Fanny Brice Made Her Name on an Amateur Night

Photo of Fanny Brice recording The Baby Snooks on radio. She is holding a script, bringing a hand to her mouth and smiling widely with a childish expression of delight.
Fanny Brice performing as Baby Snooks on radio

Every night this week, in movie theaters in small towns as well as in the big radio studios of New York, scared girls in homemade clothes -- amateurs -- are doing imitations and singing songs. Hoping!

Thirty years ago, too, there were amateur nights. More brutal amateur nights than those today. They were held not in vast modern studios with an unctuous Major Bowes or a wise-cracking Fred Allen as master of ceremonies, but in variety halls, as they were called then, and with no ceremony at all.

The audiences booed and shouted. A stagehand held a long pole with an iron hook at the end, with which he none too gently dragged the failures into the wings. There were scared girls in homemade clothes in those days, too. Hoping.

And one of them was Fanny Brice.

Out of every thousand amateurs today, nine hundred and ninety-nine are never heard of again. It was the same then. Fanny is the one who didn't fail. As you read this, two theaters in Broadway, facing each other actress the street, carry her name in lights. One is a huge movie house where The Great Ziegfeld is showing. The other offers the show which that very Ziegfeld originated in 1907, and which is going on every year even though Ziegfeld himself is dead: The Follies. And you hear Fanny, in addition, over the air. The theater, the movies, the radio: There are no more worlds for her to conquer.

What memories she has!

As she stands before the microphone, and as she stood before the cameras while she was making the picture dealing with Florenz Ziegfeld's life -- she who was Ziegfelf's closest female friend -- the memories flooding into her mind were enough for a dozen lifetimes. Of Ziegfeld himself, first of all. Of how he heard when his new-born Follies were only three years old, of a girl with a funny face who was stopping the show nightly over at the Columbia Burlesque. Of how he sent for her. Of how she took her mother along.

"How much do you want?" asked Ziggy in his dry, squeaky voice.

"Forty dollars a week," said momma promptly.

Ziegfeld chucked, made it seventy-five, and signed a contract for a year. Fanny stood on a Broadway corner and showed that contract to everyone who passed -- cops, tourists, song-pluggers, everyone. Irving Berlin, at that time grateful for forty a week himself, remembers that she showed it to him five times. It was worn to tatters.

Already Fanny Brice had put behind her, then, the 13-year-old girl from the slums -- whose only pals were newsboys -- pushed out violently on the stage of Keeney's Fulton Street Theater in toughest Brooklyn to warble, "When You Know You're Not Forgotten by the Girl You Can't Forget."

Already she had put behind her other amateur night successes and failures. Then Tin Pan Alley. Then the rear row of a burlesque show chorus. Then a show where the great George M. Cohan had groaned, "I can't stand it. She's holding up the whole chorus. Back to the kitchen!" Then a touring road company where she lay on the stage under a painted canvas ocean and grabbed the hero's legs as he swam by. (She was an invisible alligator.) Then burlesque.

Then, at last -- Ziegfeld.

From Jack Jamison in Radio Guide, November 28, 1936

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