Fanny Brice - Comedienne (1891 - 1951)
Created | Updated Jul 14, 2006
Fanny Brice was born Fania Borach on 29 October, 1891, to Hungarian Jewish immigrant parents on the Lower East Side in New York. As a small child she would dance on the billiard table in one of her parents' saloons for the lunchtime crowd, the first of many audiences she would enjoy before her untimely death in 1951 at the age of 59.
Fanny's first performance on a stage happened quite by accident. She had wanted to watch the neighbourhood amateur night at Frank Keeney's Theatre, but didn't have 25 cents for admission. She got into the theatre by lying to the man at the back door, saying she was an entrant for the show. After registering for the competition, she went out front with the audience, planning to watch the show until just before her turn to perform and quietly slip away. When another girl slated to perform earlier in the show disappeared before her act, Mr Keeney pulled Fanny out of the audience and put her on the stage without any warning. Unprepared, she sang 'When You Know You're Not Forgotten by the Girl You Can't Forget', and ended up winning the evening's prize - a five-dollar gold piece.
From Borach to Brice
After this early success, Fanny left school in 1908 to perform in burlesque1 reviews. Within a year she had changed her name from Borach to Brice, possibly to avoid being typecast exclusively in Jewish roles, despite her ethnic looks.
While Fanny was performing in the show The College Girls in 1909, she sang an Irving Berlin song called 'Sadie Salome, Go Home', and he instructed her to sing it in a Yiddish accent. Although Fanny knew no Yiddish, she followed Berlin's lead and performed the song to wild success. The put-on Yiddish accent cemented her place as a Jewish entertainer, and she used it repeatedly in future shows.
Her performances in The College Girls attracted the attention of Florenz Ziegfeld, who offered her a place in his annual Ziegfeld Follies review. Fanny joined the Follies in 1910, the same year she married her first husband, Frank White. The marriage was short-lived, ending in divorce in 1913. Her career with the Follies made her a major Broadway star.
Ziegfeld Follies was a review inspired by the Folies Bergere2 in Paris that combined Vaudeville- and burlesque-style acts and featured beautiful girls. The Follies ran nearly every year from 1907 through 1931, and Fanny Brice starred in many of them between 1910 and 1924.
During her run with the Follies she met, fell in love with and married her second husband, charming con-man Jules 'Nicky' Arnstein. While they were courting he served time in Sing Sing Prison for illegal wire-tapping, during which time she visited him weekly. Despite the fact that Arnstein had moved in with Fanny and her mother shortly after they met, Fanny discovered that he was still married to his first wife, and yet would not be swayed. They were finally married in 1918, just two months prior to the birth of their first child, daughter Frances. They would also have a son, William.
Joining the Follies tripled Fanny's salary, and she would go on to become Broadway's highest earning star for a time. Wise financial investments kept her in elegant style offstage, and afforded her privacy for her children3. When Nick Arnstein was arrested and charged with securities theft in 1920 he fought the charges to the extent of the law at Fanny's expense, yet he eventually spent time in Leavenworth prison for the crime.
In the 1921 Ziegfeld Follies, Ziegfeld had Fanny sing the song 'My Man'. Fanny's first inclination was to ham it up and do a humorous rendition, but Ziegfeld insisted it should be a serious performance. She sang the song as he asked, without her usual Yiddish accent, and brought down the house. 'My Man' became her signature song, and there was no doubt she was singing it about Nick Arnstein every night.
It's cost me a lot, but there's one thing that I've got - it's my man.
- the opening line of 'My Man', translated (from French) by Channing Pollock.
It is possible that Arnstein was the fall-guy for Arnold Rothstein4, mastermind and ringleader of a group of men who stole over five million dollars in Wall Street securities. Although Fanny continued to support him during his incarceration, upon his release from prison in 1927 a heartbroken Fanny finally filed for divorce, while Nick Arnstein wasted no time in finding his next wife.
Two years later Fanny was married again, this time to showman Billy Rose. Billy started in showbusiness as a lyricist, writing or contributing to songs including 'Me and My Shadow' and 'It's Only a Paper Moon'. He went on to become a successful Broadway producer and owned the club Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe. Fanny starred in Billy's early productions of Sweet and Low and Billy Rose's Crazy Quilt. It is likely that she hoped their mutual involvement in the business would help to build a stronger relationship, but in truth Fanny was still in love with Nicky Arnstein. Ultimately her marriage to Billy failed, and they divorced in 1938.
