We recently had our very own “mystery at the museum”.
A woman who works at the Jewish Historical Society was rummaging around her home looking for papers that had belonged to her late father. She didn’t find them but found something else that created quite a stir. It was a 108 year old post card depicting the Empire Theatre in Paterson. No one at the JHSNJ had ever heard of it! One thing led to another and the mystery unfolded…
According to an October 1906 Empire playbill we were able to secure following the discovery of that postcard, the Empire Theatre offered “refined and high-class vaudeville” on their stage on Ellison Street located directly across the street from the back of City Hall. Most of us younger readers would not remember it at all because the building is no longer there. The management also sponsored musical numbers and skits. One was named “The College Girl.” The variety of acts included gymnasts and dogs and brief comedy plays. “Wanted — A Divorce” was one featured the week of October 15, 1906. For the week of October 22, 1906 “Spessardy’s Bears, direct from the New York Hippodrome,” were to appear!
Milt Josefsberg, in his excellent book, “Comedy Writing For Television & Hollywood,” points out that “a good burlesque script depended on juxtaposition, a tried and true technique of doing a routine bound to get sure-fire laughs because of misinterpretation.” A risqué premise often added to the fun. It was done in countless burlesque scenarios. Josefsberg cites the example of a father misinterpreting what is being said by his daughter and son-in-law on the other side of a bedroom dividing curtain on their wedding night. The newlyweds are actually trying to stuff the groom’s high hat into a suitcase in order to escape to a more private setting. The dad, as you might expect, interprets it all differently. We won’t tell you the skit but we presume the laughter was long and loud. Ah, don’t you wish that Paterson still had live theater!
Other vaudeville theaters in Paterson were the Eden on Market, the Majestic on Main, the Star on Market and the Orpheum on Van Houten. In Passaic there was the Capitol and the Montauk. Many of these vaudeville and burlesque houses later became the movie theatres we all used to frequent.
Mae West, who some rumored had a German Jewish mother, made appearances at the Empire.* Mae used to perform the fan dance with her body completely covered with powder. The fan was big and red and when she shook her body behind it…the powder would fly all over the stage and down unto the thrilled spectators in the front rows. We hope some of that fan dust landed on you today. History is usually in the distance to most of us. We just made it closer.
The Jewish presence in vaudeville and burlesque was mainly a carryover from the Yiddish Theater in Europe. When Jews started emigrating to the United States en masse in the latter part of the 19th century the Yiddish theatre venue sustained them and enabled them to keep their old traditions as they were assimilating into their new country. Elements of the Yiddish Theater morphed into vaudeville. As vaudeville became a little bawdier and naughtier burlesque was born. As the years went by, movies, radio and television captured the eyes and ears of American audiences and vaudeville, burlesque and even Yiddish theatre largely fell by the wayside. Some notable Jewish performers from those heady days were the Marx Brothers, Mollie Picon, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Jack Benny, George Jessel, Phil Silvers and George Burns.
Also at the turn of the 20th century and beyond was a fine-dining restaurant and beer garden on an island on the Passaic River north of the Glover Street bridge between Paterson and Totowa called the Lido-Venice. During prohibition it was a swanky speak- easy. Among the many Hollywood icons who performed there during the 1930’s were Ginger Rogers, Milton Berle, Bert Lahr, Jackie Gleason and Lou Costello. Famed entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee dedicated the first gondola, a unique mode of transportation to the island. Comedian Henny Youngman derisively called the Lido-Venice “an upholstered sewer”…but he still told his famous one-liners there. Here’s a few choice ones he might have delivered:
“Doctor, the man you just gave a clean bill of health to dropped dead right as he was leaving the office”. Doctor: “Turn him around, make it look like he was walking in.”
Someone stole all my credit cards, but I won’t be reporting it. The thief spends less than my wife did.”
If you still haven’t had enough nostalgia, a good book to read this summer is “In the Beauty of the Lilies” by John Updike. It begins in Paterson N.J. in 1910 and traces four generations of a family. It mentions many Paterson events, people and places…including the Empire Theatre. Sometimes it’s good to live vicariously.
Dorothy Douma Greene, President
*”Mae West…An Icon in Black and White” by Jill Watts
JHSNJ NEWS UPDATE: We thank Lou Mechanic for helping with the research on this newsletter. We also thank Art Friedman for donating a badly-needed computer to us. We really needed both!
The history detectives at the JHSNJ are always looking for new mysteries to uncover. Have you checked your closets lately?