Another running Facebook feature I just finished was an impromptu "Hollywood Jews Celebrate Christmas" tribute where, for three weeks, I paid homage to Jews seen enjoying the goyishe festivities. A few people asked me to include those entries (including today's addendum honoring Jack Klugman who died yesterday on Christmas Eve) in one place so that non-Facebook folks could read them, so why not here?
12/3/12: Being a Jew in Hollywood, I'm kicking off my "Hollywood Jews Celebrate Christmas" series. First up: Nice Jewish girl, Betty Joan Perske, daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Romania. You may know her as Lauren Bacall. Here is beautiful Betty with hubby Humphrey Bogart and their son Stephen who grew up to look an awful lot like dad and seems like a really cool guy. Sadly, Stephen was only 8 when his father died of cancer. 88-year-old Bacall is still with us, of course. Wonder if she's busy putting up a tree or grating potatoes for her latkes? Betty made her first movie, the wonderful "To Have and Have Not," 67 years ago. And she's still going. Her most recent movie, "The Forger," came out this summer.
12/4/12: Next up in my "Hollywood Jews Celebrate Christmas" tribute is Pauline Levy aka Paulette Goddard. Okay, only her dad was Jewish and they were estranged most of her life but hey, that would've been enough for Hitler. Paulette also gets special mention because she played Miriam Aarons, the only Jewish character in the brilliant 1939 film, "The Women." She's so great in that film and is often overlooked. Goddard came close to getting the part of Scarlett O'Hara that year which would have changed her career in a big way but she made a lot of good films and was nominated for an Oscar in 1943 for "So Proudly We Hail." In some ways she's more famous today for her husbands: Charlie Chaplin (they were together six years but there's debate about their actual marital status), Burgess Meredith, and Erich Maria Remarque. This isn't the best photo of the stunningly beautiful Goddard. Remember the great fight scene in "The Women" when Rosalind Russell chomps down on her leg?
12/5/12: Today in "Hollywood Jews Celebrate Christmas," we honor Eddie Fisher, whose Russian-Jewish immigrant mother Gitte (later Katie) probably wept every time her son came out with a new Christmas album. Or maybe she was too busy kvetching about his first three wives, Hollywood shiksas Debbie Reynolds, Elizabeth Taylor, and Connie Stevens. At least Taylor had already converted to Judaism (Elizabeth's prior husband, Mike Todd, was Jewish but she later claimed she converted only because she was drawn to Judaism). I think people today forget how insanely famous Eddie Fisher was back in the day. He was a massively popular singer but made some really dumb mistakes in his career. And, of course, his incessant womanizing and the Great Scandal of leaving sweet Debbie for sultry Liz didn't help his reputation much. As an actor, he was no great shakes. All four of his kids (two with Debbie, two with Connie) went into showbiz including the brilliant Carrie Fisher who once said in her stage performance that she wanted to have her DNA fumigated. But I think they were close again by the time Eddie died in 2010. Despite the fact that he should have been home spinning dreidels, Fisher was a fixture at Christmas time. There was even a hit 1954 song recorded by Betty Johnson called "I Want Eddie Fisher for Christmas." Oy.
12/6/12: Next on "Hollywood Jews Celebrate Christmas" is Brooklyn-boy David Daniel Kaminsky aka the brilliant Danny Kaye. Of course Kaye starred in one of the most beloved holiday movies of all time, "White Christmas," with Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen (screening tonight at the Academy's outdoor theater in Hollywood, complete with fake snow and Kaye's daughter Dena in attendance!). Danny's parents were Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. His marriage to nice (and talented) Jewish girl Sylvia Fine lasted from 1940 until his death in 1987 although they were were separated for a chunk of that and Kaye dated a bunch of women (including Eve Arden). There are also persistent rumors about him and Laurence Olivier but those are denied by most people who knew them. Apart from "White Christmas," I mostly remember Danny Kaye from "Hans Christian Anderson" ("Inchworm...inchworm...") and from his wonderful TV series that I watched religiously when I was very young. Joyce Van Patten and Harvey Korman were regulars on that show. I remember when our neighbor June Kaiser wrote to him as a kid, he wrote her back a long letter by hand. She still treasures it. There's a famous story of Jewish studio head Sam Goldwyn ordering Kaye to get a nose job in the 1940s because he "looked too Jewish." Danny refused but did agree to dye his hair red (as if many Jews, including my entire family, didn't have red hair!) which became something of a trademark for him. By all accounts, Danny Kaye was a real mensch.
