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Yiddish Theatre

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The Papers of Molly Picon (1898-1992)

Descriptive Summary
Title: Papers of Molly Picon (1898-1992)
Dates: n.d., 1877-1971
Abstract: This collection comprises the papers of the Yiddish actress and entertainer Molly Picon. The papers consist of extensive manuscripts of Yiddish and non-Yiddish plays, numerous radio and television scripts, programs and announcements for Picon’s performances, and personal material such as correspondence and photographs. Also included is a large amount of musical material such as songbooks, handwritten lyrics, and sheet music, much of it in Yiddish.
Quantity: 49 Linear Feet
Identification: P-38

Biographical Note
An entertainer for over 70 years, Molly Picon was one of the most celebrated and beloved actresses of Yiddish theater and film. At once an all-American girl and a Yidishe meydel, her engaging performances earned her world-wide appeal.
Picon was born Margaret Pyekoon on February 28, 1898, on the Lower East Side of New York, the first of two daughters of Clara Ostrovsky and Louis Pyekoon (later Picon). After Louis left the family, Clara moved with her daughters and her mother to Philadelphia and supported them by working as a seamstress at Kessler’s Yiddish theater. At age five, Molly entered and won a local theater contest, and her career in the spotlight thus commenced. She continued performing while growing up, appearing both in Michael Thomashefsky’s Yiddish repertory troupe at the Arch Street Theater and in cabaret.

In 1918 Picon joined a touring English-language vaudeville show. The tour led her to Boston in 1919, where she was cast in a production by the manager of the Boston Grand Opera House, Jacob Kalich. Picon and Kalich married on June 29 of that same year in Philadelphia. In keeping with the theme of their relationship, Picon wore a dress fashioned by her mother from a theater curtain, and thus draped in drapery, Picon began a lifelong partnership with her Yonkel.

Picon and Kalich’s partnership proved to be an extremely productive and successful one. Following their wedding, they traveled through Europe for two years, allowing Picon to improve her Yiddish and gain experience. Forced to leave Romania because of anti-Semitism, Picon and Kalich returned to New York and proceeded to create some of the most memorable shows ever to appear on the Yiddish stage. While Kalich scripted and directed, Picon starred and often wrote lyrics. Picon and Kalich’s 1920s collaborations included “Yankele,” “Mamele,” “Circus Girl,” “Molly Dolly,” and “Shmendrik.” Her performances in these roles established Picon’s reputation as a leading actress of the Yiddish stage and propelled her to national stardom. Dangling by one leg or suspended by a pole, Picon displayed a seemingly boundless energy as she somersaulted, sparred, and swung her way through role after role, an acrobatic approach that gave her performances a distinctive physical edge. Attesting to her popularity on the Yiddish stage, during the 1920s the Second Avenue Theater in New York, one of the premier Yiddish theaters in America, was renamed the Molly Picon Theater.

In addition to her stage performances, Picon appeared in Yiddish films. Her first film was Das Judenmadel, filmed in Austria in 1921. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, despite growing anti-Semitism in Europe, Picon traveled there to star in several other Yiddish films, including Ost und West, also known as Mezrach un Maarev (1923). In 1937, in Warsaw, Poland, she filmed Idl Mitn Fidl, one of her best-known films. Picon returned to Poland even as late as 1938 to film Mamele--the last Jewish film made in Poland before the Nazis obliterated European Yiddish culture.

While Picon’s roots were in Yiddish theater and film, she demonstrated her versatility by taking on a wide variety of roles in many different venues, including radio, television, Hollywood films, and Broadway theater. For many years beginning in 1936, Picon hosted a regular radio program, known as the Maxwell House Coffee program for its sponsor. Picon’s Broadway debut came in 1940, and she was still somersaulting in 1964 in the Broadway production of Milk and Honey. In 1981, she was inducted into the Broadway Hall of Fame. Her 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).

