This Day in Jewish History

1898: Birthday of Legendary Yiddish Performer Molly Picon

New York-born actress appeared in some 200 productions written by husband Jacob Kalich in the 1920s, later starring opposite Topol in 'Fiddler on the Roof.'

Wikimedia Commons

June 1, 1898, is one of two birthdays that were claimed by Molly Picon, the beloved performer best known for her work in Yiddish theater, whose career spanned more than eight decades. (One version says that her actual date of birth was February 28, and that her grandmother invented June 1 so that Molly could celebrate her birthday twice each year.)

Margaret Pyekoon was the daughter of Clara Ostrovsky and Louis Pyekoon, both immigrants to New York’s Lower East Side from what is today Ukraine. Clara was a wardrobe seamstress in the theater, and the little-present Louis a shirtmaker who had neglected to divorce his first wife before leaving for America. Molly later described her father as being “just ‘anti’: anticapitalist, antireligion, antilabor, and antigirls,” until he finally “faded out of our lives.”

At the age of 5, Molly competed in and won a talent show at a theater in Philadelphia, where the family had moved after her father’s departure. As a teenager, she gave up her studies at William Penn High School so she could perform with a Yiddish repertory troupe and help support the family – Clara and her mother, and Molly’s sister, Helen. The company switched between Yiddish and English, depending on the composition of their audience.

The decisive event in her life came in 1918, when Picon answered an ad in a newspaper in Boston, where she was on tour, from a writer and director named Jacob Kalich, who was seeking a flaam feierdig soubrettin (“lively ingenue”) for his company. She joined up with him professionally and, the following year, personally as well, when they were married in the back of a Philadelphia grocery store.

Picon and Kalich remained married until his death in 1975. They were unable to have children, although they adopted several, one of them a teenage boy from Belgium who had been orphaned during the Holocaust.

During the 1920s, after several years spent performing in Europe – where Picon was able to brush up on her Philadelphia-accented Yiddish – she featured in some 200 productions written and produced by Kalich, in New York’s Second Avenue Yiddish-theater district. Songs were often supplied by Joseph Rumshinsky, and by Picon herself.

Click here to get 'This Day in Jewish History' sent directly to your inbox

Picon’s first role in a film still extant was in the 1923 silent movie “East Meets West,” about an American girl who returns with her father to meet their relations in Galicia, Poland. Other early films included “Yiddle with the Fiddle” (1937), about a girl who dresses as a boy (a frequent gimmick in her work) in order to work as a klezmer musician, and “Mamale” (1938), the last Yiddish film made in Poland before the German occupation. In that, the 40-year-old Picon portrayed a 12-year-old girl.

Picon and Kalich performed before troops during World War II, in displaced-person camps in Europe in its aftermath, and later in the newborn State of Israel. The couple lived in rural Mahomac, New York, in a home they dubbed “Chez Schmendrick.”

Her success was not limited to the Yiddish language. Picon appeared on Broadway in the 1940 play “Morningstar” (the show was not a hit, but Brooks Atkinson, in The New York Times, wrote about her: “To coin a phrase, she is a darling”); the musical “Milk and Honey” (1961); in the film version of “Come Blow Your Horn” (with Frank Sinatra, 1963); and also as Yente in the 1971 film adaptation of “Fiddler on the Roof.” TV roles included recurring appearances in “Car 54, Where Are You?” and even an appearance on “Gomer Pyle, USMC.”

Picon’s final screen appearances were in the movies “The Cannonball Run” and its sequel “Cannonball Run II,” in 1981 and 1984. She died on April 6, 1992, at the age of 93 (or 94).

Twitter: @davidbeegreen