Picon, Molly (1898–1992)

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Picon, Molly (1898–1992)

Jewish-American actress, comedian, and singer. Born on June 1, 1898, in New York City; died on April 6, 1992, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; eldest of two daughters of Lewis Picon (worked in the needle business) and Clara (Ostrow) Picon (a seamstress); attended Northern Liberties School, Philadelphia; attended William Penn High School, Philadelphia, through her junior year; married Jacob Kalich (a theater manager), on July 29, 1919; no children.

One of the most beloved figures of the Yiddish theater, the diminutive Molly Picon was the featured attraction at New York's Second Avenue Theater during its heyday between the 1920s and the 1950s. Her appeal, however, was not limited to Jewish audiences, and through vaudeville, Broadway, national and world tours, and appearances on radio and television, Picon became an adored performer the world over.

She was born in 1898 in a tenement in New York City, but grew up in Philadelphia, where the family moved when she was three and where her mother Clara worked as a seamstress for a Yiddish stock company. Her father Lewis, a former rabbinical student, was employed in the needle trade, although it was Clara who earned the bulk of the family income. Little Molly launched her career at age five, singing at an amateur night for children at a local theater and winning a $5 gold piece. At six, she was playing juvenile roles for a Yiddish stock company, and by the time she was a teenager, she was earning $15 a week singing between films at the local nickelodeon. Despite her blooming childhood career, Picon somehow managed to slip in an education, completing three years of high school before yielding completely to the lure of the theater.

During 1918–19, Picon perfected her singing and comedic skills on the vaudeville circuit, traveling from coast to coast in an act called "The Four Seasons." She played Winter, she explains in her autobiography So Laugh a Little, because she could do a Russian dance, and because she was the only one who owned a Russian costume. In 1919, she was hired by actor-manager Jacob Kalich, who was heading up a Yiddish stock company at the Grand Opera House in Boston. The two fell in love and married before the year was out, after which Kalich set out to make his talented new bride a star. For a European tour in 1921, he wrote the first of 40 vehicles he would create for his wife over the years, the operetta Yankele, or "a Yiddish Peter Pan," as she called it, featuring Picon in the role of a small boy. European audiences, accustomed to heavy musical dramas, were captivated by the humorous musical production and by its talented half-pint star. Upon her return to the United States in 1923, Picon enjoyed another week-long run of Yankele at New York's Second Avenue Theater.

As it turned out, Picon's stay at the Second Avenue Theater stretched into seven years and included a string of starring vehicles written or adapted by Kalich, many featuring the juvenile characters that became Picon's trademark. Early productions included Tzipke (1924), Shmendrik (1924), Gypsy Girl (1925), Rabbi's Melody (1926), Little Devil (1926), Little Czar (1927), Raizele (1927), Mazel Broche (1928), and Hello Molly (1929). Although critics declared Picon enchanting, and frequently noted her skill as a mime, they often found her talent difficult to pin down. One noted her "superb use of voice, face, and hands," while another characterized her as having "the daintiness of a lady and the warmth of a street singer." In each production, Picon delighted her Yiddish following with something new, "walking a tightrope, tap dancing, doing a sleight-of-hand act, entering on a horse, playing a new musical instrument."

Picon would return to the Second Avenue Theater throughout her career, and in 1949, 25 years after her debut there, she appeared in Abi Gezunt ("So Long as You're Healthy"), which had the largest advance sale in the history of the Yiddish theater. It was followed by Saidie Is a Lady (1950) and Mazel Tov Molly (1950), a show based on Picon's life that was also written by her husband.

Picon's theater performances were interspersed with vaudeville and singing tours in the United States and abroad. In Europe, she performed in Yiddish, German, English, and French, depending on her audience. (As the guest of a tribe of Zulus in South Africa, Picon overcame the language barrier with an imitation of Charlie Chaplin.) It was not unusual for her to travel 35,000 to 50,000 miles a year; in 1931 alone, she performed in Berlin, Carlsbad, Bucharest, Vienna, and Paris, and in 1933, she was in Palestine, Poland, and Russia. During World War II, Picon toured the Army camps in the South in 1944 and 1945, and was one of the first entertainers to enter postwar Europe in an attempt to help lift the spirits of the surviving Jews. Picon performed in hospitals, orphanages, and displaced persons' camps, calling the experience difficult emotionally, but ultimately gratifying. "We heard people laugh who hadn't laughed in seven years," she said.

Picon appeared in her first English-speaking dramatic role on Broadway in 1940, performing the lead in Morning Star, an undistinguished drama in which she appeared to be the only

bright note. More successful were her later shows: For Heaven's Sake Mother, How to Be a Jewish Mother, The Front Page, Paris Is Out, Something Old, Something New, and Milk and Honey, which ran for two seasons in the early 1960s. Picon continued to perform well into her 80s; in 1979, she wrote and appeared in the revue Those Were the Days. Molly Picon died on April 6, 1992, age 94.


Current Biography 1951. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1951.

Current Biography 1992. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1992.

Picon, Molly, as told to Eth Clifford Rosenberg. So Laugh A Little. NY: Julian Messner, 1962.

Willis, John, ed. Theatre World 1991–1992. Vol. 48. NY: Theatre Book, 1992.

Wilmeth, Don B., and Tice L. Miller, eds. Cambridge Guide to American Theatre. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts