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 a star in vaudeville and musical comedy in the early twentieth century. Known for her lush singing voice and hilarious acting, Bayes was a part of the Ziegfeld Follies, the Keith vaudeville circuit, and had her own one-woman show. Bayes had many arguments with male producers, theater administrators, and businessmen, as she often questioned the traditional role of women and asserted her independence.
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.
Long before her final role as the grouchy bailiff on Night Court, Selma Diamond earned a reputation behind the scenes as a brilliant, salty comedy writer for some of the best shows on radio and television. Diamond wrote radio routines many famous comedians was a regular on the Jack Paar show and acted on stage and in many television shows and movies.
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 acting skills and outstanding voice. During the 1940s, as opportunities in the Yiddish theater waned, Goldstein transformed herself into a comedian.
Nan Halperin was known as “The Wonder Girl” for her comic performances and rapid quick changes on the vaudeville stage. Halperin had a highly successful career, making her Broadway debut in 1914 and headlining on Broadway until 1934. She was one of the highest-paid actresses in vaudeville, famous for her “song cycle” performances.
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.
A brilliant actress and comedian, Judy Holliday won an Academy Award for her performance as the not-so-dumb blonde in Born Yesterday and performed thousands of times on Broadway. Holliday epitomized the duality of her American-Jewish heritage, as she was a successful performer who was investigated for subversive activities in the McCarthy Era due to antisemitic suspicions.
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.
Jewish women have had a long-standing, complex, often fraught relation to American television. They have had to battle a male-dominated production system and sexist stereotypes, but also have seen significant advances, in front of and behind the screen, resulting from the cable and streaming revolutions and third-wave feminist activism.
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.
Vaudeville legend and Broadway star Sophie Tucker defied convention with her saucy comic banter and music. Tucker became famous internationally for her singing performances and delighted audiences throughout America and Europe with her rendition of “My Yiddishe Momme.” Tucker was proud of her Jewish identity and created the Sophie Tucker Foundation, which supported various actors’ guilds, hospitals, synagogues, and Israeli youth villages.
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.