“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.
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.
Picon made her first Yiddish film, Das Judenmadel, in Austria in 1921. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Picon remained committed to filming in Europe despite the rising tide of anti-Semitism there. Her films provide graphic documentation of authentic shtetl [Jewish village] life before the Nazis obliterated it.
In 1937, in Warsaw, she was paid the record sum of $10,000 to star in Joseph Green’s Idl Mit’n Fidl. In 1938, at age 40, she played a vivacious 12-year old girl in Mamele — the last Jewish film made in Poland. Surprisingly, D. W. Griffith, director of the monumental, though racist, Birth of a Nation, called Picon “the most interesting actress in America.” Griffith tried but failed to raise money to make a Yiddish movie in which Picon would have starred.
Picon showed her versatility by playing a wide variety of roles in radio, television, film, and theater. The 66-year-old Picon was still somersaulting on Broadway in 1964 — this time with sheep and goats — in Milk and Honey, a musical about Israel. Her best-known Hollywood film roles included the Italian mother in Come Blow Your Horn (1963), for which she received an Oscar nomination, and Yente, the matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof (1971).
Picon devoted herself to patriotic and humanitarian work. During World War II, she visited refugee camps in Canada and toured army bases across the U.S. to entertain the troops. Her appearances were especially meaningful to Jewish soldiers. A letter from a soldier found in her papers at the American Jewish Historical Society reads in part, “Above all the shows we’ve had, you were the tops, above all the movie stars and everyone else who have performed before us, we have chosen you as the best of them all. . . . And also we would like you to know, that you have been selected the number one pin-up of our Squadron.”
When World War II ended, Picon and Kalich were the first entertainers to visit the Displaced Persons camps so that, in Picon’s own words, the survivors “might feel like [men and] women again.” According to Green, “In one camp audience a three-year-old heard his first sounds of laughter.” Picon continued her active support of Jewish refugees by working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and selling Israel bonds.
Picon’s performances blended Yiddish culture with American show business, a combination that appealed to audiences beyond the immigrant generation. Even as the second generation Americanized, Picon provided them with a bridge to Yiddish culture. One non-Yiddish-speaking fan wrote, “I have never before been so moved by a thespian performance…. I’m sure I missed a lot [of the Yiddish]. I feel, however, that what I did understand was reward enough.”
Molly performed in one-woman shows until just a few years before her death in 1992. She was sometimes called the “Helen Hayes of Jewish theater.” After watching her perform, however, Ms. Hayes is reported to have said, “I would be proud to be called the Molly Picon of the American theater.”
Reprinted with permission from “Chapters in American Jewish History,” published by the American Jewish Historical Society.