I mentioned in a previous post that I’m auditing a class on Jewish humor and with that comes some homework which I can then recycle into blog posts because, hey, why not? Because I’m only auditing the class and not an actual student the professor handed this paper back with a note that said, “If I were grading this I’d give it a 96.” And that seemed like a pretty good grade, even if she couldn’t dance to it, until I found out the grading scale is from one to a thousand. Well, I guess I should keep on trying.
The House Next Door: Performers & Their Identities
“Suppose nobody in the house took the painting?”
“Go to the house next door.”
“That’s great. Suppose there isn’t any house next door?”
“Well, then of course, we gotta build one.”
-Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx) and Ravelli (Chico Marx), Animal Crackers
From vaudeville up through film, radio, and television performers have adopted various identities. In vaudeville, as in earlier theater, there were stock characters who could be expected to behave certain ways. These characters could be played by a variety of actors. Some performers, however, began
developing distinctive characters. Some, such as George Burns and Gracie Allen and The Marx Brothers developed their identities on the stage and carried them over to other media. Others, such as Jack Benny and Fanny Brice, started in vaudeville but developed their characters after they moved to radio, while Gertrude Berg started performing at her father’s Catskills resort and created The Goldbergs for radio. In this paper I’ll examine some of the identities Jewish performers created and suggest both practical and personal reasons behind them.
To begin with, although Jack Benny started his career in vaudeville, he only really began developing the persona that he would become famous for on radio. Other vaudeville performers, as Epstein notes in The Haunted Smile, tried to make the transition from the stage to radio but found it difficult because of the regular need for new jokes:
In vaudeville, a comedian could survive on a single twenty-minute skit. The comedian would go from theater to theater around the country repeating the same routine…Radio was completely different. A skit done once could not be repeated the following week; new material was needed all the time. (Epstein, 56)
Benny adapted quickly, relying on and respecting writers who worked for him, and gradually created the persona of a miserly character who, when held up at gunpoint and told, “Your money or your life!” replies, “I’m thinking it over!” By playing a miserly character Benny, who was Jewish, risked reinforcing stereotypes about Jews, but, in the Depression, a wide audience probably found his concern with money relatable as well as funny. This was also only a character and not a reflection of the real Jack Benny, who was quite generous. When Eddie Cantor was raising money for Israel’s War of Independence Benny sent a blank check with the note, “Eddie, fill this in for whatever amount you need (Epstein, 63).”
Benny was also not locked into a single character. In To Be Or Not To Be he plays Joseph Tura, a vain and jealous actor who helps the Polish resistance by pretending to be a Nazi spy after members of the resistance murder the real spy, Professor Alexander Siletsky. Shut in a room with Siletsky’s corpse, which has been discovered by the Nazis, Tura almost escapes by shaving off the professor’s beard and replacing it with a false one, but his own false beard is then pulled off by a member of his acting troupe also pretending to be a Nazi. This is incredibly multi-layered with Jack Benny the actor abandoning his usual character to play an actor who, in turn, pretends to be a real person.
Benny would add another layer to his performance in the 1959 Merrie Melodies cartoon “The Mouse That Jack Built”, in which he voices a mouse named Jack Benny. The cartoon also includes the regular cast of “The Jack Benny Program”, Ed “Rochester” Anderson, Mary Livingstone, Don Wilson, as well as Mel Blanc, who voiced most of the Warner Brothers cartoons characters as well as playing several characters on “The Jack Benny Program” on both radio and television.
