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Grandfather’s stardom was glimpse into another world

Dennis Wilson

While other mothers were putting their little ones to sleep with stories of princes and dragons, my mother would entertain me with stories of the Yiddish theater. At a very young age I learned about Second Avenue, The Café Royal, and the great names of the Yiddish theater: the Thomashefskys, the Adlers, the Bernardis, Maurice Schwartz, Molly Picon, Ida Kaminska, Moishe Oysher, and of course my grandfather Menasha Skulnik.

My grandfather made a career out of playing a schlemiel. With his signature pork-pie hat, his little shuffle, and his halting vocal delivery Menasha took schlemielhood to a new level. By the early 1940s he had become such an icon that many Broadway celebrities would come down to the Lower East Side to see him perform, even though they didn’t understand a word of Yiddish. They kept asking, “Menasha, when are you going to join the big time and play in English?”

 

For years they came from uptown to coax Menasha onto the Great White Way, but he preferred to be a “big fish” in a “little pond.” After 19 years on the radio playing “Uncle David” in The Goldbergs, and with the Yiddish Theater declining, he finally took the plunge in 1953 with The Fifth Season. His first Broadway show was a hit and Menasha was an instant Broadway star. Unfortunately I wasn’t born until 1945 and didn’t live in New York, so I never got to see him perform in Yiddish, but they all say he was “boffo.”

By now television was starting to become big and as a 5-year-old I was thrilled to see my grandfather’s nebbishy countenance on the cover of TV Guide. In 1950 he did a weekly summer replacement show on NBC called Menasha the Magnificent. But somehow his unique style worked better on the stage and his TV career never took off. Over the next few years Menasha made isolated appearances on television and each time my family and I were glued to the screen. In Detroit at least, there were not many kids whose grandfathers were on television.

 

The next time I saw my grandfather in person was our family trip to New York for his opening on Broadway in The Fifth Season. My parents, my brother, and I got a box seat to see the show. When Menasha took his curtain call he looked up at us and nodded in our direction. I remember very little about the show except that it was about the “schmata” industry and there were lots of cute actresses running around in their slips.

That trip Menasha took us all out to eat at Mama Leone’s famous restaurant on 44th Street. Back in those days Mama Leone’s was still pretty classy. Suddenly, in the middle of the meal, with impeccable timing, Menasha turns around and he’s wearing a big red clown nose. All of us were laughing hysterically including the adults. As we were leaving, I remembered Menasha saying that he had to tip well because people always recognized him and he didn’t want them to say he was a “cheap bum.”

 

I never met my maternal grandmother, Salka, because she died before I was born. Menasha remarried a Yiddish actress from France named Anna Titlebaum and she was very protective of him. She wouldn’t let Menasha smoke or eat the wrong foods. Sometimes she wouldn’t even let us talk to him when we would call on the phone.

After The Fifth Season closed in the fall of 1954 Menasha opened two months later in Clifford Odet’s drama The Flowering Peach. It was the story of Noah and the ark and Menasha played Noah. This was the first non-comedic role Menasha had played in years and was to be the last piece Odets wrote for the Broadway stage. Menasha appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show to promote the play and there was even an article about it in Look Magazine.

 

In 1956, Menasha opened on Broadway in the starring role of Dear Uncle Willie, which closed a year later. That summer Menasha took Uncle Willie on the road. One of the stops was the Northland Playhouse in my hometown of Detroit. I was 12 years old and loved going backstage and meeting the actors, some of whom were my age. I already had a strong love for the theater, but Menasha always discouraged me from choosing acting as a career.

 

 On that trip Menasha came to visit our home. He came in, took a quick look around and asked me to show him the rest of the house. I started to show him around but the minute he got me alone he asked me in a conspiratorial whisper, “Do you have a cigarette?” Having just turned 12 a few months earlier I wasn’t in the habit of keeping cigarettes around. He was disappointed and it seemed like every time I met him after that he was always looking for a cigarette, trying to get around his wife’s strictures.

