|One of the greatest stars of Yiddish theater, Menasha Skulnik was also popular on radio (Uncle David on "The Goldbergs" for 19 years) and made many television and Broadway appearances as well.
Born in Warsaw, Menasha ran away to join a circus when he was ten. In Philadelphia in 1913, he joined a Yiddish stock company and began getting comic parts. It happened by accident. In one play he was supposed to stand up to his girlfriend's father -- but the man was so tall and he so short (5'4"), audiences laughed. Audiences laughed at his name too, but he said, "Menasha is my right name. Long before I ever heard of Menasha, Wisconsin, I was Menasha Skulnik. My name comes out of the Bible. The Old Testament hero Joseph not only had a coat of many colors but a son named Menasha."
Skulnik sounded funny, looked funny and acted funny. He knew exactly what he was in comedy:"I play a schlemiel, a dope. Sometimes they call me the Yiddish Charlie Chaplin and I don't like this. Chaplin's dope is a little bit of a wiseguy. He's got a little larceny in him. I am a pure schlemiel, with no string attached."
Called the "East Side's Chaplin" by the New York Evening Journal in 1935, making $2,000 a week in Yiddish theater by the 1940's, stars including Fred Allen and Ray Bolger would watch his miming and timing in Yiddish theater where about 40% of the show was in English. He had hits with "Just My Luck," "What a Guy" and "The Scotsman from Orchard Street," all accentuating the fumbling ways of the somewhat sad, shy little Skulnik.
Skulnik recorded 78 rpm novelty tunes -- using a high nasal voice and a lot of Yiddish -- a style later employed by Mickey Katz. The humor, as with Katz, was in the funny voice, the accent, and the idea of a Jew as anything but himself. "Cordova the Bronx Casanova" was first a joke at the idea of little Menasha as a lover, any double entendres strictly secondary: "I'm Cordova the Bronx Casanova. I am famous from Paris to Dover. When I make love I'm in demand. Each old maid wants to put her future in my hand...The girls all say I'm just their type, for every new romance I get a service stripe!" In real life he was married with two children.
Jackie Mason recalled, "Skulnik had a big Second Avenue following, but then times changed. The kids didn't want to know from him because he was too Jewish, so he played to half-empty houses. Just to the old people. Then he took a chance, and he came to Broadway....sudenly, after all those years, it became chic for audiences to watch Menasha Skulnik and he was a big hit."
The doleful little man with the sad face and shrugging shoulders won Broadway audiences with "The Flowering Peach" by Clifford Odets ("A masterpiece of acting" said Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times) and then "The Fifth Season." Wolcott Gibbs in The New Yorker raved over the "unique actor, with a sad, withdrawn, wistful quality that is apparently a special invention of his own."
Skulnik was a special talent, and though he chose to perform for 35 years in Yiddish theater in New York, and did most of his other fine work on Broadway, he remains unforgettable to those who saw him, and a legend for those who missed him.
In a Tenement House (1932), God Man and Devil (1935), The Perfect Fishel (1935), Laugh Night (1936), Schlemihl (1936), Yossel and His Wives (1937), The LIttle Tailor (1938), The Wise Fool (1938), Mazel Tov, Rabbi (1938), Three Men and a GIrl (1939), The Flowering Peach (1954), The Fifth Season (1953), The Zulu and the Zayda (1965)
Menasha the Magnificent (1950)
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