Jewish-American actress Molly Picon (1898–1992) was known as the great comedienne of Yiddish theater over a career that lasted for nearly 90 years. In later life her appearances in English-language films and plays drew substantial audiences as well.
At the height of Picon's fame, Murray Schumach of the New York Times noted that "[s]he was idolized in Jewish neighborhoods, where children and clubs were named after her during her heyday in the 1920s." Picon had various talents. She sang, danced, wrote songs, and excelled in the conventional English-language roles she took on from time to time. But at the center of her art lay Yiddish plays, in which she usually performed one of a set of variations on a basic character: a young woman who dresses or acts like a boy, making her way in the world with a combination of nerve and presence of mind.
Father Often Absent
Picon (accented on the second syllable, pronounced as in "con") was born in New York City on June 1, 1898, to immigrant garment workers who lived in Manhattan's teeming Lower East Side. Her Polish-born father, Louis Picon, held work only intermittently, and the family bounced around when Picon was very young, living in New Jersey and in Chicago before moving to Philadelphia. Three generations, including nine of Picon's cousins, shared an apartment there. "As for Papa—well, Papa was disdainful of life in general and, I think, of me in particular," Picon recalled, as quoted on the website of the Jewish Women's Archive. "He never worked. He was just too 'educated' to do menial labor. Basically, he was just 'anti': anti-capitalist, anti-religion, anti-labor, and anti-girls…. He just faded out of our lives."
If there was a bright side to this situation, it was that Picon became exposed to the stage after her mother found work sewing costumes at a Yiddish-language theater in Philadelphia. Picon was a born performer who began her career at age five in a talent show—and picked up a few dollars in tips by trying out her act on trolley car riders on the way to the show. Soon she had graduated to song-and-dance routines at local theaters, and she had a role in a Yiddish-language dramatization of Uncle Tom's Cabin . Picon dropped out of William Penn High School at 16 to take a role in a traveling vaudeville show called The Four Seasons .
When the troupe arrived in Boston at the height of the 1918 influenza epidemic, it fell apart owing to the lack of available work; all the theaters except one in the city were closed. The only one that remained active was a Yiddish-language group that held performances at the Boston Grand Opera House. Picon auditioned and was hired by producer Jacob "Yonkel" Kalich. The two married in 1919. "I always said influenza was our matchmaker," Picon was quoted as saying on the Jewish Women's Archive website. The couple
Picon, who had tried to become Americanized, had performed in both English and Yiddish, but spoke a colloquial variety of Philadelphia street Yiddish that was difficult even for New York audiences to understand. Kalich, on the other hand, was a Polish immigrant devoted to the idea of Yiddish theater. In 1920 the two toured Europe. Picon refined her Yiddish, and the two went to see Yiddish plays and devised new material that they performed to large crowds. The American-born Picon actually became a star in Europe first, stirring up interest in the United States as European Jews wrote to their American relatives about the appealing young comedienne they had seen.
Played Featured Stock Characters
Back in the United States in 1923, Picon and Kalich began building a small theatrical empire among New York's growing immigrant audiences. With Picon as star and Kalich as writer, they turned out numerous short comic plays. The music was often provided by composer Joseph Rumshinsky, but Picon also wrote nearly one hundred songs herself. Kalich's output seems prodigious, but the plays were not conceived from scratch each time; instead they featured recurring characters such as Yonkele, a Peter Pan-like figure whom Picon saw as a reflection of herself, and Schmendrick, an amiable dunce. Some of Picon's characters were ambiguous in gender, either tomboy-like or actually calling for Picon to dress as a boy. Among Picon's hits were Yonkele (1923), Gypsy Girl (1925–26), and The Radio Girl (1929). The shows were primarily in Yiddish, but Picon, attuned to the aspirations of her immigrant audiences, kept up on the latest Broadway dance routines and sprinkled her act with English dialogue.
Picon also began a film career, making several silent features in Austria. The first, Das Judenmadel (The Jewish Girl, 1921), has been lost, but Ost und West (East and West, 1923), a satirical look at the differences between Americanized and Old World Jewish families, survives and is considered by historians to be the earliest Yiddish film (although silent, it would have had text panels with dialogue and narration). Picon remained well known in Europe, and in the 1930s she traveled to Poland to film two productions that became among the best-known examples of Yiddish cinema. Yiddle Mitn Fiddle (Yiddle with the Fiddle, 1937) fit Picon's personality, with its story of a girl who dresses as a boy so she can work as a klezmer musician. In Mamale (1938) the 40-year-old Picon played a 12-year-old girl. It was the last Yiddish film made in Poland before the Holocaust, and both films are priceless documentaries of the lives of the Eastern European village Jews who were killed by the Nazi regime in Germany.
