Stars of Vaudeville #71: Fanny Brice

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

A pox upon me for a clumsy lout. Yesterday was Fanny Brice’s birthday and I completely forgot to do her blog post. Well here she is, better late than nevah.

Best known today via Barbara Streisand’s portrayal of her in the musical films Funny Girl and Funny Lady, Brice was actually rather unlike Streisand in appearance. Tall and gangly like Olive Oyl, with two bright crescent-shaped eyes on either side of her parrot-like nose, Brice was always using this mug for low comedy effect, crossing her eyes, and so forth. She usually spoke with a Yiddish accent for laughs, although she didn’t actually speak that way herself. Brice made her fame parodying the sort of women she wasn’t (cinematic vamps and high-class society dames with English accents), thereby allowing the audience to laugh at them and her at the same time. She also became very well known for singing sentimental character songs crafted around the names “Sadie” and “Rose”.

Born Fanny Borach in 1891, her parents ran a saloon in Newark where Fanny sang and danced as a child. Her father was a drunk from Alsace. Her mother, who wore the pants in the family, was from Hungary. The mother ran the saloon, but the father drank the profits. So they moved to Brooklyn, where the mother sold real estate, which you couldn’t drink, at least.

At age 14, Fanny won an amateur contest at a Brooklyn theatre when she sang “When You Know You’re Not Forgotten by the Girl You Can’t Forget.” She took the name “Brice” from a  neighbor. She got a job early in the chorus of a Cohan musical starring Victor Moore The Talk of New York (1907) but was fired for joking around during rehearsal.

Hired by the Columbia Burlesque Wheel, she commissioned two songs from the then unknown Irving Berlin. One of them was “Sadie Salome, Go Home”. She was a hit in The College Girls in 1910. She performed in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1910and 1911. Like Jimmy Durante, she was one of the few to make it big in show business PRIOR to working in vaudeville. When she worked in vaudeville it was strictly prestige dates such as Hammerstein’s Victoria and the Palace. A number of Shubert musicals followed, such as The Whirl of Society (1912) and The Honeymoon Express. In the years 1916-23, she returned to the Follies. In the late 20s, it was back to vaudeville.

Her one shot at a real starring role in a talkie, the 1927 vehicle My Man (based on her theme song) was not a real hit. As Joe Smith of Smith & Dale said, “She was a very funny girl, but a good actress for only about fifteen minutes.” The truth was, she couldn’t act—she mugged too hard, and played her roles from too great a distance. You can see it in the 1936 film The Great Ziegfeld: in her big dramatic scene, in which she plays herself, she is definitely weeping tears of glycerine.

Brice divorced her husband, jailed gangster Nick Arnstein in 1927 and married impresario Billy Rose in 1929. A number of Rose vehicles followed, such as Sweet and Low (1930), and Billy Rose’s Crazy Quilt (1931), with Phil Baker and Ted Healy. She did a Ziegfeld Follies in 1934, where she introduced her popular character Baby Snooks. In 1936 she separated from Billy Rose. Illness (spinal neuritis) and divorce caused her early retirement from the stage. She moved out to L.A. where she starred as Baby Snooks on radio, and took bit parts in movies for the remainder of her career. She died in 1951 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

The 1939 film Rose of Washington Square is supposedly based on Brice’s relationship with Arnstein. Unfortunately, it stars Alice Faye and Tyrone Power, which is sort of like casting mayonnaise and white bread in a story about mustard and pumpernickel. Lacking any hint of humor or spice, the film also makes the traditional Hollywood mistake of featuring 1939 music and fashions in a story set twenty years earlier. Funny Girl (1968) gets it better, but somehow seems to be more about its star Barbara Streisand than about Brice. The film focuses on Brice’s problematic relationship with Arnstein (Omar Sharif), who comes off in the movie – unaccountably – as a saint. the 1975 sequel Funny Lady is about Brice’s rocky marriage to Rose. Brice herself managed to make a cameo from beyond the grave in the 1983 Woody Allen film Zelig, thanks to Modern Movie Magic.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


17 Responses to “Stars of Vaudeville #71: Fanny Brice”

  1. […] show The Whirl of Society he officially starred for the first time. In Hangman Express (1913) with Fanny Brice and Harry Fox, he got down on one knee for the first time. He later claimed that it was an […]

  2. […] special material just to hear it come out of her mouth. She had much in common with her friend Fanny Brice. As with Brice, Lillie’s energy and character seemed focused on mockery of the role of the women […]

  3. […] Irene Franklin, Pat Rooney, Frank Tinny, George M. Cohan, Sarah Bernhardt, Nazimova, Bert Williams, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers—effectively half the people in these […]

  4. […] first came in 1909, with “My Wife’s Gone to the Country”. Also that year, the equally unknown Fanny Brice commissioned him to write “Sadie Salome, Go Home.” For Polly Moran he wrote “Yiddle on the […]

  5. […] Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice had been discovered working the burlesque wheels. Fans of Funny Girl know this story by heart. She […]

  6. […] Time agent named Frank Bohm who straightaway got her cast in the Ziegfeld show A Winsome Widow with Fanny Brice, the Dolly Sisters, and Leon Errol. She left the show after just 5 days, apparently because Bohm […]

  7. […] away their time demonstrating their talents. Berle did his Eddie Cantor impression. Kennedy did a Fanny Brice impression. Together, they did the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene. The act was very successful. […]

  8. […] Though almost forgotten today, there was no bigger star than Eddie Cantor in his heyday. He conquered more media than even Hope, Rogers or Benny: vaudeville, Broadway revues and book musicals, films, radio, tv and – because he was much a singer as he was a comedian – record albums. He was the first openly Jewish male entertainer to mainstream (his characters were always Jewish or “Russian” — a euphemism). The first entertainer of either gender to do it was Fanny Brice. […]

  9. […] A Tasket.’ She’d play me those Time-Life cassettes of old radio shows like Baby Snooks with Fanny Brice. We’d watch old MGM musicals on tv, and she’d tell me everything about the shows and about the […]

  10. […] Booked for a show with Manchester and Hill’s burlesque wheel (where she met life long friend Fanny Brice), she was so bad in rehearsal that dismissal seemed imminent. However, she managed to bring down […]

  11. […] the mere mention of the name conjured up a personality: Nora Bayes, Eva Tanguay, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Beatrice Lillie…to name just a few. Henceforth, it was to become an industry where a pretty girl […]

  12. […] folksy turn of expression and his Western accent were alien things, just as nutty in their way as Fanny Brice’s Yiddishisms. When he perceived that this was to his advantage, Rogers relaxed some and played […]

  13. […] and The Golf Specialist. In the Follies he became good friends with Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor and Fanny Bryce, often taking them for picnics and cross country drives in his convertible, which he drove at top […]

  14. […] State Theatre. “Baby” Gumm was by now the star of the act and was doing solo numbers and a Fanny Brice impression by this point. The act played all over the west, did shots on radio and Vitaphone […]

  15. […] Irene Franklin, Pat Rooney, Frank Tinny, George M. Cohan, Sarah Bernhardt, Nazimova, Bert Williams, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, etc […]

  16. […] — Anita Loos wrote that she based the character of Lorelei Lee on Clarke). She married Fanny Brice’s brother Lew in 1928. Fanny got Billy Rose to write an act for the couple, which they performed in […]

  17. […] and was picked up by an agent. She began touring vaudeville with a repertoire that included Fanny Brice, Mae West, and many others, but it was the Kane impression that brought her to Max […]

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