My Second Childhood, by Fanny Brice

Photo of Fanny Brice performing burlesque in around 1914
Fanny Brice performing burlesque in around 1914

Most people start out as children and grow up to be adults. Me, I'm different. I started out as a grown-up and now I'm a child. At least, I'm a child to millions of radio listeners each Thursday night on NBC's Maxwell House Coffee Time.

While I'm doing the characterization on the air, I really feel like the 7-year-old brat that Baby Snooks is. Snooks reminds me of a childhood that I never knew. The first five years of my life were spent in New York City's lower East Side, where childhood is only a fairy story.

I never had a chance to be a child there. In the first place, I had an above-average curiosity. Why this? Why that? My questions went unanswered. My parents were hard at work and there were three other children. Life to them meant bread and potatoes -- not questions and answers. With Snooks now, it's just the opposite. When she asks questions, she gets answers. She's spoiled. Very spoiled. I smile wistfully at that. In a poor family, you don't get spoiled. I guess I spoil Snooks nowadays the way I wanted to be spoiled as a child -- and wasn't.

At seven, I had decided to become an actress. It was all an outgrowth of my brother's and my frequent trips to a neighborhood theatre. While the house was being aired out in the morning, Lew and I would sneak in and lie flat on our stomachs between the seats until they closed the doors again.

Then we'd hie ourselves up to the balcony, to wait there for the paying customers and the show. That wonderful world of make-believe stirred our imaginations to such an extent that we, too, wanted to act.

The only stage we could find, however, was a curb-stone. We started singing for pennies with the newsboys -- who, in those days, used to sing and dance on street-corners for the pennies of passers-by. These kids gave me my first singing lessons and, believe me, they knew all the tricks. If you think that prying change loose from a hurrying crowd is easy -- try it!

At the age of thirteen, I made my first appearance behind the footlights at an amateur night. The Keeny Theatre in Brooklyn had a weekly amateur night -- hook and all -- and a bunch of the kids with whom I had been singing on the street, were going to compete for the longed-for cash prizes.

I decided that I had to see them perform. But the smallest admission charge was 25 cents! I worked hard to get that quarter. I sewed for hours, making two dresses for a neighbor's kid. But, when I got to the theatre, all the cheap seats were gone. The only ones left cost 50 cents. I was utterly heartbroken.

My friends, however, solved my problem -- and unknowingly started me toward a theatrical career -- by sneaking me backstage, telling the stage manager that I was an amateur. Well, I actually was, wasn't I?

Then, before I knew what was happening, I was pushed out on the stage myself. I had to do something, so I began to sing "When You Know You're Not Forgotten By the Girl You Can't Forget." It must have been my homely awkwardness that got the audience. In the middle of the song, pennies and nickels and dimes came sailing onto the stage. I didn't miss a single copper -- and I won the first prize of $10.

It was such easy money that I started making a career of amateur nights. I guess I was what you might have called a "professional amateur," because I sometimes made as much as $50 dollars a week at these performances.

My first steady job was as a jack-of-all-trades in a movie house. I sold tickets, played the piano, sang, and helped out in the projection room when another pair of hands was needed -- as they were almost constantly -- in those early days of the movies.

While there, I heard a chorus call for George M. Cohan's Talk of New York. I got a job but was fired almost immediately, when they discovered I couldn't dance. That didn't stop me. I joined a stock company and, on my return to New York, got my first big break -- a job with Hertig and Seamon's Transatlantic Burlesquers. I learned how to dance then.

My mother had made me lots of lovely shirtwaists. I showed them to the chorus girls and suggested that I swap the blouses for dancing lessons. By the time I'd learned one simple routine, I was down to one shirtwaist. But I did get a job in the chorus.

I worked myself up to the first line and from there went into a musical show, The College Girls, where I played the soubrette. It was there that Ziegfeld talent scouts saw me.

A week later, I had a Ziegfeld contract in my pocket, and, at the age of 18, made my first appearance in the Ziegfeld Follies, as a chorus girl and "bit" singer. I guess I was a hit. At least, I ad-libbed 11 encores at the first performance.

It was during a between-Ziegfeld-shows hiatus, while I was in vaudeville, that Baby Snooks was born.

As part of my vaudeville act at that time, I did a burlesque of the song "Poor Pauline," singing it in different dialects and as several celebrities of the day might do it. Then, at a party one night, I sang the song as a very young child would sing it -- with wide eyes, exaggerated mouth, feet spread apart, and coy gestures.

The impromptu characterization was a hit. We named her Babykins. But she was temporarily forgotten when I returned to the Follies.

Ziegfeld gave me a new song to sing that year. It was "Mon Homme," a French song for which Channing Pollock had written English lyrics. Long known as a comedienne, a funny-looking girl with lusty lungs and a comedy dialect, I suddenly became famous for singing the very serious "My Man."

It wasn't until many years later that Babykins, whom I had since renamed Baby Snooks, appeared on the Broadway stage. Playwright Moss Hart wrote the first real routine for Snooks, but only after the late Dave Freedman had shaped the characterization did Baby Snooks, as we know her today, make her first appearance before a public audience. That event occurred during the Ziegfeld Follies of 1932.

In 1938, when I went to Hollywood to make a picture for Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, I was asked to guest on the Good News program (forerunner of the present Maxwell House Coffee Time). What should I do? Instead of a song, I suggested Snooks. The characterization went over, and I was signed as a regular on the weekly broadcasts.

The reason for the success of Snooks? I guess it was because parents saw little bits of their own children in her continual questions. Or maybe because their own offspring seemed like angels after Snooks' pestiferies.

You see, Snooks must only do what the average child of seven would do -- without being too fresh or unreal. In appearance, she has the face of a mischievous cherub -- happy and smiling, but curious about everything. Snooks also has a big mouth -- just like mine. And when she cries, the rafters shake. That is the basic Snooks. But, through the years, her original character has been added to, from a hundred different sources. Since my own children, Frances and Bill, have grown up, other youngsters -- complete strangers, perhaps -- have contributed to Snooks.

Children are my hobby. I watch them in drugstores, getting sodas, in the five-and-ten, stretching their pennies over the fabulous displays at the toy counter; and on the streets. I even collect their artwork. I now have a collection of more than a hundred paintings and drawings, done by children all over the world. About fifty of these pictures are now being shown at museums throughout the country.

My other pet hobby and avocation is interior decorating. Even that has Snooks in it. I like to design the kind of rooms a child will feel at home and comfortable in. A room planned for a child is full of warmth and happiness. I dabble in painting, too, using a child's simple style.

But it's Snooks who keeps me young. She has the direct approach to life. She keeps me warm and human.

As long as there are children, there will be a Baby Snooks. Is there any better way to have a second childhood?

Fanny Brice in Tune In, May 1944

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