By the time she made those films, Picon was a star whose popularity in the United States extended beyond Jewish audiences. She and Kalich lost money in the stock market crash of 1929 but bounced back quickly, opening a Molly Picon Theatre at Second Avenue and 12th Street in Manhattan. In 1934 Picon began performing in a long-running radio program that gained sponsorship from the makers of Jell-O desserts, and for the film Yiddle Mitn Fiddle she was paid the then-unheard-of sum of $10,000. Cast in the English-language drama Morningstar (1939), she had the makings of a career independent from Kalich. Their marriage suffered but survived.
The upheavals of World War II helped to bring the couple together. They adopted a teenaged Belgian Jewish orphan in 1941 and later adopted two more children. Picon performed on the USO (United Service Organizations) circuit, entertaining American troops during World War II. Picon toured the world during the war years, reportedly becoming a favorite with a Zulu audience in South Africa for her imitations of film comedian Charlie Chaplin. After the war's end her activities continued to be motivated by public service, as she gave performances for displaced European Jews. One young mother, according to Schumach, approached Picon and Kalich and said, "My child is two years old and she has never heard the sound of laughter," to which Kalich answered, "Molly, that's our job. Make them laugh!" Picon was also a supporter of the new state of Israel, traveling there in 1954 and wading into the debate over whether Hebrew or Yiddish was to be the language of the new country—she performed in Yiddish.
Co-Starred with Sinatra
Picon and Kalich attempted to maintain the traditions of Yiddish theater with new shows, including Abi Gezunt and Sadie Was a Lady (both 1949) and Mazel Tov, Molly (1950). She wrote new songs for a 1959 Yiddish show, The Kosher Widow , which allowed the audience to select from alternate endings by applauding and having their noisemaking metered. The use of Yiddish was declining in the United States, however, as second-generation American Jews overwhelmingly began to favor English. So Picon, entering her sixth decade of performing, branched out once again and attempted, with considerable success, to move beyond the niche of ethnic actress in which she had been placed. She appeared in the London production and in many regional American productions of the long-running romantic comedy A Majority of One , and in 1962 she had a starring role in the Frank Sinatra comedy Come Blow Your Horn , playing opposite Lee J. Cobb as the (Italian-American, not Jewish) mother of Sinatra's on-screen co-star and romantic rival, Tony Bill. The role brought Picon an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy. In the 1960s Picon made guest appearances on Gomer Pyle and other television series, and she was a frequent guest on The Merv Griffin Show and other television talk programs.
Having already appeared on stage in 1957 in The World of Sholom Aleichem , a tribute to the great Russian Jewish Yiddish-language writer, Picon was a natural pick for casting when the stage musical Fiddler on the Roof , based on Aleichem's stories about the milkman Tevye, was made into a film in 1971. Picon played Yente, a village matchmaker, and she and Kalich, who had already done so much in the 1930s to document the shtetls or Jewish villages of Eastern Europe on film, helped to re-create the vanished world for the new production.
Picon took several years off from performing when Kalich fell ill in the early 1970s, caring for him until his death in 1975. After that, the nearly 80-year-old Picon resumed touring, traveling around the United States, Canada, and Israel. Picon mounted a one-woman show, Hello Molly , in 1979, dancing the can-can and doing deep knee bends on stage. In 1980 Picon published her autobiography, Molly! . She had a small part in the Burt Reynolds slapstick comedy The Cannonball Run (1981), and its 1984 sequel, Cannonball Run 2 . That year Picon made her final film appearance in Grandma Didn't Wave Back , a drama about a child forced to come to terms with his grandmother's mental decline.
Performing well into her eighties, Picon received several major awards toward the end of her life. In 1981 she became the first actress with a background on the Yiddish stage elected to the Theatre Hall of Fame, and among her various awards from Jewish organizations was a "Goldie" from the Congress of Jewish Culture in 1985. Picon accepted that award clad in a tuxedo. She died in her sleep at the home of her sister in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on April 6, 1992, aged 94. In 2005 a new Yiddish-language biographical musical, Picon Pie: A Slice of Life of Molly Picon , celebrated her accomplishments. The show's creator, Rose Leiman Goldemberg, told the New York Times that Picon "had this idea that she could just get in there and do something. There was no question of could she do this, should she do this. She just did it, she followed her heart."
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Picon, Molly, with Eth Clifford Rosenberg, So Laugh a Little , Messner, 1962.
Picon, Molly, with Jean Bergantini Grillo, Molly! , Simon & Schuster, 1980.
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