If there were a vaudeville today, Marilyn Michaels (Marilyn Sternberg, b. 1943) would be a star of it. It’s an odd thing: back in the day, many or most of the show biz impressionists were female, performers like Elsie Janis and Ina Claire. In the mid 20th century, however it became a male specialty, the domain of guys like Rich Little, Frank Gorshin, Fred Travalena, George Kirby, etc. On the 1972 variety series Kopykats, Michaels was the only woman, and indeed for decades she was thought of as THE woman impressionist, at least in the night club/tv variety circuit (which I contrast with the improv/Second City/ SNL folks, whose impressions are part of a broader arsenal). Michaels too, has a broader arsenal, but much like the vaudeville and music hall ladies she resembles, her other talent is as a singer, which is why I align her with the older tradition. I know her chiefly from variety and talk shows of the 1970s — her repertoire includes Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Joan Rivers, Dinah Shore, Julie Andrews, Lily Tomlin (as Ernestine), Dr. Ruth, Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, and the entire cast of The Wizard of Oz.
Michaels’ parents were showfolk. He father sang with the Metropolitan opera for almost 40 years; her mother was a cantoress and actress; her maternal uncle Moishe Oysher was also a cantor and singer. From childhood she performed with all three. She began cutting records when she was still a teenager, and began playing nightclubs in New York, Vegas and London. In 1965 she starred in the national tour of Funny Girl, and this is when she began appearing regularly on TV, on the variety and talk shows of Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, Dean Martin, Jonathan Winters, Joey Bishop, Johnny Carson, David Frost, Mike Douglas, Merv etc. While she’s done massive amounts of live theatre, her screen roles have been limited to The Love Boat and Fantasy Island (another way in which she resembles Fanny Brice, who was only in a couple of movies). Michaels also played Mae West in Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983, cut) and Blake Edwards’ Sunset (1988). In late 1991 she starred with Freddy Roman and others in Catskills on Broadway, which ran for over a year.
Coincidentally, when I was speaking to the Lambs Club last night, I learned that Ms. Michaels will be their guest speaker in a few days. Wanna tune in? Join the Lambs! Also, check out Marilyn Michaels’ official website here.