generations of funny Jewish women, in which Molly Picon is featured, one of her Yiddish theater peers says: “she was a dancer, she was an acrobat—she did everything!”
This Monday, January 26, the American Jewish Historical Society will present “Pages from a Performing Life: The Scrapbooks of Molly Picon,” at the Center for Jewish History in New York, in person AND online. From the AJHS press release: “From 1919 to 1967, Molly and Yonkel kept scrapbooks primarily in Yiddish and English that brim with clippings, reviews and interviews, fan letters, programs, telegrams and other ephemera. The original 22 scrapbooks, the bulk of them digitized, chronicle Molly’s prolific career in real time and as she and Yonkel wanted to remember it.”
This is like being invited to be Molly’s friend on Facebook!! Who did she know? Where did she perform? What did she eat?!
Daniel Kaplan, president of the American Jewish Historical Society says: “The Picon exhibition demonstrates the critical role of archives in connecting the past to the future.” Amen. At the Jewish Women’s Archive, it goes without saying that we know this first-hand. It is rare, however, that we have such direct physical access not only to history, but to the historical subject. The opportunity to experience Molly’s own conception of her career through her scrapbooks is once-in-a-lifetime.
In an era when liveblogging, oversharing, and the ethereal rank of “internet celebrity” run rampant, it’s hard to fathom a time when one’s daily minutiae were not broadcast for all to see. (Right now, on Facebook, I know that a handful of friends are sick, one came back from an audition, and one’s car was eaten by a garbage truck.) Even more difficult is the harkening back to a time when celebrity was hard to come by. It took hard work, train trips, heavy trunks, and probably a corset or two to achieve.
So let’s take a minute to honor the work of a true celebrity, and post a status message saying: I heart Molly P.