12/7/12: Closing out the week in "Hollywood Jews Celebrate Christmas," we honor Sonia Hurwitz, better known as ventriloquist and puppeteer Shari Lewis. Oh, what a crush I had on Shari Lewis as a kid. She sort of looked like my mom (cough--issues?) and was just so sweet. She channeled all of her neuroses through her main sock puppet, Lamb Chop. It's not even like Lewis was the most skilled ventriloquist--her lips totally moved, but it didn't matter, I believed Lamb Chop was real! I spent my whole childhood thinking the puppet was a boy and it was relatively recently when someone convinced me Lamp Chop was actually female. Oy. Lamb Chop may be the only puppet allowed to speak before Congress--in 1993 when Lewis was testifying in favor of protections for children's television. By all accounts, Lamb Chop was one of the most impassioned, articulate speakers that day. Shari Lewis and her husband wrote an episode of the original "Star Trek" that she had hoped to star in but some other actress got the role. She did several Christmas specials but also a Hanukkah show and she wrote some Jewish-themed books toward the end of her life. Sadly, she died at 65 (the same age as my mom!) in 1998.
12/10/12: Because of my interview earlier today (I had just come from interviewing Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen for MSN Movies), I don't need to tell you who's opening this week's "Hollywood Jews Celebrate Christmas" tribute. Just color me BARBRA! For a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, Babs has come out with at least three Christmas albums! I have fond childhood memories of the first one, released in 1967 and which has gone platinum five times over. I love her rendition of "Jingle Bells" in which she inserted mention of Fannie Brice. This is a classic and it's not limited to the secular tunes. No one can match Streisand's "Ave Maria" in my book. She also knocks "The Lord's Prayer" out of the ballpark, if that's not too odd to say. Oy, wonder what Barbra's mother thought of it! Crazy that it's been 45 years since this album came out and yet she's still going strong. Go, Barbra!
12/11/12: Today in "Hollywood Jews Celebrate Christmas," we salute Benjamin Kubelsky, born in Chicago to Polish-Jewish immigrants in 1894. You may know him better as Jack Benny. The violin-playing Benny entertained the troops during World War I, started touring in vaudeville, and met a Jewish girl named Sadie Marks at Zeppo Marx's Passover seder. He married the girl who then changed her name to the shiksa-sounding Mary Livingstone. Jack Benny was a pioneer in both radio and TV. His movie career was more limited but he and Carole Lombard were brilliant as two actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw in Ernst Lubitsch's "To Be or Not To Be." This photo shows Benny as Santa Claus for longtime supporting player Dennis Day, Day's wife, and seven of their eventual ten children. I love Jack Benny and only have to think of his perfect delivery to make myself laugh. "Your money or your life!" (very long pause) "Well?!" "I'm thinking it over!"
12/12/12: Crazy day (just got back from the world premiere of "This Is 40," not for my job but in place of my sister and brother-in-law because Jeff has a song in the film--they couldn't come in for the premiere so Kendall and I went and snarfed down all the free food while trailing Albert Brooks all night) but I still have a few minutes to post today's entry in "Hollywood Jews Celebrate Christmas." It's lovely Dinah Shore, born Frances Rose Shore to Russian Jewish immigrants who settled in Tennessee of all places (hey, my Jewish grandmother was born in Kentucky because that's where HER Russian Jewish parents went!). Who doesn't love Dinah? I remember my mother playing her version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" when I was little and we used to watch various incarnations of her TV show. (Barbra Streisand made one of her first national TV appearances on Dinah's show!) In the 70s she was known for her relationship with Burt Reynolds, 20 years her junior (mercifully, the term "cougar" hadn't been coined yet!) but my favorite Dinah Shore memory is her appearance on "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" (which my mother- and father-in-law worked on) when Loretta Haggers (Mary Kay Place) appears on her show and unwittingly destroys her burgeoning country music career by saying that she was surprised the Jews who worked on Dinah's show were so nice considering the fact that they killed the Lord! I could go on but there are only a few minutes left to 12/12/12 so I'll end this tribute like Dinah ended all of her countless broadcasts. MWAH!!
