Saturday, July 12, 2014

Sounds of the Mamaloshen

For several decades, the Blackglama line of furs has used a celebrity-driven marketing campaign (What Becomes A Legend Most?) to great effect. But, in a time when audiences are quick to label a performer as a cultural icon, how does one describe an individual who has become a cultural hero to millions?

For some people, the death of a celebrity can be more deeply felt than the death of a blood relative.
Although an artist may become popular from live and filmed performances (and enjoy a broad appeal to mass audiences), sometimes their ethnic heritage plays a special role in the way their career develops. The recent deaths of Maya AngelouRuby DeeEli Wallach, and Julius Rudel caused many people to stop what they were doing and reflect on how the contributions of these artists impacted their lives.

Two programs at the 2014 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival feature artists who, throughout their lives, have been ardent champions of Yiddish culture. Although Molly Picon passed on in 1992, Theodore Bikel (who recently celebrated his 90th birthday) will receive the festival's annual Freedom of Expression Award in conjunction with the world premiere of a new documentary entitled Theodore Bikel: In The Shoes of Sholem Aleichem. In a remarkable career that spans 75 years, Bikel has made his mark in many areas of the entertainment industry.
In the following clip, Bikel is joined by Fyvush Finkel as they sing "L'Chaim: To Life" in Yiddish at the Folksbiene's 2008 gala benefit for The National Yiddish Theatre.

Because most people think of The Sound of Music in terms of the 1965 movie that starred Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, few recall that  it was Theodore Bikel who originated the role of Captain von Trapp in the 1959 Broadway musical that starred Mary Martin. In the following clip, Bikel explains how the song "Edelweiss" was created for him during the show's Boston tryout.

Narrated by Alan Alda, Theodore Bikel: In The Shoes of Sholem Aleichem pays tribute to one of the pillars of Yiddish literature while explaining how Sholem Aleichem's writing has been a part of Bikel's life since his childhood when, immediately following the 1938 Anschluss, the Bikel family fled from Vienna to Palestine.

Over the years, Sholem Aleichem's writing has frequently crossed paths with Bikel's career. In the following clip, Joseph Dorman (writer, director and producer of Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness) describes some of the challenges Aleichem faced after coming to America.

In addition to commentary from such familiar faces as author Bel Kaufman (Sholem Aleichem's granddaughter), Fyvush Finkel, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and comedian Gilbert Gottfried, this new documentary includes insights about Jewish humor from Michael Wex (author of Born to Kvetch). Bikel is shown singing Yiddish folk songs as well as telling stories from his one-man show entitled Sholem Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears.

In the following clip (taken from a joint interview with Bikel and his old friend, singer Judy Collins), he explains why Sholem Aleichem's influence was so important to him.

* * * * * * * * *
I only saw Molly Picon live onstage once, when she was starring in Jerry Herman's 1961 Broadway musical entitled Milk and Honey. At the age of 63, the much beloved "Queen of the Yiddish Musical" could still do cartwheels across the stage. True to form, Picon never failed to bring down the house with her comic solo, "Hymn to Hymie."

On those few occasions when my mother used to talk about Molly Picon she glowed with the memory of how audiences loved to watch the actress "suffer" onscreen. A gifted artist and mainstay of Yiddish theatre and film, Picon's delightful personality could easily warm any auditorium.

Her first screen appearance was in a silent film, 1923's East and West. Her most famous film was 1936's Yidl Mitn Fidl. She even had a theatre named after her by the time she was 33!

Built for the Shubert theatre chain in 1921 and named in honor of Al Jolson, Jolson's 59th Street Theatre (seating 1,700) went through a bit of an identity crisis over the next few decades.
  • It was renamed The Central Park Theatre, The Shakespeare Theatre and The Venice. 
  • In 1937, it gained fame when Orson Welles and his fellow WPA actors marched uptown to the Venice Theatre and, in defiance of Actors Equity, performed The Cradle Will Rock from their seats in the auditorium.
  • In April 1944, The Venice was refurbished and renamed the New Century Theatre.
  • But in 1931 it was proudly known as The Molly Picon Theatre. 
This year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival features a restored print (which had its world premiere at the 2013 Jerusalem International Film Festival) of 1938's Yiddish film musical entitled Mamele. Set in Lodz, it stars Picon as Khavtshi (the Cinderella-like daughter who has been left in charge of her family following the death of her mother).

As the family's "little mother" (mamele), Khavtshi is so busy cooking, cleaning, sewing, schlepping, and meddling that she has no time to do anything for herself.
  • Her father, Berl (Maks Bozyk), expects to be waited on hand and foot.
  • Her younger brother, Dawid (Maks Perelman), is a good kid who is about to get into trouble by innocently helping out a small-time gangster.
  • Her eldest sister, Jentka (Ola Sliwkowicz), has already started to act like an old maid and seems doomed to spinsterhood.
  • The other sister, Berta (Gertrude Bulman), is filled with romantic notions about Maks Katz (Menasha Oppenheim), a "nogoodnik" engineer who is taking her out to a nightclub. Khavtshi is convinced that her sister would be much better off marrying the nice violinist, Mr. Schlesinger,(Edmund Zayenda) who lives across the courtyard. In the following clip, she neatly disposes of the engineer.

As luck would have it, Mr. Schlesinger has no interest in Khavtshi's narcissistic older sister. In fact, he finds Picon's character much more to his liking. For the first time in her life, Khavtshi starts to think about what she her future could be like if she were not tending to everyone else's needs.

Co-directed by Joseph Green and Konrad Tom, Mamele features a wonderful montage in which Picon ages from a young girl full of energy to a 78-year-old grandmother who can only dance (while seated in a chair) by shaking her head and using her fingers to simulate the movements she once made with her legs. It's a brief and exquisitely inventive musical number.

Khavtshi (Molly Picon) checks the challah
on her way to get married in 1938's  Mamele

For those unable to see the beautifully restored print being shown at the festival, the following video offers the full-length version of Mamele, complete with songs, intrigue, and Molly Picon suffering in royal form. You  won't need any surtitles to enjoy the sounds of sung and spoken Yiddish.

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