Barbara Minkus in Picon Pie(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Barbara Minkus in Picon Pie
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Here's hoping that Barbara Minkus's opening last night in New York went better than her last New York opening night. The diminutive singer-actress who's now playing Molly Picon in the fancifully named Picon Pie was the leading lady of The Education of Hyman Kaplan, a musical that asks us to put asterisks between each letter of Hyman Kaplan though it looks ungainly and just plain stupid. The Oscar Brand-Paul Nassau musical opened on April 4, 1968 -- the evening when Martin Luther King was assassinated.

"News got out during the show," says Minkus, "but we didn't know it because [director] George Abbott wouldn't let anyone tell us what had happened. So, after doing a first act where everyone was having a good time, we came back after intermission to much less of an audience -- and those who were there weren't laughing at anything we did. It was quite a shock to see those empty seats and to get no response when we'd been doing so well."

Truth to tell, Hyman Kaplan wasn't killed by the events of its opening night. Take it from one who saw a backers' audition and a preview: Only if this show had opened on VE-Day would it have been a smash because (1) people would have forgiven it anything and (2) 1945 would have been a welcome time to put on such an old-fashioned show about two immigrants, Hyman Kaplan (Tom Bosley) and Rose Mitnick (Minkus), who try to learn English and fall in love.

Still, Minkus took the 29-performance failure hard. She had been working in musical theater but hadn't quite conquered it. Sure, she was engaged by the Broadway production of Funny Girl to play Fanny Brice -- but as the understudy. She appeared as Lucy in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown -- but only on the demo recording. Instead of originating that role on stage, she decided to play Fanny on tour and in stock. So when Kaplan capsized under dire circumstances, Minkus saw it as an omen to get out of New York. "I was really down," she says. "So I went to California, had a blind date with an eye doctor, and it was love at first sight. I made a deal with my husband, who was a 'normie' -- and still is -- that, if we had children, I'd take a time-out and stay at home with the kids."

She pretty much did so, though there was that role as the airport waitress in The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington. "But five years ago," she says, "I got a call from Sheilah Rae, whom I knew from a Fiddler production way back when. She asked, 'How do you look?' and I said, 'Pretty good, I think!' She told me that she'd co-written a show called Funny, You Don't Look Like a Grandmother. Karen Morrow had done a few productions but she couldn't do the next one in Santa Monica, so I did."

Minkus went over so well at the theater that the management wanted her to return. "Then," she says, "my friend Rose Leiman Goldemberg, who wrote the TV movie The Burning Bed, suggested that she write something for me and soon the subject of Molly Picon came up. That really struck a chord with me because I come from a Jewish show business family -- my grandmother was Florenz Ziegfeld's rehearsal pianist -- and when I was a kid who'd sing and dance around the living room, all my family would say, 'Oy, she's a regular Molly Picon.'"

Picon was one of the great stars of the Yiddish theater. When she met Helen Hayes, she mentioned that some people thought of her as "the Yiddish Helen Hayes" -- to which Hayes countered, "And I've been told that I'm the shiksa Molly Picon." In such vehicles as Yiddle with a Fiddle, Picon delighted Second Avenue audiences throughout the first part of the 20th century before crossing over to play a Jewish widow in Jerry Herman's 1961 musical Milk and Honey and a Jewish mother in the 1963 film of Neil Simon's Come Blow Your Horn. In stock, she did Milk and Honey throughout the '60s and Dolly Levi for much of the '70s, always punctuating her performances with jumps in the air and somersaults just to let people know that she was still as spry as ever.

"I met Molly when I was 18 and doing The Mike Douglas Show," says Minkus, referring to the '60s daytime TV variety show. "She had the greatest gams I ever saw, and she purposely wore this very short kimono so that everyone could see them. But what I remember even more than that was her amazing warmth; she was so nice to me. So I love spending two hours singing her wonderful songs -- some of which are in Yiddish, some of which she wrote. But the real story is her 56-year marriage to Jacob Kalish, who was her lover, her teacher, and the man who made her a star."

Molly Picon
Molly Picon
Minkus didn't speak Yiddish so she spent a year and a half at the University of Judaism to get her pronunciations right. "What I didn't know," she says, "is that the Yiddish theater used a different dialect from regular Yiddish. When we did the show in Santa Monica, Theodore Bikel came back afterwards and softly said, 'Can I talk to you? There are some words you need to pronounce differently.' Luckily, I was living next door to Mike Burstyn." Mike (The Megilla of Itzik Manger) Burstyn was the son of Pesach'ke Burstein and Lillian Lux, two Yiddish theater stars. Burstyn himself made some Second Avenue appearances before the great Yiddish theater tradition disappeared. Minkus asked him to coach her on theatrical Yiddish and now she feels secure that she's correctly pronouncing the words.

Bikel wasn't the only one to come backstage. So did producer Edmund Gaynes, a former actor who appeared in The Body Beautiful, Greenwillow, and The Fig Leaves Are Falling -- "though in 1954 I appeared on The Sid Caesar Show which was broadcast from what was once called the Molly Picon Theatre. As it turns out, it's now an apartment building -- and guess who lives there now? Rose Leiman Goldemberg."

The omens for Picon Pie seemed brighter than they did for Hyman Kaplan. Gaynes liked Minkus but did think that the show would be better served with direction by Pamela Hall, a former actress (Dear World, 1776, the '71 revival of Forum) whom he met when the two did Promenade in 1968. They were married in 1969. "Since I've been working on this show," says Hall, "I've found that almost everybody I meet has a Molly Picon story. Even a cantor I know in L.A. toured with her. He said that she used to say, 'I was never a great actress or a great singer and I was never that pretty, but when I put it all together, somehow it all works out.'" Minkus, Gaynes, and Hall hope that all will work out deliciously for Picon Pie.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]