 

As I got older my interest in the theater continued to grow and Menasha continued to discourage me. He told me in the late 1950s that the average actor made $200 a year. There were so many actors who made nothing, he explained, that even when you included the ones making the big money, the average came out to only $200 a year. Of course, I never asked where he got his statistics from; for all I know he made them up. It was clear, though, that Menasha was not anxious for me to follow in his footsteps.

 

In 1959, my family moved to Tucson and as a teenager I loved visiting New York in the summer. Menasha took me to see him perform in summer stock a couple of times. Once we went to the Papermill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J. Menasha was doing the summer stock version of a play that he had done on Broadway called The 49th Cousin.

 

The theater was in a circular tent with raked seating like in a stadium. The actors had to enter and exit along a ramp leading to the outside of the tent. The actors would run up and down on the ramp for all of their entrances and exits. Menasha was in his early 70s at the time and I was amazed at his energy.

 

The following summer, Menasha toured in Come Blow Your Horn. The play had just closed on Broadway, where Lou Jacobi and Hal March had played father and son. Menasha played the father and the stock company filled in the rest of the parts. I went to see Menasha at the Playhouse in the Park in Phila­delphia. At the age of 17, I had studied enough acting to appreciate what a master he was. He held the audience in the palm of his hand and knew exactly how long to milk each line or gesture. He was amazing to watch on stage.

 

After the performance we went out to dinner and Menasha didn’t miss an opportunity to tell me what a hard life an actor had to face. I remembered the fellow who played his son from the stock company because Menasha took special effort to point out that while this young man was quite talented, and was in fact the best actor in the company, Menasha claimed he had to drive a truck to make a living. I remember him because I saw that young man a short while later in his first movie. The movie was called The Graduate and his name was Dustin Hoffman. If nothing else, at least my grandfather was right about him being talented.

 

A couple of years later I was back in New York, ready to seek my fortune. I met Menasha at his home on 87th Street and we took a cab down to the Hebrew Actor’s Guild on the Lower East Side. It’s sort of the Jewish equivalent of the Lamb’s or Friar’s club. To me it looked like a bunch of old Jewish men sitting around drinking “a glass tea,” smoking, and playing Pinochle. Menasha seemed right at home as he introduced me to all of his cronies. These were men he had known and worked with for 30 or more years.

 

Unfortunately, The Hebrew Actor’s Guild and all of those men are now long gone.

Once, Menasha did use his influence to get me a summer job at the famous Concord Hotel in the Catskills. I told Menasha I was interested in doing standup comedy and he said that I should get an act together and work the Catskills for a while. It turned out that the job he got me was as a busboy, and I’m afraid I didn’t last long. After that I got caught up in the psychedelic zeitgeist of the ’60s and our paths never crossed again. I was in Texas and had just had my first child in 1967, when Menasha starred with Lou Gossett and Ossie Davis in The Zulu and the Zeda. It was a musical and I do at least have the album on vinyl.

 

Suddenly it was 1970 and my parents were going to New York for Menasha’s funeral. Menasha got to live out his dreams and was a star right up until the end. He collapsed on stage in New Haven during a dress rehearsal of a show he was bringing to Broadway. He passed away in the hospital six weeks later at age 80, having spent more than 70 years in the theater.

 

I have always been proud of my heritage. Although few people remember Menasha, in the history of schlemiels, he was truly one of the greatest. I named my daughter Sarah Manasha in honor of him. She was born 20 years after he died. One night at the age of 3 she started crying and I asked what the matter was. Through her tears she said, “I miss Menasha!” I am very proud of what I inherited from him and in an odd sort of way he has significantly impacted my life. Although I never became a professional actor I still have it in my blood and use my theatrical talents in my work and personal life. I am able to get up in front of a crowd of people and speak easily. All that and more I owe that to my grandfather, the “schlemiel”!  

 

Dennis Wilson lives in Tucson and can be reached at dwmiracle@aol.com.