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Belle Barth

1911 – 1971

by Joellyn Wallen

Belle Barth was born Annabelle Salzman in East Harlem, New York, on April 27, 1911. With three brothers, Moe, Abe, and Saul, and one sister, Paula, Annabelle had a virtual audience of siblings. Not much is known about her childhood, but recognition of her talent as a musician and comedian clearly came early, as her performance as a student at Julia Richman High School demonstrates. Upon graduation from high school, she billed herself as a singer-pianist who also did impersonations. 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. In other words, Barth capitalized on the emerging field of adult comedy that emphasized overtly sexual material. This sort of comedy teetered perilously on the brink of obscenity, and the police were often part of Barth’s audience. However, as long as her acts were confined to small clubs, avoided religious gags, and maintained a one-liner approach, she avoided clashes with the law. In addition, Barth often delivered particularly vulgar references in Yiddish, a language familiar to its native speakers but exotic to the uninitiated. In either case, the result was less crude. Indeed, this interplay between crude and coy characterized her style. Critic Ron Smith points to this interplay as the element that made her comedy particularly effective: “She was especially good at contrasting a coquette’s conversational sweetness with the sudden brawling howls of a Brooklyn bordello madam.” Barth described her act: “She says dirty words in a cute way and everybody digs her the most.”

Her upbeat rendition of herself did not take into account the personal difficulties that she endured. She married and divorced four times before finding companionship with George Martin, her fifth husband. In addition, she battled a drinking problem. Occasionally too drunk to tone down her act, Barth was arrested for obscenity.

Notwithstanding these personal struggles, she traveled the country and entertained others all her life. She produced a series of well-known comedy albums, the most popular being If I Embarrass You Tell Your Friends, recorded at her own Belle Barth Pub in Miami. Although she favored Miami as a venue, she traveled to New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles to perform through her fifties. She was working at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas when she became ill in 1970. Belle Barth died of cancer one year later, on February 14, 1971, in Miami Beach, Florida.

DISCOGRAPHY

Battle of the Mothers, with Pearl Williams, Riot; Belle Barth In Las Vegas, Record Productions; Book of Knowledge Memorial Album, Laff; The Customer Comes First, Laff; Hell’s Belle, Laff; Her New Act, Riot; I Don’t Mean to Be Vulgar, But If It’s Profitable, Surprise; If I Embarrass You Tell Your Friends, After Hours; If I Embarrassed You, Forget It, Riot; In Person, Laugh Time; My Next Story Is a Little Risqué, After Hours; Wild Wild Wild Wild World, Record Productions.

Bibliography

“Belle Barth.” Variety, February 17, 1971.

“Belle Barth Martin.” NYTimes, February 16, 1971.

Franklin, Joe, ed. Joe Franklin’s Encyclopedia of Comedians (1979).

Regan, David, ed. Who’s Who in Hollywood (1992).

Smith, Ronald L. Comedy on Record: The Complete Critical Discography (1988), and The Stars of Stand-Up Comedy: A Bibliographical Encyclopedia (1986), and Who’s Who in Comedy (1992).

More on Belle Barth
3 Comments

Hello, just wanted to say what a treasure Belle is/was. I have most of the old albums that were in our house while growing up, but just found a nice little portable record player so that I can finally listen to them again.

Some of my uncles albums I havenÌ¢‰â‰ã¢t ever been able to listen to and that included the Bell Barth album Ì¢‰âÂÒ if I offended you, tell your friendsÌ¢‰âÂå

I just loved it, and it reminded me of my parents and momÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s brothers and their type of humour from that era. I love her mix of yiddish as well, even though I donÌ¢‰â‰ã¢t understand some of it.

I mentioned this to my dad and he immediately sang some of her ditties, that he remembered hearing so many years ago.

A great combination of popular culture with a nice Jewish mix.

Sincerely,

Marc Gelmon Vancouver, BC Canada

I remember my Mom used to say/sing a little ditty. I can't remember it word for word. I just remember it was funny seeing her go into character and speak in a german/jewish accent and do this little ditty. It used to make us laugh. I was talking to my neice about it the other day, wishing I could remember it. It was sofie something of the "VildWood"...blah blah blah. It was said with such a caidence. This is strange, becasue tonite I got an inkling to google Bell Barth. I remember my parents had an album that I was forbidden to listen to. When I was about 11, they weren't home and I got the whim to play this record. It was VERY DIRTY!! Well, I caught something on youtube; and as I listened I heard my mothers voice doing this ditty. It came to me that my Mom had lead me to bell barth so I could find the ditty. The you tube video did not have this ditty on it. I see that you have many albums of hers. I remember my mother had the album with the purple cover. the In Person album. Can you help me? thank you for your Wikipedia entry as well.

Hello,

I have added much more information to the wikipedia entry which I thoroughly enlarged. Also, her niece gave me much information and pictures.

How to cite this page

Wallen, Joellyn. "Belle Barth." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 26, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/barth-belle>.

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