Finding an Audience: Years of Invisibility

By Stuart Klawans

Published April 09, 2004, issue of April 09, 2004.
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As no less an authority than Krusty the Clown has told us, “Jew” is synonymous with “entertainment.” I would like to point out that when the first Jews reached Manhattan in 1654, arriving from Brazil as banana-peddlers, they brought with them not only their wares but also a comically paradoxical ditty that insisted, yes, they had no bananas — a claim that unfortunately baffled the dour and literal-minded Dutch. Undaunted, the wandering troupe invested its few escudos in some land near the Battery and laid out the basics of any Jewish community — cemetery, synagogue and playhouse — inaugurating the latter with a production of “Der Koenig Lear” in its Ladino version. This patently disastrous enterprise paid off, as gambles so often do in showbiz lore, when sovereignty over Manhattan passed to the theater-mad British. Then the stalls of the New Recife Rialto at last began to fill, the concession stand to empty (despite being stocked with stale banana bread) and the future to look as secure as it gets for the Jews, who soon were spending Shabbat afternoon on the nearby parade ground, taking clog-dancing lessons from a platoon of Irish conscripts.

I would like to point this out; but since none of it is true, I must apologize to Krusty, and all other upholders of stereotypes, and admit that for their first 250 years on this continent, Jews had almost no influence on entertainment.

From Charleston and Philadelphia to San Francisco, from the early 18th century to the end of Reconstruction, comic operas in the English style proliferated throughout America; Shakespearean productions multiplied (high and low, settled and barnstorming); minstrel shows and bawdy afterpieces sprang up in the backcountry, then gave way in the city to cleaned-up, middle-class vaudeville, and performers crossed the stage flaunting all the major ethnicities, from Irish and German to Italian and African-American (with the latter sometimes being portrayed by actual black people). Still, no Jews were to be seen or heard on the American stage, beyond the cluster of Yiddish theaters that began to form on the Bowery as the 19th century wore on.

The great names in American entertainment back then were Harrigan and Hart, Joseph Jefferson, Tony Pastor, Lillian Russell. In Europe, Jewish performers were already common, and sometimes scandalous (think of Rachel, or Sarah Bernhardt). But pore over the American cast lists and chronologies as you will, you won’t find any Jews worth mentioning until 1874, when the roster of vaudeville sketch-writers suddenly included one Sydney Rosenfeld — a “suspiciously Asiatic appellation,” as H.L. Mencken was later to snarl.

Born in Richmond, Va., shortly before the Civil War, Rosenfeld busied himself throughout the 1870s and ’80s as “a dramatic hack in large practice” (Mencken again): journalist, playwright, librettist, impresario and shameless pirate of Gilbert & Sullivan. As best I can tell, the only thing he did not do was put Jewish characters on the stage. Nobody at the time seems to have wanted any. When the Bowery-born vaudevillians Joe Weber and Lew Fields — Joseph Weber and Lewis Schanfield, that is — launched their act in these years, they pretended the dialect in their comic turns was Dutch. Even the stupendously successful Harrigan and Hart couldn’t put over a Jewish theme. When they presented “Mordecai Lyons” in 1882 — their musical play about a Jewish pawnbroker and his actress daughter — they suffered the first flop of their careers.

Jews must have been filtering into show business in some numbers by that point, or else it would have been wildly improbable for Harrigan and Hart to have made the daughter of Mordecai Lyons an actress. Even so, Jews began making their presence felt in entertainment only in the 1890s. It took until then for the Jewish population to reach critical mass in the cities, and for a few of their number to join in building the theater world’s infrastructure.

Of these developers, the most important by far turned out to be Oscar Hammerstein, a German immigrant who started in the cigar trade, moved on to Harlem real estate and then began to build and operate major theaters in midtown New York: the Manhattan Opera House in 1893 (not far from Rudolph Aronson’s Casino), and then the Olympia in 1895, which established Times Square as a theater district. Hammerstein would soon be joined by, and compete against, the Shubert brothers (Sam, Lee and J.J.), who in the early 1890s were still gathering strength in upstate New York.