It’s not surprising that most performers weren’t like the people they portrayed, but it is surprising just how different they often were. Fanny Brice, born in 1891, became famous in vaudeville as a singer and comedian, but when she began performing on radio in the 1930s she presented herself as Baby Snooks, a four and a half year-old child character she’d used in sketches on Broadway. In some cases the identities developed by trial and error as performers responded to what audiences wanted. For instance early in their career as a double act George Burns had Gracie play it straight and feed him funny lines, but the audience laughed more at Gracie than him, so “Burns immediately rewrote the act, giving Gracie the funny lines and the daffy persona she became famous for displaying.” (Epstein, 24)
The Marx Brothers also developed their identities over time on stage; according to Groucho, “I believe all comedians arrive by trial and error.” (Marx, 73) Encouraged to perform by their mother Minnie the brothers went through a series of acts, including The Four Nightingales, a singing act comprised of Groucho, Gummo, and Chico, and Harpo. Harpo couldn’t sing, but Minnie told him, “Keep your mouth open and no one will know the difference!” (Marx, 68) While performing on the college circuit they began adding physical comedy to their musical act:
On the second chorus I would start to dance. In the middle of it Chico would jump up, grab me, and we would whirl around the stage together while Harpo would hop up on the piano stool and continue the playing. Near the finish of the song, I would give Chico a hefty shove. This would knock Harpo off the piano stool. Chico would then resume playing and I would finish the song, with Harpo stretched out on the floor simulating unconsciousness. (Marx, 121)
Groucho adds that they didn’t know how successful they would become but, with this beginning, “We were now a unit. We were The Marx Brothers.” They began developing characters in a skit called “Fun In Hi Skule”. Harpo in particular decided to stop speaking after a reviewer said, “He takes off on an Irish immigrant most amusingly in pantomime. Unfortunately, the effect is spoiled when he speaks.” (Epstein, 43) The characters were fully formed in their Broadway show I’ll Say She Is!—Groucho, the sharp-tongued wit and often the leader, Chico, the Italian immigrant, and Harpo, the mute cherubic clown. At the suggestion of Alexander Woollcott, who highly praised their performances they dropped their real names and began using the nicknames they’d been given in a poker game with a monologist named Art Fisher. (Epstein, 44) They would keep these characters throughout their film career and in television appearances.
While Gertrude Berg was a wife and mother her success and fame as actor, writer, and producer far exceeded the experiences of her fictional wife and mother of the Goldberg family, which formed the basis of The Goldbergs, “a show that was a cross between a situation comedy and a soap opera” (Epstein, 72). While the Goldbergs, first on radio from 1929-1946 and from 1949-1956 on television, dealt with various problems, including anti-Semitism, the show would be beset by very real problems, from difficulties with sponsorship and critics to the resignation of co-star Philip Loeb who was blacklisted as a suspected communist. Loeb left the show in 1952 and committed suicide in 1955. As Epstein says, though, what ultimately doomed the show was “its overt ethnicity” at a time of strong anti-Semitism and an entertainment industry that was moving “away from ethnicity and toward bland, nondescript situation comedies about middle-class WASP families.” (Epstein, 146)
Now I’d like to shift away from comedians and performers to writers and the identities they create, not only for characters in fiction but for themselves as well. While S.J. Perelman wrote works such as “Waiting For Sanity”, a parody of Waiting For Lefty by Clifford Odets and was a co-writer of the Marx Brothers films Monkey Business and Horse Feathers as well as other films, he also wrote a number of short seemingly autobiographical pieces he called “feuilletons”. Most were standalone, although his 1947 collection Acres And Pains follows his efforts to become a “gentleman farmer”, overseeing a property in rural Pennsylvania and becoming exasperated at the cost and difficulty of country life. It’s the opening feuilleton of his final book, The Last Laugh, though, that should make readers ask whether Perelman’s writings are as autobiographical as they seem. The title, “And Then the Whining Schoolboy with his Satchel”, is from Shakespeare’s As You Like It and focuses on a meeting between fifteen year-old Perelman and his teacher, Miss Cronjager. There is a great deal packed into this story. He describes Miss Cronjager as having “honey-colored hair and a figure evocative of the coryphées portrayed in cigarette pictures.” Perhaps wanting to impress his teacher his “autobiographical” essay draws on multiple literary works from Captains Courageous and Treasure Island to the works of H. Rider Haggard and Sax Rohmer. This allows him to present himself to his teacher as a much more interesting and adventurous person while also signaling to us, the readers, how well-read he was. There is also a concern with money. He only has enough for the ride home but Miss Cronjager is late and it’s too cold for him to stay outside. Assuming she’ll pick up the tab since it was her invitation he goes into the café and orders food, starting with “a portion of jelly roll and a coffee float”. When Miss Cronjager still hasn’t arrived half an hour later he orders “a butterscotch ice cream soda and a slice of angel cake topped with hazelnuts and chocolate sauce.” When his teacher finally arrives she apologizes for being late and insists he order something.
