Fanny Brice: Biography, Songs & Quotes

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever wanted to make people laugh? Do you wonder how determination fuels a career in show business? In this lesson, we'll explore the life, music, and quotes of Fanny Brice, an early 20th century Jewish-American comedian and singer.

Early Years and the Desire to Perform

Fanny Brice, born Fania Borach (1891 - 1951), was born in New York City to Jewish immigrant parents who toiled at working class jobs. She wasn't a very conscientious student but she had a strong desire to go into show business.

In 1906, at the age of 13, Brice sang in a talent show at Keeney's Theater in Brooklyn and won. That early taste of success whetted her appetite for fame. When other avenues didn't work out, she began performing in burlesque shows. Burlesque was working class entertainment and featured heavy doses of risqué humor and teasing glimpses of sex.

However, Brice spent three years on the Eastern Burlesque Circuit perfecting her skill. Ambitious and determined, she never let setbacks deter her from pursuing her long-term goal. It was during this time that she came up with the stage name 'Fanny Brice.'

After moving to the vaudeville circuit and performing in an undistinguished series of plays, Brice hit her stride with a style that became her signature: comedy and satire with a zany edge and an ethnic accent.

In 1910, she began performing Irving Berlin's 'Sadie Salome' while parodying the dance of veils from a Strauss opera. To enhance her performance, Brice added physical humor and a Yiddish inflection (Yiddish is a language that was spoken by Jewish people from Europe). It became a highlight of the show.

That same year, a famous producer, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., heard Brice sing and hired her for his musical revue The Ziegfeld Follies. After spending time overseas performing on the London stage, Brice went on to star in nine Follies from 1916 - 1936.

Fanny Brice as a young performer.
Young Fanny Brice

Success in the 1920s

Throughout the 1920s, Brice performed on Broadway in several Ziegfeld Follies, as well as other musical revues, and developed into a popular comic actress. However, one song she saw success with played against the type. With 'My Man' (1921), she pushed comic touches aside and performed a torch song about love and regret.

However, most of her fame was gained through humor in songs like 'Second Hand Rose' (1921), 'I'm an Indian' (1921), 'The Sheik of Avenue B' (1922) and 'Becky Is Back in the Ballet' (1922). If you listen to these songs today, it might be hard to understand why, with a heavy accent and a seemingly mocking tone aimed at other people, they were popular - but that was the humor of the time and Brice excelled at it.

She wasn't always comfortable being known as the funny, Jewish girl though. Brice wanted to be taken seriously as an actress. Several of her attempts to perform in dramatic plays failed. At one point, she even attempted to undergo a cosmetic surgery that would change the shape of her nose. The operation wasn't successful and, eventually, Brice realized where her strengths were and returned to comedy.

Baby Snooks and Radio Fame

In the 1930s, Brice created several hilarious spoofs and characters, including Countess Dubinsky, who was known for mocking the art of the striptease in her Yiddish accent, and Modernistic Moe, who spoofed the modern dance of Martha Graham. She also created Baby Snooks, a costumed toddler who always caused trouble. The Baby Snooks character didn't have an accent and it led to stardom on the radio.

In 1937, Fanny Brice moved to California and, that November, Baby Snooks began making appearances on radio broadcasts, first in guest spots, and then in weekly radio broadcasts. The character even got her own show on CBS radio in 1944. 'The Baby Snooks Show' ran from then until Brice's death in 1951.

Fanny Brice as Baby Snooks, 1940.
Baby Snooks

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