Throughout her career, Picon devoted much of her time to patriotic and humanitarian work. During World War II, she visited refugee camps in Canada and toured army bases across the United States to entertain the troops. As soon as World War II ended, Picon returned with Kalich to Europe in order to visit camps and orphanages with the Jewish Labor Committee. In fact, Picon and Kalich were the first entertainers to visit the Displaced Persons camps after the war. Back in the United States, Picon continued her active support of both Jewish and non-Jewish causes by working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, selling Israel bonds, and making numerous benefit appearances. During the Korean War, Picon was again entertaining troops, this time participating in USO tours in Korea.

Whether delivering one of her uncanny imitations or kicking up her heels, Molly Picon infused her performances with vivacity and charm. Beyond the pure entertainment value of her performances, however, Picon played an important role in preserving Yiddish culture and bringing it to mainstream American audiences. Her performances typically blended Yiddish sensibility with American show business style, a combination that allowed her to reach beyond the immigrant generation and appeal to second-generation, assimilated American Jews as well as non-Jews. In addition, her Yiddish films, with their depictions of shtetl life in pre-World War II Europe, became invaluable records of a vanishing culture.

A celebrity throughout her life, Picon won widespread recognition for her talents and received many honors. In 1955 she sang for the Knesset in Israel, and in 1975 she appeared at Carnegie Hall. By the time of her death, on April 6, 1992, Molly Picon had performed all over the world, from the Lower East Side to Eastern Europe, South Africa to South America. She was truly a vibrant and treasured figure in the world of entertainment.

For more biographical information:

Molly Picon, star of Yiddish theater : Jewish Women's Archive

Molly Picon, All-American Maydl

American Jewish Yearbook, v. 94, 1994, p. 578.

Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Paula E. Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore, eds. Vol. 2, p.1064. Routledge: New York, London, 1997.

Picon, Molly, with Jean Bergantini Grillo. Molly!: An Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, c.1980.

Picon, Molly, as told to Eth Clifford Rosenberg. So Laugh a Little. New York: Messner, 1962.

Scope and Content Note
The Molly Picon Papers consist largely of material relating to Picon’s career as a performer, especially in the Yiddish theater. Such material includes plays, scripts, music, programs, and other theater items. The collection also includes personal material, such as correspondence, photographs, and scrapbooks. Much of the collection (e.g. Series I, II, III, and most of VI) is in Yiddish. Yiddish titles (of plays, scripts, and sheet music, for example) have been transliterated, and material is arranged according to these transliterated titles. As a rule, whenever possible, Yiddish transliterations were made directly from the Yiddish titles as written on the material itself and were made according to a consistent method, even when other transliterations were provided. Original order and folder titles were retained wherever possible.

The collection is comprised of eleven series:

Series I. Yiddish Manuscript Plays, n.d., 1877-1950
Series II. Yiddish Songs and Lyrics, n.d., 1907-1957
Series III. Yiddish Radio Scripts, n.d., 1946-1952
Series IV. Manuscript Plays, n.d., 1926-1969
Series V. Radio and Television Scripts, n.d., 1938-1971
Series VI. Songbooks and Sheet Music, n.d., 1897-1959
Series VII. Programs and Announcements, n.d., 1921-1971
Series VIII. Correspondence, n.d., 1917-1970
Series IX. Subject Files, n.d., 1915-1970
Series X. Photographs, n.d., 1920-1970
Series XI. Scrapbooks, 1919-1967

Access Restrictions
The collection is open to all researchers by permission of the Executive Director of the American Jewish Historical Society, except items that are restricted due to their fragility.

Use Restrictions
Information concerning the literary rights may be obtained from the Executive Director of the American Jewish Historical Society. Users must apply in writing for permission to quote, reproduce or otherwise publish manuscript materials found in this collection. For more information contact:
American Jewish Historical Society
Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street
New York, NY 10011

Related Material
Related materials are available at the YIVO Institute.

Contact :

American Jewish Historical Society
Center for Jewish History  http://www.ajhs.org 
15 West 16th Street
New York, NY 10011
Phone: (212) 294-6160
Fax: (212) 294-6161
Email: info@ajhs.org  

Web: http://www.cjh.org/academic/findingaids/AJHS/nhprc/MollyPiconf.html
© November 2001. American Jewish Historical Society at the Center for Jewish History . All rights reserved


Source: Center for Jewish History
Website: http://www.ajhs.org

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  • Molly Picon (1898-1992)

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