12/13/12: Today's entry in "Hollywood Jews Celebrate Christmas" is TV legend Sid Caesar, still with us at the age of 90. His most famous series, "Your Show of Shows," was well before my time but I've seen many of the skits and with people like Imogene Coca (seen here), Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, and Neil Simon involved, it's no wonder this is one of the most beloved shows in TV history. Caesar was born in Yonkers to Russian Jewish immigrants. He worked in the family restaurant as a kid where he learned how to fake foreign languages and dialects, and started performing in the Catskills at a very young age. He made his first TV appearance in 1949 and "Your Show of Shows" began its four-year run in 1950. Caesar and Coca were the first to do elaborate take-offs of popular movies on their show and the comedy still holds up today (check out "From Here to Oblivion" if you can find it online!). Caesar was apparently a bit of a maniac behind the scenes. He inspired Carl Reiner's Alan Brady character on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" as well as the movie "My Favorite Year" and the Neil Simon play "Laughter on the 23rd Floor." Happy 5th Day of Hanukkah, Sid! You look good in that Santa suit!
12/14/12: Closing out Week 2 of "Hollywood Jews Celebrate Christmas" are (at least) two Jews we know and love, seen here at the Hollywood Canteen during Christmas 1943. That's Eddie Cantor as Santa Claus. Born Edward Israel Iskowitz in 1892 to Russian immigrants in New York, Eddie's mother died in childbirth when he was only one year old and his father died of pneumonia the following year. He was raised by his grandmother, Esther Kantrowitz. Eddie and his wife Ida had five daughters. He was a phenomenally successful singer and comedian, in saloons, vaudeville, and finally the Ziegfeld Follies, with later fame on radio, in films, and on TV. His musical hits include "Makin' Whoopee" and "If You Knew Susie," and he also did a lot of humanitarian work, especially with the March of Dimes. It was Eddie Cantor who introduced the song "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" in 1934. Considering what a superstar Cantor was back in the day, it's sad that he's nearly forgotten today. To the far left with her arms around a serviceman is two-time Oscar winner Shelley Winters, born Shirley Schrift in St. Louis to Austrian Jewish parents. Shelley started out as a blonde bombshell sex symbol, was good friends with young Marilyn Monroe, and had four marriages and all sorts of adventures which are deliciously detailed in her two autobiographies. Winters was an amazing actress who worked for years at Lee Strasberg's Actor's Studio. My favorite films of hers include "Lolita," "A Patch of Blue," "Alfie," "Next Stop, Greenwich Village," and of course, "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "The Poseidon Adventure." She also made plenty of stinkers, but even those were great fun such as "What's the Matter with Helen?" with Debbie Reynolds and "King of the Gypsies." The Oscar she won for playing Mrs. Van Daan is still on display at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.
12/17/12: Opening up Week 3 of "Hollywood Jews Celebrate Christmas" is the great George Burns, born Nathan Birnbaum in 1896 New York to Romanian-Jewish immigrants. His cantor father died when he was very young so he started working to help support his family. He entered showbiz at the age of 7 and had success in vaudeville, movies, radio, and TV. His beloved wife and partner, Gracie Allen (wonder how his family handled him marrying an Irish Catholic girl!) died in 1964 but George's career was resurrected when he was in his 80s. He toured extensively, played "God" in several movies, and constantly appeared on TV. He lived to be 100 years old and said toward the end that he looked forward to dying so he could be with Gracie. He had her Forest Lawn crypt marker changed to "Gracie Allen & George Burns—Together Again," saying that he wanted Gracie to have top billing! I went to Northwestern with Burns' niece, Alisa Birnbaum. Made a movie with her in filmmaking class. I remember her telling me early on that her uncle discovered Ann-Margret. It took a minute for me to realize she was talking about George Burns!
