(b. 28 February 1898 in New York City; d. 5 April 1992 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania), greatest attraction of the Yiddish musical theater for more than sixty years, during the most cataclysmic period of Jewish history.
Picon, born Margaret Pyekoon on New York’s Lower East Side, was the first of two daughters of Clara Ostrow (later Ostrovsky), who had fled pogroms near Kiev, Ukraine, Russia, and Louis Pyekoon (later Picon), a needleworker who abandoned a wife and three children in Warsaw to emigrate to the United States, where he married Clara. Professing disappointment that his wife gave birth to only daughters, he abandoned his American family after the birth of Picon’s sister.
The Picons moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the turn of the century, and Clara got a job as wardrobe mistress at the Columbia Yiddish Theater. To supplement the family’s income, Clara encouraged her daughter, an eager performer who charmed audiences from the start, to sing on trolley cars. Picon’s stage debut was in 1903 as “Baby Margaret,” winning a children’s amateur night contest at the Bijou Theater. Although she attended the Northern Liberties School by day, Molly was a theatrical trouper by night, playing child parts in Yiddish productions and entertaining in nickelodeon theaters. When she was fourteen years old, she appeared in a Philadelphia stock presentation of George M. Cohan’s Broadway Jones. That was followed by a season barnstorming as Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her formal education ended in 1915 when she quit William Penn High School after her sophomore year. For the next sixty-five years she devoted herself to show business full-time.
In 1917 Molly joined Ted Riley’s vaudeville act, The Four Seasons. She toured with them for a year then was left stranded in Boston, where she reverted to the Yiddish theater by joining a musical comedy troupe managed by Polish-born Jacob Kalich, whom she married on 29 June 1919. During the course of their fifty-six year marriage, Kalich was his wife’s manager, producer, and frequently her director and librettist. Their relationship was an extraordinary welding of personal and professional lives. Picon’s only pregnancy ended at seven months in 1920 with the stillborn birth of a daughter. Severely depressed, Picon agreed to allow her husband to groom her for a Yiddish stage career by taking her on a two-year tour of the sources of Yiddish stage art in Eastern Europe. The trip combined a belated honeymoon with the opportunity for Picon to improve her Yiddish as she established a reputation as an actress, singer, and comedian in Paris, Łódź, Warsaw, Vienna, Prague, and Bucharest.
Back in the United States, Picon made her debut in New York on Second Avenue, on the Jewish Broadway, in her husband’s musical play Yonkele on 24 December 1923. The diminutive actress—five feet tall and barely 100 pounds— played an adolescent yeshiva boy. The audience adored her, and over the course of her career she repeated the role almost 3,000 times.
After her debut she starred for six seasons in a series of operettas written by Jacob Kalich and the famous composer Joseph Rumshinsky; Picon wrote the lyrics. By 1926 Kalich owned David Kessler’s Second Avenue Theater, where most of the productions were presented. Picon’s scintillating manner and gamin sprightliness—a novelty among Yiddish theater divas—made her the “Sweetheart of Second Avenue” in Tzipke, Shmendrick, Gypsy Girl, Molly Dolly, The Little Devil, Marmale (Little Mother), Raizele, Oy Is Dus a Madel (You’re Some Girli), and The Circus Girl. Audiences were thrilled to see her because they never knew what to expect of the multitalented woman. She played eight instruments, sang in a dozen languages, toe-danced, performed acrobatic feats, walked a tightrope, did sleight-of-hand, rode a horse, and roller-skated. Her style, which owed as much to American showbiz as to Jewish folk theater, revolutionized the tastes of American Jewish audiences and in turn greatly influenced American mainstream theater.
After the Wall Street crash, the Kalichs lost all of their money and the lease on their theater, so Molly welcomed the opportunity for the next three years to play the major American vaudeville circuits. She and her husband also toured Europe, Palestine, South Africa, and South America. By 1940 they had been traveling 30,000 to 50,000 miles in a season, interspersing the performing jaunts with long runs in the Jewish theaters of New York.
In the early 1930s Picon experimented with various performance venues, reaching out to both English- and Yiddish-speaking audiences. Her first American musical,Birdie, directed by Monty Woolley, closed in Brooklyn in 1933 before its Broadway opening. She made her radio debut in 1934 on WMCA doing five programs a week. She and her husband, broadcasting in both Yiddish and English, were popular radio attractions into the 1960s. Picon made her film debut in European productions. The Austrian Yiddish films Judenmadel (1921) and Hütet Eure Tochter (1922) have not survived. Another Viennese production, Goldin and Kalich’s Ost und West (East and West, 1923), has become the oldest surviving Yiddish film. Her first American film was A Little Girl with Big Ideas (1929). Picon became a motion picture star with the release of two feature-length Yiddish musical films made in Poland and produced by American promoters: Yidl Mit’n Fidi (Yidl with a Fiddle, 1936) and Marnale (Little Mother, 1938), based on her husband’s stage production. These films were made on the eve of the destruction of European Jewry; they document a vanished world. Most of the actors, as well as the dozens of shabby, poverty-stricken Jews who appear as extras in the films, were murdered by the Nazis.
Picon, the star of thirty-five downtown musical shows, made her Broadway debut in an English-speaking part on 16 April 1940 in Morning Star, which closed after eight weeks, even though the New York Times critic called Picon “darling” in the role. Oy Is Dus A Leben (Oh What a Life, 1942), written in both Yiddish and English and directed by Jacob Kalich, did much better; it ran for 139 performances at the Molly Picon Theater on Seventh Avenue and Fiftyninth Street. It retold Picon’s life from the time she was a child actress until she became a Yiddish theater star.
