This is a family story that I don’t think my kids know, so I am writing it for them, in case they ever happen to read my stories on this site.
Our cousin Betty, before she became a celebrity to the pre-school set, was in a Broadway musical called Cafe Crown.
Our cousin Betty, before she became a celebrity to the pre-school set via the 33 years she spent in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, was in a Broadway musical called Cafe Crown. It was based on an earlier play of the same name which had been produced on Broadway back in the Forties, and told the story of a collection of characters involved in the old Yiddish theater on New York’s Lower East Side, and the cafe on Second Avenue where they gathered. This was the first Jewish musical on the mainstream American stage, and we just knew it was going to make her a star. Theodore Bikel and Sam Levene, two well-known Jewish actors, led the cast. Surely all the Jews in the New York metropolitan area would come to see it, at the very least, and it would be a big hit! Betty had just graduated from college the previous year, so it was an amazing break to be cast in this show on Broadway. The whole family was so excited to see her career taking off.
Unfortunately, the show bombed. It had thirty preview performances between March 21 and April 16, 1964, then officially opened on Friday, April 17th. Alas, it got terrible reviews and closed on Saturday, April 18th, after three performances (including the Saturday matinee).
My whole family went to see it, of course. I don’t know if we saw one of the previews or one of the “official” performances. We thought it was wonderful, although I have to admit I don’t remember much about the plot, the characters, or even the songs. I think Betty played the part of a bride in a play within the play, but that’s as much as I can tell you. I was twelve years old at the time.
What I do remember vividly was that we went to a fancy French restaurant afterwards. (Does that mean we went to a matinee? That just occurred to me as I was typing the last sentence.) Our handsome French waiter was flirting with me the whole time we were there. He told me he wanted to marry me. I told him I was twelve. He said, okay come back when you’re eighteen and I’ll marry you then. He also told me that one must never use a knife when eating fish. That rule has stuck with me to this day. I didn’t go back to find him when I was eighteen, but I have never used a knife on fish. I have taught that rule to my husband and children as well, although I may not have told them where I learned it.
The irony? Broadway really was ready for a Jewish musical, it just wasn’t that musical. Five months later, on September 22, 1964, Fiddler on the Roof opened, and of course was a smash hit. And while Zero Mostel originated the main character of Tevye, he was later replaced by none other than Theodore Bikel.
And in some sense our family has come full circle, because a mere 54 years later my nephew Bobby was cast in the Yiddish production of Fiddler, which played for a year and a half off-Broadway, from July 2018 to January 2020. Wouldn’t it have been fun if Betty had been in it too!
Interesting story, Suzy. For people in performing arts, I imagine there are many “what ifs” in their lives. I loved the details about your experience in the French restaurant. I don’t think I use a knife with fish, but next time i will be conscious of it. Never too old to learn.
Funny that I have so little memory of the show, and such a clear memory of the restaurant. Guess that’s why the show closed the day after it opened – there was nothing memorable about it.
Wonderful story for us and your children, Suzy. Remembering the knife etiquette is a useful bit of trivia. And what kismet! The Bartlett Sher production of “Fiddler” is coming to Boston next week. I just read a big article about it in the Globe and told Dan I wanted to see it. I remember my parents saw the Broadway preview when it was in Detroit and I still have the original cast album, but my grandparents and their sibs wanted nothing to do with the show. It hit too close to home, as they had fled Russia/Lithuania after 1906 pogroms.
I don’t know anything about Bartlett Sher, but if you ever get a chance to see the Yiddish Fiddler you should definitely go! I think my grandparents had all come to this country before the 1906 pogroms, but there were plenty of other pogroms, of course. Not sure if my maternal grandmother ever saw Fiddler on Broadway – the other three grandparents were all dead by 1964.
Really fun to learn about your cousin, Suzy. What a near miss to stardom. And very cool about Theodore Bikel. At about the time you write about, we had two LP albums that he’d put out, one singing Hebrew songs, the other Yiddish songs. I remember them really clearly so they must have made a big impression on me.
Thanks, Marian. We had some Theodore Bikel albums too, but only in English. I would love to hear those albums of Hebrew and Yiddish songs.
Ah Suzy, both my husband and my families have connections to both Yiddish and Jewish theatre, and the son of a friend of ours was also in the original cast of the Yiddish Fiddler in New York. We saw the show twice – first in the Jewish Heritage museum where it opened, and then in the off Broadway house where it moved -indescribably wonderful experiences both, and not a dry eye in either house.
And BTW my European-bred mother-in-law had a set of flat-bladed fish knives!
Interesting about the fish knives. So I just googled fish knives, and this is what I got: “The fish knife is the epitome of gentility. With a scalloped shaped blade, the end is just pointy enough to pick small bones from a cooked fish, and the flat blade is useful for sliding between the flesh and skin.” I deduce from this that you still don’t CUT the fish with the knife when you are eating it, which is maybe what the waiter meant.
Ah yes, my mother-in-law. owner of the fish knives, was indeed the epitome of gentility and a fabulous cook to boot!
Suzy, thank goodness for Google and YouTube. If you enter Theodore Bikel songs, the entire contents of the Yiddish album that we had are there. Really a nostalgia trip.
That’s great to know! I will have to go check it out. Easier than trying to play a record – although I do still have a turntable!
What a great story, Suzy, and fun to think that your kids are learning about it just as we are. And I knew about your cousin Betty’s fame as a princess, but not about her involvement with this show. Nor have I ever heard of it — which is somewhat surprising since some Broadway bombs are legendary — like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Carrie” and, believe it or not, “The Rocky Horror Show,” when it was first presented on stage. With a cast with Theodore Bikel and Sam Levene (to say nothing of Betty) in it, it must have been truly horrible to flop so badly.
And I love the full circle of your story with nephew Bobby in the recent Yiddish revival of “Fiddler.”
Thanks, John. I agree it’s surprising that there is very little record of Cafe Crown, even as a colossal bomb. I could find almost nothing online, although I did score the picture of the Playbill (which was lucky, because even though I used to save all my Playbills, I eventually gave up and tossed them – there were so many, and when was I going to read them again?).
As they say, Suzy, timing is everything! My twin brothers starred in a TV series back in the 70s about a frontier family (“The Monroes,” betcha never heard of it or my brothers, Keith and Kevin Schultz!) and it only made it through one season. Not long after came “Little House on the Prairie” (which my brothers were NOT in) and the rest is history. But what I love most about your story is the full circle component! I love circles — they’re featured prominently in art for both their visual beauty and their symbolic meaning — but the frequency with which they pop up in the stories here on Retrospect is fascinating to me. I might have to start keeping track. Maybe it’s just that if you live long enough, more things come full circle! And BTW, I didn’t know about Betty, so I will now turn to Google.
Barb, thanks for the story about your brothers which certainly proves that timing is everything. Why LIttle House and not The Monroes? And why Fiddler and not Cafe Crown? It’s certainly mysterious. I had never heard of The Monroes or your brothers, but I just had a lovely time learning about them courtesy of google.