Award-winning comedienne, singer, impressionist, actress, and artist, Marilyn Michaels, knew she was “different” early. Voden? After all, Marilyn comes from major Yiddish show biz yichus with the DNA to prove it. She’s the daughter of the late feisty cantoress Fraydele Oysher, and Metropolitan Opera basso, Harold Sternberg. Her uncle was the legendary Moishe Oysher. If others were “born in a trunk,” Marilyn was born somewhere between the Yiddish Theater and the Derma Road (the Catskills).
Marilyn was born somewhere between Yiddish Theater at the Catskills.
Says Marilyn: “Different? When I was three, we were vacationing in a kuchalayn (a cottage in the Catskills). While my family was out playing cards, thinking I was tucked safely in my crib, I climbed out, and walked outside onto the dark road. A car came careening around a curve. What did I do when I saw the headlights coming toward me? Did I run? No. I sang and danced! To me they were spotlights! Voden?
“Different?” Yes. And that difference has won her awards for Catskills On Broadway, the starring role in the national company of Funny Girl, an Emmy winning TV series, The Kopykats, and countless guest appearances from Lifestyles with Robin Leach to The Tonight Show. Marilyn has performed in virtually every major venue from Town Hall, to Harrahs, singing in no less than five languages.
Marilyn is also an accomplished painter whose artworks are shown in fine galleries. Her famous art poster, The Fabulous Blondes, depicts a mural consisting of movie goddesses.
I recently asked Marilyn to talk about her life, her work, and of course, her legacy.
Q#1. Marilyn, what was it like being “different” – wildly talented and part of a special family?
MM: I was always a strange kid. Always singing … from birth. I walked on stage in my diapers! I was sent to sleep away camp at age five. I hated it. The counselors particularly hated me because they had to braid my pigtails every morning. But, they recognized that I had talent or whatever, because I was always starring in the camp shows… ya know? Like “Tick Tock” or whatever. What a little ham I was (This is a Jewish site, but I was still a “ham!”) After one show, I parted the curtain and took a solo curtain call – for myself! Such chutzpah!
My mother prided herself in keeping me a “normal” child by sending me to “regular” school … like they thought maybe I’d become a what? Nurse? Or a physicist? I didn’t fit in. I felt like a pariah. There was a group of good looking girls, who ignored me. I was an outsider, and, as many successful people was not part of the “IN group. Then, one holiday, the teacher asked if anyone could “do” something for the class. Like, ahem, perform? So, of course I marched up there and blew them away. The kids ran up to give me their Christmas stockings filled with candy! At that moment I realized what power I really had. And it had to do with performing. When I grew up, those girls who ignored me back then came to my shows and were all over me.
Q#2. What was it like being raised by these icons and how did it affect your career choice?
MM: Well, from the time I was one, I lived in the theater. Watching my mother on stage, that glamorous figure, her beauty, power, and grace, I was transfixed. The rest of the time I’d spend at the Metropolitan Opera where my father was a basso profundo. As a kid, I would sit in on the dress rehearsals of Lucia with Sutherland … and eat my bagel, lox and cream cheese – and finish it off with a Snicker’s Bar. I think the press wanted to kill me because I made noise. But it was a great time, meeting Lily Pons and Roberta Peters. They smelled of perfume, with jangling jewelry, and were so gracious to this little 9-year-old kid. It all seemed normal because I was born into it. My Uncle Moishe (Oysher) would sing at the Pines during the High Holy Days, and he knew I had “it” – or whatever you call “it” today. I was a soloist at 14. He was so phenomenal, such a blazing master of song and liturgical music. And here I was, doing solos with him. There is no word to describe that experience except, “transcendent.”
Q#3. What is your earliest memory of performing “professionally?”
MM: My mother called me up on stage. It was at the National Theater on Houston and Second Avenue. I was seven, in the theater as usual, wearing my little dress … blue with a rainbow design on the skirt. And she said, ‘Is my daughter Marilyn in the audience? Marilyn will you come up here?’ We sang a duet in Hebrew. That was the beginning because then she took me on stage with her on the holidays and vacations from school.
Q#4: You experienced the Yiddish Theater first-hand. What stands out in your memory about those times?
MM: Oh, it was wonderful! I was back stage all the time with Molly Picon, Henrietta Jacobsen (Bruce Adler’s mother), Dinah Goldberg. They held me as a tiny baby while my mother was on stage. As a child, they treated me with respect, never with a disregard or with the attitude that children should be seen and not heard. They were genuinely warm. Then, when I began to perform they were duly proud. They were terrific comediennes and I absorbed that from them as well as from my mother.
Q#5: Turning to the Catskills, you were a headliner at a very young age. What do you remember best about “The Derma Road?”
MM: The casino, the shows, the morning with the Cream of Wheat. The smell of the musty rooms, the swimming pool – and the cute busboys! It was very much like the film Dirty Dancing. But it became a true training ground for me when I began to work. Today, there’s no place to fail … no place to learn anymore
Q#6: What are your thoughts on how being Jewish informs you and other artists?
MM: I come from a Jewish heritage that is indeed “Royal.” Jewish Music when done the way my family did it, is great indeed. Moishe was the greatest Cantor, actor, film star… he did it all. Many of today’s Cantors… I don't know, they cannot compare to their predecessors. (A lot of them need to lay off the brisket.) Part of being a Cantor is being a great performer as well. Many Jewish cantors were often opera singers who came straight out of the Metropolitan Opera, such as Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker.
Jewish comedy writers are without a doubt, the state of the art globally, from Woody Allen to Mel Brooks to Aaron Sorkin who just won the Oscar for best screenplay. Jews are brilliant in so many of the creative arts, comedy and music heading the list. The entire American Songbook is almost exclusively a Jewish Boys Club except for a few guys like Cole Porter, and of course the tremendous African American influence.
Q#8: How would you summarize your remarkable life?
MM: I hope it's not over yet! I’ve just entered a phase where I’m writing music, and it’s such an exciting thing. The creative part of my life, aside from performing is painting because art is a huge part of who I am. But being creative as a composer is a thrill, and I hope to get the show mounted. I’d be on Cloud 9! And indeed, I’ve been up there … sharing the stage with Moishe, Mom, Sammy Davis, Dean Martin, Orson Welles, and the list goes on and on. There’s the thrill of being part of that … part of the best!