May 14, 2003: Perspective

Kings of comedy, and other heroes of yesterday
Seinfeld fans learn how earlier stars changed American life

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Illustration: robert de michiell

Jenna Weissman Joselit, a visiting professor of American studies and Jewish studies, has written several books, including A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character, and the Promise of America (2001).

Once upon a time, Harry Von Tilzer, Irving Berlin, Sophie Tucker, Sid Caesar, Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, Billy Rose, Marcus Loew, and “Mr. Television” himself, Milton Berle, were the reigning kings and queens of American popular culture. The sons and daughters of Jewish immigrants or, in some instances, recent immigrants themselves, they changed the way Americans laughed, danced, and pursued pleasure. Impressing themselves on the nation’s collective imagination or, more to the point, perhaps, on that of its cultural critics, these American Jewish songwriters and singers, impresarios, entertainers, actors, and filmmakers moved from the margins to the very center of American life.

“The spectacle of Jolson’s vitality had the same quality as the impression I got from the New York skyline,” related Gilbert Seldes in his classic account of cultural criticism, The Seven Lively Arts (1924), referring to Al Jolson, the vaudevillian turned Hollywood star. “One had forgotten that there still existed in the world a force so boundless, an exaltation so high and that anyone could still storm Heaven with laughter and tears.”

Taking my cue from Seldes’s observation, I developed a course, Culture Mavens: American Jews and the Performing Arts, which introduces students of the 21st century to some of the larger-than-life but now-forgotten performers of the 20th. It traces the development of American popular culture, from vaudeville in the 1880s and 1890s to Hollywood of the 1920s; from the heyday of radio, that most democratic of public arts, to the emergence of television in the postwar era.

As a big fan of popular culture and a devotee of the performing arts, whose ups and downs I follow with the same degree of passion that others lavish on baseball, I developed Culture Mavens lest the cultural capital of the contemporary undergraduate be limited to Jerry Seinfeld and The Simpsons. How is it possible to come of age without knowing something about the Palace, Lasky’s Famous Players studio, Abie’s Irish Rose, or the so-called golden age of television? Context is everything, especially when it comes to pop culture.

As a historian of American daily life, I also am drawn to exploring those social forces, from Seventh Avenue to Hollywood, that profoundly affected the ways Americans went about their day-to-day lives. What better way, then, to get an immediate sense of how earlier generations of Americans experienced modernity than by listening to the music and radio programs they had listened to and watching the films and television programs they had watched? Through the prism of popular culture, teaching the course allows me to engage some of the big themes of modern America: acculturation, identity, marginality, and belonging.

Take marginality, for instance. One issue that has animated this year’s seminar concerned the wellsprings of creativity. In attempting to account for why American Jews were disproportionately represented among the packagers, producers, and consumers of popular culture, our class discussions often centered around the notion that there was something in traditional Jewish culture – a certain kind of expressiveness, say, or an attentiveness to this-worldly matters – that prepared its sons and daughters to respond with unparalleled vigor to the world of commercial amusements. At other moments, we were inclined to think that this phenomenon was largely the consequence of the Jews’ encounter with modernity, their openness to new and once frowned-upon forms of economic activity, and, above all, their collective determination to fit in and belong. Either way, our discussions helped us to figure out what was at stake in the process of becoming a modern American beguiled by Broadway and Hollywood: the retention and adaptation of tradition in the face of radical change.

In search of answers, we read a lot: memoirs, cultural criticism, New Yorker profiles, historical monographs, and melodramas such as Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot, produced in 1908. Several of my students, aspiring actors, took on the roles of the play’s culturally incompatible but lovestruck central characters, one a highborn, non-Jewish social reformer, the other a recently arrived Russian Jewish violinist. Popular with the “subway public” of the early 20th century, The Melting Pot not only humanized the plight of the immigrant torn between the Old World and the New, it also dramatized the possibilities of citizenship.

He: “Kiss me. Kiss me now.”

She: “I dare not. It will make you remember.”

He: “No, it will make me forget. Kiss me.”

Which, of course, she does, cementing the union between the couple and, in turn, that of the nation and its immigrants.

Poring over primary sources such as the Little Giant Joke Books of 1908 with their assortments of “Coon, Irish, Dutch, Stage, Hebrew, and Rube” jokes, and vaudeville-house playbills touting the virtues of “Cuban Contortionists,” “Negro Impersonators,” and the “Four Juggling Normans” – part of the university’s Rare Book and Special Collection’s holdings of vaudeville materials – students had a chance to explore popular culture’s embrace of ethnic stereotyping.

We listened to Sophie Tucker belt out her bawdy songs; eavesdropped on Molly Goldberg, that “balebuste [housewife] of the airwaves,” conversing with her neighbors, and held our breath – and our ears – as Jack Benny practiced the violin. We viewed a wide range of classic films, from The Jazz Singer, the very first “talkie,” and Mel Brooks’s The Producers to Woody Allen’s Radio Days and West Side Story. And we heard from people like McCarter Theatre’s Emily Mann, who spoke about the history of Broadway, and Henry Sapoznik, creator of N.P.R.’s recently broadcast Yiddish Radio Project, who discussed the challenges and possibilities of researching the history of ethnic radio. In each instance, our guest artists didn’t simply offer a perspective different from that commonly found in books. In their manner and their commitment to dance, theater, and the artfulness of talk, they also made it vibrantly clear why the arts matter.

Through it all, this course – which will be offered again next spring – aspires to transform Princeton undergraduates into discerning “culture mavens,” at home in the byways of popular culture. Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker may never take the place of the performers currently in favor among contemporary undergraduates. Still, I’d like to think that my students’ encounter with earlier generations of stars and older forms of entertainment may have expanded their capacity for wonder, delight, and, as Gilbert Seldes would have it, even exaltation. Who could ask for anything more?


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