During World War II, Molly gave many performances in army camps, seamen’s canteens, and military hospitals. At this time she and her husband adopted the first of their four foster children, a Belgian Jewish war orphan. After the war the Hebrew Actors Union and the American Jewish Labor Committee wrote the State Department requesting permission to send Molly Picon and Jacob Kalich to entertain Jews who had survived Nazi persecution. In 1946 the Kalichs spent five months in Europe; they were among the first performers to comfort the remnants of European Jewry in displaced-persons camps.
After the stresses of wartime tours, as well as thirty years of ceaseless trouping, the Kalichs bought a country home in 1947 in Mahopac, New York. It became their oasis, “Chez Shmendrick.” In 1949 Molly had one of her biggest successes in Kalich and Rumshinsky’s musical Abi Gezunt (As Long as You’re Healthy). It was not until 1961 that Molly achieved Broadway success in Jerry Herman’s first musical, Milk and Money.
Molly made her first appearance on American television in 1949 as hostess of the Molly Picon Show, a variety series on ABC. Highlights of her later television work were playing Jerry Lewis’s mother in a remake of The Jazz Singer(1959), a recurring role on Car 54, Where Are You (1961–1963), and appearances on Dr. Kildare and Gomer Pyle.
During the 1950s and 1960s Picon and Kalich kept Yiddish theater alive when the audience was disappearing and the theaters were being demolished. Between arduous United Service Organizations (USO) tours of Korea and Japan, bond rallies for the State of Israel, and new plays written for her by her husband— Sadie Is a Lady (1950), Mazel Tov, Molly (1950), Farblondjete Honeymoon (Snafued Honeymoon, 1955), Kosher Widow (1959)—Molly began to play nightclubs, hotels, college auditoriums, and the “straw-hat circuit.” The concerts, one-woman shows, and autobiographical revues, performed into the 1980s, introduced her to young people whose great-grandparents had applauded her.
As opportunities to perform in Yiddish productions waned, Molly was featured in films: Frank Sinatra’s mother in Come Blow Your Horn (1963)—for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress— Yente the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof (1971), and a madam in For Pete’s Sake (1974), which starred Barbra Streisand. In her last two films, Cannonball Run (1981) and Cannonball Run II (1984), Molly played Mrs. Goldfarb.
Jacob Kalich died on 16 March 1975; soon thereafter Molly sold Chez and rented a house in Cortland, New York. She later moved to Manhattan to live with her sister, also a widow. In 1975 Picon was honored at the Hundredth Anniversary of the Yiddish Theater at the Museum of the City of New York. Restaurateur Abe Lebewohl built an addition to his fabled New York City eatery, the Second Avenue Deli, in 1980, naming the room in honor of the actress and filling it with Picon memorabilia. In 1981 she was elected to Broadway’s Theater Hall of Fame and in 1985 was one of the first three Yiddish theater stars to receive a “Goldie”—named for Abraham Goldfaden, the father of Yiddish theater—awarded by the Congress of Jewish Culture.
Picon suffered from Alzheimer’s disease during the last few years of her life and died at her sister’s home. She was buried alongside her beloved husband in Mt. Hebron Cemetery in Flushing in the borough of Queens, New York, in a section known as the Hebrew Actors’ Cemetery, maintained by the Society of the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance.
Beyond the entertainment value of Molly Picon’s performances, she played an important role in preserving Yiddish language and culture and introducing them to mainstream American audiences. The revitalization of Yid-dishkeit, a late twentieth-century phenomenon, owes much to her indefatigable efforts.
During their lifetimes, Picon and Kalich donated a tremendous amount of material related to their careers to the American Jewish Historical Society and the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO), both of which are located in the new Center for American Jewish History in Manhattan. The Museum of the City of New York has, in its theater archives, a modest collection of clippings, posters, programs, and correspondence but also fifty of her costumes, warehoused in New Jersey for museum exhibitions. The New York Public Theatre Research Division has clipping files and scrapbooks.
Picon kept diaries and drew upon them for two autobiographies: So Laugh a Little (1962), as told to Eth Clifford Rosenberg, and Molly!: An Autobiography, written with Jean Bergantini Grillo (1980). The first is an amusing if unreliable resource; the other is indispensable but with occasional lapses in accuracy.
Sidney Skolsky, Times Square Tintypes (1930), a collection of snappy celebrity sketches, includes a gossipy one about the “ghetto girl.” Lila Perl, Molly Picon: A Gift of Laughter (1990), is written for children. Joann Green’s essay about Picon in Jewish Women In America: An Historical Encyclopedia, vol. 2 (1998), includes information not available elsewhere. Carolyn Starman Hessel, ed., Blessed Is the Daughter (1999), a book for young adults, contains a perceptive essay about Picon.
Quite unlike anything else written about Molly Picon is Sandra Shipow, “Depression-era trends in popular culture as reflected in the Yiddish theatre career of Molly Picon,” Theatre Studies: The Journal of the Ohio State University Theatre Research Institute 30 (1983–1984): 43-55. The clever, if startling, insights about Picon’s appeal to Depression-era audiences are memorable. An obituary is in the New York Times (7 Apr. 1992).
Honora Raphael Weinstein