Great Poles in Show Business (Happy Hundredth, Poland!)

As we celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the end of World War One, some are also celebrating a particular outcome of the Armistice: Polish Independence. It’s, mm, a bit of a stretch I think, to celebrate a century of unbroken independence today, given that the nation was occupied by the Germans during World War Two, and then totally dominated by the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, which kind of cuts the years of true independence in half. But you can’t blame folks for trying to bolster the figure, given how seldom that country has actually been allowed to rule itself over the centuries , located as it is on prime Central European real estate betwixt the territorially aggressive nations of Germany and Russia. So let’s give ’em a pass.

I lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, America’s second largest Polish community, for eight years (the biggest is in Chicago, of course), eating their food, listening to their language, imbibing their culture (and their beer). And my sons are 1/16th Polish through their mom. So I’ve grown much more interested in this people than I otherwise might have been. Today I took a little tally of Polish and Polish -American entertainers and others we’ve profiled on Travalanche, and I thought I’d mark the day with this little round-up. A certain percentage of these are Polish-Jewish, of course, but not all. I love doing these little investigations, for it really sends home the impact various immigrant groups have had on American culture. Just click on the links to learn more!

Among old time dramatic actors, there were Helena Modjeska, Pola Negri, Theda Bara (half), and Armand Kaliz. Musical comedy star Anna Held came from Poland, as did Al Shaw (Albert Schutzman) of the team of Shaw and Lee, and comedian Lew Hearn. George Burns’ mother was from Poland, as were the families of Weber and Fields. Jack Benny’s real name last name was Kubelsky; his father was a Polish Jew (a fact it is well worth remembering when watching his great comic performance in the stirring Lubitsch comedy To Be or Not to Be). Singer/actress Frances McCoy was actually Franya Popwski.  Polish dancers included La Napierkowska, There were many Polish magicians including, Arnold De Biere, Imro Fox, and Albini the Great (Abraham Laski). The legendary juggler Cinquevalli was Polish, as was the ventriloquist The Great Lester. In the sideshow world we have The Mighty Atom, and Lionel the Lion Faced Man. 

The movie producer Sam Goldwyn was born in Poland. Some more modern figures we’ve celebrated have include the Polish Prince Mr. Bobby Vinton, and Jerry Orbach (half Polish). Larry Gelbart’s parents came from Poland.

Some nods to Poles I haven’t yet written about but likely will: Roman Polanski (problematic but inevitable), Jerzy Grotowski (influential theatre artist, proponent of and apologist for the Poor Theatre) and Jerzy Kosinski (author of Being There). I’ll likely add to this as things occur to me.

While the Poles have gotten pretty beaten up by history, the soul of the nation is not stainless. Pre-World War Two Poland was conservative to a near-Fascist degree and the people at the time were plenty anti-semitic. At present they seem to be reverting to many of those ways, and that’s never to be excused. But this also happens to be true of America. Allow me to bad-mouth the governments of both nations simultaneously, even as I celebrate the great individual artists the countries have collaborated together in giving to the world. Happy birthday, Poland!