A picture worth a thousand words

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Working out in Central Park. 3:00 PM. Photo: JH.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023.  Another quiet, late Summer day in New York. Rain was forecast and the clouds were spectacular  but that never happened and the Sun came out. The temp was in the high 70s but it was not hot. 

Monday’s Diary about Schulenberg and his 90th birthday was inspiring. JH recalled an earlier Diary back in August 2014 about Barbra Streisand and Schulenberg’s role in their relationship at the inception of her brilliant career. It was that brilliance in her, almost on meeting, that inspired the artist’s view of her. He was never surprised in her almost-sudden success and stardom …

Wednesday, August 6, 2014. Yesterday in Liz Smith’s column we ran a photo of Barbra Streisand when she was appearing on Broadway in “Funny Girl” in 1964, and I was reminded of seeing her the second night (the night after the opening) of the show. She was already a famous recording star, an almost overnight sensation. Everything about her was compelling — innovatively vintage, clever, witty, torchy, and even zany.

She was nineteen when she first got noticed playing a gay bar on West 9th Street called The Lion. Gay bars in those days existed but were unknown to the general population and not something that was written about in mainstream media. She’d been the hatcheck there for a couple of weeks and won an amateur night contest. The prize: a two week booking. Media didn’t matter: word got around fast.

‘Hello Gorgeous!”

I could be wrong about the length of the booking, but I’m not wrong in saying that this character, this kid from Brooklyn, this awkward looking very young woman with a (comparatively) big schnozz and bigger voice, was soon the talk of New York. There was still a big nightlife of clubs left from the ’40s and ’50s. Soon after she was playing the Bon Soir in the Village and then moving up to Blue Angel on 52nd Street. It was the early 60s, Rock and Roll was here to stay but this kid with the Voice and chutzpah was knockin’ em dead in those tiny little jammed to the rafters clubs.

She signed a recording contract with Columbia. First album was named simply The Barbra Streisand Album (she was 21) which won two Grammys. By then I knew several people in the theatre and show business who claimed they “discovered” her. They could get away with it because she kinda came from out-of-nowhere and she was so much fun and so good to listen to. Just seeing the girl perform could make anybody feel like they “discovered” her. Plus she was singing American songbook making everything old new again.

Streisand in “I Can Get It For You Wholesale,” 1962.

She got a small part (but with its own song) in a Broadway show called “I Can Get It For You Wholesale” starring a young up-and-comer, Elliot Gould. Her song “Miss Marmelstein” was a novelty number – a bluesy dirge which she performed like a call of the wild (the Brooklyn wild, that is). She stole the show, or at least that’s why we still remember it. Jack Paar had her on his “Tonight Show” and she sang Harold Arlen’s Sleepin’ Bee. which cast her in a completely different, unzany light. She was 19 and already suggesting Duse (late 20th century version).

In 1964, she opened on Broadway in “Funny Girl,” a musical with a great, memorable score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill based on the life of Fanny Brice, the vaudeville, movies and radio comedienne. Streisand bore a physical resemblance to the great star who died at age 60 in 1951. Friends of Brice seeing Streisand were shocked by the resemblance. It was Brice’s son-in-law, an up and coming producer named Ray Stark who produced the show, and later the film, collaborating with the lady to fame and fortune.

“Funny Girl” opens on Broadway, March 26, 1964.

In those days Broadway shows first tried-out a show out of town – in Philadelphia, New Haven, Boston, Buffalo and Baltimore, etc. It was there that they ironed out the kinks by playing before live audiences. Robbins’ direction, kinks ironed out, Streisand’s Fanny Brice would suddenly add another dimension to her public reputation. Like the Second Coming.

She was already a known and very popular (and amusing) celebrity because of her albums, her TV and club appearances, but there were rumors when they were out of town with “Funny Girl” the show was in trouble. And that although Streisand was very good at what she did (sing), she was over-doing it (“trying everything” is the professional term for it). The by then legendary Jerome Robbins was called in to “fix” the show and figure out what to do with the star.

Rumors along the Main Stem (as Walter Winchell called it) were that the show might not make it to Broadway, that Streisand might not be up to it. These were rumors, mind you, and I’m not sure there’s an ounce of truth to them, but Broadway in those days was always rife with excitement and rumors about a show with a big recording star coming to town for the first time.

If you’re a big Streisand fan, you already know this and much much much more about the lady. An old friend of mine, the illustrator Bob Schulenberg – whose sketchbook works have graced these pages – had been a friend of Barbra’s in the early days of her career. Schulenberg had met her at that time through a close friend from their UCLA days, Barre Dennen. When Bob and I first met here in New York in the mid-’60s, he’d already witnessed the lady’s meteoric rise to fame, and has a steel trap of a memory to recall it in detail. So I heard a lot about her. He was (and remains) enthralled.

An early Streisand portrait by her friend Schulenberg.

But the pay-off for me was seeing the lady that night on the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre. The brilliance, the sheer power of her magnetism electrified the audience. A girl I knew who was an aspiring actress, ran out of the theater after the performance almost in a state of nervous breakdown, sobbing, “I’ll never be that good.” I’m not kidding; sobbing.

I couldn’t disagree with her. That face you see in the picture that was on Liz’ column yesterday, owned her audiences like no one I’d ever seen before. It wasn’t just the voice, it wasn’t just the comic timing, it wasn’t just the elegant shtick portraying another Jewish kid from Brooklyn long ago; it was the Star. She was such a star, it was overwhelming.

Now, I should add, that I, at that time, was only a mere one year older (and a couple of decades younger), so I was watching a contemporary play a Large Grownup Person. I’ll never forget the thrill of that moment when all those elements of the young woman came together in my head.

The Nefertiti look that inspired the “new” Barbra look, circa 1961.

I’m not a big Streisand fan. Actually I never was. Not a fanatic anyway. But I still like to listen to her, and when I listen to the early Streisand, the girl with a mission to succeed, she still gets to me. You can’t deny her ability to attract with her talent although the younger voice was richer with desire and aspiration.

My whole generation in America was influenced by that beautiful ambition. As a public figure still living in New York in the mid-to late ’60s (having married Elliott Gould and riding around town in a chauffeur driven Bentley, the darling of Broadway, Hollywood and Seventh Avenue), she was a liberated woman just at the moment Women’s Lib was coming to the forefront of the culture.

Then she went to Hollywood, which was of course the ultimate move for any American performer and success story. And she stayed there. From perspective of this audience (myself), she left some of that electricity and excitement behind. Or didn’t bother to turn it on.

I’ve never met her. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her off-stage, or off-camera. I say that tentatively because living in New York and Los Angeles all my adult life, I can’t remember so many I’ve seen or met in passing. I did see her appearance — along with about 35,000 other New Yorkers — in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park in 1967. By then she was not only a star but in a way, a leader. She was an influence. She never got into it the way Fonda did, but as we later learned, she was always “involved.”

Barbra Streisand, “A Happening In Central Park,” June 17, 1967.

She became rich and her dozens of albums and TV specials, and films made her richer and richer and richer. She also became known for her almost manic-desire for privacy, as if fandom was offensive on some level. Which it may be.

Fred Astaire was a lot like that too except his gentle public persona covered that well. But the hunger’s long gone in the girl from Brooklyn, which is the natural course of events with most of us under the circumstances, and definitely those under the Sun in Malibu. My loss maybe, but not hers. That second night of “Funny Girl” still leaves a thrill in its recalling.

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