May 29, 2003
Laughing Through the Years and Tears
Esther Weintraub is a stand-up comic who can't stand up.
After all, Weintraub is 87. She has to use a walker or wheelchair to get around. She has a bad back, a busted hip and, not long ago, barely won a scary skirmish with cancer.
Better she should sit.
Plus, her husband died a few years ago and now she's living in San Francisco's Jewish Home, surrounded by people who, as she so delicately puts it, "don't even pull their pants up."
Her life is a regular laugh riot.
But leave it to Weintraub to find the humor even in the darkest of circumstances. She shared some of her wisdom, insight and kvetching at a special night of live comedy, the fifth annual "Funny Girlz: A Smorgasbord of Women's Humor," on Saturday, May 17 at San Francisco's Herbst Theater.
Weintraub planned to open her routine with a banner headline announcement: "I'm going to say, '87-year-old grandma gives birth to twins.'"
That joke probably stole some thunder from the other comics on the bill. Then again, given Weintraub's quick wit and wry perspective, thunder-stealing comes easily to her.
Although she's been doing comedy for years, she has largely toiled anonymously, working "the senior circuit," as she called it: retirement homes, convalescent hospitals and synagogues.
She's never had an agent, never did a guest shot on "The Tonight Show," and she's never been roasted by the Friar's Club.
None of that mattered last summer when she brought down the house at a Jewish Film Festival screening of "A 'Specially Wonderful Affair," a documentary about the Jewish Home (in which she appears).
During a Q-&-A session following the screening at the Castro Theatre, she took the stage and said to her audience, "I'm Esther Weintraub and I'm here to answer your questions, like 'How do you get God to talk to you?' The answer: By being as pure and good as I am."
She was such a hit, the organizers of "Funny Girlz" tracked her down at the Jewish Home and booked her for this year's edition of the prestigious comedy event.
"She jumped off the screen and into my heart," said comedian Lisa Geduldig, "Funny Girlz" producer, who missed the performance but later saw the documentary. While visiting the Jewish Home to start a comedy clinic, she kept asking, "Where's Esther?"
Her first meeting with Weintraub began with lunch at noon and ended at 11 p.m. Since then, the two have become close friends, and Geduldig visits Weintraub regularly.
"I thought I'd adopt a bubbie," Geduldig said. "But that's not her. She's more of my contemporary. I'm in my early 40s and I think of her as in her 50s. She can outdo me humorwise. Even if she's not feeling well, she wins."
For Weintraub, this could be the start of something big. Or not.
"I'm at the stage of the game where you expect tsuris," said the comedian, who certainly has endured more than her share of troubles over the years.
Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Weintraub grew up in a culturally rich but nonreligious Jewish home. She experienced her first shock when her family moved to Toronto in the early years of the Great Depression. Beyond the trauma of leaving lifelong friends behind, Weintraub soon lost her mother to a botched hysterectomy. She was 15.
A year later, friendless and penniless, she ran away to the bright lights and big city of New York. It was the Golden Age of Broadway: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne co-starred in droll parlor comedies; playwrights like Clifford Odets and Eugene O'Neill were busy reinventing the American theater; and George Gershwin was composing the jazzy soundtrack for a can-do nation on the move.
The city suited her.
"Have you ever tried to walk slowly in New York?" she asked. "You can't do it. The city has a tempo and you just have to keep up."
Weintraub ended up boarding with cousins in a Brooklyn tenement. Midtown Manhattan seemed a world or two away. Yet within a year, the 16-year-old urchin found for herself an unexpected niche.
"I was tall and thin," the self-described dish said. "I had something few people had -- the Joan Crawford look with the big shoulders."
Weintraub launched a career as a fashion model, though she never cashed in like one of today's globetrotting supermodels. Despite posing daily in the latest Parisian finery, she could only afford secondhand shmattes or Klein's markdowns.
"I spent 35 years as a model," she reflected, "and I'm not proud of it. I never got the ego stimulus. Actually, the other girls had a big advantage over me: They were dumber."
In 1937, she met Julius Weintraub, who was just about to sail to Scotland to attend medical school. Romance bloomed -- for a while.
"I fell in love with him because he was a complete introvert," she recalled. "I worked every day with extroverts, Jewish wise-guys."
The two married, but each paid a price. Julius gave up his plans to study medicine, and Esther was not welcomed by his family.
"I ruined his medical career, and my mother-in-law resented that," she recalled. "Besides, she was a size 44 and I was a size 10."
Her husband became a fireman (later a schoolteacher), and the Brooklyn-based couple started a family. Unfortunately, the frigid East Coast winters proved too much for Weintraub's health, and the whole clan relocated to the warmer-but-duller climes of Los Angeles.
"I hated it," she said. "Coming from New York to L.A. is like coming from Mardi Gras to a barn. L.A. at that time was a big farm."
Even in the smoggy stupor of North Hollywood, Murphy's Law continued to hound her. A near-fatal car accident left Weintraub with a broken back that never fully healed.
"God bless the guy who invented the heating pad," she said with a sigh.
As their children grew up, the Weintraubs grew apart. The introverted man that once charmed her now trapped her in an empty marriage.
"We lived two different lives," she recalled. "We were two boarders in the same house. There was no communication at all. I used to keep saying, 'Is that all there is?' Then I found out that there is more."
While working as a volunteer in a convalescent hospital, Weintraub found she could make people laugh. She began writing out skits and performing them to appreciative, if somewhat addled, audiences. Her humor was drawn from her own life and experiences with aging.
About 20 years ago, with their grown children having relocated to the Bay Area, the Weintraubs followed suit.
Seven years ago, Julius died. Then cancer and hip surgery made themselves unwelcome guests in her life. Three years ago, Weintraub was compelled to give up her independent life, leave her Redwood City duplex and move to the Jewish Home.
So how does she like it so far?
"You take a reasonably active, intelligent elderly person and suddenly divest them of all their material assets," she said. "Your main objective is to be with people and not be lonely. So you're thrown in amid strangers who don't communicate and you're expected not to be lonely, but you're lonelier than you ever were before."
Still, Weintraub quickly added, life isn't that bad.
"I'm managing fine," she said. "I have the love of my children, I have adopted kids who visit me and take me out to lunch. I never had so much adulation as now."
While waiting for future bookings, she occasionally goes to the theater, and she even started teaching a Yiddish class at the Jewish Home.
"That's what I do on Saturdays because there isn't a damn thing to do here on weekends," she said tartly.
As for the San Francisco show, Weintraub hopes her audience will have enjoyed her act, especially considering it was 87 years in the making.
"If I [was] lousy," she warned with a smile, "don't tell me."