I studied the menu carefully, torn between mocha layer cake and a walnut sundae with ladyfingers. Rather than be categorized as a glutton, however, I checked myself and settled for an eight-inch segment of poppy-seed strudel and a vanilla freeze.” (Perlman, 21-22)
He leaves before the bill arrives and attributes the low grade he ultimately receives on his essay to Miss Cronjager’s shock at how much he’s tallied up.
The short story “My Mother Was A Witch” by William Tenn, the pen name of Philip Klass, is also written as autobiography and is about the efforts of the author’s mother, who “had been born a Jewish cockney” who “bagged” his father in London’s East End, to adapt to life in Brooklyn. She is determined to “unlearn her useless English in place of what seemed to be the prevailing tongue of the New World”; that is, Yiddish, which her husband teaches her, but while he holds “science and sweet reason to be the hope of the world” she must deal with the women of the neighborhood who have “at their disposal whole libraries of cantrips.” (Klass, 289) Fortunately she learns quickly, creating a new self who not only teaches her son to deflect unfriendly spells but also sets back the most fearsome witch in the neighborhood, Mrs. Mokkeh, “an experienced heavy, a pro who had trained in the old country under famous champions.” (Klass, 292)
The mother in “My Mother Was A Witch” is different from the performers and writers I’ve discussed previously in that they, for the most part the children of immigrants, had familiar traditions they drew upon, but the mother is an outsider even among other immigrants. What all of them have in common, though, is that they are like the “house next door” discussed by Groucho and Chico in Animal Crackers. They are places conjured up by imagination and so elaborately realized that it doesn’t matter whether they’re real or fictional; they hold, or hide, very real aspects of the individuals who’ve created them. These “houses” are, I think, an expression of the feeling of goles, exile, as described by Michael Wex in Born To Kvetch:
As long as the Messiah is still missing and the Temple remains unbuilt, the whole world is in a sort of metaphysical goles from which it, too, needs to be redeemed. The world might not know it, the gentiles who are lording it over us and each other might never realize it, but anybody with real knowledge already knows that whatever is, is wrong. (Wex, 23)
Even as Jewish performers, both before and after World War II, felt pressured to tone down their Jewishness, the identities they presented the world were a way to be part of the world, to make their mark upon it. These identities may have been another form of exile, though, an exile from the self, since the faces they presented to the world were not really their own.
With that in mind I’d like to conclude by discussing the short story “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed” by Alfred Bester as a story of the ironic dissolution of an identity. It follows the scientist Henry Hassel, a professor at “Unknown University”, who finds his wife with another man. Enraged he takes a gun but, rather than shooting his wife and her lover, he builds a time machine and goes back in time and murders her grandparents before they’d married. His intent is to erase his wife’s very existence, but when he returns to the present he finds her still with the same man. He then goes on a temporal killing spree, shooting George Washington, Christopher Columbus, Napoleon, Mohammed, and others. He gives Marie Curie the formula for nuclear fission, resulting in the destruction of Paris. With every atrocity he feels less and less substantial upon his return to the present, but his wife is always there with the same man. He calls the library and is told that, as far as the history books are concerned, nothing has changed. Finally he meets another scientist who also invented a time machine and rampaged through time, only to learn that,
When a man changes the past he only affects his own past—no one else’s. The past is like memory. When you erase a man’s memory, you wipe him out, but you don’t wipe out anybody else’s. You and I have erased our past. The individual worlds of the others go on, but we have ceased to exist. (Bester, 171)
This is a strange twist on John Donne’s “No man is an island”. Hassel’s attempts to destroy his wife’s existence backfire. It’s his own identity that’s erased. Is there a warning in this not to try and alter history, to not draw attention to oneself? Perhaps, although it could also be read as a comment on the elusive nature of identity and how too much scrutiny can undermine it.
Bester, Alfred, Virtual Unrealities: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester, New York: Vintage Books, 1997
Epstein, Lawrence, The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, New York : Public Affairs, 2001
Marx, Groucho, Groucho And Me, New York : Da Capo Press, 1995
Perelman, S. J., The Last Laugh, New York : Simon & Schuster, 1981
Tenn, William, Immodest Proposals, Framingham, MA : NESFA Press, 2001
Wex, Michael, Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods, New York : St. Martin’s Press