12/18/12: Today's entry in "Hollywood Jews Celebrate Christmas," Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor, is a little tricky. That the Gabor sisters were Jewish is not in question--their mother Jolie was the daughter of Jozef Tilleman, a Hungarian Jew, and his Austrian-Jewish wife Franceska. But the Gabors' life story was always, shall we say, fluid, and they didn't talk much about their Jewish heritage. Writer Cindy Adams, who helped Jolie with her memoirs, recalls asking her about the huge cross Eva was wearing at one of her weddings. "Eva's new husband hates Jews," Jolie told Adams, "so in this book you make us Catholic." Oy. With older sister Magda, gorgeous Zsa Zsa and Eva took L.A. by storm when they arrived from Hungary in the 1940s. They were among the first celebrities who were "famous for being famous," not unlike Zsa Zsa's relative by marriage, Paris Hilton. While far from the greatest actresses in town, everyone my age remembers Eva fondly from her stint as clueless but sweet Lisa Douglas on "Green Acres" and Zsa Zsa from her various movie and TV appearances (my favorite Zsa Zsa film was the classic "Picture Mommy Dead" with Don Ameche) not to mention Zsa Zsa's later problems with the Beverly Hills police. Eva had five husbands during her lifetime and Zsa Zsa nine, including Conrad Hilton (a character on "Mad Men" a few seasons ago), actor George Sanders, and her current husband, an alleged member of German royalty. Zsa Zsa is the only Gabor left, and at the age of 95, is not in good shape at all. Biz hundert un tsvantsik, Zsa Zsa! And Happy Hanukkah!
12/19/12: In a few hours my daughter Leah will be watching Scarlett Johansson as Maggie the Cat in the new Broadway version of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." In honor of that, we take a rare visit to the present for today's "Hollywood Jews Celebrate Christmas" tribute. Yes, despite the Danish surname, Scarlett is a bona fide Heeb. Her mother is an Ashkenazi Jew and Scarlett self-identifies as a member of the tribe. I always enjoy Johansson's work—I thought she was especially fun this year as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow in "The Avengers." Scarlett actually shot a movie in our house a few years ago when Christopher Nolan decked out our whole first floor as a London saloon in "The Prestige." Only a few minutes of the scenes filmed in our house made it to the final film but there's a nice shot of Johansson bounding down our stairs. Scarlett says she observed Shabbat growing up and even knows a smattering of Yiddish. No wonder Woody Allen loves her! So what's with the goyishe Santa outfit?
12/20/12: Just back from a screening of the crazy long but exquisite "Django Unchained" so I'm posting today's "Hollywood Jews Celebrate Christmas" tribute in the nick of time. After honoring Scarlett yesterday (Leah did talk to her after the show!), I thought I'd stay in the present just long enough to give two of her male contemporaries their due. Let's hear it for Jake Gyllenhaal and Jesse Eisenberg, two actors who received Oscar nominations while still in their 20s. Like yesterday's pick, you may be surprised that Jake is Jewish because of his last name, but despite the Swedish moniker, Jacob Benjamin was raised a good Jewish boy by his mother, screenwriter Naomi Foner (who got an Oscar nod herself for one of my favorite films, "Running on Empty"). I'm always happy to see Jake and his talented sister Maggie (Margaret Ruth) pop up in any film, they are one talented bunch. Jesse Eisenberg's Judaism is less of a surprise, of course. He's been turning in great performances for years but joined the A-list with his dead-on portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network." Remember when his little sister, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, was the famous one in the family? Now 32 and 29, Jake and Jesse are both involved in a lot of social causes and both of these successful mensches seem to be single at the moment. Anyone available for a shiddach?
