A bawdy comedian who inspired Bette Midler, Belle Barth narrowly avoided trouble with the law by delivering some of her most wicked punch lines in Yiddish. Barth became known on the vaudeville circuit in the 1930s and 1940s for her impressions of Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson, and Gypsy Rose Lee, but in the 1950s, she began creating original routines that combined her musical talents with her flair for raunchy stand-up comedy, capitalizing on the emerging field of adult comedy that emphasized overtly sexual material. She recorded a number of comedy albums, most notably If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends, and performed in New York, Miami, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.
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.
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.
“Belle Barth.” Variety, February 17, 1971.
“Belle Barth Martin.” NYTimes, February 16, 1971.
Franklin, Joe, ed. Joe Franklin’s Encyclopedia of Comedians. Lyle Stuart, 1979.
Ragan, David, ed. Who’s Who in Hollywood. New York: Facts on File, 1992.
Smith, Ronald L. Comedy on Record: The Complete Critical Discography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1988.
Smith, Ronald L. The Stars of Stand-Up Comedy: A Bibliographical Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, 1986.
Smith, Ronald L. Who’s Who in Comedy. New York: Facts on File, 1992.