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Archive for Sunday, March 16, 2003

Exhibit looks at role of Jews in American entertainment

March 16, 2003

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— Settle into a cozy couch, flip on a black and white television and watch a show about an endearing, somewhat scatterbrained 1950s homemaker and her family -- starring a woman who was also the show's creator and producer.

The woman is not Lucille Ball of "I Love Lucy." She's Gertrude Berg of "The Goldbergs," a show that introduced a version of Jewish family life into living rooms across America from 1929 until 1956, first on radio and then on television.

The living room where visitors can watch clips of "The Goldbergs" is part of "Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting," on display at The Jewish Museum through Sept. 14.

The exhibit explores the various ways Jewish Americans participated in entertainment during the last 100 years -- as audience members, performers, creators and show biz moguls. It does it through specifically built sets meant to evoke everything from the Goldbergs' living room to old-fashioned, nickel-a-ticket "nickelodeon" movie theaters and the "Seinfeld" diner.

In an area set up like a movie theater, museumgoers can watch as scenes from "The Jazz Singer" -- the landmark "talkie" from 1927 starring Al Jolson -- play in slow-motion on two screens, telling the story of a man who chooses to sing popular songs of the day instead of becoming a cantor like his father.

On a smaller screen, clips from later versions are shown, including: the 1952 movie starring Danny Thomas; the 1980 film with Neil Diamond; a parody from the comedy troupe SCTV; and an episode of "The Simpsons" in which Krusty the Clown reveals he is descended from a long line of rabbis and that his father disowned him for breaking with family tradition.

"We look at how this story is told ... the tension between Old World traditions and New World American secular culture, what your parents expect of you versus what you want to do," said Jeffrey Shandler, one of the show's two guest curators and an assistant professor in Rutgers University's department of Jewish studies.

Pushed to the periphery

Using vintage posters and publications, another part of the exhibit focuses on how the success of Jewish men as executives in the Hollywood studio system prompted anti-Semitism but was also a source of Jewish pride in the 1930s and 1940s.

In a radio booth, visitors can listen to portions of the religious broadcast series, "The Eternal Light," a '40s program that attempted to link Judaism with American ideals. And in a bare white room, clips are shown of how the Holocaust has been depicted in film and on television.

A man is silhouetted against a scene from the movie "The Jazz
Singer" in New York's Jewish Museum. The film is part of a new
exhibition devoted to Jewish actors and pioneers in the movie
industry, running through Sept. 14 at the museum.

A man is silhouetted against a scene from the movie "The Jazz Singer" in New York's Jewish Museum. The film is part of a new exhibition devoted to Jewish actors and pioneers in the movie industry, running through Sept. 14 at the museum.

A mural of a menorah is used to illustrate the creative output that resulted from the classic 1950s TV program "Your Show of Shows." Its staff included Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.

The clip used to illustrate Reiner's subsequent work is the discarded pilot of what later became the 1960s sitcom, "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Reiner was its creator, and was supposed to be its star, but the networks weren't interested. Van Dyke was later cast and Reiner ended up playing the role of the megalomaniacal boss Alan Brady while writing all the episodes.

The Reiner story illustrates how Jewish performers went from being stars -- like Gertrude Berg in the early days of television -- to all-but disappearing as television entered more homes and TV executives favored WASP-y shows such as "Father Knows Best," said Shandler.

'Identity and culture'

Three decades later, when the creators of "Seinfeld" were told by network executives that the show was "too Jewish," they decided to play with the idea of what that means, Shandler said.

"One of the things they do is they take characters who they load with all sorts of Jewish markers and then they say, 'Oh, they're not Jews,'" Shandler said. "Certainly, Jews who are watching this program can't let it go. They start decoding and rereading and reinterpreting the show."

Therefore, in the "Seinfeld" portion of the exhibit, museumgoers can sit in a diner -- not unlike the one where the show's cast spent much of their time -- and watch clips from episodes, including one where Seinfeld made out with his girlfriend during a screening of "Schindler's List."

In another part of the exhibit, "star shrines" examine the concept of Jewishness and celebrity -- often with a humorous bent. They contain musings on the Marx brothers, John Garfield, Fanny Brice, Sammy Davis Jr., Barbra Streisand and Marilyn Monroe, who converted to Judaism after marrying Arthur Miller and who is represented by a musical menorah.

Shandler said he hopes the exhibit will inspire visitors to continue to examine the "identity and culture" of Jewish contributions to entertainment.

"I think it provides a lot of food for thought," he said, "not only in regards to Jews and entertainment, but with American culture of the 20th century."

After the show closes in New York, it will travel to The Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore, where it will be on view Oct. 16 through Jan. 18, 2004.

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