With Nick Arnstein, I was miserably happy. With Billy Rose I was happily miserable.
- Fanny Brice
Fanny went back to the Ziegfeld Follies after Ziegfeld's death, performing in 1934 and 1936 before leaving Broadway for good.
Fanny's Broadway credits:
- Ziegfeld Follies (1910 - 11; 1916 - 17; 1920 - 21; 1923 - 24; 1934 and 1936)
- The Honeymoon Express (1913)
- Why Worry? (1918)
- Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic (1919)
- Ziegfeld Girls (1920)
- Music Box Review (1924)
- Fanny (1926)
- Fioretta (1929)
- Sweet and Low (1930)
- Billy Rose's Crazy Quilt (1931)
Fanny's Film credits:
- My Man (1928)
- Night Club (1929)
- Be Yourself (1930)
- The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
- Everybody Sing (1938)
- Ziegfeld Follies (1946)
I've been playing to audiences for thirty years. Thirty years of hoofing, singing and clowning and I make a hit as a four-year-old kid. And the audience didn't even see me.
- Fanny Brice
Baby Snooks was first sighted on a vaudeville stage sometime around 1912, and later was a character that Fanny would use to entertain friends at parties. Snooks had her big time stage debut in the 1934 Ziegfeld Follies and appeared on radio in Ziegfeld Follies of the Air in 1936. The bratty, precocious toddler specialised in turning minor mishaps into major catastrophes, and was a huge hit on the airwaves.
In 1938 Baby Snooks became a regular feature on the CBS radio variety programme Good News and later on Maxwell House Coffee Time. The character was so popular that in 1944 CBS gave Fanny her own show, The Baby Snooks Show, with Harold Stafford as Daddy5.
The Snooks sketches were written by comic writer Phil Rapp6. Fanny insisted on not rehearsing prior to airing, feeling that being too familiar with the dialogue would undermine the spontaneity and unpredictability that made the character so popular.
The show stayed with CBS until 1949 when it moved to NBC and aired until Fanny's death from a cerebral haemorrhage in 1951. At the time of her death it was reported that Fanny had been planning to retire from radio, feeling that it was becoming too routine. She missed the excitement of the theatre and thought television and film work was too exhausting.
The 1939 film Rose of Washington Square7 attempted to change the names to protect the innocent (or not-so-innocent), but was so obviously about Fanny's life that she sued the studio of 20th Century Fox for invasion of privacy, later settling out of court. The 1968 film Funny Girl found more success.
Ray Stark, Fanny's son-in-law, originally produced Funny Girl on Broadway in 1964, starring Sydney Chaplin as Nick Arnstein and Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice. Stark also produced the film with Columbia Studios. Funny Girl details Fanny's life from the early days before Vaudeville through the height of her stage career with the Follies, but focuses mainly on her relationship and marriage to Nick Arnstein.
Studio executives wanted Shirley MacLaine for the starring role, also considering Anne Bancroft and Carole Burnett, but Stark insisted Streisand keep the role. Funny Girl became Streisand's film debut, playing opposite Omar Sharif as Nick Arnstein. The fictionalised account of Fanny's early career garnered three BAFTA nominations and eight Oscar nominations, and Barbra Streisand tied with Katherine Hepburn (for The Lion in Winter) for the 1969 Best Actress Oscar.
Fanny's story was continued in the 1975 film Funny Lady, which was also produced by Ray Stark. Funny Lady commenced after Nick and Fanny's divorce and followed Fanny through her post-Follies career and marriage to Billy Rose. Although both films represent the bulk of what was known about Fanny to modern audiences, both contained a fair amount of embellishment in an attempt to keep all parties involved happy with the end result.
All that Remains
As most of Fanny's early work centred on live performances, much of her legacy is sadly lost. The complete list of her recorded songs totals less than 20 titles, and much of her limited film work has not been preserved. Her success as Baby Snooks endures, but her talent and appeal in live theatre is now mostly legend.