Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

The Molly Picon Centennial ... Coming Up!
AUFBAU 63:21 Oct. 10, 1997 p13
Oct. 5, 1997 929 words
Copyright by Leonard J. Lehrman & AUFBAU

1998 will mark international centennial celebrations of the birth of a number of important figures in German and Jewish musical theater, among them Bertolt Brecht, February 10; Hanns Eisler, July 6; and Lotte Lenya, October 18; and the four-foot-eleven-inch-tall darling of the Yiddish theater, Molly Picon, who was born either February 28 or June 1 (she never knew which, and celebrated both!), lived to be 94, surviving them all (performing somersaults well into her seventies), and was the subject of a retrospective last month at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum entitled "Molly Picon is Alive and Well!", coupled with a lecture showing parts of some of her films.

Apparently one of the many trunks full of costumes and memorabilia Ms. Picon donated to various museums before she died on April 6, 1992 found its way into a junkyard near Mahopac, New York, where Picon and her husband Jacob (Yonkel) Kalich lived from 1947 until his death in 1975, in a house they called Chez Shmendrick. There it was discovered by an aspiring dancer named Sarah Safford, who had never heard of Picon (and still mispronounces her name "peCAHN"), but told her mother of her find. Her mother immediately called Actors Equity and then actually reached the retired star on the phone:

"Oh so that's what became of my if'n clothes!" was the actress's response. They were to have been used "if'n when I'm ever in another production.... Darling, your daughter should keep them and use them in good health. And may she have as much success with them as I did!"

This generous gesture inspired research that has resulted in a threewoman show backed by a three-piece klezmer band featuring thirteen numbers, four of them with lyrics by Molly Picon, sung mostly by the self-effacing but solidly enthusiastic mezzo-soprano Mara Goodman, danced and joined frequently by Safford and (occasionally) her daughter Molly Ashford, and directed by Susan Perlstein.

There is in fact plenty of material with which Molly Picon could be brought to life again. Irene Heskes' Yiddish American Popular Songs 1895 to 1950 lists 35 copyrighted songs she wrote with Joseph M. Rumshinsky (1879/81-1956) and another 14 with Abraham Ellstein (1907-1963), not to mention her own "Woiking Goil," "The Yiddisha Blues" with Murray Rumshinsky, and many others she wrote for radio shows, at what she described in her 1980 autobiography Molly! as "a crazy pace: Write 'em, learn 'em, sing 'em and forget 'em!"

And then there were the shows she starred in like Milk and Honey, The World of Sholem Aleichem, and the film of Fiddler on the Roof!, as well as the songs written for her, like Ellstein's "Oy mameh, bin ikh farlibt," a little bit of which she was shown singing in a film clip (the most entertaining performance of the afternoon) that formed part of a lecture given by the back-up band's percussionist Eve Sicular on lesbian and gay subtexts in Yiddish film.

If one looks hard enough, one can of course find such subtexts --in almost anything--and Ms. Sicular has done her homework, pointing out Picon's cross-dressing in Ost und West (1923) and Yidl Mitn Fidl (1936), as well as the seductive male bonding in Der Dybuk (1937) and Der vilner shtot-khazn (1940), and hints at same-sex romance in Amerikaner shadkhn (1940) and Catskill Honeymoon (1950).

This kind of deconstructionism is all the rage in criticism today (the scholarly Sicular, who calls herself "a dedicated Lesbian," has published her analyses in Lilith, Davka, and Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review), and if it helps encourage re-acquaintance with the classics of Jewish film literature then why not?

In her autobiography, Molly Picon discussed how she kept her marriage alive, not only with constant collaboration on scripts and performances, but by means of understanding talks--and skinnydipping! Analyzing her own trouser role performance in Yonkele, she called it "a kind of Peter Pan role, with a slight difference: whereas Peter Pan doesn't want to grow up, Yonkele wants desperately to grow up and make a better world for our people and all people."

In that spirit, the Manhattan-born, Philadelphia-raised singing actress toured all over North and South America, Africa, Asia, Israel (15 times), and several times to Europe. Having polished her Yiddish in Poland between the Wars, she was among the first to bring relief and joy to Holocaust victims there afterwards, often at her own personal peril. She also ventured to Vienna twice, and frequented England, France, and the Benelux countries, but seems to have touched down in Germany only once, when the plane she was on needed to refuel, in Berlin.

Safford's show also attempts to be socially conscious--and uptodate, juxtaposing a lyric about condoms with Aaron Lebedeff's "Rumenye, Rumenye." While the latter lists all the exotic food delicacies one can enjoy at table, the former cautionarily counterpoints with all the diseases one can contract in bed. Not exactly subtle or tasteful, but diverting nonetheless.

A Molly Picon show we'd like to see? One with tributes from colleagues still alive who worked with her and acknowledged how much they learned from her--like Carol Channing, Frank Sinatra, and Barbra Streisand. One which resurrects treasures like her and Ellstein's "Liebe," "Ich sing," and other Yiddish theater classics she wrote and sang with music by Rumshinsky and Sholom Secunda (1994-1974), as well as, perhaps, a few of the great Yiddish art songs by Lazar Weiner (1897-1982), whose centennial is with us this year!

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