Dementia Series-Disabled Legend Molly Picon

Molly Picon was born Małka (Margaret) Opiekun on 1 June, 1898 in New York City, New York, USA to Clara and Louis (or Denis) Opiekun (later changed to Picon). Opiekun is a Polish language name meaning, “guardian” or “caretaker”. Molly Picon died on 5 April, 1992 aged 93, from Alzheimer’s disease in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Molly Picon is buried in the Yiddish Theater section of the Mount Hebron Cemetery.

Molly Picon’s husband, from 1919 until his death in 1975 from cancer, was Jacob Kalich. They had no children.

Molly Picon was an American star of stage, screen and television, as well as a lyricist. Molly Picon was first and foremost a star in Yiddish theatre and Film, but as Yiddish theatre faded she began to perform in English-language productions.

Molly Picon’s career began at the age of 6 in the Yiddish Theatre. In 1912, she debuted at the Arch Street Theatre in New York and became a star of the Second Avenue Yiddish stage.

Molly Picon was so popular in the 1920s that many shows had the name Molly in their title. In 1931 she opened the Molly Picon Theatre. Molly Picon appeared in many films, starting with silent movies. Molly Picon earliest film still existing is East and West which deals with the clash of new and old Jewish cultures. Molly Picon plays an American-born daughter who travels with her father back to Galicia in East Central Europe. Real-life husband Jacob Kalich plays one of her Galician relatives from Eastern Europe.

Molly Picon’s most famous film, Yidl Mit’n Fidl (1936), was made on location in Poland, and has her wearing male clothing through most of the film. In the film, a girl and her father are forced by poverty to set out on the road as traveling musicians. For her safety, she disguises herself as a boy, which becomes inconvenient when she falls in love with one of the other musicians in the troupe.

Molly Picon made her English language debut on stage in 1940. On Broadway, she starred in Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn and the Jerry Herman musical Milk and Honey, both in 1961. In 1966 she quit the disastrous Chu Chem during previews in Philadelphia; the show closed before reaching Broadway.

Molly Picon’s first English speaking role in the movies was the film version of Come Blow Your Horn (1963), and she portrayed Yente, the Matchmaker in the film adaptation of the Broadway hit Fiddler on the Roof in 1971.

In the 1970s, she was featured as a madame named Mrs. Cherry in For Pete’s Sake, a film starring another famous Jewish-American actress, Barbra Streisand. Molly Picon later played a role on television on the soap opera Somerset.  An entire room was filled with her memorabilia at the Second Avenue Deli in New York
(now closed).

The little “yente” with the big, expressive talent, New York-born Yiddish icon Molly Picon entertained theater, radio, TV and film audiences for over seven decades with her song-and-dance routines while helping to popularize the Yiddish culture into the American mainstream as well as overseas. Raised in Philadelphia, she was performing from age 5 but broke into the big time with a vaudeville act called “The Four Seasons” in 1919, eventually making a comedy name for herself in the Second Avenue Theatres on the Lower East Side back in New York. The indefatigable Molly Picon was a real live wire and played very broad, confident, dominant characters on stage, which ended up making it hard for her to be taken seriously in dramatic pieces.

In film she is best remembered for her Yiddish-language showcases of the 30s, notably in Yidl with His Fiddle (1936), the story of a traveling musician who dresses as a boy to avoid unwarranted male advances. Molly Picon was cast as a Yiddish Cinderella, a dutiful but unappreciated daughter who cares for her father and his large family, in Mamele (1938), the last Jewish film made in Poland. During one musical vignette, Molly Picon portrays her character’s grandmother in several stages of life. In the 1940s, Molly Picon started to include English-speaking plays as well and as she grew into matronly roles, became synonymous as the typical well-meaning but overbearing and coddling “Jewish mama.” Such amusing, unflappable film roles would be found in Come Blow Your Horn (1963) (as an interfering Italian mother) and Fiddler on the Roof (1972) as Yente the matchmaker. Molly Picon long association with husband and corroborator, Yiddish stage star Jacob Kalich, was a fruitful one. Husband Jacob Kalich became her mentor, the author of many of her popular plays and the manager of her career. They Married in 1919, Jacob Kalich died in 1975 but she continued performing albeit sporadically. Vicariously known as the “Jewish Charlie Chaplin” and “Jewish Helen Hayes”, she was a patriot and humanitarian at heart, with an energy, creativity and ability to entertain that couldn’t help but make her one of entertainment’s most beloved citizens.

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