Show-business infrastructure had a second component as well, which was as critical as bricks and mortar: the booking of performers into theaters, both in New York City and around the country. By the mid-1890s, Jews such as Charles Frohman, Abe Erlanger and Martin Beck were not only leaders in this field but innovators, establishing a rationalized and efficient touring circuit, and moving critics to complain that these unscrupulous sharpers were shutting everyone else out of business.

Despite these business developments, Jews remained almost invisible on the stage throughout the 1890s. True, a straight play called “Der Corner Grocer aus Avenue A” managed to move in early 1894 from the downtown Yiddish district to Aronson’s Casino, where it was transformed into the musical “About Town,” but there it flopped, as if to provide the clinching exception. Mainstream theatergoers had no hint of the growing presence of Jews in show business, except, perhaps, for the sudden vogue for “Asiatic” productions: “Aladdin, Jr.,” “The Tzigane,” “The Sphinx,” “Kismet.” Although decidedly non-Jewish in origin and owing a strong debt to the popularity of “The Mikado,” these shows nevertheless may have registered, at a distance, the bubbling up of talent from the Bowery and Second Avenue. Even “Madame Butterfly” (1900) might be seen as a slightly belated entry in this category, considering the layers of disguise that were characteristic of its Jewish stage author, David Belasco, who liked to go about Times Square in Catholic clerical garb.

The breakthrough for Jewish show business — if we may speak of a single event — came in May 1894, when Sydney Rosenfeld and George Lederer put on “The Passing Show” at Aronson’s Casino. Although it seems to have had as little explicit Jewish content as, say, the contemporaneous “The Algerian,” “The Passing Show” was immediately recognized as something sensationally new: the first American musical revue. As such, it represented an original Jewish contribution to American entertainment, and opened the way for the shows that Florenz Ziegfeld would soon concoct for the Klaw and Erlanger organization. Ziegfeld himself was not a Jew — but he did bring America its first semi-Jewish leading lady, Anna Held (presenting her in 1896 in “A Parlor Match”), and in his “Follies of 1910” he would introduce a thoroughly Jewish star, Fanny Brice, singing a number by the not-yet-famous Irving Berlin.

Brice, though, was only the second real Jewish star. The first was that runaway son of a rabbi, Ehrich Weiss. After being discovered by Martin Beck in 1899, Weiss — later known as Harry Houdini — toured from Chicago to San Francisco on the Orpheum circuit, did a reputation-building stint in Europe and then returned to America a famous man at the dawn of the 20th century. But Houdini proved to be both a beginning and an end; his gifts as an escape artist, though wonderfully symbolic for a Jew, were best suited to a form of show business that was already dying. The rising medium was film — and when Houdini was the rage, and Ziegfeld put on his first “Follies of 1907,” that industry was controlled by the highly gentile Edison Trust. Soon, though, in the hands of another set of upstart Jewish theater owners and booking agents — Laemmle, Zukor, Lasky, Fox, Mayer, Schenck — the movies would swallow all other forms of entertainment. The era of Jewish ubiquity had begun, when Charlie Chaplin himself would be seen as a member of the tribe.

The rest of the story happens in the blink of an eye: from the Little Tramp to Krusty, who is himself (as faithful fans of “The Simpsons” know) the runaway son of a rabbi. But then, as “Simpsons” fans also know, there is something ridiculously out-of-date about this tummeler, with his old-style mixture of borscht, venality and tears. The question is whether Krusty, too, is more of an end than a beginning.

As I write these words, the most powerful figures in American entertainment are probably the media moguls Rupert Murdoch, Sumner Redstone and Richard Parsons. That’s only one Jew out of three. The top musical artists are Beyoncé and Outkast. The biggest movie of the past year was made in New Zealand and stars Sir Ian McKellen and a lot of pixels. And the most critically influential movies of the moment? They’re from Iran, Japan, Taiwan, Korea.

To anyone who believes that Jews have always “dominated” American entertainment (whatever that means) and always will, I therefore will answer in the words of a great American Jewish song: It ain’t necessarily so.

This week is a special Passover double issue.

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