12/21/12: Today's entry in "Hollywood Jews Celebrate Christmas" is nice Jewish girl Bea Arthur, aka Bernice Frankel. Why couldn't either of Arthur's iconic characters, Maude Findlay or Dorothy Zbornak, be Jewish? Arthur won a Tony Award for playing Vera Charles in the original "Mame" opposite Angela Lansbury but she also created the role of Yenta the Matchmaker in "Fiddler on the Roof" so at least she put in some time as a Jew on stage! Hard to believe she's been gone three years, it seems like yesterday we saw her very funny one-woman show. Did anyone have a better deadpan delivery than Bea Arthur? I remember going to a "Golden Girls" taping in the 80s with my mom and Estelle Getty kept messing up a line so they did this one scene over and over again. EVERY single time Arthur read her line, her delivery was so good I laughed hysterically as if I was hearing it for the first time. I wrote to Bea Arthur when I was a kid when she was doing "Maude" and she wrote back a nice handwritten letter. Does anyone do that anymore?
12/24/12: For the final entry in our "Hollywood Jews Celebrate Christmas" tribute, we pay homage to the observant Jew who may have had the biggest impact on the Christmas holiday (other than Jesus himself). I'm talking about Israel Beilin, better known as Irving Berlin, the Russian-born son of an orthodox cantor who penned one of the world's most beloved Christmas carols, "White Christmas." Bing Crosby's recording of this beautiful song (written by Berlin poolside at a resort in Arizona) is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling single of all time (more than 50 million). If you count all the recordings of the song, it's sold well over 100 million. "White Christmas," of course, has been covered by countless artists from Frank Sinatra and Perry Como to Elvis Presley and Twisted Sister to Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. Among Jewish singers, we have well known versions by Eddie Fisher, Steve & Eydie, Neil Diamond, Bette Midler, and Barbra Streisand, to name a few. Irving Berlin also wrote the popular Christmas tune, "Happy Holiday." I'm sure I don't need to elaborate on Berlin's other accomplishments. George Gershwin called him "the greatest songwriter who ever lived," and composer Jerome Kern said that "Irving Berlin has no PLACE in American music, he IS American music!" And that's it for this year. Merry Christmas, chaverim!
12/25/12: Special holiday addendum to my "Hollywood Jews Celebrate Christmas" tribute to honor Jack Klugman, a gifted, funny actor who died yesterday on Christmas Eve at the age of 90. He was born Jacob Joachim Klugman in Philadelphia, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. Klugman played Herbie in the original production of "Gypsy" on Broadway opposite Ethel Merman and was great in many other roles, from the wonderful "Days of Wine and Roses" with Lee Remick and Judy Garland's last film, "I Could Go On Singing," to his series "Quincy, M.E.," but my main memory of him, of course, is as Oscar Madison in the TV series "The Odd Couple" opposite Tony Randall, That show ran for five years in the 1970s and I don't think I missed an episode. Klugman's ex-wife on the show was played by his real-life wife Brett Somers, who was Kendall's godmother and a good friend of the family. They split during the run of the series but never divorced and were married for 54 years until Brett died in 2007. The last time I saw Klugman in person was at the memorial for Tony Randall in New York in 2004 and even though his voice was very affected by his recent throat cancer, he gave one of the funniest, most moving eulogies I've ever heard—everyone in the theater was crying. I like to think that Brett and Tony are with him right now—thrilled to see him but kvetching up a storm!
And that's it for this year. Oy, I'm sure I missed plenty of Jews who have no doubt seen a little tinsel in their lives. Maybe I'll do it again next year and include folks like the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Peter Lorre, Milton Berle, Phil Silvers, Luise Rainer, Kirk Douglas, Red Buttons, Don Rickles, Carl Reiner, Paul Newman, Jerry Lewis, Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers, Leonard Nimoy, Dyan Cannon, Woody Allen, Lesley Ann Warren, Andy Kaufman, Madeline Kahn, Goldie Hawn, Bob Dylan, Richard Dreyfuss, Billy Crystal, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Debra Winger, Mandy Patinkin, Carol Kane, Amy Irving, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Fierstein, Ally Sheedy, David Schwimmer, Sean Penn, Sarah Jessica Parker, Julianna Marguilies, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Natalie Portman. Until then, Chag Sameach, everyone!