Diminutive superstar of Yiddish stage and screen Molly Picon (b. New York City, February 28 or June 1, 1898; d. Lancaster, PA, April 5, 1992), over her course of eighty years as an entertainer, had an enormous impact on Jewish culture in Europe and Israel as well as in America. Until she was well into her forties, her typical persona was an adorable but streetwise waif of twelve, often dressed as a boy, capable of executing headstands, somersaults, cartwheels, and flying stunts while singing, dancing, and playing all sorts of musical instruments. Most of Picon’s vehicles were written, produced, and directed by her husband, Jacob Kalich, who sometimes performed as well.
She was born Małka (Margaret) Opiekun on New York’s Lower East Side; her father was a charming but feckless tradesman from Warsaw, and her mother, from Kiev, worked as a seamstress. When Molly’s younger sister Helen was born, her father left home. Her mother took the two girls and her own mother to Philadelphia and supported them all as a theatrical costumer. Molly was performing from the age of five, when she won five dollars at a talent contest (and collected two more dollars singing for the trolley passengers on the way there). She spent many nights of her youth and adolescence doing song-and-dance routines in theatres, and although she loved school, the exhaustion caught up with her and she left high school at sixteen.
A touring vaudeville troupe calling itself the Four Seasons took Molly Picon on the road in the part of “Winter.” During the height of the influenza epidemic, the troupe found itself in Boston where all the vaudeville houses had been shuttered for fear of contagion. Only the Boston Grand Opera House remained available. Its manager was Jacob Kalich – “Yonkel” –, a cultivated Polish immigrant who had quit rabbinical school for a career in the theatre; he and Molly fell in love. They were married in June 1919, she in a dress made by her mother from a stage curtain.
In 1920 Molly was delivered of a stillborn baby girl and was told she could never bear children. In post-World-War-II years, however, the couple more than satisfied their longing by foster-parenting four adolescent children in Europe and Israel.
Yonkel determined that they should go on tour to Europe, to absorb Yiddish culture and to improve Molly’s accent, which was less than authentic. In Vienna she made several films: her first, Das Judenmadel (The Jewish Girl 1921) is now lost; Ost und West (East and West 1923), in which Picon plays a feisty American kid (in boxing gloves) with no respect for old European ways, is the first Yiddish (though silent) film to have survived. The couple played in Kishnev, Lemberg, Jassy, Bucharest, London, and Paris, presenting Molly almost always as a cross-dressing tomboy. When they returned to New York in the later ’20s, they moved into the Second Avenue Theatre with Yonkele (“Little Yonkel”), Tzipke, Shmendrik (“Loser”), Gypsy Girl, Molly Dolly, Little Devil, Raizele, Oy is Dus A Madel (“What a Girl!”), and The Circus Girl. Business boomed and they bought a house in Mahopac, NY, which they dubbed “Chez Schmendrik.”
Kalich put all their money in the stock market and lost the better part of it in the 1929 crash, much to his wife’s distress. But an opportunity arose to buy the Second Avenue Theatre in 1930; he renamed it the Molly Picon Theatre and soon recouped all his losses.
Picon and Kalich returned to Europe in the late ’30s, just when anti-Semitism was on its dangerous rise, to make the musical Yidl Mit’n Fidl (1937) under Joseph Green in Warsaw. She was paid a record sum of $10,000 playing a twelve-year-old girl who dresses as a boy so that she can travel unmolested with a band of musicians. Mamele (1938), another musical Picon romp, was the last Jewish film to be made in Poland.
Picon made her Broadway debut in 1940 with sixty-three performances of Morning Star. For the critics, the novelty of her speaking in English obscured the novelty of her playing, for once, a matron. Two years later she introduced another first: Yiddish on Broadway in a musical with her own lyrics, Oy Is Dus a Leben!, which she considered her “biggest moral and financial success.” Even the theatre where it was showing, at 59th Street and Seventh Avenue, was named the Molly Picon Theatre for the duration of the run. She was bringing a new maturity and depth to her performances, which had an adverse effect upon her marriage, since Yonkel had always seen her – indeed depended upon her – as the spunky twelve-year-old gamine. They went through a brief separation, but came together again on better footing.
During the Second World War, Picon sang at refugee camps in Canada and on the USO circuit for the troops in training in the United States. As soon as the Germans surrendered, she and Kalich were on their way back to Poland, the very first entertainers to tour the Displaced Persons Camps. In 1954 they visited Israel, where she actually sang for the Knesset (Parliament) in Yiddish.
In 1961 she was back on Broadway turning cartwheels (at sixty-three) in Jerry Herman’s musical, Milk and Honey, and was nominated for the Best Actress Tony Award®. The next year Picon began to branch out into playing roles of different ethnicities; she was Mrs. Bronson on three episodes of television’s Car 54, Where Are You? and appeared in London in A Majority of One (1962). In her first English-language film, Come Blow Your Horn (1963), she played Frank Sinatra’s Italian mother, for which she earned an Oscar® nomination. In 1971 she played one of her best-remembered roles as Yente the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof.
Jacob Kalich became ill with cancer in 1972, and as Molly wrote in her autobiography, “I turned down every offer, and took a new role: Florence Nightingale.” His temporary recovery allowed her to star with Barbra Streisand in the 1974 film For Pete’s Sake, but her husband had a relapse and died in 1975. Kalich and Picon had together written over a hundred songs and skits over their long collaboration, including “The Radio Girl,” “The Jolly Orphan,” “Oy Is Das a Leben,” “Abi Gezunt,” “Sadie Is a Lady,” “Mazel Tov, Molly,” and “The Kosher Widow.”
Picon continued to tour sporadically with her one-woman show (Hello, Molly!) into her eighties until she was impeded, first by a mild case of Bell’s Palsy, then by worsening Alzheimer’s Disease. She died at age 93 and is buried in the Yiddish Theater section of the Mount Hebron Cemetery in Flushing, NY.
Picon was the recipient of many honors: a Creative Achievement Award of the Performing Arts from B’nai B’rith (1980); election to the Broadway Hall of Fame (1981); a “Goldie” for her lifetime achievements from the Congress of Jewish Culture (1985). She published two memoirs, So Laugh a Little (1962), a tribute to her mother and grandmother, and Molly! An Autobiography (1980). Lila Perl has written a short biography for young people, Molly Picon: a Gift of Laughter (1990).
In her introduction to Picon’s Autobiography, Helen Hayes recalled, “[Molly] said to me, ‘People have called me the Jewish Helen Hayes. I hope you don’t mind.’ To which I replied, ‘Not if they’ll allow me to be the shiksa Molly Picon.'”