Reprinted with permission from “Chapters in American Jewish History,” published by the American Jewish Historical Society.
“She is tiny–like her people,” remarked Louis Nizer in a 1943 tribute to Molly Picon, superstar of Yiddish stage and film. Her small stature notwithstanding, Picon’s impact on Yiddish culture worldwide was enormous.
Long before Mary Martin starred in Peter Pan on Broadway or Barbra Streisand played Yentl in Hollywood, Molly Picon used her gamin-like appearance and acrobatic skills to play, in the words of historian Joann Green, “adorable young waif[s], often a motherless boy who, with naïve gumption, a charming display of tears, laughter, somersaults, splits, songs, cartwheels and musical instruments, accompanied by an occasional farm animal and good luck, managed to make it in the adult world.”
Actress From a Young Age
Picon’s own childhood on the Lower East Side of New York parallels that of the characters she played. Her father left home when Molly’s younger sister Helen was born. Her mother Clara moved the girls to Philadelphia, where she supported them and her own mother by working as a seamstress at Kessler’s Yiddish theater. At age five, Molly won a $5 first prize at a local theater contest and the appreciative audience spontaneously threw additional money on the stage.
“Molly Picon” by Ruth Light Braun, 1929.
Image courtesy Hirschl & Adler Galleries
Picon spent her adolescence as a member of a troupe that performed Yiddish cabaret and vaudeville at Philadelphia’s Arch St. Theater. In 1919, she met Jacob Kalich, manager of the Boston Grand Opera House and the couple married that same year. Molly wore a dress fashioned by her mother from a theater curtain.
Picon and Kalich’s partnership created some of the most memorable shows ever to appear on the Yiddish stage, with Kalich scripting and directing and Picon starring. Their 1920s collaborations included Yankele, Mamele, Circus Girl, and Molly Dolly. During this period, Molly created the character of the much-loved nincompoop, “Schmendrick.” Her athleticism, charm, good looks and humor made Picon an All-American maydl [girl], packing in both Yiddish and non-Yiddish speaking audiences. In the 1920s, the Second Avenue Theater in New York–the best known of all Yiddish theaters in America–was renamed the Molly Picon Theater in her honor.
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