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Borscht belts
Laughing with the Barton Brothers

I never called him a second time. I was afraid he wouldnít answer. I was afraid that too much time had passed, that the phone might just ring without end, that the line would be disconnected. I was afraid that heíd be gone.

Itís not as if I even knew Eddie Barton. The first time, the only time, I called him, I got him by accident. I was looking for information about the Yiddish-English musical comedy duo he was once a part of during the 1940s, the Barton Brothers, and I found a phone number in North Bay Village, Florida, on the back flap of one of their more recently issued compilation cassettes. Eddieís “brother” Joe (the two were not actual brothers) must have already died, because the cassette doubled as Eddieís solo-career business card: “Eddie Barton, an entertainer for all occasions.”

When I dialed the number, I expected to find a retired talent manager, but I found Barton himself. Within minutes, I had learned that he was the only Barton left, that he had lost his wife, that he was still performing Catskillian joke bits on the Florida condo circuit. I pictured him in an air-conditioned condo with a wooden ceiling fan in the living room. I pictured floral bed covers and white linoleum, sliding screen doors and potted plants, miniature statues and wicker chairs. I pictured it being like the condo my own relatives used to live in just outside Miami: stale with the smell of coffee, vitamins, and boxed candies filled with cheap liqueur. My great-great-aunt lived there with my great-aunt and uncle, Old World Jews who wore slacks and had their hair done. Only my great-aunt is still around. I havenít talked to her in a while either, but she probably sounds lonely the way Barton did. He kept me, a strange West Coast voice, on the phone for half an hour.

He was surprised I knew who the Barton brothers were, remnants of a secret society of “too Jewish” performers who never got down on one knee to sing “Mammy” at the Winter Garden from beneath a mask of burnt cork. Until the 1999 CD release of Joe & Paul: The Best of the Barton Brothers (BB Music), their music ó from their Jewish Latin send-up “Mambo Moish” to their Jew blues “Tzouris” ó and comedy bits (they dressed as geriatric schoolboys on the cover of their Stories Our Jewish Mothers Forgot To Tell Us LP) had long been relegated to collectorsí dustbins, chipped and scratched 78s lying flat and water-stained on library basement shelves.

But their biggest hit, “Joe & Paul,” did show up on the recent NPR Yiddish Radio series, and itís now one of the highlights of the companion CD, Music from the Yiddish Radio Project (Shanachie). Like most Barton Brothers material, “Joe & Paul” was a parody, this time of a popular 1936 Yiddish radio ad for the Joe & Paul menís clothing store written by legendary Yiddish-theater composer Sholom Secunda. The Barton version keeps it herringbone straight until the second verse, when they ask, “Mothers: do you have a young boy at home of say 14 or 15 years old who enjoys going to a burlesque show? He comes home, goes into the bathroom, locks the door behind him, and starts moaning, ĎOh ho ooooo.í ”

The Brothers were still goofing around about bumbling, inept Jews ó post-war versions of vaudevillean Hebe comics ó in a world that had already been changed by the Holocaust. Secunda once told a young George Gershwin that he was “too much American, too little Jew.” The Barton Brothers were too much Jew and too little American. The more typical Gershwin story ó where we listen as Jewish musicians become American musicians ó is the focus of From Avenue A to the Great White Way: Yiddish & American Popular Songs from 1914-1950 (Columbia/Legacy). The two-disc set is a song-by-song introduction to a history the Barton Brothers never participated in: how Jewish pop became American pop, how klezmer became Yiddish swing became jazz, how Abe Schwartzís “Der Shtiller Bulgar” became Benny Goodmanís “When the Angels Sing,” how Secundaís 1932 Yiddish-theater staple “Bei Mir Bistu Sheyn” became Sammy Cahn & Saul Chaplinís all-American Andrews Sister anthem “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon.”

The Barton Brothers never made this crossover. As Henry Sapoznick recounts in his From Avenue A liner notes, their music was more like the kind that got Julian Rose ó who does his “Thatís Yiddisha Jazz” here ó shut down by the Anti-Defamation League in the í30s and the kind that got a Yinglish comedienne ridiculed in a less-than-Jew-friendly 1922 Billboard review for playing to “Kike Race Appeal.”

Even in his old age, Eddie Barton never gave up on the merits of “Kike Race Appeal.” It may have never gotten him to the Great White Way or, save for a quickie spot in a Jerry Lewis film, landed him in the Hollywood firmament, but it kept him telling jokes to people just like him, and itís kept him alive and laughing in his Florida condo, ever the entertainer for all occasions.

Issue Date: July 18 - 25, 2002
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