Grimacing fiercely, muscular arms quivering, Adam Real Man slowly straightens a metal horseshoe as the crowd stares, grinning in disbelief. His feat of strength is spot-on entertainment at the opening night reception of ‘Topsy Turvy: Coney Island Artists and the Amusement Utopia” at the Deutsche Bank’s 60 Wall Gallery.
His skills are improbable. Even more improbable is the giant Chai dangling from a thick chain around Real Man’s neck.
“I make it crystal clear that I’m Jewish wherever I’m performing,” Real Man told me after the performance. “That’s whether I’m playing at Coney Island or in the Deep South. I remember doing my act for Christian Middle America in Altoona, Pa. I was wrapping leather around both hands before squeezing a long nail between my two palms. ‘No stigmata for this Jewish boy,’ I announced to the crowd. When I didn’t get a laugh, I said, ‘I see I’m the only Jew in the house.’ I say that kind of thing. What the hell. It’s 2013.”
Amazing Amy, a contortionist whose rubber body is nothing short of mind-boggling, also incorporates her heritage into her shtick, performing numbers that celebrate — and gently mock — her Jewish roots, such as “Yoga Yenta.” And then there’s the zany and poignant clown Hilary Chaplain, who morphs into a rabbi and conducts a wedding and then a bris in her fanciful solo show, “A Life in Her Day.”
Jews in vaudeville (or variety) are not new. Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson, Fanny BrIce, Eddie Cantor and the Marx Brothers were the mega-stars in the genre’s heyday. Arguably, the Jewish vaudevillian has his roots in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, when badkhonim, Yiddish-speaking court jesters, routinely entertained at weddings.
What is striking is the large number of Jews still showing off their specialty acts. “America’s Got Talent” notwithstanding, the world of vaudeville is marginalized. Very few make it to the level of the famed clowns Bill Irwin and David Shiner or Penn & Teller.
Nonetheless, an oft-quoted figure holds that close to 30% of variety artists are Jews.
“Why are so many Jews in variety arts?’ Real Man asked. “We’re good at it. That’s why.”